How to Prepare for Unexpected Weather on Your Backpacking Trip

Hiking and Camping Expert Jessica LaPolla gives the full rundown of how to be ready in case any cold or wet weather surprises you on your next backpacking adventure!

A rainy tent view of a chair and fire.

Photo by Ali Kazal

As backpackers and hikers, we crave the wild, the beautiful, and the unknown. A part of venturing out into that unknown is accepting that things will not always go according to plan. To combat this, we must be prepared for unexpected trail conditions, gear mishaps, and most commonly, unexpected weather.

I was hiking during late summer in Northern Colorado one year, and conditions were still fairly warm and mild. It was 70 degrees and sunny when we began hiking, and halfway through, icy rain and tiny hail balls descended upon us out of nowhere. Luckily, we had packed some light rain jackets in the event of something like that happening. The weather in the mountains was unpredictable, especially when the seasons were changing.

Moral of the story: Mother Nature is unpredictable and does as she pleases, so be prepared for anything and everything on your next backpacking trip.

Things to Consider Before Your Backpacking Trip

  • What is the climate where you’ll be hiking?
  • What is the predicted forecast before, during, and after your trip?
  • Do you expect the temperatures to fluctuate greatly between night and day?
  • What kind of weather changes are common in the season and location you are hiking?
  • What options will you have for shelter?
  • What will you do if your gear or your clothes get wet?

The exact list of gear you will need will vary based on your answers to some of the above questions, but there are a few staples that almost everyone should have for a backpacking trip.

Rain Gear

At the minimum, you will want to bring a waterproof outer shell or rain jacket. The best rain jackets are usually made with GORE-TEX, or GORE-TEX Paclite Plus are durable and reliable.

There are also many ultralight rain jackets for minimalist backpackers that want to cut ounces. It would behoove of you to bring a pair of waterproof or water-resistant rain pants or non-insulated hardshell pants to throw on over your shorts or leggings in the event that it starts to rain or snow and put a pack cover or plastic trash bag over your pack to keep the rest of your belongings dry. Also, bring a change of clothes and socks to change into when you get to camp, allowing your other set to dry out. Choose fabrics carefully when preparing for a backpacking trip. Stay away from cotton and look for synthetic materials that dry sweat quickly or natural fibers like wool. You want to dress in layers, starting with a moisture-wicking base layer, adding a warm middle layer (fleece or down), and top it off with a waterproof outer layer.

My Favorite Rain Jackets for Backpacking

Arc’teryx Beta Jacket

The Arc'Teryx Beta Jacket in turquoise.

The Beta jacket by Arc’teryx is a lightweight rain shell with large pockets and waterproof breathable fabric made with GORE-TEX to keep you dry in any condition. This jacket is super durable and packs down lightly. It has plenty of ventilation, so you can keep hiking hard without overheating. The adjustable hood and velcro adjustable cuffs make for a secure and comfortable fit, while sealed seams and functional zippers take this jacket to the next level.

The slight drop hem ensures a perfectly comfortable fit. This is the perfect outer layer jacket for backpacking, hiking, and all of your other mountain adventures.

Outdoor Research Helium

The Outdoor Research Helium Jacket in blue.

The Helium is one of the best lightweight rain jackets available, with ripstop nylon and fully taped seams. A breathable membrane keeps water vapor out while the chest pocket allows easy access to your phone or other items. The helmet-compatible hood is easy to adjust and will keep you dry whether you are backpacking, hiking, or climbing.

My Favorite Rain Pants for Backpacking

Black Diamond Stormline Stretch Rain Pants

The Black Diamond Stormline Stretch Rain Pants in black.

The Stormline stretch rain pants are my favorite because they are comfortable and allow for freedom of movement while keeping me warm and dry on the trail. Breathability and a waterproof membrane make these great for long days on the trail.

Setting up Shelter

A camping rain shelter with some tarps over tents. It is in the woods and there are big trees everywhere.

Photo by Jess Mann

How and where you choose to set up your shelter can be the difference between a warm and cozy night and a leaky damp experience. Sometimes we do not have the luxury of choosing where to set up a camp while backpacking, based on the topography of the area and local rules and regulations. When given the opportunity, follow these steps while selecting where to set up camp.

  • Look at a map of the area you will be hiking in before you set off for your trip. Estimate how many miles you will be hiking a day and try to develop a goal for where you will be setting up camp each night. This goal could be based around designated campsites or lean-to shelters along the way, specific water sources, or the current elevation.
  • Make sure you choose the right tent or shelter for your trip based on the season you are hiking in. You can also treat your tent and other gear with a durable water repellent if you are hiking in very wet conditions.
  • If hiking into a backcountry campground, plan on getting there early in the afternoon if possible, as they can fill up quickly. Early arrival will ensure you get a spot and may give you access to lean-to shelters or other desirable amenities.
  • Choose a campsite at least 200 feet away from the nearest water source. This ensures that you will not pollute the water source and will also decrease the chances of flooding if it rains.
  • Look for a spot that is slightly higher in elevation compared to the surrounding area. If it rains, water will accumulate in low spots or gulleys.
  • Do not camp above the treeline if possible. If it storms, you will be unprotected. If you do happen to get caught in a lightning storm, try to get below the treeline or descend a few hundred feet if possible. If you are unable to move locations, squat with the balls of your feet on the ground.
  • Make sure your tent is staked out properly, and use a footprint and rainfly for extra protection.

Know When to Bail and When to Keep Going

A man standing in the rain outside with his backpack and hood on.

Photo by Daniel J. Schwarz

Knowing when to turn back and when to push on is an instinctual skill that comes naturally to some and to others takes some fine-tuning. Most of us don’t relish the idea of “giving up” or “quitting” part of the way through a hike or backpacking trip. However, depending on the situation, turning back can be the smart and responsible thing to do. If the weather becomes too miserable, it may not be worth continuing. Maybe all of your clothes are wet, or your tent has a leak. Being soaked all weekend will at the least be bad for morale, and at worst bad for your health. If you are confident in your abilities as a backpacker and don’t mind the extra challenge, pushing through a bit of bad weather can be rewarding. Every situation is different and depends entirely on the individuals involved. Make the best decision for you, and don’t feel bad about turning around or taking a shortcut back to the trailhead if the forecast is looking dicey.

Expect the Unexpected

So what do all of these tips and tricks really mean? Basically, you need to prepare for the unexpected when adventuring in the backcountry. Any number of things could go wrong on your trip, including weather-related events. Being prepared and having a thought-out plan will reduce risk in these situations and save you a headache along the way. Take your time preparing for a backpacking trip and map out each section of your route carefully. Note the campsites and potential shortcuts or trails you can bypass.

Make sure you give other people your itinerary, keep your phone charged, and make smart decisions. Above all, go into the hike with a positive and open-minded attitude, and be willing to change your itinerary and make adjustments if necessary. If you have questions about preparing for a backpacking trip or selecting the right gear, reach out to a Camping & Hiking Expert here on Curated. We are excited to hear from you!

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Written By
Jessica LaPolla
Jessica LaPolla
Camping & Hiking Expert
Hi there! I have always had a deep love for the outdoors, having grown up on my family's horse farm in New Jersey. I began hiking and camping at a young age and started backpacking as a young adult. I now enjoy taking weekend backpacking trips with my dogs and rock climbing with my partner. This yea...
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