By Alexander Popp
In the backcountry, rain isn’t always a sure thing. But no matter where you’re hiking (with some limited exceptions), a smart backpacker is always ready for rain.
Nothing is worse feeling, or more dangerous (again, with some exceptions) than being unprepared for rain in the backcountry, especially when cold weather is mixed into the picture. Because being wet and cold in the wilderness is a good recipe for hypothermia.
During my Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike in 2017, we got a fair amount of rainy weather (as should be expected in the North and Southeast during the Spring and Summer). But with careful planning and a good bit of trial and error, everyone I hiked with was able to avoid dangerous weather situations.
Here are our top tips to stay dry while backpacking in the wilderness.
Pick the Right Raingear
We’ve seen people using all sorts of rain gear to stay dry over the years, everything from a simple plastic poncho to $1,000+ Hardshell Insulated Rainsuits. Your first reaction might be to run out and buy something more towards the latter option but depending on where you’re backpacking and the weather you’re expecting, you might not need it.
- The deciding factor of whether you’re going to want a hardshell rain jacket, a softshell jacket, a simple poncho, or something else entirely, is going to depend on where you’re hiking and the season you’re hiking in. If you’re expecting wet, cold, windy, or unpredictable weather, you’re going to want something with more waterproofing and more wind resistance, to use as an insulating outer layer while the weather is bad. If you are expecting more fair weather, with sporadic bad weather, a lighter setup might be all you need.
- Ventilation. Having raingear with good ventilation is really important because good waterproof rain jackets are insulation machines. If you’re hiking with a rain jacket on even at a slow pace, your temperature is going to quickly rise, causing you to sweat inside your jacket. Having vents to release some of that heat will help keep you dry longer.
Preparation is the best prevention, as they say. Coming to any hike fully prepared for whatever mother nature might throw at you, is the best possible way to make sure that your trip turns out well.
That means packing the right gear for the weather you’re expecting, using the right materials in your hiking clothes, and packing them in your backpack the right way.
- On every backpacking trip we take, we always bring along raingear. For where we hike in the Southeast, that means a Rainjacket or Poncho, a Pack Cover, and Pack Liner. In some areas, you might see suggestions to also pack Rain Pants, Rain Skirts, or Rain Kilts, but hiking in the Appalachian Mountains during the Spring, Summer, and early Fall, we’ve never found them to be necessary.
- No clothing item you bring should be made of cotton. This is a cardinal rule of backpacking, inspiring the phrase “Cotton Kills”. Cotton clothing, while great for frontcountry everyday use, isn’t great for hiking. Because cotton materials are easily soaked by moisture, don’t wick away moisture, and take a long time to dry out completely.
- Chose wool clothes. Synthetic materials like polyester and nylon are also good.
- Make sure your tent rainfly and raingear are seam-sealed and treated with water repellent before heading out in the wilderness, and test them (if possible).
Protect Your Dry Stuff
Knowing how to keep the right things dry and what things are bound to get wet and stay wet, is one of the most important lessons a new backpacker can learn. Because no matter what weather you’re facing, backpacking in the Southeast some things are going to get wet no matter what you do. But if you pack your backpack the right way, you’ll keep the right things dry.
- Your backpack should be layered so that the things you need to keep dry at all costs, clothes, sleeping bags, electronics, etc., stay dry. Use a pack liner (which can be as simple as a plastic trash compactor bag) to store these items when they’re not being used or worn.
- Use outside backpack pockets to store wet items like pack covers, tent rainfly, and other soaked items to keep them away from dry items while you’re hiking.
- Make use of any sunny weather to dry out wet items during hiking breaks.
- Have a Dry Clothes Stash. Keep a few items in your bag that are your “Designated Dry Clothes”. This should normally be a pair of socks, base layers, and a warm jacket (puffy, fleece, etc.) that are used only within your shelter or when protected by rain gear. I consider these items my go-to sleep clothes.