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Guide to Backpacking in the Rain

If you’re interested in backpacking in the rain, here are some expert tips for getting started and even tweaking your current setup. One thing to keep in mind is that if you are backpacking in the rain for any amount of time, you will get wet—what can be controlled, however, is how you handle it and what you do to prevent core areas and items from getting wet. I will explain how an umbrella can be a crucial piece of gear, how a pack liner and dry bags invoke confidence during a downpour, how to make sense of the infinite outdoor clothing options available, and how to stay happy and dry when it’s time to sleep.

backpacking gear

Preparing for rainy conditions

A Hiking Umbrella is a Savior!

Ahhh…the beloved umbrella. A true lifesaver against exposure to a multitude of climates. Rainy, windy, snowy, sunny, you name it and the hiking umbrella is there! An umbrella allows for amazing protection from the elements, and when you’re hiking continually in the rain, it keeps your core dry and shielded from light winds. There are times when an umbrella might not be handy, say, when scrambling on rocks or using trekking poles, but there are ways it can fit into your backpacking adventures if you choose to try it out. This summer on the Sierra High Route, my other half and I were expecting beautiful blue bird Sierra skies, as was predicted in the forecast, so we left our umbrellas behind. Almost every day provided precipitation, and it even ended up snowing, in July! The day after the snow, there was freezing rain all day and our rain jackets inevitably soaked through. We were a couple of cold, soggy messes, and if we had our umbrellas we would have been quite the contrary.

You can hold it over your backpack when you have to retrieve something from inside; aim it against the wind for an instant barrier, preventing degrees of temperature loss; works like a charm in the snow, as well as providing much-needed shade during times of intense heat; and you can even prop it into the opening of your tarp, securing the handle down, to give extra protection from wind and residual rain in your shelter. For times of bad weather on a backpacking trip, an umbrella does wonders for mental sanity as well! In a waterproof jacket, raindrops pelt my head and splash my face, but now I trot along with my protector. Umbrella, amore mio, thank you.


Hiking with an umbrella

Pack Liner and Dry Bags

Another item with which I am madly in love is a backpack liner. As an alternative to the finicky and less-than-adequate pack covers, a liner goes inside your backpack before packing in everything. I simply squish the things I want to keep dry into the liner: my folded sleeping pad to the bottom of the liner, then my sleeping bag on top of that, followed by my clothes and electronic doodads in a dry bag. I press it all down to get air out and create space in my pack, twist up the opening several confident times, and tuck it down against my pack. In several thousand miles of backpacking in all conditions (as well as a cross-country bicycle tour using pack liners in my panniers), I’ve never had a mishap where the goods inside my liner have accidentally gotten wet.

I also like to leave several items in the outside mesh pocket of my backpack for easy access and I avoid at all costs having to open my liner to grab anything, and risk jeopardizing getting my sleeping bag and clothes wet. I use a heavy duty large zipper bag and put inside my fleece beanie, Buff, wind jacket, and gloves. The same can be achieved by using a dry bag of your choice, but at the cost of a weight penalty. Using Loksak waterproof bags are by far my favorite choice.

rain and snow

Bad weather in the Sierras

Clothing and Appropriate Layers

Do not wear cotton in wet and cold climates because cotton does not wick away moisture and it loses any insulation properties when wet. Add in cold temperatures and wind, and you have a recipe for hypothermia. (It doesn’t need to be below freezing for hypothermia to ensue.) Viable choices for a base layer in wet climates include wool and synthetics. Wool doesn’t wick away moisture as well as synthetics, but it does retain warmth when wet. As for a midlayer, 100/200 weight fleece or a synthetic insulated vest/jacket is a great choice. From there, top it off with a breathable rain shell, and you’re ready to stick it out in the freezing cold rain. For milder temperatures, pick and choose your layers accordingly. You can play around with your other clothing choices as well; my favorites are a wool or synthetic liner glove with a mitt shell combo, base layer synthetic pants and hardshell pants, as well as wool socks and trail runners (I prefer breathable trail runners that drain easily). The goal is to wick moisture away from you so that your body’s warmth can circulate between the fabric and your skin. In the midst of it, be mindful that you don’t sweat—if you feel sweat coming on, then stop, consider shedding layers, unzip, and ventilate! A sweaty body is a wet body, and that’s what we’re trying to reduce when it’s already wet and cold out.

Utilizing an Ultralight Shelter, Ground Cloth and Sleeping Bag

Things to consider when choosing your shelter will be a tent or a tarp, silnylon or cuben fiber fabrics. A traditional tent weighs more than an ultralight backpacking tarp, can only be set up one way, but has full protection. There is also a middle road called a ‘tarptent’. For the sake of ultralight backpacking and based on my own experiences, I will talk more about tarps. I prefer tarps for their ultimate diversity and ability to be pitched a myriad number of ways to accommodate changing weather. If pitched well, you can receive close to the same amount of protection as you would from a tent, at a fraction of the weight. You have complete control over how you want the tarp to perform with practice. Once mastered, it is the difference between driving a vehicle with an automatic transmission versus a manual—sometimes a little more work but overall more control and your “fuel” is saved with less weight on your back. As for fabrics, silnylon is less expensive than cuben fiber but weighs more. Cuben fiber is waterproof while silnylon is not, so it becomes heavier when wet. Consider the options, experiment, and see what works for your needs.


Shelter in the storm

When using a tarp, some type of ground cover will be necessary. If you use a bivy, you have one built in but you may also prefer to have a groundsheet to lay your things on as an alternative to the wet ground. A polycryo groundsheet is a lighter more packable option than other common fabrics, and it’s our groundsheet of choice.

As for sleeping bags, the choices are synthetic or down. Synthetic is bulkier, weighs more, is less expensive, but will retain warmth when wet; the opposite is true for down. On our Appalachian Trail thru-hike last year, there were plenty of wet days and we chose to carry our down sleeping bags. Tucked safely inside our pack liners, they never got wet; however, there were very humid nights where our bags got damp, so when possible we would stop to dry it out. With improved materials, it’s possible for the outside of a down bag to be damp without actually soaking through to the down. Definitely a matter of preference though.

Embrace It

One of the single most important things to take with you anywhere you go or for anything you do is being in the right mindset. I have seen many people’s attitudes transform for the worse the moment moisture drops from the sky. Be light-hearted, maintain a positive attitude, relax your facial muscles and let a calm smile encompass your face. It may even help to romanticize the scenario, step outside yourself, and imagine you’re reading a captivating book or watching a movie where the characters are walking mindfully and happily in the beautiful falling rain while the plants come alive, nourishing the land, and cleansing the air. Let it rain!

rain jacket

Most importantly – Have fun!

What About You?

How do you prepare for rain? Leave your tips in the comments below!

Post was written by Virginia Craft; photos by David Halterman – products highlighted in content

24 Responses to Guide to Backpacking in the Rain

  1. andy November 12, 2015 at 6:00 am #

    Cuben rain gear does not get wet unlike silnylon or Goretex. Use breathable shoes because all shoes get wet but they dry out fastest. If you hike in shorts, a cuben skirt is very light and effective. Use a hat to keep the rain hood out of your eyes. cuben mittens keep your hands warm.

  2. Glen November 12, 2015 at 6:09 am #

    I love hiking in the rain. When I tell others this, they think I’m crazy. But the trails are less crowded (often empty) and you see things you may never see when hiking on a bright sunny day with lots of other people around. Far from depressing, it’s relaxing and enjoyable.

    • Ronald Bingham November 13, 2015 at 5:02 pm #

      Backpacking in the rain does have it’s charms!

  3. mediumsteve November 12, 2015 at 7:32 am #

    Excellent article, with palatable advice that rings true with my experience.

  4. Karl November 12, 2015 at 9:36 am #

    If rainy and warm, I like a poncho too. it ventilates much better. If weather gets extreme, pitch your tent and wait it out. As you said,hiking in the rain will get you wet. Better to stay dry if possible.

  5. Jean Rogers November 12, 2015 at 9:58 am #

    I have trouble with the umbrella in windy conditions – and if it rains in the PNW, usually there is quite a bit of wind. Any suggestions?

  6. Mike Moore (@bigskyrun) November 12, 2015 at 10:15 am #

    Good tips! I like the idea of an umbrella, but I’m a die hard trekking pole user- if only I had three hands! 🙂

    I’d add- always have a pair of dry socks (in your pack liner or dry bag) that are reserved for sleeping- wet feet are perfectly fine all day, but they need a chance to to be dry to prevent maceration. I also like to use a little “lube” on my feet in wet conditions (applied in the morning)- I like Sportslick in a small tube and doubles as a anti-chafe when needed elsewhere. Hydropel was awesome, but sadly no longer manufactured.

    At camp I’ll immediately get my feet dry and put on the dry socks, then I use produce bags (Costco meat ones being the best) over the dry socks if I need to slip into my (now wet) trail runners for anything- barely a couple of grams, but oh so well worth it. Keeps the socks perfectly dry.

    Putting on damp clothing in the morning isn’t the most over joyous occasion, but usually in short order down the trail you’re good to go 🙂

    If I know I’m going into wet conditions, I really like fleece- it’s still retains decent warmth when wet, breathes well under a shell and can be wrung/shook out if it gets wet. I will also consider bringing a dry set of light base layers for sleep (under most circumstances I just sleep in what I’m wearing for base layers).

    Again, if I have a heads up I’m going to be headed into wet weather, I prefer a slightly heavier 3 layer hardshell over a lighter 2-2.5 layer hardshell. They simply do better in heavier precip and worth the few extra ounces.

    Fortunately in the Mountain West we mostly deal with short and sporadic precip, but every once in awhile it will really settle in and best to be properly prepped!

    • Ronald Bingham November 13, 2015 at 4:59 pm #

      Right you are Mike:
      Dry socks at night are a must, you will not be able to dry them out while wearing them in your sleeping bag over night, I know because I tried… feet froze and no sleep!

    • Andy November 29, 2015 at 5:55 pm #

      For those interested in rigging the umbrella hands free, check out the blogs Walking with Wired or Lady on a Rock. Both discuss it and it works great!!

  7. bill November 12, 2015 at 10:32 am #

    Great post.. Embrace it…that is the key to the whole thing.

  8. Sugismama November 12, 2015 at 12:22 pm #

    Someone should invent an umbrella that opens from a hiking pole, dual function object
    the umbrella portion could be just below the handle of the hiking pole, so that it’s out of the way when you don’t need it, but when you do, you still have a good sized shaft below, and just the handle sticking out above the umbrella.
    Or maybe it could be closer to the bottom of the pole, so that you invert the pole to expand the umbrella.

  9. Ronald Bingham November 12, 2015 at 12:51 pm #

    Wear a baseball style hat under your rain hood, it helps keep rain off your face and running down your neck, and the best part is when you turn your head the hood turns too, so that you are not looking at the inside of the hood with one eye.

  10. Marco December 1, 2015 at 7:17 am #

    You can tolerate a lot of water as you hike. BUT, you *must* have a dry place to sleep. A tarp is a minimalist shelter and generally takes a couple minutes to set up. Bring earplugs, though. A heavy rain on the tarp a foot away from your face is LOUD. And, make sure you pick a raised mound or sleep between a pair of roots covered by your tarp. Selecting a good site (protected, few bugs, safe – no dead falls, good drainage away from the tarp, level) is the biggest chore.

    Wet feet are a given. Make sure you have at least one set of dry socks for sleeping. I keep a 10′ length of 30# fishing line to use as a cloths line inside. In wet conditions, I cook under my tarp. The heat generated (along with body heat) help to dry out my cloths somewhat (they rarely dry out completely.) In buggy conditions, the line doubles as a net hanger over my head.

    Unfortunately, umbrellas don’t work that well, here in the Adirondacks. Narrow trails, a lot of overhangs, many blow downs, etc all conspire to make them less than easy to carry/use.

    Anyway, a good set of tips.

    • andy December 1, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

      Damp clothing dries best wearing it inside the sleeping bag.
      The sound of rain is soothing people – sleep better in rainy weather if dry.
      Condensation inside a tent is much less under trees.

  11. Dan Busch December 3, 2015 at 12:01 pm #

    +1, Marco – everything you wrote. WPB fabrics are disappointing, only seeming to work when it’s NOT raining. Wool beats synthetic fleece, until it freezes. Recently I discovered the DriDucks poncho. Cheap, lightweight, waterproof and breathable. While not very durable, it doubles nicely as a blanket under the tarp. But here in the PNW, we often seek out an old-growth Spruce to hunker down, just look out for animals doing the same!

  12. Paul Hanford December 14, 2015 at 12:59 pm #

    I’m reminded of all the best trips in the North Cascades. My brother and I had some great times in the Puget Sound convergence when it was dumping buckets and the SVEA 123 wasn’t working and blue jeans were legit.

    It was great meeting you David and Virginia. Heading to Whitefish for some skiing with the same brother in January. Wishing all the best for the New Year.

    Portland Paul

  13. Mike Springer February 16, 2016 at 5:42 pm #

    I prefer to use a freestanding tent. It might be a bit heavier, but it is much easier to set up when above treeline than a non freestanding tarp or tarp tent. When using a tarp you often need to set up in some soil where you can stake your tarp down. This often results in sleeping on vegetation (like the individual pictured) this is a violation of leave no trace ethics and many National Park minimum impact restrictions.

  14. James Richardson February 18, 2016 at 3:16 pm #

    Is there an umbrella that can be used as a hiking pole when closed and wrapped? Should be easy to engineer. James Bond had an umbrella that really shot a bullet, or maybe it was a poison dart.

  15. togetherinparis February 19, 2016 at 11:00 pm #

    For dry clothes on the Appalachian Trail, lay out your clothes in contact with the dry wooden floor of a lean to or shelter, then put your drop cloth on top & under your sleeping bag. The old wooden floors of shelters are perpetually dry and they suck up moisture, big time. Your clothes will be dry in the morning.

  16. Lee April 5, 2016 at 5:04 pm #

    An alternative for your legs in spring and fall is a set of knee warmers. I wear convertible pants – allowing me to go long or short. But, it spring or fall that may not be enough – at least for my scrawny legs and bad knees! So, I found a pair of leggings and cut them off at the knees. That allows me yet more layering combinations: I can go long pants with knee warmers; shorts with knee warmers; longs only; shorts only. And the beauty is that I never have to take off my pants to change the base layer. I simply remove my shoes and slip on or off the knee warmers.

    • David Lagesse April 12, 2016 at 9:57 pm #

      I have some rain pants with a loose weave netting inside to keep the cold outer layer off your skin and to allow for breathing and so it wont stick to your skin.
      ANYHOW… I was struggling to get the rain pants over my boots, plenty of room, but the netting was getting hopelessly caught on my boots, making it most difficult to get the rain pants on, and I was getting wet.
      Later as I was trekking down the trail, I thought of a solution, just slip some plastic bags over your boots. It works like a charm!

  17. Dogwood April 13, 2016 at 6:01 pm #

    One of the critical aspects of hiking in the rain for me is having a right mindset. Instead of fighting it, owning up to the most likely fact that if you backpack enough you’re eventually going to hike in rain, is the first step. To help with those overcast rainy days find something positive about it: the smell and sights of the woods, the voluminous waterfall and rapids scenery, no lack of finding drinking water, the clouds, the sounds, etc. Consider having a mental plan for keeping you in tune with the hike by having downloads of rain inspiring music. Consider applying this more often and to keep your mental outlook at the top of the game: ‘Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass… It’s about learning to dance in the rain.’ C’mon splashing along as Gene Kelly did singing to yourself “Dancin In The Rain” might get some stares on trail but it’s a sure light hearted pick me up. I watch it before heading out knowing I’m going to experience rain.

  18. togetherinparis September 9, 2016 at 7:43 am #

    Dry clothing by sweeping the shelter floor, laying out your wet wrung clothes, cover with a tarp, sleep on top of them. The wood of the bone dry shelter floor will absorb the bulk of the moisture.

  19. Andy September 9, 2016 at 8:16 am #

    I use a homemade cuben poncho that doubles as a ground sheet and pack cover. For extended rain I made some cuben sleeves and mitts. For windy days I added some elastic cord and mitten hooks that keep everything in place (and create a wrap around ground sheet effect, like a bivy-bottom that keeps out drafts).

    During a three week cross country Sierra traverse (SHR/SoSHR/KCHBR plus) this summer I hiked/climbed through all kinds of rain and it was easy to vent as needed to stay dry but not overheated.

    Another advantage is that cuben is waterproof and doesn’t “wet out” like heavier w/b jackets (that create a sauna/steam room effect anyway:).

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