Hiking in the rain is a bit controversial and as such it has some strong proponents and fierce opponents among the members of the backpacking community.
The hard-core advocates of wet-weather hiking claim that as far as you’re prepared to be wet and take some measures to mitigate the consequences of that, you need nothing more than a good set of rain gear, some dry socks, and a pair of good trekking shoes to be fine. According to them, backpacking in the rain is no big deal if equipped appropriately. Certainly, the availability of some basic equipment is often sufficient for hiking in wet conditions. In addition, having a pair of trekking poles at hand may facilitate your efforts because hiking sticks offer additional support. That’s very important on rocky and slippery trails as it can definitely help you keep your balance.
The staunch opponents would rather take a day off than hiking in bad weather risking getting a cold or an injury. They assume that the payoff isn’t worth it most of the time and, unless it is a matter of great urgency, they prefer not to hike in wet conditions.
Well, walking in the rain has its pros and cons and you may wish to know more about them in order to decide for yourself if it’s your thing or not. Additionally, you need to be familiar with the dangers associated with hiking in rainy weather to avoid difficult and risky situations. This way, you’ll be in a good position to make the most of your next hiking trip in the rain.
Before discussing the pros, cons, and dangers, we’ll begin with some practical tips for backpacking in the rain.
Tips for hiking in the rain
Here are some useful tips for hiking in the rain.
Get appropriate footwear
A combination of waterproof boots or shoes and waterproof gaiters can be a good choice for short trips and cold weather. For longer trips and especially for warmer weather, breathable trail runners are better because they are lighter and dry much faster than waterproof footwear. Is it that important? Yes, because whether you want it or not, you can’t keep your shoes dry when hiking in the rain during a multi-day rain trip. It is inevitable that your feet will get wet either from the outside due to rain or from the inside due to excessive sweating. It is also important to keep your feet in good condition and change your socks at least once a day to prevent blister formation.
|La Sportiva Ultra Raptor are functional, reliable, and versatile trail-running shoes designed to perform well on off-road terrain. These lightweight trail runners provide fantastic grip and traction even on wet rocks and roots thanks to the FriXion® XF outsoles offering maximum protection and stability. Extremely breathable, quick-drying, and comfortable, these all-terrain shoes are perfect for backpacking, thru-hiking, and long-distance mountain running.|
Pick short hikes and avoid challenging trails
Rainy weather means slippery and often muddy trails where one wrong move can cost you a serious injury or worse. Choose your hikes wisely – look for suitable trails that will be perfectly fine in the rain. Short, safe (gradual inclines, no wet and slippery gravel or cliffs, no rough mountain paths, no scary exposure), and well-maintained trails with great views should be fine to do in the rain.
Use common sense
Don’t do anything stupid, use common sense when backpacking in the rain, and most importantly – don’t push your luck. Areas, where there are rocks that are slick with rain, are especially dangerous. High winds are making walking conditions even more difficult.
Now is the right time to remind you that good hiking gear is no substitute for basic outdoor skills. Experienced hikers know that gear nowadays is better than it was 20 years ago. However, they also know that outdoor gear today is often overhyped by manufacturers and marketers. The reason for this is prosaic. Hence, don’t trust your gear blindly. You’d rather use your skills and common sense depending on where you’re hiking and what season.
Check the weather
Always check the weather forecast especially if you’re going to hike in a mountainous region because of the changing weather conditions. Do this and plan your travel based on the type of terrain and the expected conditions. There are a ton of good online sources for detailed forecasts for many hiking destinations. For example, if you live in the United States, the website of the National Weather Service is probably the best place to check the weather forecast and get detailed information.
Bring hiking gear for rain
You need to be properly equipped to be able to meet the challenges of hiking in foul weather. Dress in layers to find a balance between heat loss and heat production to avoid being wet both from outside and from inside. For better protection from rain or water in cold weather, consider wearing a rain jacket and pants made from waterproof breathable fabric. Knowing more about different types of waterproof breathable textiles will definitely be of use when choosing your hiking gear for rain. There are also other waterproof breathable clothes such as gloves, socks, hats, etc.
Sudden temperature changes are very common at higher elevations (it can turn pretty cold pretty fast even in summer months). Keep this in mind especially if there’s rain in the forecast because the combination of rain and cold could turn out to be highly problematic for those unprepared.
Here you will find a backpacking packing list of the most important items you will need for a wet weather hiking trip so you can purchase your gear before you set off backpacking in the rain.
Osprey Aether 70
-> Top-lid converts to day pack
-> Internal hydration sleeve
Osprey Ultralight Stuff Pack
-> Durable ripstop nylon
-> Compact, foldable, and lightweight
Outdoor Research Helium Pants
-> Wind and waterproof breathable fabric
-> Tough and loose fitting
Helly Hansen LIFA Merino Top
-> 1/2 Zip merino blend base layer
-> Tough construction with flatlock seams
Helly Hansen LIFA Merino Pant
-> Merino wool exterior and polypropylene interior
-> Fitted, ideal for layering
Darn Tough Merino Socks
-> Comfortable merino wool socks
-> Guaranteed for life
Helly Hansen Seven J Jacket
-> Wind and waterproof breathable
-> Nice looking and smooth feel
M-Tack Ripstop Waterproof Poncho
-> Multifunctional rain gear can be used as
poncho, tarp or shelter tent
-> Made of 100% ripstop nylon
LifeTek Compact Travel Umbrella
-> Compact and lightweight
-> Premium micro-weave fabric coated with Teflon
Marmot Granlibakken Gloves
-> Waterproof and windproof
-> Warm and comfortable
Outdoor Research Seattle Sombrero
-> Waterproof and seam-sealed
-> UPF 50+
Olight S1R II
-> High-performance 1000 Lumens flashlight
-> Heavy-duty and waterproof
Black Diamond Storm Headlamp
-> Waterproof and dustrproof
-> Lightweight and durable
-> Waterproof and compact
-> Shockproof and crushproof
(We recommend Osprey Aether 70)
A waterproof or water-resistant backpack can help you keep your equipment safe and dry. Using a pack cover (even a plastic bag can do the job) in wet weather can also be an effective solution.
We recommend the Osprey Aether 70 backpack. Of course, there are many other good options out there. You can also see our post on how to choose the right type of backpack for your needs.
Lightweight day and compact packs that are waterproof are great when traveling in wet weather. If you’re looking for a packable lightweight backpack for day trips, we recommend the Osprey Ultralight Stuff Pack.
Dry bags to store clothes & valuables
Keep in mind that sometimes even waterproof backpack and pack rain cover may not keep your stuff dry. Hence, it is best to separate your clothes and gear into stuff sacks for extra protection. This is especially true for those who open their pack regularly.
(Light and functional waterproof pants are best for milder conditions)
Wearing waterproof breathable or rain pants is essential for your comfort when backpacking in the rain. You can choose between bibs (bulky and heavy; durable and more expensive) and simple pants (lighter and less bulky; fragile and cheaper). Bib pants are best for cold conditions, whereas simple pants are suitable for milder conditions. Note that no matter which design you choose, the waterproof breathable pants need to cover your base layer pants.
(Base layers made of merino wool and merino blends are warm and comfortable even when wet)
Your base layer should be crafted from merino wool, synthetic fabric or a merino blend. Both merino and man-made fabrics are great options for backpacking in wet conditions. Half-zip merino tops such as the Helly Hansen LIFA Merino (on the image above) are breathable and convenient as they can be adjusted according to the intensity of your activity.
(Merino wool socks provide excellent insulation even when wet)
Look for comfortable merino, synthetic, or merino blend socks. As a rule, your socks for backpacking in rainy conditions should be able to dry fast to reduce the danger of causing blisters. There are also waterproof breathable socks. While they can be useful in certain conditions (crossing rivers/streams and puddles), we don’t recommend them for warm environments. If you need to know more about hiking socks and the most popular designs, materials, etc., see our in-depth guide on the best socks for hiking.
(Helly Hansen 7J Jacket is a great all-round rain jacket that offers full water and wind protection)
In warm and wet weather rain jackets/pants are more ineffective at keeping you dry than waterproof ponchos or umbrellas. Both ponchos and umbrellas are more breathable options than most modern hi-tech waterproof jackets. Nevertheless, rain jackets are the right choice for cool-to-cold environments and conditions.
(Ponchos such as the M-Tack Ripstop Waterproof Poncho are breathable even in warm temperatures)
(Marmot Granlibakken is our choice for cold and wet conditions)
Waterproof breathable gloves and/or mittens are must-haves in cold and wet climates. Look for solid constructions that are durable, flexible, and comfortable. There are very good models at reasonable prices but if you don’t want to spend too much on gloves/mittens you can also find budget-friendly designs such as the Showa 282 Gloves.
(Wide-brimmed rain hat with a chin-band is a good choice for warm and wet climates)
You have many options for headwear that won’t disappoint you in bad weather. For example, high-quality bobble hats that are waterproof are fantastic for cold weather backpacking, while sombreros and rain hats with a broad rim and adjustable chin-band provide sufficient sun and rain protection in warmer temperatures.
(We recommend compact and durable waterproof flashlight such as the Olight S1R II)
Having a reliable source of light is essential regardless of the time of the year. Nowadays, lights are very powerful and even a small and lightweight flashlight that easily fits in a pocket suffices for figuring out precise foot placement in muddy conditions. You need your flashlight to be compact, waterproof, and durable so that you can carry it anywhere with you.
(Lightweight headlamps are great for a ton of applications)
Waterproof headlamps are a good alternative to flashlights. Good quality headlamps are lightweight and functional and have plenty of useful features such as dimming, strobe, red night vision, lock mode, etc.
(Tough waterproof cameras that can fit in a pocket are great for hiking in foul weather)
Compact waterproof cameras are ideal for foul weather hiking and backpacking because they’re capable of doing a beautiful job on the trail. Look for a well-made waterproof, shockproof, and crushproof camera that’s easy to use and can take hundreds of great photos per charge.
Try to keep your clothes dry
It’s no brainer that it’s much easier and nicer to keep your clothes dry than to dry wet clothing. In addition, damp clothing is uncomfortable and with reduced insulative abilities, which increases the chances to develop symptoms of hypothermia.
If you need to get your apparel dry, you can do it in various ways. The most reasonable way is to allow it to air dry. For example, in sunny weather, you can either hang your clothes from branches (you can also do it in windy weather) or lay them on clean and dry surface such as rocks. You can also leave them by a fire but only if you’ll be nearby. Otherwise, if you leave them unattended, there’s a risk of burning your clothes. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t dry some materials such as leather and polyester by a fire because excessive heat can ruin the material.
Be able to build a fire
Fire can be a big psychological boost in bad weather. It provides warmth and comfort. Bring some waterproof matches or a fire starter kit and make sure to keep them dry (keep them in a waterproof container) for when you need them. In many situations, the ability to start a fire can be critical in the backcountry. To build and maintain a fire, you need three main components – oxygen, heat, and fuel. When heating fuel in the presence of oxygen (air), it burns. Fire cannot exist without these three components in the right proportions (the best way to learn the correct ratio is to practice).
Bring foods you can eat on the move
Proper nutrition in the backcountry is a must so bring enough food and fluid. Try to have warm meals whenever possible to boost your morale. Also bring some snacks and keep them handy so that you don’t have to stop unless it’s really necessary. Hiking in the rain can be exhausting plus you need more calories when it’s cold. So don’t forget to refuel often throughout the day even if you don’t feel particularly hungry or thirsty.
Having first aid kit is important
Walking in the rain increases the chances to become ill as well as to suffer an injury. Hence, having a basic first aid kit can be both reassuring and extremely helpful. To be able to manage emergencies and illnesses during shorter trips, you don’t need a well-stocked first aid kit with only some basic things. Among them: ibuprofen, aspirin, antibiotics, anaphylaxis, bandages, blister care pads, gauze sponges, and antiseptic towelettes. In general, your first aid kit should allow you to treat some basic conditions and illnesses like headache, pain, bacterial infections, inflammations, and severe allergic reactions.
Hiking in the rain pros
It’s among the greatest perks of hiking in the rain. Bad weather clears the trails of other hikers faster than almost anything else can do it. The result is that there aren’t a lot of people on the trails so for those who enjoy solitude in nature rainy days are a real boon. Actually, some of the best and most memorable days of many hikers were in the rain. Sometimes all you need to feel rejuvenated and refreshed is a quiet and peaceful hiking day in the rain where you can get away from people, forget about mundane activities, feel comfortable, and connect with nature. If you’re concerned about getting a little wet, you should know that with some decent gear and positive attitude, wet weather hiking helps you appreciate the world more on a walk. And it’s definitely an experience that’s worth it.
Opportunity to see wildlife
Have you noticed that rain makes nature more active? It’s easier to witness more wildlife while on the trail in wet weather than you do at other times. It seems that some wild animals love wet weather or just take advantage of the fact that people are cleared from the trails. In either case, bad weather is a perfect time to take some eye-catching pictures.
Some wild birds also become more active, often because of their prey. For example, earthworms love wet weather and when rain is falling they become more active and travel on the surface.
The ambiance when raining
Walking in the rain can be very relaxing – a lovely and pleasant experience that can reduce your stress levels. The sound of rain is soothing and relaxing, while the typical smell is pleasant and fresh. Actually, plenty of people claim that they can smell rain. However, they probably don’t know that the rain itself has no scent. Have you ever heard of “petrichor“? Yes, that’s how the smell that permeates the air during rain is called. However, it doesn’t come from the rain itself but from the wet soil.
Hiking in rainy weather is a different experience than hiking on a typical sunny day and the pleasant sound and smell aren’t the only differences. In addition to them, you can witness some really astonishing and/or dramatic views. Just imagine hiking in a really mossy forest full of birdsong and the glow all around that make the whole place seem alive and other-worldly. Don’t miss the chance to witness a beautiful rainbow or storm clouds flowing over hills and into valleys either.
Photo by Nicole De Khors
Hiking in the rain cons
Getting wet (soaked)
It’s by no means certain that you’ll get wet when hiking in bad weather. It’s just a matter of time. Of course, there’s a big difference between a light drizzle and torrential downpour. The former is pleasant while the latter causes temporary discomfort followed by beautiful weather. You can prepare and dress for wet weather, but you need to understand that if you hike in the rain for long enough, there is no chance to stay dry. At least your feet will get wet either from rain or from sweat.
Waterproof boots and shoes are a popular choice and in certain conditions, they will keep your feet dry for some time. However, in prolonged wet weather no waterproof footwear can keep your feet dry. The reason is that what keeps water out traps water in. Thus if you’re out walking in the actual rain, for more than a couple of hours, wet feet is an inevitability. If you wear waterproof boots, they will get wet from inside because they don’t breathe well. And it doesn’t matter what the marketing says. Unfortunately, the job of marketing specialists is to tell you what you want to hear, not what’s real. No shoes can evaporate all the sweat produced during an all-day trek. As a result, your feet get clammy and damp from sweat. Moreover, once wet, waterproof hiking shoes take forever to dry.
So, if you consider the possibility of wet-weather backpacking, you need to shift your focus on reducing the effects of having wet feet. Many experienced hikers prefer well-ventilated trail running shoes and merino socks. The benefits of this are twofold: 1) when wet, trail runners dry out pretty quickly as you continue hiking; and 2) merino socks will keep your feet warm even when wet. In addition, to mitigate the prolonged exposure to the wet, change your socks once or twice a day with a clean pair. It’s also important to try to air out your shoes and feet regularly.
Muddy and slippery
No one likes walking on slippery trails in the mud, though it’s often the case when hiking in rainy weather and you can’t avoid it.
Sometimes, everything gets messy and you have to flounder in the mud. On other occasions, the trail becomes so slippery that it forces you to pay attention to each step you take. In either case, it will inevitably slow you down, which leads us to the next disadvantage.
Slows your pace
Whether want it or not, you’ll have to slow your pace in wet weather. This means recalculating how far you can or want to hike. Take this into account when you devise the plan for your hike. Keep in mind, especially if hiking with a group, that not everyone can handle the rain so make sure that there’s no one unprepared, otherwise you won’t be able to get the most out of your walk in the rain.
Dangers related to walking in the rain
Thunderstorms are very dangerous for those who underestimate these devastating forces of nature. Each year, thunderstorms in the mountains kill thousands of people worldwide mainly through lightning strikes but also by causing dangerous wildfires, flash floods, and winds of lethal intensity. Lightning is both spectacular and frightening and you should take the danger seriously. Just imagine the power of a single lightning bolt – it can heat the surrounding air up to 25 000°C causing the air to expand explosively, generating thunder. If it’s any consolation, being hit by lightning is very unlikely plus the chances that you survive such an encounter are close to 90%.
Hikers can avoid most accidents caused by thunderstorms by taking a few precautions. The easiest one is to check the weather forecast before hitting the trail. However, if you are caught out in the open during a thunderstorm, your main goal is to try to find shelter (don’t pitch your tent because of the metal tent poles). Additionally, remember some basics to avoid being struck by lightning:
- Get away from water.
- Seek low ground if you’re in an open valley or meadow.
- Avoid summits and standing on ridge tops or near lone and isolated tall trees. Look for even-sized trees if in a forest.
- Don’t remain near, touch or wear metal equipment.
- Don’t lie down but crouch and cover your head and ears.
- Keep away from possible sources of electrical current.
- If in a group, separate.
Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it produces it and is more dangerous than lightning because it kills far more hikers. This means that hypothermia strikes even during summer. Actually, it’s especially dangerous during the summer months because then a lot of people aren’t prepared for summer storms.
As we mentioned in our article about cold weather hiking clothing, heat loss doubles at 5°C compared to 20°C so you can get in trouble really fast when hiking in the mountains and get caught by a storm, especially if you aren’t equipped to deal with stormy weather. The main causes for hypothermia are wet, cold, and wind. Hunger, fatigue, and alcohol facilitate and accelerate hypothermia. The initial symptoms are shivering, lethargy, and irritability. They’re followed by a lack of coordination, collapse, coma, and death. You have to take immediate action to counteract the symptoms of hypothermia. Set up camp, change wet clothes for dry ones, have plenty of hot drinks, and eat well. Have some rest and try to exercise a bit. All these will make your body create heat.
Generally, properly equipped hikers who stay warm, dry, fed, and rested are in no danger of becoming hypothermic. Thus, it’s a good idea to bring a spare set of clothing and a thermos with a warm drink/meal in case you end up feeling cold.
Prevention should always be preferred over treatment. To avoid hypothermia, try to stay away from the wind because it transfers heat from the body to the environment cooling exposed skin. Do your best to stay dry (also avoid excessive sweating), eat and drink regularly to stay well-fed and properly hydrated.
Increased slipperiness is another danger you have to deal with when hiking in the rain. A slip might be embarrassing; it can also cause a serious injury such as a broken bone, a concussion or a sprained ankle. Know ahead of time which places are appropriate for backpacking in the rain and which places aren’t.
If you’re hiking alone, try to stay vigilant and focused, use common sense, and make your best not to slip and fall. Trekking poles make walking easier, facilitate river stream crossing, and will help you keep your balance on tricky sections and slippery surfaces. Always be extra careful around wet wood because an unfortunate accident can leave you badly injured. The same is valid when walking close to a canyon rim or fording streams and rivers. Safety should be your top priority. Hence study your crossing point carefully and keep in mind that one wrong step can have serious consequences.
Avoid rockslide areas in mountainous terrain. Intense rain, specific soil structure, earthquakes, and erosion can change the stability of the slope and turn it into unstable causing rockslides. The season of the year plays an important role as it increases the chance that something will go wrong. It also has a strong bearing on the trail you select.
While almost always it’s pretty safe to hike if rain is forecasted, there are still some places where it’s very dangerous to hike because of flash floods. During flash floods, the water level increases so fast that you have just a few moments to avoid it (and survive) by getting out of the flash flood’s way. You need to move to high ground as soon as you notice the first signs of a flash flood, which are intense rain in a short period of time in your location and increasing roar of water.
Note that a flash flood can occur even if it’s not raining on you. Heavy rain above your location can cause it within a few hours as the ground will be oversaturated with water. Flash floods are sudden and unpredictable and cause serious damages.
Hiking in the rain is some of the best hiking there is. However, you need to be properly equipped and have the right mindset in order to make the most of your walk in the rain. Take a backpack with rain cover, good shoes with traction, waterproof outerwear and some extra layers of clothing, wool socks, and a pair of trekking poles.
Check the weather forecast several times while planning your trip, especially if you are going to walk up a mountain. If caught in a thunderstorm, seek for shelter and follow the basic rules to avoid being struck by lightning. Try to stay warm and as dry as possible and make your best to avoid hypothermia, slips, and falls.
Above all, prepare for empty trails, spectacular views of storm clouds rolling through valleys, opportunities to see more wildlife, and hear some beautiful birdsongs. Get a camera with a waterproof case and remember that walking in the rain can be a lot of fun!
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