Some of the most entertaining quotes I’ve heard about hiking gear are in relation to waterproof-breathable rain wear. Let’s start with some of my favorites.
“After all the technology we have, and all the fancy breathable jackets out there, why haven’t they invented an actually waterproof jacket?”
“I was going to buy this jacket, but the manufacturer info says it’s only 99% waterproof.”
“This jacket’s so breathable, I can run uphill with it zipped all the way up, and I don’t even break a sweat.”
“Ultralight doesn’t work well in New England because it gets really cold when it rains.”
|I’m wet, cold, tired, and I don’t care.|
Ever since Gore-Tex came out with waterproof-breathable rainwear, there seems to be this assumption that hikers can be totally impervious to wet conditions, as long as they have the right gear. All-day deluge? Just get a burlier rain jacket. Humid and hot? You need a more breathable shell. You’ll be a cozy little dry hiker no matter what nature thinks it can throw at you.
Raise your hand if you believe that in a contest between you and nature, you will win.
Every backpacking trip I’ve been on that’s lasted more than five days has included at least one day of pouring rain, and I’ve had a different shell system on each hike. What have I learned? The only way to stay dry through sustained or heavy rain is to be indoors or in your tent. Water will eventually get in from the outside.
As for how breathable a jacket may be, I sweat while hiking in a tee-shirt, so unless a rain jacket is more breathable than air, I don’t believe for a hot second that it’s going to keep me from sweating in any conditions. In a recent article at Backpackinglight.com, Will Rietveld confirmed what a lot of hikers already know, which is that all the crazy marketing spin about the amazing breathability of various waterproof shells is just that– crazy marketing spin. So what’s a poor hiker to do?
Andrew Skurka put it best in a comment on Rietveld’s article: “Backpackers need to get over this idea that you can be immune from your environment — when it’s wet, you should expect to get wet, because you will.” Well that settles it, right? If you go hiking, you’re not immune to the conditions.
My 3-season wet weather clothing system is imperfect, but it does what I need it to do. All I have is a DriDucks rain jacket, a pair of ultralight wind pants, and sometimes a pair of fleece gloves. It takes some getting used to each spring, but eventually I stop worrying about getting soaked. The DriDucks and wind pants weigh half a pound in total, and keep me mostly dry for short bursts of wet weather. If I get soaked from sustained or heavy rain, the light fabrics dry off quickly once I get out of the weather.
The real trick is being able to get camp set up and change into dry, warm clothes quickly. Rather than try to stay dry while hiking, learn to get dry quickly once you’re in camp and stay that way. Tents have a much better potential to be waterproof than clothing.
So let’s stop relying on $300 Gore-Tex jackets to keep us comfortable in the backcountry. Keep your important gear dry, but let yourself get wet from time to time. You’ll find it’s not the end of the world. Unless you happen to be the Wicked Witch of the West.