A recent question from one of my readers got me thinking about a very common problem for backpackers– how to hike in the rain, comfortably. As a day hiker, it’s possible to avoid hiking in the rain most of the time if you have a good forecast, but as a backpacker, you’re going to get rained on eventually. And, really, any kind of hiker is doing themselves a disservice by avoiding rain all the time. The best way to get used to hiking in nasty weather is practice, after all.
That said, I’ve found myself avoiding trips with really ugly forecasts for the past few years– mainly because I’ve been doing fewer backpacking trips and more day-hikes, which means a lower hiking to driving ratio and an easier decision to push the hike back by a day or a week if there’s a better outlook later on. So I’ve become less comfortable hiking in pouring rain. The solution is just to get out more often when I know it’s going to be ugly.
It’s no surprise that the times when I’ve been most comfortable hiking in the rain have been during or soon after long backpacking trips– at the end of the New England Trail, where I walked through frigid, pouring rain for days; after walking through Washington on the PCT where, even when there was little rain, the dew-laden leaves hanging into the trail would soak passing hikers to the bone. I’ve used different rain gear on most of my wet backpacking trips, and had different strategies for what to do when the weather went really sour, but nothing changed the fact that, eventually, I’d be totally drenched.
So how do you hike in the rain comfortably? The short answer is “you don’t.” The longer answer is that you get used to it– accept that you’re going to get wet, make sure you keep your insulation and water-susceptible equipment dry, and remember to take care of yourself. The biggest problems I run into when hiking wet inevitably come from not taking any breaks (because who wants to stop and stand around while it’s pouring?), which is really no different from hiking in good weather. The most important things are to stay warm enough to keep going, be able to get dry once you make camp, and to stay dry in camp.
The last part of the equation is to find the joys in wet hiking that you don’t find on sunny days. Mountain springs and brooks gush, mossy forest floors glow, the sound of water on leaves drowns out everything, people become scarce, mist clings to mountaintops and forest canopies. The wilderness feels more wild. Mother nature throwing some inhospitable conditions at you is a reminder that being away from civilization isn’t meant to be comfortable.
Then there’s the other side of toughing out the difficulties of slogging through harsh conditions. The rewards of a clear day on a mountain, or even of finding refuge back in your car or home, are so much sweeter after you make it through the hardship of a thorough soaking. The more frequent your reminders of harsh conditions in the mountains and forests, the more you can enjoy the easier days, when you can sit back and soak in the sun with a long view.