For many people, the idea of hiking in the rain sounds just plain miserable. Why would anyone ever want to go outside and get soaking wet when they could stay inside and drink a cup of coffee and watch Netflix by a wood stove, instead?
While we do have to admit that coffee, movies, and wood stoves sound lovely on a rainy day, if you spend enough time hiking in your life, you will inevitably find yourself out in a storm, whether you like it or not, so it’s important that you know how to handle those conditions.
Plus, so many of the world’s best mountain ranges are located in rainy climates. So, if you never go outside when it rains, you’ll be missing out on a lot of fun.
Also, just because it’s raining doesn’t mean you’re going to have a horrible time in the mountains. Rain, mist, and fog all add a beautiful, ephemeral element to the wild places we love, so it’s certainly still worth getting out and hiking, even if it does mean you’ll get a little wet.
That being said, we understand that hiking in the rain for the first time can feel like a challenge. So, we’ve compiled this list of our top 27 tips for having a rollicking good time outside, regardless of the weather.
1. Get a good waterproof jacket
Okay, first things first – if you’re going to hike in the rain (or anywhere for that matter), you need to have a good waterproof jacket. A quality rain jacket can help you stay dry in damp conditions, which is critical to staying warm and happy.
However, there’s a big difference between a water-resistant jacket and a waterproof shell. While water-resistant jackets will keep you fairly dry in a drizzle, they won’t do much for you in a downpour. In those situations, you need a jacket with a built-in waterproof breathable membrane, like Gore-tex, to keep you protected.
The best waterproof jackets will run you upwards of $700, but you don’t necessarily need to spend that much to stay dry. Generally speaking, any sturdy jacket with a waterproof breathable membrane will keep the rain off of your skin, but some of them don’t perform as well in the “breathable” category, so you might sweat a lot.
Do keep in mind, however, that just because it’s raining doesn’t mean you have to wear a rain jacket. In fact, if you wear a rain jacket during a light drizzle, you’ll probably sweat profusely inside the jacket, making yourself damper than you would’ve been if you just wore that t-shirt. So, play it by ear and if it’s just a drizzle, you might want to keep your jacket in your pack.
2. Pack your rain pants
While most people think to bring a rain jacket with them, many people, particularly newer hikers, forget about rain pants. While we wouldn’t categorize rain pants as a “must-have” (we’ve gone on many trips without them), they do make life a whole lot better, especially when it comes to sitting on wet ground to cook dinner or take a break.
Similar to a rain jacket, you’ll want to look for a pair of rain pants that have a waterproof breathable membrane, like Gore-tex. Depending on where you hike and how frequently, you can usually get away with a lightweight pair of rain pants rather than a bulky pair of hardshell pants.
Our advice? If you’re going to hike somewhere that gets a lot of rain, it’s worth investing in a solid pair of rain pants.
3. Know the signs of hypothermia
Truth be told, there’s really no problem with being wet, even when you’re hiking. Depending on where you live and hike, you might get soaked in a rainstorm only to dry out within an hour from the midafternoon heat.
The real problems arise when we get wet, stay wet, and then the temperature starts to drop. In these instances, we run the risk of developing a potentially deadly condition, known as hypothermia, which is when our core body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius).
When our core body temperature drops below this threshold, our body loses the ability to function properly. If left for an extended period of time in this state, our body will eventually shut down, we will lose the ability to rewarm ourselves, and we can die.
That might sound a bit dramatic, but each year, people die in the mountains from what is a totally avoidable condition. Although you would think that winter hiking is when you need to be most concerned about hypothermia, it’s the early spring and late fall months, where you run the risk of getting both cold and wet at the same time that are the most dangerous to the unsuspecting hiker.
The problem with hypothermia is that when you start to develop it, you quickly lose a lot of brain functioning that would otherwise clue you into the fact that something is wrong. This is why it’s important to be able to identify the early symptoms of hypothermia so that you can prevent the situation from getting worse.
We often categorize the symptoms of hypothermia by the “-umbles”:
And so forth. Basically, when you get hypothermic, you lose most of your fine motor skills, your problem solving and critical thinking skills, and your sense of balance.
The trick? Preventing hypothermia from happening in the first place. Much of this comes down to layering properly, getting out of your wet clothes and staying as warm as you can at all times. (princeton.edu guide to hypothermia)
4. Waterproof your pack
While many of us think to waterproof ourselves while hiking in the rain, people frequently forget to waterproof their packs, too. Your pack contains a lot of useful gear some of which, like your sleeping bag, you really don’t want to get wet.
The best way to waterproof your backpack is to use a pack liner, like a heavy-duty trash bag. By lining your pack with a waterproof barrier, you can keep all of your most important gear dry, while still having fun in the rain.
5. Keep your hands warm
Cold hands are no fun. When your hands get cold, you have trouble with fine motor movements, like using a lighter to get your stove started at dinner time. So, it’s important that you keep your hands warm whenever possible.
Generally speaking, a good pair of gloves will do the trick. But, if you’re somewhere that’s very rainy, you might want to bring two, three, or even four pairs of gloves. In the Scottish Highlands, where it rains a lot, many hikers characterize the raininess of a day based on how many pairs of gloves they wore and soaked through on one outing. Nae bad…
If your hands get particularly cold, you could also try bringing a set or two of hand warmers, though these have little use beyond warming up your fingers in a pinch. We wouldn’t rely on them as your sole method of keeping your hands in ship shape.
6. Consider an umbrella
Okay, this might sound silly, but a quality umbrella could make your hike in the rain much more enjoyable. These days, there are plenty of lightweight gear companies making super high-quality umbrellas out of carbon fiber poles, so they’re a great addition to your gear list.
These umbrellas are useful for staying dry while cooking dinner and can actually keep your body pretty darn dry as you hike. Plus, they can keep the sun out of your face on a super hot day. What’s not to love?
7. Eat more food
When it’s cold and wet outside, your body uses up a lot of energy trying to keep you warm. This means you need to eat more food (yay!) to stay toasty warm as you hike.
So, when hiking in the rain, pack extra snacks – more than you think you’ll need. Especially if you do get soaking wet, you’ll be happy you brought that extra snickers bar.
8. Don’t forget to hydrate
While eating lots of food is important on a cold, rainy day, don’t forget to hydrate, either! The water we drink is a critical aspect of cellular respiration, which is the process our body uses to break down food into bits of energy. So, no water means no energy for your body and no body heat to keep you warm.
The problem with staying hydrated in cold, rainy conditions is that we don’t often have a thirst drive unless it’s warm outside. So, we need to be more conscientious about our water intake while hiking in the rain.
9. Protect your important gear
We’ve already talked about using a pack liner to waterproof your backpack, but it’s worth noting that some of our more important pieces of gear deserve to be doubly protected. Some things, such as your phone and sleeping bag need extra special protection from the rain, so you might want to consider placing these in a second dry bag or plastic bag, just in case.
10. Have a hot drink
While drinking water and staying hydrated are important for keeping our bodies functioning properly, it’s also a great idea to pack a hot drink for a rainy hike. A thermos full of hot cocoa, coffee, tea, or even hot lemonade can really be a huge morale booster when you’re getting soaked in a rainstorm. Plus, who doesn’t love a hot drink?
11. Use trekking poles
“Whether you love them or hate them, trekking poles can really help when you’re hiking in the rain.”
When it’s rainy outside, rocky and muddy surfaces can get really slippery, which means you’re more likely to trip and fall, potentially hurting yourself.
With a good pair of trekking poles, however, you can avoid these small slips and have a more enjoyable hike in the rain.
Also read: Are Trekking Poles Worth It?
12. Keep your feet dry… or not.
Many people don’t mind getting wet, so long as they can keep their feet and the insides of their boots dry. Keeping one’s feet dry can make a huge difference in morale for some people but it turns out it’s not really necessary.
For the most part, people go to great lengths to keep their feet dry, sometimes hiking well off of an established trail to avoid a patch of mud. Not only does this practice inadvertently widen trails, but it’s also really not necessary.
Also read: How Do You Waterproof Hiking Boots?
Sure, wet feet might not be very fun, but they’re not inherently dangerous. In fact, depending on where you’re hiking, you may have to cross a lot of streams or rivers, which are sure to get your feet wet at some point.
The fact of the matter is that, once your boots get wet, it takes a long time to dry them out. But, just because your feet are wet during the day doesn’t mean you’re going to develop trench foot. In fact, if you can keep your feet dry at night (more on that soon), it doesn’t matter how wet your feet are as you hike.
So, while some people try to hike in rain boots to keep their feet dry, we say just let your feet get wet. Your feet will be much happier in a wet pair of comfy hiking shoes than sweating in an uncomfortable pair of rain boots. Trust us on that one.
13. Have a pair of sacred socks
Piggybacking on the concept of not really needing to keep your feet dry while you hike, it is important that you keep your feet dry at night. The key? Keep a pair of fluffy wool sock sin your sleeping bag at all times.
These are your sacred socks and they never leave your tent. So, if all else fails, you have a pair of socks that are warm and dry to get you through a cold night.
14. Layer appropriately
Appropriate layering is your best way to avoid getting hypothermia in cold, wet conditions. The best way to layer is to have a wicking baselayer, an insulating midlayer, and a waterproof shell as your outerlayer. This way, you can arrange your clothing to best meet the needs of your energy output and the conditions without overheating or getting cold.
15. Wear a hat
While most people tell you to wear a hat to keep your head warm, when it comes to hiking in the rain, a wide-brimmed hat or a baseball hat is really your go-to. Even if you have a rain jacket hood over your head, water will drip down your hood and onto your face as you hike, which is annoying, to say the least. A good baseball hat will help keep this water out of your eyes for a more enjoyable hiking experience.
16. Keep your rain jacket in good condition
A rain jacket is only as good as the condition it’s kept in. This means you need to take really good care of one of your most important pieces of gear.
Often, this comes down to washing your rain jacket semi-regularly to get the dirt out of the pores of the waterproof breathable membrane. You’ll also want to reapply the durable water repellent (DWR) to your jacket every once in a while to help water bead off your shell instead of soaking through as you hike.
17. Carry a tarp
If you’re out on a backpacking trip in a wet environment, a tarp is an indispensable piece of gear. Since it’s really not recommended to cook in your tent (especially in bear country), a good tarp can keep you dry in the kitchen as you cook. Plus, if it’s really raining, you can set up a tarp first before setting your tent up underneath to stop the inner body of your shelter from getting soaked while you pitch it.
18. Be mindful of flooded rivers
While rain itself isn’t dangerous, it does add a lot of water to the environment, which could mean flooded rivers. This is more fo a concern in certain parts of the world where there is minimal groundwater and thus, more likelihood of flooding.
So, if it’s; been raining heavily for a few days, be wary of flooding rivers. Be willing to turn back if a river is too high for comfort and don’t force a crossing, especially if you’re alone.
19. Understand the dangers of lightning
Lightning strikes on humans really aren’t that common, but they do happen and they can have serious consequences. For the most part, lightning isn’t really a threat, so long as you know what places to avoid during a storm.
Generally speaking, you’ll want to avoid being the tallest thing around. So, if lightning is rolling in, get off that ridge or that summit, away from a lake or the shoreline, an out from under the tallest tree. Shelter yourself in a forest of equal-height trees or a field of equal height boulders if you’re in the alpine.
20. Keep your tent body dry
The worst thing about backpacking in the rain is having to sleep in a sopping wet tent. More often than not, this happens because people are pitching their tent in the rain and don’t keep the tent body dry.
To keep your tent body dry, there are a few techniques you can try. First, work on being quick and efficient at setting your tent up. This will limit the amount of exposure your tent body has to the rain before you get the fly on.
Additionally, you might be able to set up your tent body and fly all at the same time. This isn’t possible with all tents, but when it works, it’s a lifesaver.
Finally, you can try setting up a tarp over your tent site to protect your tent body in the rain. The tarp is basically a shelter for you and your tent as you pitch it and you can leave it up or take it down once your tent is up.
21. Choose a good campsite
A lot of staying dry in the backcountry at night comes down to choosing a good campsite. In general, a site out in the open will get hit with a lot more rain than one in the woods. Plus, the wind tends to pelt your tent with rain, so if you pitch your tent somewhere sheltered, you might stay a bit drier.
22. Don’t wear cotton
A common adage is that “cotton kills.” This may sound like hyperbole, but cotton is, in general, a bad choice for outdoor enthusiasts. Unlike wool and synthetic insulation, cotton actually makes you colder when it’s wet and has zero insulating value.
Thus, when you wear cotton in the rain, you increase your risk of getting hypothermia. So, it’s best to avoid cotton in the outdoors whenever possible.
23. Consider gaiters
Although gaiters aren’t for everyone, they can be helpful when hiking in the rain. Especially if you’re wearing rain pants, gaiters help keep water from running down your pants leg and into your boot. Plus, gaiters can help keep your feet dry during small stream crossings or in muddy puddles.
24. Select an appropriate hike
Not all hikes are great for a rainy day. For example, hikes that involve exposed ridge walking can be much more dangerous when the ground is wet underfoot. Plus, it may not be worth your time to head out on a peak ascent when you won’t have any views from the summit.
On the other hand, a walk in the woods can be beautiful in the rain, as can a hike to a waterfall. It’s all about choosing the right adventure.
25. Carry extra layers
If you dance in the rain, you’re bound to get wet. So, pack extra layers and assume that whatever you’re wearing is going to be soaking wet, even if you have a great rain jacket. An extra warm jacket and baselayers or even a pair of socks and some fleece gloves can go a long way for morale at the end of a rainy day.
26. Be willing to turn back
If the rain is heavy and unrelenting, if a major lightning storm rolls in, or a river is just uncrossable, you need to be willing to turn back. While we’re all about the spirit of adventure, there’s no reason to put yourself at risk unnecessarily. So, if you hike in the rain, always have an exit strategy and a plan B.
27. Start with a good attitude
Having an enjoyable hike on a rainy day is all about your attitude. If you go into the hike thinking that it’s going to suck, well, it will. On the other hand, if you’re ready to roll with the punches, you might just have an amazing time in the mountains. Happy hiking!
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David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.