Into every life, some rain must fall, or so the saying goes. So, even if you are a fair-weather adventurer, at some point, you will probably find yourself hiking or backpacking in the rain.
That’s no problem if it’s a light shower that lasts mere minutes – just find some shelter and wait it out. Use it as an excuse to make a brew and have a snack.
But what if you are caught in a torrential downpour, or the rain lasts for hours or even days? Or maybe you live somewhere where it rains a lot, and it’s impractical to wait for the next spell of dry weather to start your next hike or backpacking trip?
Don’t let rain derail your adventure plans or bring your hike to a soggy, premature end! Instead, use these tips to make hiking and backpacking in the rain not just survivable but actually enjoyable.
- Be prepared – what to do before you go hiking in the rain
- Out on the trail – what to do when out hiking in the rain
- Hiking and backpacking in the rain: FAQs
Be prepared – what to do before you go hiking in the rain
Weather forecasting has come a long way in the last few decades, but even the most advanced forecasting methods are little more than educated guesses. As such, most hikers and backpackers should be prepared for rain, even if dry weather is expected.
Examples of being prepared for rain include:
01Waterproof your essential kit
As a matter of course, you should pack all your essential gear in waterproof bags so that it won’t get soaked if you are caught in a rainstorm. Roll-top “dry bags” are an excellent option but can be expensive. A cheaper, lighter option is to use heavy-duty bin bags or reuse plastic grocery bags.
Don’t cram everything into one waterproof bag. Instead, group your gear so you can access everything more easily, e.g., spare clothes in one bag, sleeping bag in another, etc.
You should also make sure your map, GPS, phone, torch, first-aid kit, matches, etc., are waterproofed individually, or you may find that they don’t work when you come to use them.
02Use a backpack rain cover
Even if you put all your kit in waterproof bags, your backpack can soon become waterlogged. So, how to protect your backpack from rain? One of the easiest ways is to use a backpack rain cover. These are waterproof open-faced bags that slip easily over your backpack and help keep the rain off.
Backpack covers are light and compact, so you can keep one rolled up in the top of your bag, ready for use when you need it. Or, you can just get into the habit of always using one all the time, so you don’t have to stop and deploy it when the heavens open.
03Don’t forget your waterproofs
Carrying waterproof clothing in your backpack is a lot like carrying a first-aid kit; you hope you won’t need it but will be glad to have it if you do. There are lots of waterproof clothing options to choose from, and the right one for you will depend on your preferences, budget, and just how likely you are to be rained on, but your choices include:
- Ultralight rain jackets – good for light rainstorms
- Medium and heavyweight raincoats – bulkier, heavier, but usually more waterproof
- Waterproof ponchos – can double as an emergency shelter or groundsheet
- Waterproof over trousers
- Waterproof hat
- Waterproof gloves
Of course, you need to maintain the waterproofness of your hiking rain gear by adhering to the manufacturer’s instructions. This may involve the use of special sprays or waterproofing treatments like Nikwax. Make sure you follow the guidelines for your garments to preserve their water-repelling abilities.
04Waterproof your boots
If you want to keep your feet as dry as possible, you should waterproof your hiking shoes or boots between adventures so that they’re always rain-ready. For leather footwear, this usually means applying waterproofing wax, cream, or oil. For fabric boots, it means using a waterproofing spray.
Generally, it’s best not to rely on the natural waterproofing properties of the material as it tends to degrade with time, including Gore-Tex.
If you plan on doing a lot of rainy day hikes, it’s worth buying walking shoes for wet weather. Personally, I don’t like Gore-Tex-lined walking shoes and boots. They make my feet sweat, take longer to dry out, and only really delay the ingress of water rather than prevent it.
But that’s just my opinion!
Out on the trail – what to do when out hiking in the rain
So, you’re out on a hike, and it’s starting to rain – what should you do? If it looks like a light shower, you could just turn up your collar and tough it out. You’ll soon dry once the sun comes out.
But, if the rain is heavier or more persistent, it’s probably time to take more positive action to avoid getting wetter than necessary.
05Stop and put on your waterproofs
This step should take no more than a couple of seconds but could save you from getting soaked to the skin. Ensure your backpacking rain gear is near the top of your bag so you can a) grab it quickly and b) the rest of your stuff won’t get wet while you’re rummaging through your belongings, searching for your pack-a-mac!
The quicker you do this, the less wet you’ll get, and the sooner you’ll dry out once the rain has stopped.
06Look for shelter
Don’t just drop your chin to your chest and plod through the rain! Lift your head and look for places to wait out the worst of the rainstorm. Forests are a good choice, and you can often find cover below overhanging cliffs, depending on the direction of the rain. Consider putting up a tarp to make a hasty shelter if the rain is especially heavy.
07Consider changing your route to avoid rain
In some cases, in the mountains, for example, you may be able to avoid the rain by changing your route. A detour could be the difference between getting soaked to the skin and a spectacular view of a passing rainstorm.
08Be wary of river crossings
Rain can turn what was going to be an easy river crossing into a hazardous undertaking. Fast-flowing water can wash you off your feet. If you must cross a river, look for shallow crossing points, face upstream, lean into the water flow, and use a walking pole for balance. If in doubt, don’t risk a river crossing, as being washed off your feet while carrying a heavy backpack could result in serious injury and even drowning.
09Consider the possibility of floods
Long dry spells followed by heavy rainfall can cause flash floods. The ground is so dry that it cannot absorb the sudden downpour, and surface levels of water quickly rise. This can turn plains into lakes, hills into waterfalls, and valleys into fast-flowing rivers.
As water flows downhill, it’s often best to head to higher ground to avoid the dangers of flooding. Yes, this means diverting from your carefully planned route, but it can be a literal lifesaver in some popular hiking regions.
10Be aware of hypothermia
Hypothermia is a medical condition characterised by a lower-than-normal body temperature, and once you get cold, it can be hard to warm up if you are wet. Hypothermia can be a killer, and if you suspect you are starting to get too cold, you should take steps to gently raise your body temperature.
Finding shelter, getting dry, and consuming warm fluids will all help.
11Pitch your tent early
While some people (like me!) enjoy hiking in the rain, if you are on a multi-day adventure, discretion may be the better part of valour, and you can quit the trail earlier than planned and wait out the storm.
After all, is anything more comforting than listening to the rain hitting your tent when you’re snug and dry in your sleeping bag with a cup of tea in hand?
Of course, you also need to think about where you pitch your tent to avoid any problems during the night. For example, don’t pitch your tent in an area likely to be flooded, e.g., near a rising river or lake.
Hopefully, the next day will bring drier weather, and you’ll be able to make up for any lost time.
For more tips on camping in the rain, read our guide.
12Hike in wet clothes, camp in dry clothes
Even the best waterproofs will fail eventually, and your underlying clothes will get wet. Condensation will also affect you, even if you’re wearing state-of-the-art breathable waterproofs.
With this in mind, on multi-day adventures, there is no real point in putting on dry clothes at the start of a day backpacking in the rain, as you will get wet anyway.
Instead, put your dry clothes on in your tent at night, so you’re warm and comfy, and then put your wet clothes back on when it’s time to get back on the trail. Yes, this IS unpleasant, but it means you’ll have dry clothes to wear at the end of each day. Plus, your damp clothes will soon warm up once you get moving.
Hiking and backpacking in the rain: FAQs
Do you have a question about hiking and backpacking in the rain? We’ve got answers!
Rain pants are largely a matter of personal choice and what other clothing you are wearing. For example, if you are hiking in shorts, you probably don’t need rain pants. Also, rain pants are probably unnecessary if your raincoat is long or you use a waterproof poncho.
That said, rain pants can stop water going into the tops of your boots in heavy downpours and offer an extra layer of insulation and windproofing that can help keep you warm.
If you choose to wear rain pants, get ones with wide openings at the ankle, so they’re easy to pull on over your boots.
Do you want to know how to keep your feet dry in the rain? Bad news, folks, keeping your feet 100% dry is almost impossible. Even the best walking boots will eventually let in water. You can keep your feet drier for longer by:
- Cleaning and treating your boots according to the manufacturer’s instructions
- Wearing gaiters to stop water from entering the tops of your boots
- Wearing waterproof socks
- Walking around and not through deep water whenever possible
In the same way that it’s virtually impossible to stop your feet from getting wet in the rain, it’s equally hard to stay dry when walking in the rain. Even the best waterproof materials leak eventually, and those that are 100% waterproof cause condensation, which means you get wet anyway, albeit from within.
Personally, I’ve found the best solution to be an old-fashioned poncho. It’s airy, 100% waterproof, covers my upper body, backpack, and legs, and acts like a giant wearable umbrella so that water cascades out and away from my feet. Plus, when I want to stop for a rest, I just sit down inside my own personal tent. Brilliant!
On the downside, it flaps about in the wind and is hardly fashionable mountain wear…
However, having tried all manner of walking jackets and coats, my cheap and trusty rain poncho is the only thing I’ve ever used that comes close to keeping me completely dry in heavy rainstorms.
If you’re faced with a light shower, it’s usually best to just plough on and then dry out once the weather breaks. Pull on your waterproofs if you want to avoid getting too wet. But, in the case of heavier, more prolonged rain, it may be better to seek shelter and wait out the storm.
Make adjustments to your route to find more sheltered trails, but also allow for things like rising rivers and floodplains, which are best avoided.
Hiking in the rain can be safe, but your safety really depends on the severity, your preparedness, the temperature, and your location. For example, a rainstorm on a popular hiking trail through a lowland forest is entirely different to one on an exposed mountaintop in sub-zero temperatures!
So, while risk factors can vary, being prepared for rain will keep those risk factors to a minimum. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst to stay safe when hiking in the rain.
Prior preparation prevents pi$$ poor performance, or so the saying goes. So, if you even suspect it may be a possibility, it really does pay to be prepared for rain. So, if you assume you will get caught in a rainstorm, you’ll always be ready for that eventuality if it occurs.
Steps to prepare for rain include:
Always pack your waterproofs
Carry a rucksack rain cover
Pack your gear into waterproof bags
Carry a dry change of clothes
Carry a tarp to make a shelter
Make a mental note of places offering natural protection on your route
Staying dry in the rain is largely a matter of personal choice. My go-to rainwear is an ultra-light mountain marathon rain jacket topped with a waterproof poncho when the rain is very heavy. Other people prefer a more traditional approach, such as a mid-thigh-length raincoat with rain pants.
Whatever you wear, make sure it’s comfortable, won’t cause you to sweat too much, and you can quickly put it on and take it off as the weather changes.
There are several benefits of hiking in the rain. Reasons that some people enjoy hiking in the rain include:
Fewer people on the trails – many hikers are put off by rain and may even skip hiking altogether if the forecast is bad. If you want to avoid the crowds, head out during the rain.
Nature comes to life – rain might be something of an inconvenience to humans, but it’s the lifeblood of the natural world. Plants turn green, and animals come out. Combined with fewer people, a rainy hike is a great way to see more of nature.
It’s more of an adventure – hiking in the rain feels more adventurous than fair-weather hiking. There is a sense of doing something other people are unwilling to do. Not being put off by bad weather shows you are a true adventurer and not some armchair expert easily put off by a few drops of rain!
You may not have a choice – depending on where you live, waiting for good weather could mean wasting valuable time off. If you let rain derail your hiking or backpacking plans, who knows when you’ll have the opportunity to head out on the trails again?
Hiking and backpacking in the rain – closing thoughts
Hiking and backpacking in the rain can be one of life’s pleasures. There is something cleansing about being out in the rain. Sure, you could wait for better weather, and sometimes that may be the most sensible choice. But who knows when the next opportunity to get out on the trails will present itself; it could be weeks!
So, use the information in this article so you are always prepared for rain, and don’t let it put you off your adventures. After all, it’s only weather and getting a bit wet is really nothing to be afraid of!