Some of my favorite outdoor memories involve hiking in the rain. Booming thunder rolling across the plains of the Midwest. The sudden slanting rain as I rambled across the mountains of Ireland. The steady drizzle during a day in the Pacific Northwest. All of these experiences have left me marveling the beauty and strength of a storm.
When I was new to hiking, I wasn’t always keen on the prospect of spending hours plodding through the rain, but I soon learned that the appropriate equipment would let me enjoy the rainiest of hikes in comfort. Remember that hiking through extreme mud can damage trails. Check trail conditions beforehand if possible through a local trails forum or by calling the nearest ranger station and turn around if you find that conditions are too wet. If you must hike through muddy conditions, avoid hiking off trail to avoid puddles as that can widen trails and cause unnecessary damage to fragile ecosystems.
Now, here’s how to make sure you’re equipped to enjoy a hike in a downpour.
An ultralight, breathable, and waterproof jacket is a backpacker’s best friend. If you buy your backpacking rain gear one size up, it’s easier to layer for additional warmth. While rain jackets tend to be waterproof, water may still make its way through during prolonged exposure. And sweat tends to pool if a jacket isn’t breathable, which makes armpit zips a key detail for a rain jacket. These handy zips allow air movement underneath a rain jacket, allowing sweat and any invading rain droplets to escape and dry faster. Finally, skip the cotton—synthetic base layers wick away sweat and dry fast; that’s necessary for staying comfortable during wet hikes.
As for rain paints, only pull them out in horrible downpours. If it’s a gentle rain that seems like it will pass, stick with a pair of wicking, non-cotton hiking pants that allow your legs to breathe, even while hiking in a hot rain. Gaiters can be handy for wet conditions as well. They come in varying heights and protect shoes from filling with dripping rainwater while keeping shins and/or ankles dry.
Keep in mind that waterproof treatment only lasts so long. Before you head to the Scotlands of the world, check that your rain jacket is still effective against heavy rain. To protect and extend the lifespan of your waterproof gear, wash it in a product like Nikwax and apply a durable water repellent spray.
Wet feet can cause or worsen blisters, so it’s important to keep them dry. Many backpackers opt for a full or mid-height waterproof hiking boot, which often comes with a gaiter clip. If you prefer a smaller trail running-style shoe, keep in mind that it’s probably not waterproof. To avoid trouble, pack extra socks and ankle gaiters. Don’t power through foot troubles—listen to your feet, stop, and change socks or administer any foot first aid that may be necessary. One benefit of the breathability of a trail runner is that they dry faster than heavier waterproof boots once the rain has subsided.
A primary consideration when preparing for a trek is ensuring your backpack is ready for any weather. For a smaller daypack, use a lightweight pack cover. Some daypacks even come with built-in rain covers. On backpacking trips, take a more cautious approach, bringing along a lightweight pack cover and putting necessities (i.e., sleeping bag and extra clothing) into dry sacks. A more affordable hack is to line the inside of a pack with a garbage bag. Some hikers opt for a backpacking poncho, which is a lightweight solution that doubles as rain protection for your body and your pack.
Hiking in the rain with kids introduces a whole other challenge. For small children, invest in a one-piece rain suit, which will protect them when they inevitably jump in puddles, crawl on the ground, or get soaked beneath dripping undergrowth. I have learned (the hard way) that even rain suits and boots don’t always keep kids dry if they have immersed themselves in giant puddles. For even better protection, dress kids in wicking base layers and if you’re camping, bring along a small camp towel to dry off kids in the tent before putting on dry base layers.
When it comes to footwear, if conditions are really wet and rainy, go for a solid rain boot. When kids are dressed properly for a hike in the rain, adult hikers never have to say “no” when they jump in every puddle along the way. If you’re trekking with tiny babies strapped to your chest or back, the built-in sunshade on kid backpack carriers and an umbrella work best to keep everybody dry.
There’s no reason a rainy forecast should cancel your plans for a day hike or multi-day trip. Hiking in the rain provides a different but equally inspiring experience as a day under sunny blue skies. It’s a rewarding endeavor, if you’re prepared with the right mindset and the proper gear to stay dry and happy.
Need advice about rain gear for an upcoming trip? Shop our collection of rain gear or contact a Gearhead with all of your rainy day hiking questions.