At some point or another in your backpacking life, you will encounter rain. Maybe it’s fat, cold raindrops. Maybe it’s a sprinkling. But the weather has the possibility to dampen (pun intended) your trip if you let it. I’m here to tell you that backpacking in the rain really does have its charms. Think less crowds, more wildlife, a mystical setting and a soothing sleeping soundtrack!
With a dodgy seven-day forecast nipping at our heels, my husband, Justin, and I grudgingly zip our rain gear tight and venture into the torrent. All day, storm clouds sail the sky, dragging anchors of rain. We take zero breaks and speed eat our snacks from our hipbelt pockets. With blue-tinted lips, we roll into camp and peel off our layers of dirt-covered shells to discover shriveled raisins.
On day or weekend trips, we have the choice to bail and stay inside. But this scenario was day 16 of our thru hike of New Zealand’s Te Araroa. With at least 100 more days ahead, we couldn’t afford to be fair-weather hikers. And so, here are our five tips for making backpacking in the rain more than just soggy memories.
1. Protect the inside from the outside.
Do follow the cardinal rule and keep at least one pair of socks dry for the end of the day. And your sleeping bag. And any wet-sensitive gear (i.e., paper maps, electronics, firestarter). In fact, just try to keep everything inside your pack as dry as possible! Our Questar sleeping bags made with Nikwax Hydrophobic Down will still protect us when wet, but we always try to avoid testing them.
Unless you have a fully waterproof backpack, or waterproof components of a backpack (I love my waterproof hipbelt pocket!), there are other strategies.
A pack cover is the most obvious, and most packs actually come with these nowadays.
You could also DIY and line your backpack with a plastic garbage bag. Using dry bag packing systems and Ziplocs inside your pack will ensure the safety of individual items.
This does mean your pack will get wet—and depending on the material, rain could make it heavier—but at least the inside contents stay dry.
Pro tip: Open your pack as little as possible when it’s raining out!
2. Layer like an onion.
It happens every time. The forecast tells me rain, so I zip up my rain jacket, tighten my hood, pull up my rain pants and … it never rains.
But, like a good girl scout, I am prepared and adapt on the fly.
Justin and I always start with base layers made of merino wool or synthetic polyester blends that will perform well while wet. Please no cotton; it’s a sponge! Depending on the temperature, we add some sort of insulation. Our top layer needs to be both waterproof and breathable. For me, pit zips for venting and an adjustable hood that turns with my head are my must-have features on my rain shell.
Often, my rain pants and shell report for partial duty. Nothing will keep you completely dry in a deluge. On warm, rainy days, we actually prefer using our skin as our best defense against the rain.
So what do you do at the end of the day when everything is wet? Not much. But, I can also tell you a little unpleasant and smelly trick. Once you are warm and cozy in your dry clothes and sleeping bag, sometimes you can put your damp shirt and damp socks back on. Your sleeping bag combined with your body heat will microwave them back to normal. But use your best judgment, if temperatures drop overnight you run the risk of your wet clothes chilling down, and chilling you down, before they dry out. Prioritize safety.
3. Choose the right trail.
If you can plan your specific trips around the weather, this is best. That waterfall you need to see in person? Sunshine will only make it more epic. Fording rivers? Better saved for a drier day.
Another thing to consider is that even if the rain stops, wet vegetation and dripping trees could still affect you. Wider and exposed trails are best post-rainstorm.
We are peakbaggers trying to hit all the state highpoints (40 so far!). We’ve had beautiful days for Mt. Whitney, Mt. Elbert and Rainier. Wheeler Peak in New Mexico is another story. We camped at Williams Lake and fell asleep under sparkling diamonds in the sky. Our weather window was looking good.
We got moving at 5am to beat the typical afternoon thunderstorms, but as we climbed higher and higher, it was obvious the weather was turning. Under winds gusting up to 40mph and pelting rain, we hit the 13,161-foot summit.
4. Tent placement is key.
Paying attention to where you sleep will also help you rest and play better.
Find a killer flat spot, but look around first. Are there sloping hills around it? Is the ground really soft and mossy? Are you on a downhill? These factors will ensure you do not wake up in a pool.
Consider other aspects to score primo tent spots. Seek higher ground with less moisture in the air forming condensation. Sleeping under the trees guarantees more warmth and protection, but never camp under dead trees that have the potential for damaged limbs dropping on your home!
One time, we were car camping at North Beach Campground outside of Burlington, Vermont, during a terrible storm. We woke in the middle of the night and saw several tree branches dancing erratically in the wind. We immediately moved into our car for the rest of our slumber and awoke to large tree branches scattered where our tent once stood.
Other tips for staying dry include using a footprint, using all available guy line points to create a rock-solid palace, using vents to prevent condensation buildups, orienting doors away from the wind to prevent rain from blowing in and setting up the fly first.
Pro tip: Become a quick pitch artist. Never set up your tent for the first time … in the rain.
5. Sleeping bag? Check. Headlamp? Check. Umbrella? Check.
My latest gear obsession has been those trekking umbrellas. The first time I heard about people using a hiking umbrella, I scoffed. I am officially a convert.
Umbrellas are great for hiking in the rain during warmer months, allowing you to shed your sweaty pants and jacket.
My motto has always been “don’t knock it until you try it”!
With these five tips, you will be itching to get outside instead of hibernating next time the forecast is less than favorable.
Updated. Originally published October 19, 2019.