Backpacking: Get wet

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By BAP45

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No, not like that you degenerates, foul weather. Now that you’ve finally left your house and are out backpacking, camping, hiking etc you will need to consider foul weather or rain gear. This would be part of the planning process to begin with,  as you’ll want it to balance with your area, situation and type of trip. Things to consider are, besides the obvious weather, are the region or terrain you will be in, time of year, the length or type of trip and other gear. You don’t want to bring too little or too much.
REGIONThe region you will be in is probably going to play the biggest part in your gear choice. If you are going to be in a desert then you will not need much if anything. Rain does happen in the desert and flash floods are a real hazard so you will still want to keep it in mind. In the desert since it is usually warm/hot and dry most of the time you could probably just forgo the personal protection and only worry  about your gear. If you are somewhere with a lot of rain then you will obviously want to have a more thorough suite of gear. Some places with microclimates or very unpredictable weather will require a sort of half and half approach.I do most of my trips in fairly high mountains so the weather changes quickly and somewhat unpredictably. My normal foul weather set is pretty simple, a hardshell jacket, gore tex/waterproof boots and the standard rainfly with the tent. My backpacks are semi waterproof, they were originally waterproof 20 years ago but the coating is mostly toast by now. Most summer storms there while at times strong are usually short. So normally I would pull out my jacket and continue about my business or wait it out. They are infrequent though so just those minimums are usually fine.
TIME OF YEARTime of year is obviously a big part of the weather. For example getting rained on in the desert in summer is probably welcomed by most but in winter not so much. 
DURATIONThe length of time you will be out is something to think about. Is it just a short excursion you could literally drag yourself back from if you had to? Or are you going to be out for weeks? For long duration trips you should expect to be needing rain gear more than once, and you will want to bring a repair kit for it. Even if it’s just some duct tape it will make a difference. A rip or puncture early on can essentially ruin or even end a trip depending on just how much rain you get. “Controversial” opinion; if it’s a simple day hike near your house don’t bother with anything. I hear people say that you need to leave with all sorts of stuff with you and tut tut anyone who doesn’t. If toddlers are on the trail I’m pretty sure you’re fine. Plus most local trails have plenty of traffic with other hikers who can help you out if you somehow are stuck. For those that wander off trails and get lost (even though it’s virtually in sight of town), well that’s just Darwinism. If it starts to rain just hustle back to the car. Now if you are doing a day hike starting from a backcountry camp then yes take your gear. 
Other gear interactions are not so much a category as just a general thought process. If you are taking a hardshell jacket already then a soft shell is redundant. Or if you already have a lot of weight then you might need to cut out some items. One anecdote, when I worked at a dealership they had these old school yellow rain coats for us when it rained. The yellow type that comes down to your calves. First time we got a storm we all ran and got them. Well with the length of the coats the water would run down and just drench out lower legs and feet. Then on top of that, the rubber material would make us steamy underneath to the point we were wetter wearing those things than if we hadn’t. So we would have needed gaiters or pants for those jackets to work as well as so more venting. Just make sure things work together.
GEAR TYPESNo Cotton: As the saying goes, “cotton kills” Make sure you have as little cotton on you as possible. In the old days this meant wool but nowadays there are plenty of synthetic materials available that are usually more comfortable and fast drying. Cotton takes a long time to dry when it gets wet which just leaves you open to hypothermia. 
Poncho (tarp): the good old multiuse poncho. If you want to go super minimalist you could do the retro method of just taking a poncho and use that as your personal rain protection and your tent/sleeping rain protection. And it will cover your backpack as you wear it too. It saves on the amount of gear you carry but you can only use it for one purpose at a time. So if you have it over your tent/sleeping bag well it’s going to have to stay there until it stops raining. Plus you can’t use it to layer up for added warmth.

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Rain Jacket/Coat/Hardshell: This is the most common piece people have and think of. Modern parlance often calls them “hardshell” jackets but that does imply it’s a modern breathable waterproof jacket and not the old school rubberized type. These are essentially a beefed up windbreaker in most cases, with no lining. These pack down nice and small so it’s easy to just have one in a pants pocket or outer ruck pouch for quick access. These type of jackets work well with the layering principle, add one over the top of a fleece and it bumps the warmth up considerably.

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Soft Shells: These are the fancy jackets that are pretty popular with most everyone these days. They offer some water resistance (not proof) and good breathability. The downside is the lack of waterproof-ness of these. So water will get through. They’re really only meant for drizzles or if you’re doing a lot of physical activity where you need breathability more than water repellency. Personally I like them but just can’t find a use for them. They are heavier than a fleece and hardshell combo and not as waterproof, so if it starts to do more than a heavy mist you will need an additional layer anyways.

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Pack covers or waterproof liners/bags are handy. Which you choose will depend on your scenario. If it’s just heavy rain you’re worried about then the cover will be the best choice in my opinion. If you are going to be fording rivers then the liners/bags will be better. 

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Rainfly: I have heard of people not taking their rainfly with them on trips but I think it’s much better to have something. Even when there is no rain you can still have mist or dew that falls on you. And you don’t want to deal with a wet night. I usually set it up but if it’s hot just leave the fly doors open or if it’s really hot then undo one side and pull it back. That way if it does start to rain I can just grab it and pull it back over quickly.

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Gore Tex or waterproof boots are a must. You can always just treat some boots as well with a spray. It’s nice not to have to worry about them getting wet or having wet socks in general.

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Rain pants/gaiters: I’ve never used these so don’t have much to say about them. I have seen some interesting use of boots and gaiters being used like mini waders by a guy once which was pretty slick. He had waterproof gaiters cinched tight over gore tex boots so he could just wade through the streams/creeks without having to find rocks or logs to cross. Granted this is only useful for water less than knee high but if you have a lot of shallow water to cross it might be worth considering. I have had rain pants in the past but never got any use out of them. They are usually a hassle to put on, often requiring you to remove your boots, and my regular pants never manage to get all that wet most of the time anyways. Maybe if it’s REALLY wet in your area they would be handy. Also I was always afraid I would rip them if I tried to sit on a rock. In this case I think soft shell pants might actually be pretty useful and they are typically pretty durable and breathable. But they are also pretty pricey. 

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Trash Bag: Yep, a trash bag, takes up almost no space or weight but you can pull it out and either cover yourself like a poncho by making a hole in the bottom or cover your backpack. If you use the heavier duty black garden ones you can get more than one use out of it. plus you can use it for a solar still or other emergency uses.

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My go to set up, from base layer to top layer then gear;- Maybe some kind of synthetic t-shirt and underwear (not always but it is helpful)- Nylon or similar pants (found some nice ones at Costco for maybe $15, you really don’t need high end stuff a lot of the time)-  A nylon or synthetic long sleeve button up, preferably on the thinner side. – My old Merrell gore tex boots – A decent fleece jacket, the thicker the better- A hardshell (Marmot or Mountain Hardware have my seal of approval)That’s really about it for clothes. If it gets colder than where those items help I’ll add on gloves and a beanie or balaclava. That’s usually enough into the 40’s for colder a down vest is a good go to addition to beef up the layers without having to pack a ton of stuff. If it’s going to be constantly cold or low 40s and below then some kind of parka should probably replace the hardshell jacket.For gear I usually just stick with the rainfly that comes with the tent and that’s it. If it’s raining hard enough that it could soak through my backpack then I’ll either move into the trees or just hunker down until it lets up. Or take out my trash bag and cover the top of my pack. I have taken a small tarp before but got no use out of it. Trying to keep my gear/weight to a minimum.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I think this article under-sells how dangerous being wet and cold can be, where “cold” can be surprisingly warm temps. Being wet at 50 degrees F can be life-threatening. It’s all well and good to skedaddle back to the car if it starts raining, but what if you fell and broke your leg? Maybe you’d be better off to hole up under your rain gear than to be forced to try to drag yourself back to the car by your lips because you were under-prepared for the weather.

    Having the means to light a fire can go a long ways here, but if you are wet, so is your fuel, especially if you are mobility-impaired. Staying dry in the first place heads off all sorts of problems. As you point out, a simple hard-shell jacket is very lightweight and compact. It’s cheap life insurance if the weather is going to be cool or cold and there’s any chance of rain.

    • But yes being cold/wet is a big deal. But most local trails are only a mile or two max and have plenty of foot traffic so that people will be passing you every few minutes and have cell service. If you’re somewhere that doesn’t have any of that then yeah bring your gear. At least a jacket.

  2. Hypothermia and hyperthermia are two things a lot of people totally underrate. Along with hydration, which is simultaneously really easy to under-do and over-do at the same time. I nearly lost two guys on a road march in relatively benign weather, one to dehydration and the other idiot to hyponatremia because he drank too much water… You haven’t lived until you’ve had the signal experience of trying to ride herd on a bunch of supposedly “adult” humans who’ve little to no experience of either the outdoors or hard work.

    Death from “exposure” happens under some really unexpected conditions–I think the closest I ever came to participating in a mass hypothermia event was during the aftermath of one of those ginormous “fun run” deals the Army is so fond of, wherein we got left out in fifty-degree weather wearing t-shirts and shorts. Between everything we were wearing being sweat-soaked and having to stand around essentially motionless in formation, we sent a bunch of guys off to the hospital and I damn near went in myself. Odd thing there was that it was mostly the “most fit” guys, with minimal body fat who suffered the worst. Those of us with more mass? Unpleasant ordeal, but it would have taken somewhat longer for us to actually have needed medical care. Skinny little guys and girls were ‘effing screwed, though.

    It’s actually kinda ironic, and not in the Alannis Morrissette usage–Most of my personal experience with both varieties of this issue, hypo- and hyper-, have been in settings wherein I was close to civilization, and in situations where I’d had some idiot take my personal control over conditions away from me. In actual wildland survival-type situations, I’ve never, ever let myself get into that kind of temperature-maintenance experience, and I think that’s pretty much true of every single “country-boy” type I’ve ever known that had actual experience with inclement weather. It’s just those idiot types with no actual experience or grasp of the issue that seem to get into trouble and cause it, although there is something to be said for the overconfident types that think they’re supermen when they ain’t. They tend to die in really bizarre circumstances, sometimes.

  3. I mountain bike and commute a lot where rain and the occasional hail storm are common. I carry some plastic bread bags to wear between shoes and socks as emergency booties when I don’t have my waterproof shoes. Another thing to be aware of is water wicking down your pants and socks, on one of my first rides with waterproof shoes I got caught in a hail storm and after 30 minutes I had 1/4″ deep puddles in my shoes from water soaking my pants and wicking down my socks.

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