Comprehensive Rain Gear Strategy

Have you ever pondered what is the best rain gear for a certain situation? It differs for every environment and season, so what you need for your local mountains can be totally different to what is needed on a trip to New Zealand, the tropics or a winter getaway.

Rain jacket and pants, AT 2018
Rain jacket and pants, AT 2018

Below is a scalible checklist that can help you decide on what rain gear to take on your next hike.

Before getting into what rain protection you should take on your next trip, I would like to touch on the overarching goal of rain gear that is often misunderstood. There is a persistent misnomer that rain gear should keep you dry, but this is the wrong way to think about it. Instead, your rain gear selection should be aiming to keep you comfortably warm in the conditions that you face. With this in mind, if you can maintain a comfortable level of warmth, it is actually ok to actually get wet.

There are a few things that can alter what you need for each trip, even in the same environment.

Length of trip

  • The longer the hiking trip is, the more likely you are to encounter extreme weather conditions. This means that rain gear should be selected that will keep you comfortable in the expected average, and somewhat comfortable in the expected extreme.
  • Short trips, such as day hikes or weekend, can use weather predictions to reasonably assess the weather likely expected. This information can mean taking more or less rain gear.

Hiking = Warmth

  • It is amazing how warm you can stay when hiking hard. Using this method, you can often get away with less rain protection as you can use your internal furnace to offset the rain that is continuing to draw heat through convection. This knowledge of what you are comfortable with comes with experience.
  • If you are naturally a cold person or planning to stop for extended breaks in the rain, you might want to increase the level of protection you bring along.

Level 0: No rain gear

Places to use: Usually short day hikes with predictable weather patterns. No rain gear can also be used in tropical climates were the air temperature stays above 75F / 23C, although this does come at some risk.

Basically, I don’t think that anyone can recommend not taking rain gear on an open guide like this, so use your own judgment and local knowledge.

An emergency poncho is the minimum that I take on a hike in good conditions when rain is unexpected. At 1oz (28g) and $1, it is great to keep in the bottom of your bag for that unexpected situation.

Bonus tip: wear the poncho under a wind jacket to keep it from ripping in high winds.

Level 2: Umbrella

Ideal places to use:        

  • Summer in heavy forests – Appalachian Mountains
  • Summer in tropical environments with low wind – Central America, SE Asia

A hiking umbrella can work extremely well as your only protection in a dense forest that is also a hot, humid environment. Dense forests block out most of the wind that is an umbrella’s kryptonite. And a hot, humid environment often means that ventilation is more desired then staying dry.

silvershadow
The classic hiking umbrella, Euroschrim

I would take an umbrella and wind jacket as my rain protection on a summer hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Level 3: Rain Jacket

Ideal places to use:           

  • Summer in most mountainous terrains
  • Most distance hiking in summer – PCT, AT, Alps, Pyrenees, etc…

This is the standard comfortable entry level for most 3 season conditions, and something that you are probably familiar with using.

goretex jacket

A waterproof, Breathable Jacket by Montbell

People often expect their jackets to be totally waterproof, but this is almost impossible after a full day of rain. The reality is that adding an extra insulating layer in warm temperatures will cause sweat to build up, even in breathable fabrics such as Gore-tex.  

Getting wet from sweat is not necessarily a problem as the moisture against the skin stays warm while moving and therefore won’t cause a loss of body warmth. However, once stopped, particular care should be taken to avoid that built up moisture from cooling your core body temperature down.

The more concerning problem is when a jacket loses its waterproof quality. This happens from one of two reasons:

  • In Gore-Tex or eVent, the waterproof breathable membrane (WBM) will eventually delaminate. This often happens around the shoulders where the backpack causes the failure through rubbing.
  • The second failure is due to the DWR finish not working any longer, and is mainly a concern in almost non breathable jackets as they do not have a secondary protection method of a WBM. A new jacket will bead water for a while, but the combination of body oils, washing, dirt and abrasion against a pack will cause the DWR finish to slowly degrade. If the jacket’s DWR finish has degraded sufficiently, it does not take long for the jacket to wet out.

The first sign of wetting out as a failure method is moisture penetration along pressure points like the shoulder straps

Wetting out of a rain jacket is a greater concern then sweating as a continual leak of cold water that is able to touch the body has the potential to overwhelm a person’s ability to generate heat.  When it is cold, hyperthermia is a real possibility if this leaking continues for an extended period of time.

Generally, when the jacket is going to be worn more due to a rainy environment, a WBM option of Gore-Tex / eVent with added breathability of underarm zips is used as they take the longest to wet out. Even with there name, don’t be fooled that they are fully breathable and you will still likely sweat in it a bit, but it will keep you comfortable for a longer period of time the the almost non breathable options.

For minimal use in dry climates or places with only short storms, a lightweight, almost non breathable option made from nylon (e.g OR Helium) is the best option. You will sweat in it and it won’t be that comfortable to wear, but the lower weight and increased packability offsets this due to the minimal use.

Bonus tip: Rain Jackets can add a lot of warmth when worn to bed at night, as they provide a vapor barrier to trap the heat.

Level 3.5: Poncho

Ideal places to use:          

  • Wet, humid environments – Appalachians, Tropical areas
  • Summer in most mountainous terrains
  • Most distance hiking in summer – PCT, AT, Alps, Pyrenees, etc…

This offers a similar level of protection to a rain jacket, but trades off features.

Poncho Rain Jacket
Keeps legs and shorts dry Keeps lower arms dry
High breathability Poor breathability
Retains minimal warmth Retains a lot of heat
Requires a wind jacket Can poorly act as a wind jacket
Fully waterproof material Not fully waterproof

The big advantage of a poncho is its natural breathability from ventilation due to it being loose around the body and not from a breathable membrane. This allows for the use of a fully waterproof material such as DCF (formally cuben fiber) to be used successfully. The usability of these fully waterproof fabrics overcomes the problem of wetting out mentioned above, and can offer a huge advantage in sustained downpours.

poncho-groundsheet-back-s

Z-pack Groundsheet-poncho, what I use.

A poncho also has the added benefit of a backpack cover that is better than the normal ones.

As with everything, there are a few of negatives with a poncho.

The major drawback of a poncho is due to the ventilated design, as they do not insulate and keep a person warm like a rain jacket.  A lightweight wind jacket, or an insulating vest can provide an increase in warmth, but cannot match the layering potential of a rain jacket. Therefore, the majority of warmth has to be generated through walking to maintain body heat and for this reason ponchos are more suited to naturally warm blooded people.

The other two are:

  • People often find a poncho annoying in high winds. I personally accept this on long distance hikes as the benefits outway the short time time of annoyance.
  • A poncho is almost useless on an overgrown trails due to its loose fitting design.

A poncho is my prefered rain protection for the majority of my long hikes as I always overheat with a rain jacket until it is close to freezing. The increased breathability of a poncho keeps me way more comfortable in 3 season conditions over a rain jacket.

Level 4: Rain Jacket and Rain Skirt

Ideal places to use:

  • Summer in extreme rain environments – Scottish Highlands, SW New Zealand, Patagonia, SW Tasmania
  • Fall in rainy environments – Pacific NW, Northern Appalachians

A rain skirt is not often employed, and is not even known to the general public. But I think that it has a huge advantage of breathability over rain pants to keep you comfortable in long downpours in cool environments.

RainSkirtSideView

MLD rain skirt

If the expected temperature is above 40-45F / 5-7C, more protection is required then just a rain jacket but rain pants can be a bit overkill and uncomfortably warm. A rain skirt will be more comfortable than rain pants in these conditions.

Also, I often use a rain jacket / skirt instead of a poncho on shorter trips in high wind conditions. For example, if I have an itinerary of staying above treeline for an extended period of time and I know it will be both windy and rainy. I will be writing on ponchos in detail soon!

Level 5: Rain Jacket and Rain Pants

Ideal places to use:

  • Summer in subarctic environments – Iceland, Norway, Canadian Rockies
  • Shoulder season in sub alpine climates – US Rocky Mountains, Sierra, European Alps, Pyrenees
  • Shoulder season in cold, wet climates – Pacific Northwest, Northern Appalachians, Wales, England
  • Winter in mild climates – Southern Appalachians, Many Coastal Walks,
  • Many Subtropical areas

Rain pants are great for continuous downpours in moderately cold climates when the expected temperature is approx. 35-45F / 2-7C or lower. Basically, if you think that you will be cold with only a rain jacket, it is time to wear rain pants.

Rain pants come in both breathable or almost non breathable varieties just like rain jackets. They also have the same limitations as rain jackets.

Rain pants are a great insulating layer for below freezing temperatures even in nice weather.

I include rain pants when the expected bad weather is near freezing or below. I treat them like my jacket and will only put them on when it is actually raining and I need them for warmth.

Level 5.5: Rain Jacket and Rain Pants, with Rain Mitts (possibly Waterproof Socks / Boots)

Ideal places to use:

  • Shoulder season in extreme rain environments – Scottish Highlands, SW New Zealand, Patagonia, SW Tasmania
  • Winter in cold, dry environments, high deserts – Bolivia, Utah, Northern Arizona

If you suffer from cold hands, rain mitts are a perfect addition to add a surprising amount of warmth to your kit for only an extra 1-1.5oz / 30-45g. Not only are they extremely light, but having a modular system of a rain cover for your hands is far better than the traditional single set of thick waterproof gloves (think ski gloves).

I generally add rain mitts when most of the rain events will be around freezing. They are also great to keep fleece gloves dry in below freezing conditions when it is snowing.

Waterproof socks can be added in these conditions to add extra warmth. I find that I use these in extremely wet environments when there is a lot of frozen rain or when the temperature is below 15F / -10C and I need to keep my feet warm. Their durability is terrible so use then sparingly.

Level 6: Rain Jacket and Rain Pants, with Rain Mitts and Waterproof Socks / Boots and a Poncho over the top

Ideal places to use:

  • Winter in high precipitation areas – Scottish Highlands, SW
  • New Zealand, Patagonia, SW Tasmania, Appalachians, PNW, Wales, England

This is more of a bonus option and my preferred method to deal with cold, wet conditions mentioned above.

The addition of a cuben poncho over the top of a rain jacket and pants adds superb, fully waterproof protection against your rain gear wetting out in a prolonged downpours. It also allows the ability to remain dry with the rain jacket unzipped for increased ventilation.

Instead of taking a heavy 3 layer breathable jacket, a cuben poncho opens the option of bringing a lightweight summer rain jacket and pants. This combination weighs about the same as a heavy jacket and pants, but you will stay dryer the poncho.

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Blurry photo due to heavy rain. Poncho over rain jacket, AT, 2018

I have used this to great success on my Winter Appalachian Trail hike and my Winter Wales and Scottish Highlands Traverses. In Scotland, I stayed dry in torrential all day frozen rain when my hiking partner sustained mild hypothermia from his standard rain jacket wetting out.  

Pepper and Trauma also used this on their epic Winter PCT Thru Hike Ski.