All hikers and backpackers will likely experience hiking in the rain at some point. With good preparation and a positive attitude, hiking and backpacking in the rain can be memorable and even pleasant experiences.
Hiking in the rain has various benefits, including less crowded trails, opportunities to see wildlife, and a unique ambiance. However, there are also some risks and potential hazards you should be aware of. Proper rain gear, smart layering, and effective waterproofing strategies for your important items can go a long way in protecting you from the elements and keeping you safe in wet weather.
In this article, we’ll cover essential things you need to know about backpacking and hiking in the rain, including risks and dangers, how to stay warm and dry, how to prepare for sudden weather changes, what kind of clothing and gear to bring, and how to pitch your tent in the rain.
Risks of Backpacking and Hiking in the Rain
Hiking and backpacking in the rain can be a unique experience, but it also comes with added risks. Here are some things to be mindful of when you hit the trails in wet weather.
Hypothermia is a condition in which your body temperature drops below 95 degrees F (35 degrees C). Since your internal body temperature drops 20 times faster when your clothes are wet compared to when they are dry, hypothermia is a significant threat in damp weather. Therefore, it’s crucial to learn how to recognize, prevent, and treat this condition if you’ll be backpacking and hiking in the rain.
To reduce your risk of developing hypothermia, wear weather-appropriate clothing, avoid cotton, layer your clothing strategically, stay hydrated and well-fueled, and get adequate rest. In rainy conditions, you typically need to eat and drink more often than you would in nice weather. Pack extra food and water and bring snacks that you can eat on the go to make sure you stay properly fueled and hydrated.
Assess yourself often and keep an eye out for signs and symptoms of mild hypothermia, including shivering, confusion, dizziness, nausea, and the “umbles” (stumbling, tumbling, mumbling, grumbling, fumbling). If you notice any of these early signs, take a break, get some food and water, and try to dry out. Change into dry clothing and add insulating layers when you stop moving, then do some light exercise to generate body heat.
For more advice about treating hypothermia, please visit our wilderness first aid article.
Trail Hazards and Flooding
Excessive rainy weather can cause problems on the trail, including flash floods, muddy and slippery surfaces, fast-moving creeks and rivers, and landslides. Check the current trail conditions and advisories for the area before heading out to ensure it’s safe to hike.
If the trails are open, hike carefully to avoid slipping and injuring yourself, and consider using trekking poles for better stability. Make sure you’re aware if flooding or flash floods are a risk in the area you’re in, and move to higher ground if you see any signs of potential flooding.
If you cross any rivers or creeks, use caution. The water will likely be moving faster due to rainfall, and there may be potentially dangerous currents. Unbuckle the hip belt on your backpack before crossing the stream or river. If you happen to fall and get caught in a current, you’ll be able to remove your pack and get to safety more easily.
Sudden Weather Changes
When hiking and backpacking, it’s important to be prepared for varying temperatures and weather conditions. Even if there’s no rain in the forecast, you should pack basic rain gear like a rain cover for your backpack and a waterproof shell. Depending on the area you’re hiking in, you may also want to bring a lightweight bivy sack or emergency shelter.
Weather conditions and temperatures can vary significantly with elevation and change quickly. Just because it’s sunny when you leave your house or reach the trailhead doesn’t mean it will stay that way. To prepare for sudden weather changes on the trail, always bring more layers than you think you’ll need.
If you’re heading into the backcountry, it’s wise to familiarize yourself with basic meteorology, including knowledge of storms, clouds, and cold fronts. This knowledge will help you learn to spot potential threats and deal with them accordingly.
Thunderstorms and Lightning Strikes
While some storms only result in rainfall, others can bring dangerous thunderstorms and lightning strikes. If there are thunderstorms in the forecast and you’re able to reschedule or delay your hike, it’s wise to do so until the weather clears up. If you’re already on the trail or on a longer backpacking trip or thru-hike, it’s important to know what steps to take to protect yourself from getting struck by lightning.
Here are some tips to follow:
- Keep an eye out for ominous cloud formations and cumulonimbus clouds. These usually look like an anvil and are a very recognizable sign that a storm may be on its way.
- If a storm is approaching, descend from elevated areas, peaks, and ridges and seek shelter or protection. If you’re above the treeline, get back below it as quickly as possible. If you can hear thunder, you are at risk of getting struck by lightning – even if the skies are blue above you.
- Safe structures during lightning storms include hard-topped vehicles and fully enclosed buildings with electricity and plumbing. Trail shelters, tents, and other partially open structures are not considered safe during lightning storms.
- If no suitable shelter is available to you, find low ground like a valley or depression. Do not stand near any isolated trees or tall objects. Leave metal items like trekking poles, tent poles, and metal-framed packs a minimum of 100 feet (30 meters) away from you.
- If you cannot find any protected area, crouch on the ground with weight on the balls of your feet. The goal is to make yourself as small as possible and minimize contact with the ground – do not lie flat on the ground! Cover your ears with your hands and close your eyes to protect yourself from the intense light and noise of a potential strike.
- If you’re in a group and must seek shelter outdoors, try to spread out at least 100 feet (30 meters) apart from one another.
- If you’re backpacking, you should choose your campsite carefully if bad weather is possible overnight. Avoid exposed places, including mountain crests, hilltops, open fields, meadows, riverbanks, and edges of forests. Instead, pick an area with a low stand of trees, if possible. If not, opt for low ground away from any isolated objects or trees. Just make sure it’s not in a flood zone, in a dried-out creek bed, or near water.
Additional resources about lightning safety are available from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
In some areas, rainy weather often coincides with strong winds. If it’s exceptionally windy on your hike, descend from ridges and peaks to more protected areas and avoid steep drop-offs. It’s also a good idea to use trekking poles to improve your balance and stability.
If you’re backpacking, avoid pitching your tent next to large trees or trees with dead branches, as damaged trees and branches may blow down in strong winds.
It’s easy to remember to drink enough water when it’s hot out, but that’s not always the case when it’s raining. Dehydration can increase your risk of hypothermia and cause various ailments, including headaches, nausea, disorientation, and dizziness.
Make sure to drink enough water and consider dividing your water bottle into sections using tape or a permanent marker so that you know exactly how much to drink at different intervals. You should also avoid alcohol and excessive caffeine, as these substances are diuretics and cause your body to excrete more water.
Since moisture is a leading factor contributing to blisters, hiking in the rain increases your chances of developing this pesky injury. To help reduce your risk of blisters, choose a high-quality pair of hiking socks like Silverlight socks with moisture-wicking, temperature-regulating, and fast-drying properties. Learn more about preventing blisters in our article here.
Rain and accompanying clouds or fog can decrease visibility and make it challenging to navigate. Make sure you have preloaded maps, routes, and waypoints and avoid exposed hikes with steep drop-offs in rainy conditions. When visibility is extremely low, you should abandon your itinerary and retreat back to shelter.
Now that you know the main dangers to be aware of when hiking in the rain, let’s move on to how to stay safe, dry, warm, and comfortable. Strategic packing and planning can make hiking in the rain significantly better. Below we’ll cover specific items to bring that will help keep you prepared for rainy conditions. For a full list of what to pack on a multi-day hike, check out our detailed post here.
Before we get into the specific clothing items you should pack, let’s go over a few tips and strategies for planning your clothing system.
Avoid cotton. Most hikers are familiar with the expression “cotton kills.” Cotton does not wick moisture, takes a long time to dry, and is a poor insulator when wet. Choose synthetic or merino wool clothing, as these fibers help wick moisture away from the skin and dry quickly, thereby reducing your risk of issues like chafing, blisters, and hypothermia.
Dress in layers. This is always a good idea when recreating outdoors and especially so in rainy weather. Temperatures, winds, and rain often vary with elevation. Having plenty of layers will help you stay comfortable and adjust your attire based on your level of exertion and the current conditions.
Put on your rain gear as soon as it starts to rain. It’s hard to dry out once you get wet, so try to prevent it as much as possible. A light drizzle may not seem like much, but it’s better to protect yourself from moisture before it turns into a torrential downpour.
Regularly maintain your rain gear. Waterproof and water-resistant clothing often comes with a durable water repellent (DWR) finish. This coating causes precipitation to bead up and roll off the fabric. However, over time, this coating wears out and becomes ineffective. If you notice that water is no longer beading up when it hits the coating on your rain gear, then it may be time to apply a new finish using a DWR replenishment product.
First, try thoroughly cleaning and drying your gear according to manufacturer guidelines. Sometimes this is enough to restore the product’s water repellency. If that doesn’t work, you can move on to applying a new DWR coating.
Pack plenty of extra clothes and keep them dry. When rain is in the forecast, it’s important to have dry clothes and a dry pair of socks to change into. If you’re logging a lot of miles that day, it’s a good idea to change into dry clothes midday to help prevent hypothermia, chafing, and blisters and boost your spirits. Other times, it makes more sense to change when you’ve reached your shelter for the night or finished your day hike. You can keep these extra layers dry in your backpack using a dry sack, pack cover, and pack liner. If you’re day hiking, you can also leave some extra clothes in your vehicle as an added precaution in case the contents of your pack get wet.
Now that we’ve covered essential clothing strategies for wet weather on hikes, let’s move on to specific items you’ll want to take with you. Here is a list of articles of clothing you should bring when rainy weather is possible on your hiking or backpacking trip.
- Weather appropriate base layers: In warm, wet conditions, you may not need more than a short-sleeved shirt and underwear beneath your outer layers. In cooler weather, you’ll want a light, mid, or heavyweight long-sleeved shirt and tights (choose a weight best suited to the temperatures you’ll be hiking in). As discussed above, avoid cotton at all costs and choose merino wool or synthetic materials like polyester and nylon.
- Insulating layers: Down insulation is excellent in dry weather, but synthetic insulation like Prima-Loft and fleece are superior in rainy conditions. These materials maintain their warmth better than down when wet.
- Rain shell: A jacket is one of the most essential pieces of rain gear. When selecting your hardshell, look for a breathable, waterproof layer that keeps rain from getting through the fabric to your skin but allows moisture and sweat back out. Choose a jacket that has zipper vents under the arms for enhanced breathability.
- Rain pants: Depending on the conditions and the length of your hike, you may want lightweight water-resistant hiking pants or more protective waterproof pants. Like your rain jacket, you’ll want to choose a breathable product.
- Waterproof gaiters: Gaiters help keep water out of your shoes. They are especially useful for stream crossings and for hikers who decide to skip the rain pants in warmer conditions.
- Wide-brimmed hat: A rain hat is a helpful item to have in wet weather. It offers more protection than a jacket hood and makes it easier to see, especially for those who wear glasses. If needed, this can be layered over a headband, buff, or thin fleece hat in cold conditions.
- High-quality socks: The right pair of socks can mean the difference between a fun, memorable hike in the rain and a horrible experience. In wet conditions, it’s essential to wear comfortable socks that wick moisture away from your feet, dry quickly, and reduce friction. Silverlight socks check all of these boxes. They offer superior protection against blisters thanks to their moisture-wicking, fast-drying, and bacteria-fighting properties and will help you stay dry and blister-free on the trail.
- Waterproof gloves or mittens: These are essential if you’re hiking in a cold, wet environment but are not necessary for hikes in warm climates.
Hiking Boots or Trail Running Shoes
It may seem like waterproof hiking boots are the best option for hiking in the rain, but that’s not necessarily the case. Waterproof footwear tends to be better for colder conditions and short hikes. When paired with rain pants and waterproof gaiters, you’ll likely be protected from wet feet on a shorter day hike in the rain. However, most people are better off with wearing lightweight, breathable trail running shoes on longer hikes and backpacking trips.
Waterproofing helps keep water out of your shoes, but it also makes the footwear less breathable and can trap moisture inside, causing your feet and socks to become sweaty and damp. Additionally, the boots can become saturated with water in heavy rain, allowing the moisture to seep through the fabric. Water can also enter the boots on stream crossings or by running down your legs and pooling inside the shoes. In this sense, even the best waterproof boots will not keep your feet dry on longer hikes in the rain or in torrential downpours.
Lightweight, well-ventilated trail runners dry much faster than heavy-duty, waterproof hiking boots and allow your feet to breathe better. If the rain stops, your socks and shoes even have a chance of drying off a little on your hike. As a result, non-waterproof, lightweight trail runners are a better choice for most multi-day hikes and backpacking trips in the rain – especially in mild climates.
However, if you’re planning a winter hiking trip and snow and rain are possible, it’s better to choose a pair of high-quality waterproof hiking boots. Many winter hiking boots come with insulation to help keep your feet warm in cold conditions.
Read more about the benefits of trail running shoes vs. hiking boots in our article here.
While proper clothing and footwear are the most essential pieces of equipment for staying warm and dry when hiking in the rain, here are some other items that are helpful on rainy hikes:
- Blister treatment supplies: While a good pair of hiking socks goes a long way in preventing blisters, it’s important to bring extra blister treatment and prevention supplies in your first aid kit. That way, you’ll be prepared to take action as soon as you feel a hot spot forming. Supplies to bring with you include skin lubricant sprays, Benzoin Tincture, moleskin, skin blister pads, regular bandaids, alcohol wipes, antibiotic ointment, Leukotape, waterproof bandages, tweezers, and small scissors. You can read more about treating blisters in our wilderness first aid and blister prevention articles.
- Trekking poles: Even if you don’t normally use trekking poles or a walking stick, consider bringing them along if rain is in the forecast. The poles can help provide stability on creek crossings, slippery surfaces, and muddy trails.
- Hand warmers: These are useful for warming up your hands and feet if they get damp and cold.
- Multitowel: These dry quickly and are great for wiping off gear that gets wet.
- Waterproof headlamp or flashlight: You should have a headlamp or flashlight and extra batteries with you no matter what the conditions, but if you’re hiking in the rain, it’s important that you bring along a waterproof light source.
- Lightweight bivy sack or emergency shelter: Bringing a bivy sack is a smart decision to protect yourself from sudden, harsh weather when hiking. Choose a windproof and waterproof product to keep you warm and dry if you have to spend an unexpected night outdoors.
- Dry sacks, pack cover, trash bags, resealable plastic bags: These items are important for waterproofing the contents of your backpack. More information about keeping your pack dry is available in the section below.
- Waterproof matches and fire starters: Waterproof containers for your matches and fire starters are essential when backpacking in the rain, but it’s also a good idea to waterproof the matches and fire starters themselves. You can purchase waterproof products or do a DIY version using shellac, nail polish, candle wax, or turpentine.
- Waterproof cases for your phone and other gadgets: A plastic bag or waterproof stuff sack will help keep your electronics dry, but using specialized cases will protect the equipment while still preserving all of its functionality.
Protecting Your Pack and its Contents
When backpacking and hiking in the rain, it’s crucial to prevent water from soaking your backpack and the gear inside it. Here are some steps you can take to protect the contents of your pack from the rain.
- Put a rain cover on your pack. Even waterproof backpacks will let water in eventually through the seams and zippers. Use a rain cover that’s sized appropriately for your pack – some products come with a rain cover, while others require you to purchase it separately. You can also use a trash bag in a pinch.
- Open your backpack as little as possible. Every time you remove the rain cover from your pack and open up one of the compartments, it’s a chance for more water to drip in. Keep items you need quick access to, such as your map, phone, water, and snacks, in your pockets or on the outside of your backpack.
- Use a pack liner. Lining your backpack with a heavy-duty trash bag is a cheap and effective way to protect your gear from the rain. (See more tips like this in our hiking hacks article.)
- Protect important items using resealable plastic bags or waterproof stuff sacks. Essential items like a dry change of clothes, sleeping bag, food, and electronic devices should all be stored in waterproof bags or containers as an extra precaution.
- If you’re backpacking in the rain, keep at least one set of clothes in a dry sack and do not open it until you’re inside your tent or shelter. This will ensure you have dry clothes to sleep in.
- Waterproof your map. Before your trip, laminate the map in plastic or spray it with a commercial waterproofing spray that’s safe to use on paper.
Sometimes getting soaked is unavoidable, despite your best efforts. If that happens, here are some steps you can take to efficiently and effectively dry out your clothing and other gear.
- If the rain stops while you’re still on the trail, use binder clips to attach wet clothes to the outside of your pack. This will help them dry faster while you’re hiking and prevent the wet items from getting the rest of your gear damp.
- Take advantage of sunny weather to fully dry out your gear. Don’t underestimate the importance of dry clothes and gear. If you have a sunny weather window on a backpacking trip, it’s wise to use it. Sometimes this means taking a break along the trail and waiting while your clothes dry in the sun. You can lay them out on a rock, hang them from a tree branch, or use a utility cord as a clothesline. Other times, you may need to spend an extra day at a particular location while everything dries.
- Make sure to completely dry out your gear at home. Once you return home, go through all of your gear and hang it up to air out and dry completely. Never store wet equipment, as this can result in mold and mildew growth.
Setting Up Camp in the Rain
Day hikers should be set with the tips and advice above, but backpackers and campers will want to keep reading below to learn about strategies for setting up your campsite in the rain or when rain is in the forecast.
Tips for Selecting a Campsite in the Rain
When setting up a tent, you should always maximize your protection from the weather while also minimizing your impact on the land. Here are some tips to follow for selecting a spot to pitch your tent when backpacking in rainy weather.
- Choose a site under trees if possible. Trees can shelter your tent a little from the rain and also help create a warmer microclimate resulting in less condensation. Keep an eye out for dead or damaged branches – you want to avoid camping near these in case they come down in the wind. If it’s thundering, make sure to avoid isolated and tall trees and instead choose an evenly forested area with a low tree height.
- Avoid lower ground. Provided it’s not thundering, you want to choose a well-drained spot in a higher, drier area where rain water will not pool or channel through. This will also help reduce the condensation that forms overnight as temperatures decrease.
- Camp away from river banks, lakes, and streams. You should always camp at least 200 feet (61 meters) away from lakes, streams, and other water sources. When it’s raining out, you also want to make sure you are high enough above water sources to be safe from any water level rises and flooding that may occur due to rainfall.
Tips for Pitching Your Tent in the Rain
- Use a footprint or tarp. Make sure it’s exactly the same dimensions as the bottom of your tent. If the tarp or footprint is larger than the tent, you risk having rain collect between the tent and footprint and getting your tent floor and everything on it wet. If it’s smaller, you risk allowing moisture from the ground to seep through the bottom of the tent around the edges.
- Orient your tent so that the doors are facing away from the wind. This will help prevent rain from blowing in when you open the doors.
- Practice setting up your tent before you begin your backpacking trip. If your tent is new or you haven’t used it in a long time, you’ll want to make sure that it’s in good condition, that no parts are missing, and that you know how to set it up quickly.
- Have others in your group hold the rainfly over the tent while you’re setting it up. If you’re backpacking with a group or there are other people in the area willing to help you, having them hold the rainfly will help limit the amount of water that gets on your tent as you’re pitching it.
- Ensure the rainfly is taut. Make sure all corners of the tent are tensioned evenly and that no part of the rainfly is sagging or touching the main tent. Otherwise, moisture can be transferred from the fly to the tent. If it’s properly tensioned, the seams on the rainfly should line up with the seams on the main body and the tent poles.
- Use guylines to maximize the stability of your tent and rainfly. Many tents come with guylines. Use them in rainy and windy conditions to maintain tension and stability and improve the weather resistance of your tent.
With smart preparation, backpacking and hiking in the rain can be rewarding, memorable experiences. Make sure to constantly monitor the weather and assess the situation often. Always use your best judgment and turn around on day hikes if the weather becomes too hazardous to reach your destination. If you’re backpacking, don’t hesitate to set up camp in a suitable spot that’s short of your goal.
By understanding the risks, packing the right equipment, and knowing what to watch out for, you can enjoy rainy day outdoor activities while keeping yourself and others in your group safe.