Rain gear will help you stay dry and warm on the trail. Getting soaked can easily ruin a backpacking trip: blisters, trench foot, rolled ankle, you name it. Most weight-conscious backpackers only carry one set of clothes to hike in, and drying clothes at night isn't always an option. So it's important you keep your clothes dry by using the gear listed and explained in this post.
We’re sizing up essential items to keep you forging on when wet weather strikes, along with discussing notable do’s, don’ts, and safety practices for hiking in the rain.
A simple layering system for hiking in the rain.
Essential Rain Gear
|Rain Jacket Or Poncho
|Rain Pants Or Skirt
|Outdoor Research Helium Pants
|Outdoor Research Thru Gaiters
|La Sportiva Wildcat 2.0
|Pack Liner Or Cover
|Gossamer Gear Clear Waterproof Pack Liners
|Montem UL Carbon Fiber Poles
RAIN JACKET OR PONCHO
Price, climate, and weather conditions are key factors to consider when choosing between a rain jacket and a poncho.
Jackets have an adjustable, contoured fit that hugs close to the body, making them a better option for storms, strong winds, and for use in cooler temps. A jacket will be more expensive but also more durable than a poncho, and a good one will be made from high-quality materials like rip-stop fabric and breathable technology. Jackets also feature pockets, a brimmed hood to roll rain away from the face, waterproof zipper flaps, and taped seams.
Ponchos are roomy in design, and a more one-size-fits-all deal. They’re made from thin, flexible, compact fabric making them more packable than a rain jacket. They provide coverage over a larger area of the body (cutting off around the knees rather than at the waist). Because of their larger birth, they can be worn over a backpack or spread out and used as a small tarp. Ponchos are often much cheaper than jackets and more ventilated, though not as durable and they can snag. They work well in heavy or light rainfall and warm temps as long as the winds stay down.
- Montbell Versalite Jacket
- Frog Toggs Ultra-Lite2 Poncho
- For more models, read 16 Best Rain Jackets and Shells
RAIN PANTS OR SKIRT
Rain pants are like jackets and have a close, contoured fit, while skirts and kilts are loose and breezy like ponchos.
Pants offer a larger range of protection than a skirt or kilt by extended coverage of the entire lower body. Because of their fitted design, they work best in rainstorms with heavy winds and can protect the legs against brush or debris. They’re also a nice additional layer against cooler temps but can get stuffy in the warmer months.
Kilts and skirts' loose-fitting design makes them easier to get on/off compared to pants, and in warm weather, the ventilation and breathability they provide are ideal. They’re thin and flexible and pack down to virtually nothing, and are versatile enough to be used as a ground covering or small tarp around camp.
- Outdoor Research Helium Pants, Lightweight
- Zpacks DCF Rain Kilt
- For more models, read 10 Best Rain Pants for Backpacking
Gaiters come in three lengths:
Ankle: Best for trail running, hiking.
Calf: Walking through small creeks, hiking through mud, or standing water on trails.
Knee-length: Taking on marshland, larger creeks, mountaineering expeditions.
Gaiters give additional coverage and insulation to your legs while keeping water, snow, mud, and debris from getting inside your boots. They’re made from a weather-resistant polyester, polyurethane-coated nylon, or a Gore-Tex material, and they fit by going either under or over your pant legs and wrapping around the underside of your foot or boot. Some pairs secure in place by waterproof zippers. They come in handy in wet weather, when splashing through puddles, or crossing streams and other wetland areas.
NOTE: Pay extra attention that they sit securely against your boots. Not all gaiters fit the same, and an improper fit will impact their performance. Many come measured in typical shoe sizes.
Trail runners: Lightweight, breathable, and a favorite among distance and UL hikers, trail runners are a step above a running shoe. They have a sole with an additional grip for scaling rugged terrain and extra cushioning for added comfort. They’re much more flexible than a boot but at the cost of ankle support and durability. Also, many trail runners are water-resistant but not waterproof, although, they are known for their breathability and quick-drying capabilities which make them a favorite for warm weather hikes.
Waterproof boots: Clunkier, heavier, and not as flexible or perhaps breathable as a pair of trail runners, waterproof boots still have their benefits. They provide unmatched stability, grip, and ankle support. They're durable and are good at tackling rugged terrain or splashing through puddles and creeks with ease. They’re also way more practical for cold climates.
- La Sportiva Wildcat 2.0 trail runners
- Solomon Quest 4D 3 GTX Hiking Boots
- For more models, read 15 Best Hiking Shoes
Setting up a tent in rain gear
PACK LINER OR COVER
Pack covers go over the outside of your bag to keep rain and moisture from getting inside, while a pack liner (also known as a dry bag) sits inside your pack and encloses your items, creating a protective barrier.
Pack Covers will help keep your bag dry, but the downfalls are they’re expensive, they limit access to your bag, and if they slip out of place water may still get in through the sides, along your back, or any other exposed nooks and crannies.
Liners are cheap (compactor trash bags work well), and they provide a higher level of protection against moisture and sweat directly around your valuables. But in exchange, you’re leaving your bag exposed so you’ll be dealing with a wet, heavy bag.
Can’t decide between the two? Some hikers use both.
Other than providing extra support if you’ve got knee or joint concerns, trekking poles can be a great help in maneuvering over muddy and slippery surfaces. Carbon fiber builds are the lightest, but aluminum poles are stronger and more durable while remaining fairly lightweight. When picking out poles, pay close attention to sizing to ensure they’re the right height.
- Ultra-Light 100% Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles
- Helinox Passport TL130 Adjustable
- For more models, read 11 Best Ultralight Trekking Poles
Additional Rain Gear (Optional)
|Interstellar AscentShell Rain Bucket
|Mountain Laurel Designs 3-Layer Event Rain Mitts
|Helinox Trekking Umbrella
|Ziplock/Waterproof Stuff Sacks
|Yama Mountain Gear Stuff Sacks
|Spenco 2nd Skin Blister Kit
A handy item that protects against rain or shine, the brim of a waterproof rain hat can direct water away from your face so your vision remains clear when pushing through a downpour. A chin strap will ensure the hat stays attached in case of powerful gusts, and a bucket design will provide the widest range of coverage.
Gloves aren’t a biggie in warmer climates, but when temps drop in wet conditions, keeping your hands dry and warm is a serious thing. The key here is finding a pair of waterproof or water-resistant gloves that are also breathable. Having a layering system with a liner glove that’ll wick away moisture, such as fleece, and an external shell that protects against the elements will do the trick.
Mountain Laurel Designs 3-Layer Event Rain Mitts
- Zpacks Vertice Rain Mitts
- For more models, read Best Ultralight Gloves and Mittens
Not everyone likes the umbrella, but it’ll keep you sheltered from the rain (and sun!) Its protective rim can help keep precipitation off your pack and shoulders, and it can act as a mini-portable shelter to ‘take cover’ under if you need to check a map or wait out a downpour.
Safety note: Forgo umbrellas in heavy winds or lightning.
Helinox Trekking Umbrella
- Seat to Summit Ultra-Sil Trekking Umbrella
- For more models, read 7 Best Ultralight Hiking Umbrellas
ZIPLOCK/WATERPROOF STUFF SACKS
An additional measure to keep your valuables dry (cell phone, paper maps, money, electronics, etc.) you can purchase stuff sacks in a variety of sizes, or, though not as durable, Ziplock bags can also work.
Yama Mountain Gear
- Granite Gear Event Sil Drysack
- For more models, read Best Stuff Sacks and Compression Bags
Where there are moisture and friction, there're hotspots and blisters. Prevent blisters by keeping your feet dry with proper socks, changing out wet socks regularly, and addressing hot spots when they start. Pay special attention to your feet in wet conditions and have the right gear on hand to stop or treat blisters. Blister kits are available for purchase, but if going the DIY route a few necessities include moleskin, duct tape, alcohol wipes, a needle, and ointment or foot salve.
- Spenco 2nd Skin Blister Kit
- Adventure Medical Blister Medic Kit
- For more info, read How to Use Moleskin for Blisters and 7 Best Foot Balms
A quick-drying microfiber or polyester towel, or even a head buff or bandana, can all come in handy when drying off gear. There are plenty of sizes available that come in at just a few ounces. Some even have special antimicrobial treatments applied for extended freshness.
Can You Really Stay Dry?
Not all rain gear will keep you 100% dry (what?). Here are some tips, considerations, and features to help you select rain gear that actually keeps you dry:
WATERPROOF VS WATER-RESISTANT
To earn a waterproof label, the item must withstand water penetration when tested against harsh rains. A waterproof item will also be windproof. Often lighter and thinner than a waterproof garment, water-resistant items will hold up for a while, but after continuous exposure or in heavy rains moisture will eventually get in. A water-resistance item also qualifies as wind-resistant.
2-LAYER VS 3-LAYER SYSTEM JACKET
This is a mid-weight jacket that has a DWR-treated durable shell that’s breathable, is constructed with a laminate face fabric, and has an interior lining like mesh to cut down on noise and help protect the face layer from body dirt, oil, and sweat. A 2-layer jacket works well in warm conditions and during moderate hiking activities through light rain. For colder treks, it’s best to pair it with an insulating layer.
A 3-layer jacket is excellent at keeping you dry. It's the tougher of the two and more suited for wear through climates of heavy precipitation. The outermost layer is often a laminated, durable, DWR-treated shell. The second layer is a waterproof and breathable membrane made of a material like Gore-Tex, which is next to an innermost liner which is a PU, breathable lining that blocks the membrane from bodily oils that can clog the fabric. This inner liner helps to protect and extend the lifespan of the jacket.
BREATHABILITY AND VENTILATION
For hiking, rain gear must always be breathable, meaning it allows for airflow so sweat can escape while still blocking external moisture from getting in. Avoid vinyl and cotton and go for nylon and polyester fabrics. Many companies now have their own specially designed waterproof and breathable fabric they use.
For added breathability and to help the garment dry quickly, rain gear often comes with mesh pockets and vents in spots like under the arms, on the sides of the thighs, or along the back.
How to Hike in the Rain
Repackage vulnerable items: Pack liners and covers can help keep water out of your bag, but they’re not full-proof. It’s best to gather your most valuable items and repackage them to keep them protected.
Pack extra: After you’ve hiked hours through the rain, set-up camp, and have finally crawled into your (hopefully) dry, inside of your tent, it’s good to know you’ll also be outwitting hypothermia because you’ve got a nice, dry outfit waiting for you.
Regularly re-waterproof: DWR treatments don’t last forever. Depending on use, certain gear items will need re-waterproofing more than others. Here’s a general rule of thumb on a few staple items:
- Rain jackets every six months.
- Tents every year.
- Hiking boots once per season.
You can test if an item needs re-waterproofing by dropping a bead of water on it. If the water pools up and rolls off, the items good. If the item absorbs the water, it's time for another treatment.
Dry out your gear: When the rain subsides and you want to get moving, swap out your wet clothes for dry ones and hang them on the outside of your bag or in a mesh sack or pocket to air out. This will keep your clothing from getting mildewy. And smelly.
Prevent blisters: Preventing blisters is all about being aware and keeping your feet dry. Blisters are especially common in humid conditions, and your shoes are one of the first spots moisture gathers. Keep moleskin, foot balm, Vaseline, and even duct tape nearby for easy fixes when hot spots form.
Beware of trench foot and heel cracked feet: Ignoring those wet toes for a few days in a row can lead to trench foot, which is an immersion foot syndrome that causes skin tissue to blister, peel, and eventually die off. Take care of your feet by buying breathable shoes, moisture-wicking socks, and taking breaks to let your feet air out. Applying balms or salves at night can help skin recover and prevent other painful conditions like cracked heels.
Take breaks: Hydration probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when hiking through a downpour. But being active through wet and cold conditions is when our bodies are working in overdrive, burning major calories to stay warm. Keep energy levels up by taking brief breaks to replenish fluids and calorie intake.
Sleep in wet clothes: Wet clothes steal away valuable body heat and remaining in them overnight is a fast-track to hypothermia. Sleep in dry, moisture-wicking base layers to stay dry, warm, and healthy.
Expose down items: Always make sure you have your down items protected from exposure to moisture. Although synthetic down holds up better in wet conditions, goose down items will no longer insulate once wet.
Hike with lightning: According to the American Hiking Society, if you spot lightning during a hike, it’s best to seek shelter in a nearby building or vehicle immediately if possible. If this isn’t an option, then look for a low valley to take shelter in. If this also isn’t an option, then shelter where you are by moving into a crouching position with your feet together and your weight balanced on the balls of your feet. Keep your ears covered and your head lowered, trying to make yourself as small as possible.
Note: Never lie on the ground or seek shelter underneath a boulder, tree, or another tall object. Tents and trail shelters are not a safe option. If you have metal objects on you (like an umbrella or trekking poles, leave them at a minimum of 100 feet away.)
Hazards, risks, and safety practices for hiking in the rain.
Slippery surfaces: When hiking during or after heavy rainfall, pay close attention to where you’re stepping. One wrong move on slick, rocky terrain or loosened ground can quickly lead to a fall, sprained ankle, or other injuries.
Landslides: Another threat to keep an eye and an ear out for are landslides along steep hillsides where the ground has been heavily saturated. Try and avoid mountain and slope edges, be aware of your surrounding area (landslides often happen in the same places), and sleep on higher ground at night. You’ll hear a landslide coming before you see it by the thundering sounds of cracking branches and moving water and debris.
River crossings: It’s safest to cross water that’s at your knees or below. To get a better grip on the strength of the river, you can test the water's speed by throwing a stick upstream. If you can’t keep up while walking alongside the stick as it moves downstream, then crossing the rivers not a good plan.
Safety tips for crossing rivers:
Unbuckle your pack to allow for an easy escape from underneath its weight in case you go down.
If the river has a strong current, face upstream and lean gently into the current and cross sideways at a slight downstream angle.
Keep your eyes on the opposite shore to keep from looking at the water and getting dizzy.
Flash floods: An especially important danger to be aware of when hiking in the Southwestern states of the U.S., it doesn’t take long for emptied canyons to turn into raging rivers. Monitor the weather, local warnings, and be aware if there have been monsoons or long stretches of rainfall in the area in days before your hike.
Hypothermia: Practices to avoid hypothermia include hiking in synthetic, quick-drying clothing (no cotton), keeping your energy levels and hydration up, and layering in breathable pieces for easy adjustment to temperature changes.
Early signs of hypothermia include:
- Flushed skin
Low nutrition and dehydration increase your chances of hypothermia, especially when hiking in wet and cold conditions.
If you believe a fellow hiker is showing signs of hypothermia, have them swap out their wet clothes for dry ones, give the person extra insulating layers, shelter them from the elements for a while, and ensure the person is properly hydrated and fed. You can also have them do brief spurts of exercise to help increase their overall body heat.
Some photos in this post were taken by Jonathan Davis (@meowhikes)