Picking a Trail
Rain is an eventuality any avid hiker should prepare for before leaving home. Even if no rain is in the forecast, weather changes rapidly, particularly if your hike includes any amount of elevation.
Some of that preparation manifests itself in gear: jackets, bag covers, and waterproof shoes. But planning the route also plays a role.
Rain generally shouldn’t stop you from hitting the trails, but you’ll need to plan accordingly if you expect rain and learn how to interpret signs that bad weather is on it’s way.
Check the Weather
Keep an eye on the forecast a few days out from the hike, but don’t rely exclusively on metro forecasts. Meteorologists tend to focus on suburban and urban areas and the weather data provided may not be at all related to the rural or mountainous region you’re visiting.
If you’re heading for the hills, keep an eye on the Mountain Forecast provided by the National Weather Service. It provides both general forecasts and hiker-related weather such as freezing and snow levels.
Choose the Right Trail
If rain is in the forecast, look for generally forest-covered trails and paths without any technical work such as scrambling.
You should also avoid trails running alongside rivers and streams to avoid unexpected flooding and washed out paths.
Finally, avoid exposed ridges. Not only do they force you out into the elements, but they become more dangerous when visibility drops in heavy rain or fog.
Call Your Local Park, DOT, or DNR
You’ve checked the weather and chosen the trail, but before heading out, get in touch with local authorities.
Ask the Department of Transportation (DOT) about road and mountain pass conditions. The DOT will provide good information on general trail access.
If heading towards a park, give the ranger station a ring. Park rangers will have the latest local conditions and know to check for trouble spots. They’ll also let you know what local access roads are available.
The Department of Natural Resources (DNR), or the equivalent in your state, will also have more information about weather-related forecasts. The park ranger is the best source for this information. However, if decisions are made at the state or regional level, the DNR will provide more information.
Your state DNR is also a good resource if you have multiple route choices and don’t want to call around to individual parks prematurely.
Follow Local Advice
It seems like common sense, but it’s worth reiterating for both novice and experienced hikers. If your local ranger, the DNR, or the DOT are apprehensive about your planned trail, then re-route.
Always follow local advice on trails even if that means turning around once you arrive at the gates.
Take Extra Precautions
Rain shouldn’t keep you away from your hobby, but heavy rain requires extra precautions to maintain safety standards.
Keep an eye on creeks and rivers after heavy rains because they may swell even if it is late in the year. If the trail includes water crossings, ask the park ranger for advice on conditions or carefully scout the area before attempting the crossing on your own.
Drainage from heavy rain often results in creating unstable ground along shorelines, hillsides, and snowfields, producing debris and mudflow. Take extra care in these areas and use precise footing.
If you’re walking in the mountains or another snowy area during the winter, heed heavy rains. Heavy rain has the potential to loosen and destabilize even packed snow. Unstable snow fields produce an increased risk of avalanches.
Don’t forget to report unstable features. If you see mudflow, swollen creeks or rivers, or landslides, call them in. Even if local authorities are already aware of their presence, the up-to-date information helps them better inform other hikers.
Wearing the Right Clothing
Backpacking in the rain doesn’t require a new wardrobe full of expensive technical clothing unless you plan on hiking South Asia during monsoon season. A good starting point is our guide on what to wear hiking, which should clue you up on the basics. Plus our guide on hiking layers, which should round out your knowledge for all weathers.
If you live in a temperate climate that experiences some rain as part of a normal weather pattern, then you only need a few items including:
- Waterproof Coat
- Waterproof Trousers
- Waterproof Shoes or Boots
- Gaiters & accessories
A waterproof coat is an essential item for any hiker. While a waterproof poncho will do in a pinch, you won’t remain anywhere near as dry as you could.
Find something warm but breathable with plenty of vents for warm rain showers. After all, there’s little worse than keeping the rain out and then finding you’re drenched with sweat inside the coat.
Waterproof pants are often disregarded by hikers outside of the Pacific-Northwest, where rain is the norm for hikers.
However, you’ll find that a good pair of hiking rain pants are the difference between an enjoyable hike in the rain and feeling wet for days.
Skip the wind pants and invest in a pair of waterproof trousers that have both a waterproofing treatment and an inner lining to help you keep warm.
Remember, waterproofs are easy to take off when you don’t need them, so there’s no need to wear lined pants all day if it’s not raining.
If you’ve already bought your first pair of hiking boots, then you were likely tempted by the waterproof models.
If you bought waterproof shoes, such as those with a Gore-Tex lining or treatment, then you’re good to go.
You didn’t worry about waterproofing? If you’ve taken your shoes out, then you realize you made a mistake. There’s no need to buy new shoes just yet. There are waterproofing treatments available such as sprays, and good hiking socks will also help keep you warm.
However, if you’re planning to hike any muddy trails anytime soon, it may be time to reconsider buying new boots. If so, then we’ve done the hard work for you in tracking down the best waterproof hiking boots.
Leather, waterproof shoes are a good option because they remain light while also protecting you from the elements.
Gaiters and Accessories
Those who expect to stomp across some swamps, marshes or long grass in the near future should consider a few extra accessories to stay warm and dry.
Gaiters attach your shoes to your trousers to create a barrier between you and the mud. Because gaiters reach from your shins to your soles, they prevent a good amount of mud or water from seeping in through the top of your shoes.
Hiking the Pacific Northwest or traveling to wetter climes abroad? Don’t forget waterproof gloves and snoods to help repel water and prevent cold, chapped hands.
Packing the Right Gear
By now, you know what you need to keep YOU warm and dry. But a hiker without a backpack full of gear is just out for a stroll. What to pack for a day hike can make the difference between a fun day out, and a miserable (or even dangerous one).
Keeping your gear dry is a matter of bringing the right gear i.e. wet weather gear. Yes, you read that right. Rain means you have an excellent excuse to browse the latest gear online.
The gear you need to keep the rest of your stuff dry includes:
- Waterproof Backpack
- Dry bags
- treeWaterproof pouches
A rain cover is an extra accessory for your backpack.
These covers are designed to cover your entire bag in a waterproof cocoon prevent water from leaking in through the zippers or through the fabric itself.
Want to level up? When choosing from the best hiking daypacks, make sure and choose a waterproof backpack when making your next purchase.
Even with a rain cover or waterproof backpack, it doesn’t hurt to take extra precautions with your more sensitive gear, particularly if you’re on a multi-day hike.
After all, who wants to hike in the rain only to sleep in soggy pajamas?
Dry bags keep your gear dry inside of your backpack. They may complicate packing because they stop some items from being as easy to tuck into tight spaces.
Have a few items you want to keep dry but don’t want to invest in silnylon sacks? Plastic bags with a good seal (like Ziploc or Glad bags) keep smaller items dry inside of your bag.
Waterproof Pouches for Navigation
Your map, compass, and GPS need some love, too. While it’s tempting to hide them away in your bag, stopping to pull them out will slow you down, which is no hiker ever wants in the rain.
Find yourself a waterproof pouch for hiding away your maps and compass to keep them dry even when you’re reading them.
Wet Weather Trail Hazards
We mentioned some of the hazards you may encounter on the trail during heavy rains earlier in the article including swollen rivers and avalanche risks.
But it’s worth discussing these hazards more in full because while backpacking in rain can be a beautiful experience, it does come with unique hazards you don’t find on sunny or overcast days.
Let’s go through a few wet weather trail hazards again according to terrain:
Hiking in Utah, Arizona, or Colorado canyons with a forecast featuring heavy rain? It can be done, but you’ll need to take several precautions.
First, keep an extra eye on the forecasts for canyon country. If “chance of rain” turns into predicted heavy rains, consider altering your course to avoid flash flooding and regret that you didn’t bring a boat with you.
Second, if forecasts are often accurate, but freak weather does occur, and flash floods are always a risk as a result. Any time you intend to hike a canyon, especially over a sustained period, you should keep an eye on high ground in the nearby area.
Not sure just how dangerous a flash flood can be?
In a flash flood in 2015, it took 0.63 inches of rainfall in one hour in Zion Canyon to flood several canyons. Only 15 minutes later, the virgin river rose from 55 cubic feet per second to 2,630 cubic feet per second.
Don’t take the risk of rainfall lightly in a canyon. Groups of hikers are killed in flash floods in canyons every year as a result of flash floods in canyons.
River and Creek Beds
Heavy rains lead to floods, and some river and creek beds are more susceptible to flooding than others.
Remember, flash floods aren’t only an issue in full rivers. Dried river and creek beds are also susceptible to flooding. Anytime you’re following a water line, whether it’s a river, creek, or coast, you’re at risk for a flash flood.
If you’re hiking along a riverbed in the mountains, you’re still very much at risk. The rapid runoff from hills and mountains causes bodies of water to rise quickly without much opportunity for the ground to absorb the water. Even if it doesn’t appear to be raining heavily, runoff could cause you problems.
Flooding can also be caused by rapid snowmelt, which can, in turn, be caused by heavy rains.
On that note, remember that heavy rains can also loosen and melt packed snow. While this snow can cause flooding, it can also cause avalanches when the snow in question is packed on a hill or mountain.
General Trail Hazards
Water build-up exacerbates slip and fall hazards on trails. Excess mud, slippery rocks, and washed out trails encouraging hikers off designated paths can all create extra hazards.
Even getting your foot caught in the mud can be hazardous as you risk twisted and sprained ankles.
Other common trail hazards associated with heavy rainfall include illness, namely hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature falls to such a degree that you’re no longer able to maintain body heat. Wind, rain, and cold temperatures can all contribute to hypothermia, especially at higher elevation.
Although associated with the cold, hypothermia may be fatal at any time of the year. It may be tempting to leave your raincoat in the car on a sunny day, but without it, hypothermia can land you in the hospital – or worse.
Avoid general trail hazards with common sense and good planning. Additionally, use trekking poles, they are a particularly good idea if you’re going out on a trail after significant rainfall because they’ll provide greater stability on uncertain terrain.
Bring the Right Attitude
By now, you’ve learned the importance of both gear and knowledge to help you hike in the rain safely. But at the end of the day, all the waterproofing in the world won’t get you on the trail – much less help you enjoy it – if you don’t have the right attitude.
That rule doesn’t just go for walking in the rain. It’s true for hiking and outdoor pursuits in general.
Some hikers will love life even if their feet have turned purple from the cold and rain. If you’re not that person, don’t worry about being cheery. The rest of us mere mortals get grouchy when our feet get wet for extended periods of time. It’s okay.
Still, if you’re new to hiking, then you may not know where to put yourself.
Give it a go on a rainy day (with another experienced hiker for guidance and support).
You’ll quickly figure out whether you’re ready for the Pacific Northwest or if you’re more of a sunny day or even desert type of hiker.
Either way, the best advice any seasoned hiker can offer is to accept that you will get wet.
Whether you were caught in the rain or you dove in head first, you will get wet if you hike more than once or twice.
There will be water in your boots. Your socks will get wet. Eating lunch in the rain will never be fun – even overlooking amazing vistas.
Once you accept that it will happen and embrace the experience for what it is, you’ll find yourself ready for more (once you dry off).
Everything you’ve just read provides a good primer for preparing for your first few rainy-day hikes. But there are still some tips to share. Some of them are traditional wisdom, and others are developed through trial and error as well as personal preference.
Give these tips a shot and see what works for you.
Keep a Hiking Journal
One of the best general hiking tips that you can also apply to rainy day hikes is to take notes after every hike. Keep an eye on what socks are warm but don’t make your feet sweat.
Have you nailed your packing strategy? Create a diagram to keep everything straight.
Did you find a simpler way to maneuver yourself across a stream or up a scramble? Write down how it felt, how you did it, and what you would have changed if you could.
Similarly, reflect on the challenges you faced on the trail. Write down both the physical and mental issues you encountered and create strategies to work around them.
Wear Base Layers – But Never Wear Cotton
Base layers like thermals keep you warm when the weather turns and are key to rainy hikes during spring, autumn, and winter.
While there are plenty of products available suited for the job, always avoid cotton.
None of your next-to-skin layers should include cotton because:
- It takes too long to dry
- You’ll sweat and be wet on the inside and outside
Both of these make you more likely to end up with hypothermia.
Want a soft alternative? Go with wool.
Bring Blister Busters
As if you weren’t grouchy enough, wet feet develop more blisters.
To prevent them from bringing you down, bring extra blister treatment in your pack and ensure you’ve got multiple pairs of socks with you.
Blister-busting socks are even better.
Safety & Environment Further Reading
Check out our other guides on hiking safety & the environment: