Rain scares many hikers off the trail. You can’t blame them. Getting the same enjoyment out of nature when the wind and rain rage against you is, of course, a bit of a challenge.
Still, a rain shower provides new ways of looking at the world. The mist produces a mysterious, ethereal effect and the rain turns plants greener and the water bluer. The trails are quieter and that quietness may echo within you, too, producing feelings of calm never experienced when hiking in perfect conditions. You may even notice changes in yourself.
Regardless of its appeal, you might think that having to get wet – as in soaked to the bone – is too high a price to pay to see this alternate reality. So, why not stay home and look at pictures of misty, beautiful forests on Instagram instead?
A bit of wind and precipitation should never put you off a hike. The benefits of being outside are the same come rain or shine and there’s no need to suffer a soaking as long as you have the appropriate clothing.
Hiking in the rain is an experience all its own, and we’re here to show you how to do it so that you’re not only safe and warm but also so that you appreciate it.
- Make sure you pick a conditions-appropriate trail
- Wear waterproof hiking gear and pack spare clothes, just in case
- Bring the right attitude!
- Heed the advice of park rangers, meteorologists, and other officials
Table of Contents
- Key Takeaways
- Picking A Trail
- Wearing The Right Rain Gear For Hiking
- Wet Weather Trail Hazards
- Bring The Right Attitude
- Hiking In The Rain: Additional Tips
Picking A Trail
Rain is an eventuality any avid hiker should prepare for before leaving home. Even if no precipitation is in the forecast, weather changes rapidly, particularly if you’re hiking at higher elevations.
The main part of preparing for hiking in wet weather involves your gear: rain jacket, rain pants, backpack covers, waterproof shoes, and a waterproof bivy bag to use as an emergency shelter/tent. That said, choosing and planning your route also plays an important role.
Bad weather 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 its way.
Check The Weather
Never leave on a hike without triple-checking the weather forecast.
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 level and snow levels.
Getting a handle on conditions will also help you choose your trail, letting you opt out of any likely to be dangerous as a result of heavy rainfall.
Choose The Right Trail
If precipitation 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 or crossing over rivers and streams, to avoid unexpected flooding and washed-out paths. Needless to say, if any trail requires fording a river, it’s very avoided during and immediately after heavy rainfall.
Finally, make sure to avoid exposed ridges. Not only do they force you out into the elements, but they become more dangerous when visibility drops in heavy precipitation or fog and also present a greater risk during electrical storms.
Call Your Local Park, DOT, Or DNR
You’ve checked the weather and chosen the trail, but before heading out, it’s always wise to get in touch with local authorities too.
Ask the Department of Transportation (DOT) about road and mountain pass conditions. The DOT will provide good information on general trail access.
If heading to a park, give the ranger station a ring. Park rangers will have the latest local weather conditions and be able to advise you on any issues with your chosen route. 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 is your best bet.
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 rainy days require extra precautions.
Keep an eye on creeks and rivers after bad weather 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 rainfall often creates unstable ground along shorelines, hillsides, and snowfields, producing debris and mudflow. Take extra care in these areas and be precise with your footing.
If you’re walking in the mountains or another snowy area during the winter, be aware that heavy rainfall can make conditions even more dangerous. Heavy rain has the potential to loosen and destabilize snowpack, thereby increasing the 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 Rain Gear For Hiking
Hiking and 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.
If you live in a temperate climate that experiences some rain as part of a normal weather pattern, then you only need a few must-have items. These include:
- Rain jackets
- Waterproof hiking pants
- Waterproof hiking shoes or boots
- Gaiters & accessories
A waterproof hiking jacket 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 and pit zips 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 Hiking Pants
Waterproof pants are often disregarded by hikers outside of the Pacific Northwest, where rain is pretty much the norm rather than the exception.
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 and dry.
However, if you’re planning to hike any muddy trails frequently, it may be wise to consider buying new boots.
But which type to buy?
Leather is a good, naturally waterproof fabric, while synthetic shoes or boots with waterproof membranes 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 are great for keeping rain and mud out of your boots, creating a barrier that stops it from sneaking in over the cuff of your boot or seeping through the forefoot area.
Hiking the Pacific Northwest or traveling to wetter climes abroad? Don’t forget waterproof gloves and a rain hat to help repel water and prevent cold, chapped hands.
Lastly, don’t forget to pack 1-2 pairs of spare socks. Keeping your feet in top condition is a priority and wet socks are a one-way ticket to hot spots and blisters.
Packing The Right Wet-Weather Gear
By now, you know what you need to keep yourself warm and dry. But what about your gear? Knowing what to pack for a day hike in the rain and how to pack it can make the difference between a fun day out, and a miserable (or even dangerous) one.
Keeping your hiking gear dry is a matter of bringing the right wet-weather gear.
The gear you need to keep the rest of your stuff dry includes:
- Rain hiking backpack cover
- Waterproof Backpack
- Dry bags
- Waterproof pouches
Rain Hiking Pack Cover
A rain cover is an extra accessory for your backpack that ensures nothing inside gets wet.
These covers are designed to cover your entire bag in a waterproof cocoon that prevents water from leaking in through the zippers or the fabric itself. A cheaper alternative to buying a cover is to place plastic trash bags outside or inside your pack, but these can get noisy in the wind and do tear very easily.
Nevertheless, if you’re heading on a backpacking trip, we recommend carrying a trash bag as a backup for your regular cover. Even if you never use it for this purpose, it can moonlight as a handy dry bag to separate wet gear from dry gear inside your pack.
Even with a cover or water-resistant 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 through a downpour only to sleep in a soggy sleeping bag?
Dry bags keep your gear dry inside your backpack. They may complicate packing because they stop some items from being as easy to tuck into tight spaces. However, they help with organization, are lightweight, and, of course, ensure that none of your kit will get soaked even if you lose or tear your backpack cover.
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.
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 no hiker ever wants when hiking in wet weather.
Find yourself a clear waterproof pouch to stash them in 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.
However, it’s worth discussing these hazards in more detail because, while backpacking in rain can be a beautiful experience, it does come with unique dangers that you don’t find on sunny or overcast days.
Let’s go through a few wet-weather trail hazards again according to terrain:
First, keep a close eye on the forecasts for canyon country. If the “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/snorkel/scuba diving kit with you.
Second: even with favorable forecasts, be aware that 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. Flash floods can be triggered by rainfall miles away, even when it’s not falling directly over the area you’re hiking in.
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 river rose from 55 cubic feet per second to 2,630 cubic feet per second.
Bottom line: 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 underestimating the risks or unexpected flooding.
River And Creek Beds
Remember, flash floods aren’t only an issue in full rivers or canyons. 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 there’s any risk at all, either change your plans or seek a higher trail that will take you further from the water.
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 is often 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 on a steep hill or mountainside.
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, most commonly 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 elevations.
Although associated with cold weather, hypothermia can 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 rough terrain.
Bring The Right Attitude
By now, you’ve learned the importance of both hiking gear and knowledge to help you go hiking safely in the rain. 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 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 are wet for extended periods of time, too! And that, of course, is okay.
Still, if you’re new to hiking, then you may not be entirely comfortable with the idea of getting a soaking.
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/Scotland/Nepal in the monsoon 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.
There will be water in your boots. Your socks will get wet. Eating lunch in the rain, whether it’s light drizzle, squall or lightning storm will never be fun – even when 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’ve dried off and had your post-hike mug of hot cocoa or beer, that is).
Hiking In The Rain: Additional Tips
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 come as a result of much trial and error.
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 (we heartily recommend taking a couple of pairs of wool socks).
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 A Base Layer – But Never Wear Cotton
Base layers like thermals keep you warm when the weather turns and are key to wet-weather hiking 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.
- It soaks up sweat instead of wicking it.
- When you sweat, you’ll be wet on the inside and outside, thus increasing your risk of hypothermia.
Want a soft, performance-oriented alternative? Go with merino wool. It may be pricey, but it’s breathable, high-wicking, lightweight, and insulates even when wet.
Bring Blister Busters
Wet feet are far more likely to develop blisters than dry ones.
To prevent them from ruining your hike, bring extra blister treatment in your pack and ensure you’ve got multiple pairs of socks with you.
The best socks are well-fitting ones that are made with high-wicking and breathable fabrics. As above, merino wool’s a winner, cotton’s a loser.