Rainwear for Hiking & Backpacking

A spider web on a rainy day.
A spider web on a rainy day.

A participant in one of my Introduction to Backpacking Workshops for Hudson Valley Hikers recently asked me for advice on rainwear for hiking.  This reminded me that I’ve never written an article on this subject.  Here we go…

Rainwear for Hiking in 3 Seasons

Most of the year, I carry a two part rain system. I always have a really light “wind shirt” that is semi-water resistant. That’s good for keeping off wind, holding in a little bit of heat, and resisting a very light rain or mist.   My wind shirt is the Patagonia Houdini.

rainwear for hiking and backpacking
Sporting my Patagonia Houdini Wind Shirt on Mt Katahdin.
The Patagonia Houdini packs down to the size of a soda can and weighs just 4 or 5 ounces depending on the size you wear.
The Patagonia Houdini packs down to the size of a soda can and weighs just 4 or 5 ounces depending on the size you wear.

I also carry a lightweight poncho. My poncho is a bit nicer than the plastic throw-away kind. Its made of a material called “silicone coated nylon.” Its really light, covers both me and my pack, and has a variety of other uses. I can pitch it as an emergency shelter or use it as a drop cloth under my tarp or in a lean-to.  I use the Equinox brand Silnylon Backpacking Poncho available at Campmor.

rainwear for hiking and backpacking
Demonstrating Equinox Silnylon Backpacking Poncho
CampingJay practices setting p a poncho as an emergency shelter.
CampingJay practices setting p a poncho as an emergency shelter.

In the fall, spring, and winter, I also carry a pair of gaiters. These are water-proof “boot extenders” that reach from my ankles almost to my knees. They cover my legs below where the poncho stops and they’re good for keeping off mud and splashes from puddles.  My gaiters are the Outdoor Research Crocodiles.

The little silver lever lets you ratchet the straps tighter, while the red switch loosens them up.
OR Gaiters and MSR Lightning Snow Shoes

In the summer, I also carry a wide-brimmed hat and I wear that on my head instead of using the hood from the poncho. The hood just tends to trap too much body heat inside. A wide brimmed hat does a good job keeping water off my neck.  I like the OR Solar Roller Hat, which is apparently no longer available in a men’s version.

Patagonia Houdini
OR Solar Roller Hat & Patagonia Houdini Wind Shirt

Rainwear for Hiking in Winter

In the winter I carry what’s called a hard shell and rain pants. A hard shell is a non-insulated waterproof jacket with vents. A good hard shell has vents under the armpits that extend almost to the waste. These are important for venting excess moisture and heat out so you don’t get too hot and sweat inside. The rain pants should also have vents.

The Myth about Rainwear for Hiking

Conventional wisdom says that the best way to stay warm is to stay dry.  Rain gear doesn’t really keep you dry very long. When you’re hiking in rain gear, its only a matter before you get wet with sweat. What the gear does is trap that warm moisture inside, like a wet suit, to keep you warm. The danger is that when you stop moving and stop generating body heat, you get cold very quickly. That’s why the vents are so important for dumping out excess heat and moisture along the way.

rainwear for hiking and backpacking
Sad CampingJay sopping wet inside a raincoat.

3 thoughts on “Rainwear for Hiking & Backpacking”

  1. Great article. Also, when hiking long distances “pacing” yourself to avoid overheating is key especially in the winter.

  2. Fantastic advice! Thank you! Where did you get your gaiters? And which brand are they?

    1. Yuliya, these are the gaiters I use: https://www.campmor.com/c/outdoor-research-crocodiles-gore-tex-gaiters-mens

      If you check out OR’s complete product listing, you’ll find that they make a number of models for different purposes and styles. Some are really beefy while others are lighter. Some come higher up the leg while some just cover the ankles. There are also light-duty options with built in bug-repellant for spring and summer.

      On the subject of gaiters, some people who hike in trail running shoes like to always wear a pair of really light gaiters to keep their socks clean and keep grit out of their shoes. For that purpose, you may check out Dirty Girl Gaiters, although my sister and I haven’t had much luck with these. https://dirtygirlgaiters.com/

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