I never knew the benefit of lightweight hiking rain gear until I had to hike through a longer than normal rainy season. In my early days of hiking, I dreaded wet clothes, wet feet, wet food, wet rain – so I followed the boy scouts motto ‘be prepared’ and packed for the apocalypse.
I later realised I was adding to the load by carrying soggy rain gear so I started to watch what other people on the hiking tracks were using – the clue was to look for happy people cos they were probably not wearing soggy socks!
Raincoats and rain pants for hiking
I made a list of the elements to be considered for the rainwear I would probably need for the places I planned on hiking: wind, rain, ice, snow, altitude and then the extremities of all of the above e.g. sun showers versus torrential rain, sleet versus ice on the ground.
I discovered there are ways to still maintain lightweight solutions without exposing ourselves to the elements.
After the apocalypse during my first year of hiking, I found that I had built up some tolerance to wet clothes and wet feet if I was only going for short day walks – the hassle of carrying heavy raincoats was replaced by a light rain jacket that packed into a pouch. This was great, light to carry and kept me dry in lighter rain. Also suitable if walking partially into the night as it doubled as an extra layer so now I had shed one heavy raincoat plus one warm evening layer for one light rain jacket.
My favourite of all lightweight daytime hikes, no rain gear, carrying nothing, sometimes a water hydration pack but otherwise minimal food and water if there were shops at various points along the way.
When it did rain, I never got cold because we just kept on walking so I was always warm and once I switched to fast drying fabrics they dried out in no time with body heat. If you are in a much colder climate you would probably not be able to do this but you can always trial taking some layers with you and seeing if you actually use them or not so you know for next time.
On longer walks spanning over many days or weeks and walking through terrain with unpredictable weather it’s essential to pack waterproof rain gear.
I packed waterproof raincoat and pants for Fiordland, NZ which was during summer, a very heavy rainfall area and some altitude on Day3, a very isolated area so no access to supplies or shops once dropped off by boat.
Because I was scrimping on every gram(oz) I only packed waterproof outer shell coat and pants, this worked well for keeping rain out but the condensation was a problem especially in this wet damp area.
After this episode I definitely paid more attention to the different technology used in rain gear that was breathable, just seeing what everyone else was using when we got to the huts, talking to them and learning from the starter outers like me to the well-seasoned hikers who invested in good gear, the common denominator was that their rain gear would work across many climates, packed lightly and was a double shell layer.
This double shell layer was the waterproof outer with the breathable inner – that was it!
Another thing I later learned was that waterproof rain gear must be maintained by washing and waterproofing with a waxy spray as per instructions on the garments and you will get years of protection as opposed to a few seasons.
Ponchos or umbrellas
I had to include this option and I dedicate this to one of my hiking buddies who knew no boundaries – both unconventional and amazing in her approach! She would climb hills like a mountain goat, preferring to run up the hills while the rest of us walked then she would sit precariously at the top of the cliffs looking down on us, encouraging us onwards and upwards.
She broke all the rules, she wore jeans and sneakers and took an umbrella for the rain, she could outwalk and outclimb all of us, ate very little along the way, never sat down when we stopped for a food break and encouraged us not to sit so quickly as it was bad for our heart.
We could walk for more than 24hrs straight and she would maintain this pace and enthusiasm. We called her the Energiser Bunny after a TV advert on Energiser batteries.
When it rained she would pop her umbrella up while the rest of us fumbled in our bags looking for the coat packed at the bottom. I loved her no-fuss approach and I learned over the years of hiking with her to shed some of the baggage I carried.
She also introduced us to the poncho. During one hike, one of our other hiking buddies didn’t bring any rain gear, it rained, so our Energiser Bunny pulls a packet out of her pocket the size of a matchbox with a rain poncho compressed in it.
The advantage of this $2 rain poncho was that it covered the hiker and the backpack, it sat wide enough that water ran off away from the legs and it came with a hood and weighed nothing – OK possibly 1g/0.03oz.
It was tempting to scrap all of our rain gear and convert to poncho but the only downside is the $2 variety was not built tough and got snagged on branches and was very baggy in front so became a hindrance while climbing – so hold onto your rain gear for now and just keep this one up your sleeve for a short term fix.
There are however good ponchos available that are strong and sturdy and purpose built to cover you and your backpack – some even double as a tent cover at night if you are sleeping under the stars – dual purpose is always a great way of lightening that load.
Keeping backpack dry
I should mention, it is necessary to keep clothes and contents of your backpack dry on longer walks as you cannot guarantee you will get them dry anytime soon if you are on the move and there is high humidity overnight – and in the case of Fiordland.NZ, clever Kea birds come and help themselves to anything intriguing you leave outside your huts like your shoes and socks and laundry.
There are waterproof backpacks, waterproof backpack covers and waterproof backpack liners.
Or you could use a poncho!
Waterproof boots and shoes
Finding 100% waterproof hiking boots and shoes can be a mission. Read the product description carefully and understand the part of the shoe that is actually waterproof and to what degree – go for 100%.
Be prepared to maintain the waterproofing of your shoes as often as is required to ensure your feet stay dry. It is the same principle as maintaining your raincoat and pants.
Make sure you have plenty of time to test the waterproofing of your shoes before you embark on any long hikes and if they are not providing the right protection call the helpline of the manufacturer. They are usually very helpful in resolving any issues.
Waterproof gators are useful as an extra layer of protection around the boot or shoe, keeping out snow, water from long wet grass, and runoff from a dripping raincoat – plus they keep other things out such as debris and critters.
If your shoes are not maintaining waterproofing, as a short term fix you can wear waterproof bags over your socks – it works!
We use what we have until we have a reason to change it.
Because of the diverse requirements of the many hiking scenarios, you could have a whole bunch of different gear or keep it simple and have one raincoat and one pair of rain pants which have a waterproof outer and a breathable inner.
Any additional requirements for warmth or insulation can come from layering undergarments and outer garments so take this into consideration when sizing your rain gear – consider going up a size to allow for layering underneath.
Like the Energiser Bunny think outside the box and come up with some resourceful solutions.