How to safely hike in the rain
Don't let some scattered drops ruin your hiking plans.
By Alisha McDarris | Published Jun 4, 2023 9:00 AM EDT
Hikers and backpackers are like cats: prone to wander and will sleep anywhere that fits at least 85 percent of their body. They both also get very cranky when wet.
And with good reason. Rain can make trails muddy and slippery, water crossings can be more dangerous than usual, and wet conditions can hasten hypothermia, all things hikers and cats detest.
But heading outdoors on dreary, overcast days when precipitation dampens the ground can offer an enjoyable way to spend time outside. Trails are often empty, the flora becomes impossibly verdant, and you may spot animals who wouldn't normally show in fairer weather.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to enjoy all the perks of spending a rainy day on the trail while staying safe and dry. Just check park websites or call the local ranger station before you decide to have a rainy outdoor adventure, as some parks close trails that are susceptible to excessive damage when wet.
Your first defense against the rain is a reliable waterproof shell, advises National Outdoor Leadership School field instructor, Shannon Rochelle. And she would know—she's spent weeks hiking, backpacking, and leading group trips in places like Alaska, Wyoming, and even India during monsoon season.
But not all rainy weather apparel is created equal. Skip the slicker—it may be supremely waterproof but has no ventilation, which will turn the inside of your outerwear into your own personal sauna. And you don't want to do that, since the goal is to avoid all moisture, including that coming from your own body. Instead, opt for a breathable weatherproof jacket, which will likely have a combination of features such as a special membrane, zippered vents, and high-tech materials. This kind of garment will be more comfortable when you’re huffing and puffing up a mountain, and start to break a sweat.
[Related: Why you can smell rain—even though it's odorless]
Once you’ve found a jacket (and rain pants if you’re especially moisture-averse), check the waterproof rating of your outerwear. This number indicates how much water a square inch of material can take before it starts leaking. It will likely be somewhere between 10,000mm and 20,000mm—the higher the rating, the best chance of staying dry in a downpour.
If you don't like fitted jackets or want something that will also cover your backpack, you can turn to the trusty rain poncho. They may not be stylish, and in windy conditions, they tend to be a nuisance, but they’ll definitely keep you dry. Cheap plastic varieties can be prone to tearing, so bring a small coil of duct tape, just in case you need to patch a hole on the fly.
Umbrellas are not just for city streets. In fact, several outdoor brands make umbrellas specifically for hiking, and some even attach to backpack straps for hands-free usability.
Rochelle is a big fan of these accessories and finds them amazingly useful. "It's a portable dry spot," she proclaims, pointing out that when hiking in the rain, you’ll likely want to keep moving so you don't feel cold, and umbrellas offer the option to rest in place while staying dry.
On a day hike, you may be carrying a bag full of essentials that you’d prefer didn't get waterlogged. If you’re backpacking, there's more to be concerned about, like protecting dry layers and your sleep setup.
Options for protecting your stuff from moisture vary. One solution is to use a rain cover, which you might already have as they come included with many backpacks. These accessories shield your belongings from the elements, helping keep water away not only from your bag's interior contents but also from everything stuffed in exterior pockets.
However, rain covers are far from perfect. They can get snagged by branches and easily pulled off, not to mention long-lasting or heavy rain can easily make its way through them. The inevitable result is pooled water at the bottom of the cover dampening all your gear.
Another solution, and Rochelle's preferred method, is to safeguard gear from the interior of your pack. Put everything in dry bags or heavy-duty trash bags, or purchase a dedicated pack liner to keep moisture from soaking your sleeping pad. The downside is that anything in exterior pockets will still get soggy unless you pack it in its own waterproof bag.
And if you don't like either solution, it may be time to revisit the poncho.
Keeping your feet from getting soaked can be tricky in the rain, as there's no one-size-fits-all solution, says Rochelle. That's because the footwear you choose will depend on where you’re hiking and for how long—not just on how much water will be falling from the sky.
A sturdy pair of leather boots will keep your feet dry and warm for longer, but they might not be practical. If you’re expecting to cross creeks that are deeper than ankle-high or spend days in a row hiking in the rain, your feet are going to get wet no matter what and your chunky boots will never dry out. Lighter boots or shoes will get soaked through faster, but will also be the first to air dry once the rain stops.
You can try keeping your feet dry by wearing plastic bags over your feet and inside your boots, but this technique is strictly a short-term approach. Don the bags while crossing large puddles and small creeks and remove them as soon as you’re safely on the other side. Keeping them in place for long periods of time will result very quickly in sweat-soaked socks.
Whether you go for thick leather boots or lighter shoes, make sure you choose footwear with a sticky rubber sole and deep tread for the best traction on slippery, muddy, or wet terrain. And don't forget to always pack extra pairs of dry socks if you expect wet conditions.
If the ground is muddy, Leave No Trace principles beseech hikers to walk through the sludge instead of around it to keep from widening trails or creating new ones.
A pair of trekking poles can be useful if you’re concerned with slipping and falling. Just remember to keep three points of contact on the ground at all times when traversing treacherous surfaces.
But Rochelle says it's important to balance environmental protection with personal safety. If mud is too deep or there's a serious risk of slipping and falling, try to find a durable surface to walk on nearby, like rocks or gravel. And if that's not an option, there's no shame in retreating. Ask yourself if you’re dealing with a hike you should reserve for a drier day, and consider either picking a new trail or heading home.
Take extra care if there's a creek crossing on your path, as bodies of water could be deeper, wider, and running more swiftly than usual during and after rain. Rochelle advises using the ABCs of river crossing: access, bottom, current, depth and downstream, and exit.
First, check your access points to the water. If there's a chance you’ll slip before you get there, rethink your approach. Then, look at the texture and size of the rocks on the bottom. Fine gravel is easier to navigate than large stones, which could be a slip or trip hazard. To test the current, throw a stick in the water, and if it's moving faster than you can walk alongside it on the bank, the current might be too fast.
[Related: Watch bobcats, bears, and even birds use fallen logs as bridges]
Next, use a stick or trekking pole to measure water depth, and keep in mind that anything at or above your knee comes with a higher risk. Continue by scanning downstream to check for hazards like waterfalls, big rocks, and trees that could trap you underwater if you were to slip and fall. Finally, have a plan for where and how you will exit on the other side. If after assessing the situation you feel confident in your ability to cross without falling, do so with extreme caution.
It might seem like a lot of preparation, but whatever you do, don't let a little rain keep you from hitting the trail. "It's totally worth it," Rochelle says. "You might find you love it."
Alisha McDarris is a DIY contributor at Popular Science. She's a travel lover and true outdoor enthusiast who enjoys showing friends, family, heck, even strangers, how to stay safe out there and enjoy more time in the wild. When she's not writing, you’ll find her backpacking, kayaking, rock climbing, or road tripping.
[Related: Why you can smell rain—even though it's odorless] [Related: Watch bobcats, bears, and even birds use fallen logs as bridges]