Hiking in the rain


A water elemental has inevitably some strong skills to spoil a hiking day. Still, you shouldn’t let her stop you hiking. On one hand because she doesn’t always show herself before striking down, so if you hike regularly, then you will hike in rain anyway. On the other hand, if you are prepared, you will have a good hike, with or without her blessing. So in case you are not made of sugar, read these simple advises and see how you can survive a little water, while the others stay at home.

Water elemental comes in many forms. I would never beat an English man in listing them, but let’s see a few samples quoted from Forest Gump: “We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin’ rain … and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath.”. So let’s quickly get through the extremes:

  • The mizzle and drizzle has not much effect on your hike. Sure, the sky is cloudy and you feel some little drops on your skin, but neither you nor your equipment will get much wet, so you need nothing to do with it only take it as warning and prepare for the case it gets more intense.
  • The other end of the scale are the storms including hurricanes, deluges and hails. Now about all these kind of storms you have to know one thing only: DO NOT HIKE IN A STORM. If it is a storm out there, do not go out there. If you are out there and a storm is coming, get in quickly somewhere.
  • Everything in between these extremes are the subject of the present discussion.

So now that we delimited the scale of rain intensity we are dealing with, let’s see how it forms. Rain is born high in clouds where the temperature is below zero and the condensed water freezes to ice and falls to the ground while it melts again, except when it is cold enough so it falls as snow or if its hot enough which lifts the humid air so high that it freezes to great balls of ice that can reach the ground without fully melting. So the rain generally comes from above, but since wind can easily move it, it can come from the sides too, and anybody ran or cycled in rain knows that it can come just as easily from below. So if you are not in mid summer enjoying a refreshing shower, then you have to protect yourself from wet and cold. Waterproofness is important and simply achievable, even a trash bag is waterproof, but if you wrap yourself in it you will be just as wet from your own perspiration as you would be from the rain. That’s why you need ventilation. Membrane materials like Gore-Tex are great, they don’t let water in and let some air out, at least they let out more than a usual waterproof material would do but generally not enough to keep you dry. So you need actual, open ventilation, a way through air can be exchanged. Fortunately, every piece of your gear has a few openings, otherwise you couldn’t take them on, so you only have to consider how could you keep them open without letting the water in. There becomes the direction of the rain important, because you can let your clothes breath from the other direction. Modern gears have built-in zippers that allow you to adjust the openings to the intensity and direction of the rain, but and old-school poncho can be just as good as well. Since rain doesn’t only comes from above you have to cover most of your body in case of a heavy one, so think about rain trousers and gaiters, and forget about umbrella.

So now you have your armour against the water elemental. You stand there bravely in front of her ready for the fight. You withstand her strikes and go forward because it is your hike, but suddenly you realize a small wet spot at your waist and you have to realize that it won’t even be the last. It happens. Despite all your precautions occasionally some water will go in. The important thing is what happens then. If you are wearing a jeans and a cotton shirt, then you should brace yourself for a long walk in wet clothes, but if you are wearing light wool or synthetic pieces, then you will dry them out in no time. Technical gear like these are capable of driving away the water from your skin giving an instant dry feeling and then get dried quickly by your body heat. The same applies for shoes and socks. A heavy leather boot might look very solid, but it can also suck in enough water to be wet for days after the rain, while a pair of running or a light trekking shoes can feel dry again a few minutes after you walked through a cold stream. So wear multiple layers of light materials inside according to the temperature and consider also the extra insulation provided by the outer layer.

Before I would continue giving you further arguably useful advises, that you might or might not trust, let me tell you a story. A true one. Once upon a time a girl and a boy decided to go wonder in the forests of Norway. The weather was tough – it was January – but the landscape was nice, covered in snow and rain, all green and white. They walked through a mountain and crossed a thick forest, they climbed up on one side and slid down on the other. They paid no attention to the water elemental no matter how hard she tried and after it got dark they pitched their tent on a hillside where they arrived. The girl cooked the dinner, while the boy pitched the tent and then they ate and get inside to rest, but before they would get their deserved rest, they realized that everything got awfully wet. It turned out that the water elemental made a pact with the air, and it blew the rain through the door just into their tent. The worse was that the door was looking upwards the hill and a pond was collected on the other end. But their mischievous pact was started earlier, during the walk the wind blew off the rain cover of the backpack and the water could get inside and make everything completely wet. It got sucked deep in the soft fibers of the warm winter sleeping bag, making it impossible to get in it any rest. The boy and girl had no other choice than to pack up and leave that rainy place. They found shelter in the city from the cunning elemental, who spoiled their hiking days.

Sad story isn’t it? In fact they learned quite a lot from this experience, and the conclusion was not that they should never hike in the rain again. (Actually there is a little disagreement between them on this matter, but it is I writing this post now, she already wrote her piece back in the day.) Well, I guess telling you stories about walking in wet clothes and evacuating from a hiking will not make you a big fan of hiking in the rain, but this post is really not about promoting rain as a pleasant element of a hike. No. It is about telling how you can hike in relative safety and comfort despite the rain. And I can guarantee you that over a certain length of trips especially in some regions, you will have to face the water elemental And you will have to face prepared, not like the that boy and girl. Take the Bergen mountains, an endless wilderness with fjords, snow-capped peaks, green valleys and rocky slopes, a truly amazing land, where rain is a more frequent guest than the postman. Would you really miss that because of the rain? … So let’s go forward. If you are hiking in rain, soon you will possess three types of clothes.

  1. The irremediably wet ones, which are useless pieces that cannot be worn because they drag away your body heat and probably they won’t dry until the weather changes.
  2. The moderately wet ones can be worn while walking as they can be still dried or at least warmed up by your body heat, they are not too comfortable when taken on in the morning, but it will be all right after a while.
  3. Dry clothes are treasures in rainy times, in general they have to be saved for the bedtime as sleeping in wet clothes is very uncomfortable and also unhealthy. If you have still enough dry clothes you might have the luxury of starting the day in dry, but if it is raining, it will quickly get into the second category.

The wet clothes math is quite an easy one: one dry plus one wet is two wet. So separation is crucial during packing. The best way is using plastic bags to form small groups of stuff containing clothes, sleeping bags, electronics, food, toiletries, ect. and packing these bags into your backpack.  This way you can keep the total water amount sucked by your stuff on a minimum, and your comfort on a maximum.

Let’s say you can walk in the rain in a relative comfort, you have still some dry clothes saved for the night, and the one you are wearing is still not that bad. Sooner or later the night will fall and you will have to stop and pitch a tent. Let’s assume that it is still raining, so there is water up and down and everywhere around. How can you make yourself a dry place to sleep? The trick is in the preparation again. Most tents have an inner and an outer layer that you can pitch using the poles and spikes. Normally you would unfold the inner layer and pitch it using the sticks and poles, then put the outer layer on the top and if it is raining in the meanwhile you will be the proud owner of a cosy swimming pool. You can avoid it by packing your tent pre-assembled:

  1. take a large trash bag and cut it to the size of the inner layer, so it can form a base,
  2. take the inner layer of the tent and lay it on the trashbag sheet accurately.
  3. then lay the outer on the top of all and connect the snaps with the inner layer,
  4. roll the whole thing starting from the back and proceeding to the side of the door.

This way, when you have to pitch the tent on a rainy evening, you just take the roll out from the bag – the trash bag protects the inner layer from getting wet – check the angle of the ground and the direction of the wind and roll it out facing against the wind and the elevation if possible, so the door will face downwind and downwards and the water won’t fly or flow in. The tent will already have a waterproof base and top so you can comfortably pitch it and enter into a nice dry place. If you have a covered entrance you should take another trashbag to make a ground insulation for that as well, so the stuff you leave ther will not get wet from under.

After you are ready with your nice dry tent, there are still some things you have to take care of. Depending on the size of your tent and the amount of your stuff you might have to leave some of it outside in the rain. Prepare for it by taking an extra waterproof sheet with you to wrap your stuff in it. This way you can also preserve some space at the entrance and inside the tent, which will be very useful if you want to cook and eat inside, which is quite probable as it is raining out there. So leave most of you stuff outside wrapped in a sheet especially as everything you bring inside and try to place somewhere is likely to get next to the walls and risk that it pushes the inner layer to the outer and let the water infiltrate. Still, you will have to bring some stuff inside, so keep those in the plastic bags and put them in the corners where the poles are. There is a common advice that sais you can dry out wet clothes in your sleeping bag during the night. After throughout testing I can say that it is useful only if you want to keep your dry or just a little wet clothes for the morning, everything else is just makes the sleeping bag wet too, degrading its insulation and making you night a nightmare. So you should rather keep them clothes in the plastic bags during the night. That will protect them. And don’t forget to use separate bags for the wet clothes and dry clothes. This might sound a bit complicated, but it will be quite obvious when you are there, you just have to be prepared, so when you need a plastic bag or a waterproof sheet, you can quickly access it.

All in all hiking in a rain is not that much of a fun, but if you are a true adventurer you will have to deal with it. And it is better to try it out well prepared in a controllable situation then by surprise in the middle of nowhere. So the next time it’s raining in the weekend and everybody is staying at home, consider taking a short hike and use the tricks above to get away with it.

Take care and don’t be made of sugar.

[More advices]

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