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Reader question: Clothing & skills for backpacking in the rain

A reader — Steve B. from Laporte, MN — recently wrote me:


Hi Andrew,

I used much of your advice on my 300-mile Superior Hiking Trail thru-hike this summer. Many things worked well, like trekking poles, microfiber underwear, and my alcohol stove.

One thing that didn’t go so well was getting wet. I used a Mountain Hardwear rain jacket with Dry.Q EVAP fabric. As you’ve said — and as I came to learn after a day of rain — the technology is overrated. I felt very wet, and got cold. After that experience I bought a nylon poncho, and used it when I needed to. But I’d still like to have a more waterproof jacket.

On your website I don’t see clear recommendations, except to favor “airflow” over “breathability.” I watched your Sierra Designs video about backpacking in the rain, in which you discuss the Cagoule, but that seems to be a purely SD product.

Could you please offer some specific rain gear recommendations, and/or explain how I can remain more comfortable when it rains? Thank you!


I gave Steve an abbreviated answer via email, but I’ll elaborate on it here.

In prolonged rainy conditions, complete comfort — which many would defined as “staying dry” — is probably an impossible goal.  Emotionally, prepare to get increasingly wet. With appropriate clothing and skills, the best you can do is delay the onset of wetness, and minimize its discomforts and risks.

I’ll first address clothing, then skills.

Rain jacket and pants

Conventional waterproof/breathable outerwear has two flaws:

  1. It’s not very breathable, i.e. you’ll get wet from the inside from perspiration build-up.
  2. It’s not completely waterproof, especially if the delicate durable water repellent (DWR) finish on the exterior face fabric “wets out.” In this case, you’ll get wet from the outside.

Rain wear technology is improving, and still has room to go. But I see three options that are better than the rest.

1. Columbia’s Outdry Extreme fabric

Outdry Extreme will not wet out: its membrane is on the outside and it does not need a DWR finish. The fabric is heavy, however — the most basic model, the Gold Tech Shell Jacket, weighs 12 oz.

A new Gore-Tex Active fabric has a similar construction to Outdry Extreme, but it’s lighter and less durable. The North Face HyperAir Jacket weighs 7 oz, although by all accounts it needs more ventilation.

2. The Packa

The Packa vents like a poncho but fits better. It has legitimate sleeves and a full-length front zipper. It’s a bit clumsy and could use some tailoring, but it’s an innovative solution that I want to support.

3. Paramo

For cold and wet conditions, try Paramo clothing. But for mild or warm summertime conditions, the fabric is too heavy and insulative.

More reading: Rain jacket and pants

When the DWR treatment on WP/B fabric fails, the face fabric "wets out" and moisture soon begins moving into the jacket where it is less humid.

When the DWR treatment on WP/B fabric fails, the face fabric “wets out” and moisture soon begins moving into the jacket where it is less humid.

Merino wool, not polyester

Wool is not “warm when wet,” but it’s less chilling than polyester. Merino wool shirts and underwear are available from Ibex, Icebreaker, Patagonia, Smartwool, and several other brands.

More reading: Hiking shirts

Fleece top

Among the UL crowd, fleece often gets poo-poo’d because it’s less thermally efficient (i.e. warmth per weight) than puffy jackets insulated with down or synthetic fill. When relaxing in camp or taking a mid-day rest in dry conditions, correct, a high-loft jacket is better.

But a fleece top like the TKA 100 Glacier Quarter-Zip Pullover from The North Face has tremendous value in wet conditions. Specifically, it can be worn as a mid-layer between a hiking shirt and a rain shell, to buffer moisture and to increase warmth.

A fleece is also an effective second layer, in windy conditions or brisk temperatures for which a hiking shirt is insufficient on its own. If you don’t need a mid-layer, then a windshirt like the Patagonia Houdini serves as this second layer just as well, but with less weight and bulk.

More reading: Fleece tops

Flyin' Brian Robinson atop Yosemite's Mt Whorl (12,033 ft) in late-September, wearing a 100-weight Patagonia R1 fleece top

Flyin’ Brian Robinson atop Yosemite’s Mt Whorl (12,033 ft) in late-September, wearing a 100-weight Patagonia R1 fleece top

Sleeping clothes

If it rains all day, it is likely that you will be thoroughly wet when you pull into camp. To ensure a quality night of sleep, carry a dedicated set of sleeping clothes that are never used during the day. This half-pound investment will quickly justify itself. In the morning, unfortunately you will need to change back into your wet hiking clothes.

More reading: Sleeping clothes

Three sleeping clothes systems (left to right): warm nights, moderate nights, and cold nights.

Three sleeping clothes systems (left to right): warm nights, moderate nights, and cold nights.

Finally, two important rain-related skills:

The “reset dry”

If your clothing and gear has become damp or wet, take the first opportunity you have to dry it out. In the Mountain West, it’s fairly easy to find a meadow and 30 minutes of sunshine. In the East or Pacific Northwest, you might be looking at a motel room or laundromat. Either way, by getting your stuff dry you will be able to endure another stretch of wet conditions while remaining relatively comfortable.

A "reset dry" in the Alaska Range

A “reset dry” in the Alaska Range

Fire-starting

Open fires have a bad reputation, somewhat justifiably. But in wet conditions they are a huge morale booster, if not a life-saver.

The most difficult conditions in which to start a fire are when it’s cold and wet. Unfortunately, these are also the conditions in which you will want a fire most. Become proficient in fire-starting before your life depends on it. Practice, practice, practice.

In a forthcoming video from Sierra Designs, I will explain how I start a fire in the backcountry. It’ll come out in a few weeks. A quick giveaway: it involves a lighter and an energy bar wrapper.

Because of the abundant precipitation along Alaska's Lost Coast, I knew that fire-starting would be an important skill to have. Frequent fires gave me opportunities to warm up, dry out, and make hot drinks, which kept me safer and happier.

Because of the abundant precipitation along Alaska’s Lost Coast, I knew that fire-starting would be an important skill to have. Frequent fires gave me opportunities to warm up, dry out, and make hot drinks, which kept me safer and happier.


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9 Responses to Reader question: Clothing & skills for backpacking in the rain

  1. Shawn K. September 30, 2016 at 1:50 pm #

    Andrew, thanks for continuing to expand on your Core 13 concept. I try to introduce new backpackers to that article before they become overwhelmed by all of the gear options, and companion articles like this help fill in the blanks.

  2. Gordon October 1, 2016 at 3:21 pm #

    I have a packa, and I’ve used it in some very rainy weather in conjunction with rain chaps. All well and good – unless it is raining when it’s time to set up. Or, at least, I haven’t figured out a way to get my pack off while keeping the packa on. I’m keeping my packa, but I’m also experimenting with the SD cagoule.

    Not sure why your emailer objects to a singe-source product (as long as it works), but that would apply to the packa as well.

  3. Brad R. October 3, 2016 at 8:24 pm #

    If you were going back to Alaska the second half of August, what would you use for a hiking shirt? I am thinking the bugs will (hopefully) be gone by then so I am thinking about a Rab Wool Plus (65% Merino 35% Poly) 120g Zip neck.

    Also, what do you think about underwear? I have been using the Ex Officieo Give N Go Boxer Briefs for years, and been happy with them, but the whole wool/poly blend has me entertaining something like the Rab Wool Plus 120g Boxer Briefs. Do you have any experience with wool or blended wool underwear?

    • Andrew Skurka October 4, 2016 at 1:50 pm #

      The bugs should mostly be gone by the second half of August, especially in northern Alaska. I would probably spray my shirt and hat with Sawyer permethrin for some extra defense. But a knit should be okay.

      Re underwear, I strongly advise against the Rab boxer-briefs. The briefs may be okay. The BBs are not supportive due to poor patterning. And they are only made of 5% spandex, so stretch is poor.

  4. Brad R. October 5, 2016 at 8:27 pm #

    Thanks for your response. I will be in Wrangell St Elias NP so I guess that is more Southeast Alaska.

    Would you prefer a ~165g shirt that can be a hoody or 1/2 zip or a 120g that is a ~1/3 zip. My other option would be a woven nylon “hiking shirt” with or without a knit short sleeve baselayer (wool/poly 120g or OR Echo). I do sweat a lot when working hard.

    • Andrew Skurka October 5, 2016 at 8:55 pm #

      I’d go with the 165g. It might be a little warm on long, extended climbs in peak temperatures, but I think the 120g would be too light in anything but perfect conditions, not to mention that it’d get torn apart by brush.

  5. Brooke November 8, 2016 at 11:51 am #

    Andrew,
    I’d like to add the rain skirt as a suggestion. ULA Equipment makes a rain skirt that only weighs 3 ounces, is very breathable, and reasonably priced. While hiking on the Appalachian Trail, I ditched the rain pants and opted for the rain skirt. It is one of my favorite pieces of equipment. I now only wear rain pants if there is snow on the ground. Also, rain skirts are not just for girls. Both my husband and I use the rain skirt, and have never looked back.

  6. Brian November 10, 2016 at 6:55 pm #

    Andrew, SD has redesigned the Cagoule and is using a different material this year. Same with the chaps.

    What are your thoughts on the new material? I can’t parse all the technical mumbo jumbo. Is this “breathable” and therefore will wet-out?

    • Andrew Skurka November 10, 2016 at 7:29 pm #

      It’s a heavier fabric (3-layer instead of 2-layer) than it used to be, which is a good thing. It will still wet out, but not as quickly.

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