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Reader question || Backpacking umbrellas: Pros, cons & recommendations

With warm temps, steady rain, high humidity, and light winds at this pre-dawn start, Buzz was very happy with his umbrella, especially since we would spend the next four hours climbing. Meanwhile, Peter and I both had conventional WPB rain gear, and we were over-heated within 30 minutes of leaving the trailhead.

Recently I received a question from reader Eric W about umbrellas, which I’ve mentioned previously (e.g. Core 13 Clothing, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide) but never addressed in great detail:

Do you advocate the use of umbrellas for backpacking in the rain and/or under intense sun? If so, what brands and models would you recommend that can withstand the abuse but that are sufficiently lightweight?

Under at least some circumstances, all modern raingear options for backpacking are flawed. For example, most rain jackets and pants — which are the most common selection — are made of waterproof-breathable fabric, the performance of which does not live up to its hype. Plus, premium WPB fabrics are absurdly expensive.

Another option is the classic poncho. It’s cheap, lightweight, and well ventilated. But it leaves the arms and lower legs exposed, and it’s clumsy in the wind, on poorly maintained trail, and when off-trail.

Umbrella as backpacking rain gear

An umbrella like the My Trail Company Chrome Umbrella is similarly imperfect as backpacking rain gear — it works well in some circumstances, and fails in others.

Umbrellas excel in:

  • Warm or hot temperatures,
  • High humidity,
  • Low winds, and,
  • Well maintained trail systems.

What do these conditions look like? Imagine hiking forested sections of the Appalachian Trail — or another well established trail in the eastern woodlands like the Superior Hiking Trail or Ouachita Trail — during the warmer months.

In these conditions, a rain jacket and pants is completely unrealistic. If you’re warm and perspiring in just a t-shirt and shorts, a jacket and pants will quickly become unbearable. A poncho would be an improvement, but nothing rivals the ventilation of an umbrella.

Umbrellas excel in environments like this one: warm temperatures, high humidity, wind-resistant tree cover, and open trails.

But even in these optimal umbrella conditions, there are some drawbacks. I get annoyed at the drag, from the umbrella catching air. And unless you get creative, you’ll need to dedicate one hand to holding it, leaving just one hand available for a trekking pole.

And when the weather is cooler, drier, and windier, and when the hiking corridor is less manicured, I think other rain solutions become more compelling. For example, I’d much rather have a jacket/pants or poncho/pants combination when an afternoon thunderstorm catches me near treeline on the Colorado Trail or in the High Sierra. The warmth and wind-resistance of these systems would be much preferred over the airiness of a umbrella, and I wouldn’t have to worry about damage to my rain defense caused by high winds.

Umbrella as shade

In extremely sunny environments, umbrellas have an additional use: portable shade. By blocking the sun’s rays, you can stay noticeably cooler. The ambient temperature will still be hot, but at least you will no longer be additionally cooked by the radiation.

The radiant heat will be deflected by any umbrella, but models with radiation-blocking fabric (e.g. mylar) will perform best.

Product recommendations

Backpacking umbrellas are a niche market and options are relatively limited.

The Chrome Umbrella ($40, 8 oz) from My Trail Company has been around for nearly 20 years — it was one of the first GoLite products launched in 1999, as the Chrome Dome. It’s proven and reliable, as evidenced by the exact same model being sold by Gossamer Gear, Six Moon Designs, and ZPacks.

The 8-oz My Trail Company Chrome Umbrella, a time-tested classic

If you want to explore other options, Montbell offers a half-dozen models that are generally lighter and smaller, but more expensive.

Finally, you can gamble with a completely different option on Amazon, like the Repel Windproof Travel Umbrella. But YMMV — the reliability in a backpacking application is difficult to determine based on the product specs and reviews.

What’s been your experience with a backpacking umbrella? When do they excel, and fail? If you’ve never used one, why not?


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7 Responses to Reader question || Backpacking umbrellas: Pros, cons & recommendations

  1. Jay July 11, 2017 at 1:09 am #

    I’ve never used one. Not for any reason other than that, until recently I just hiked with what I had, and didn’t spend really any time reading about gear on the internet, and honestly the thought of carrying an umbrella had hardly even crossed my mind. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived in Arizona for a long time and I don’t think I’ve even owned one for over a decade.

    I’ve since been reading a bit, mostly because I started looking for some projects to do with my son’s scout troop, and have started lightening my kit a bit. And along the way came across some umbrellas. Sorta like the concept. Here in Arizona our storms are rare and tend to be gusty and short lived, so I’d mostly be using it for sun protection during the day. At $40 it’s in that price range where I’ll probably just buy one to give it a whirl at some point, and then not really regret it if I end up not caring for the experience of carrying it.

  2. Buck July 11, 2017 at 1:22 am #

    does the golite/chrome umbrella have any metal in its construction? is it safe to have above your head with thunder/lightning threatening? I can’t decide visually and would have to perform a pretty destructive inspection to be sure

  3. Wander July 11, 2017 at 10:35 am #

    An umbrella was absolutely ESSENTIAL in the desert sections of the PCT this year. From a BPW perspective, walking in shade enables you to carry less water due to less perspiration. I originally stepped off with a cheap kids thrift store umbrella, weighing a scant 3.8oz. While it served its purpose, not having UPF protection still left me exposed, burning the top of my shaved noggin. My partner’s Montbell Sunblock umbrella (~6oz) was far superior, lowering the ambient temperature under the umbrella a solid 10 degrees. I found one for 50% off at Lake Morena and haven’t turned back and will perhaps considering using it for east coast hiking. The Sunblock’s design also makes it windproof, in that it will collapse in a strong gust rather than break.

    Another use for an umbrella, a la Lint, is to use the umbrella as a head canopy to drape your bug net on in the context of a tarp setup.

    • Jay July 11, 2017 at 11:51 am #

      Well that settles it I’ll probably break down and buy one before I go out next.

  4. Damian McArthur July 11, 2017 at 1:59 pm #

    I’ve bought one and got to use it yesterday.

    A friend and I headed out for a 4 hour loop knowing full well we would get caught in a summer alpine storm.

    The umbrella (Euroschirm’s Chrome Dome version) performed well. My body and head stayed completely dry but my arms, legs and backpack were soaked.

    My frien however was fully soaked head to toe.

    Here in the French Alps we don’t get the desert heat to need the shade, but the afternoon summer storms are swift and brutal and I think an umbrella could well play a part in my future pack list.

  5. David July 11, 2017 at 8:25 pm #

    I use a cheap 7oz compact umbrella on occasion, and it done well for me. I take it if there is a reasonable chance of rain or if the sun is going to be nasty.

    If there will be a lot of heavy rain, I use a light (~13 oz) golf umbrella that has a lot of coverage. For me that cuts down a lot on the suck-factor that comes with backpacking in lots of heavy rain.

  6. Joey Thompson July 19, 2017 at 10:36 am #

    I have one and it’s my go-to rain protection in the conditions mention; high temps and high humidity paired with low wind. This is very common in the south eastern US, where much of the spring and summer time rain is blown in from the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic and doesn’t drop the temperature all that much.

    In the Gulf South during the hot months sometimes I’ll go with no rain protection, as the rain showers are sporadic and you’re going to be wet no matter what you do. Might as well play in the rain.

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