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.
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.
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.
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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