Standout gear for cold-and-wet conditions in the Appalachians

Cold-and-wet conditions atop Spruce Mountain in West Virginia

Last week my guiding season kicked off in the beautiful — but soggy and unseasonably cold — mountains of West Virginia, with four 3-day/2-night learning-intensive Backpacking Fundamentals courses, split between two guide teams.

Based on the conditions assessment that we performed during the Planning Curriculum, we expected rain and cool temperatures. But I was hoping for better weather than what we got: five consecutive days of precipitation (with unhelpful sunshine on the last morning), and temps in the 30’s and 40’s for the second trip.

Despite the adverse conditions, these trips went spectacularly. What are some of the things that made the biggest difference?

1. Group tarps

At each campsite we created large protected spaces using oversized tarps. The other lead guide, Alan Dixon, keenly observed that the tarps had the same magnetic pull as a campfire — they allowed clients to eat, relax, and converse as a group, instead of being stuck in individual shelters.

I carried two flat tarps for my 10-person groups: Mountain Laurel Designs SuperTarp made of Dyneema Composite Fabric ($380, 12 oz), and a Warbonnet Mamajamba made of silicone-impregnated nylon ($115, 12 oz). On six tie-outs I put 10-foot guylines, sufficient for long spans and high sides; where possible, I anchored the tarps to tree trunks, sturdy branches, and exposed roots using my recommended guyline system, rather than stakes.

Having dinner together under group tarps

2. Campfires

In some locations and during some seasons, campfires are rightfully poo-poo’d. But fire restrictions in the Seneca Creek National Recreation Area are relatively lax, since there’s ample combustible fuel and normally low wildfire risk.

We had campfires each night during the colder second session to warm up, dry out, and boost morale. It was also an opportunity to conduct a masterclass in fire-starting. It’s disappointingly ironic that fires are needed most in the same conditions when they’re most difficult to start — when it’s cold, wet, and windy.

On the first night I successfully used my standard method, using a Bic lighter and mylar food wrapper. But on the second night we needed more help, since it’d rained most of the day and since we camped at 4,200 feet atop Spruce Mountain, which had been in the clouds for days. Coghlan’s Fire Sticks ($5, 2 oz) proved key, giving us a long-burning flame that dried out and eventually ignited our kindling.

This campsite had been in the clouds for several days, and everything was soaked. Starting a fire required skill, patience, and a few tricks.

3. Shell jacket + umbrella

When it became apparent that we’d see rain, I was excited that I’d be able to test the Gore H5 Shakedry Jacket ($400, 8 oz). But I also wisely packed a My Trail Company Chrome Umbrella ($40, 8 oz), which I’ve been wanting to thoroughly test as well.

In cool-and-wet conditions at least, I found the combination of these products to be stellar; they are not mutually exclusive. The umbrella kept me mostly dry — it shielded me from a lot of rain, including most of the the heaviest downpours. But the jacket was also essential — it protected my arms from driving rain, which translated into warmer hands; and I relied on it exclusively when the umbrella became impractcal, like on overgrown trails, during brushy bushwhacks, in high winds, and when the muddy trail demanded two trekking poles.

In a downpour, would you rather be relying on just a rain shell, or a rain shell plus an umbrella?

4. Showa Mitts

The Showa 282 Gloves are among the best $20 purchases that I’ve ever made, a sentiment now shared by many of the clients and other guides. My hands used to struggle badly in cold-and-wet conditions, but they’ve done much better since discovering the 282. On this trip, the gloves were ideal for hiking during the day, collecting firewood in camp, and packing cold wet tarps into stuff sacks in the morning.

The 282 feature a waterproof/breathable polyurethane shell and an acrylic liner. The shell is very tough and mildly textured (for enhanced grip). The acrylic liner is cheap and should be removed completely after it starts to delaminate. I now pair the 282 shells with Outdoor Research PL 400 Sensor Gloves, which is a more versatile system anyway. If your hands are small enough, you might be able to simply buy the liner-less Showa 281 version — but size way up, since they’re not designed with the expectation that you’ll wear liners with them.

Matt stayed relatively warm and dry by using the Showa gloves and Packa poncho/jacket/pack cover.

5. Bread bags

On the first day of each trip, my shoes were dry for about a mile — until reaching an unbridged creek, an unavoidable bog, or tall rain-soaked grass. For the rest of the trip, my shoes were at least damp, and often soaked. So-called waterproof shoes would not have helped. Water would have entered from the top, or just overwhelm the waterproof-breathable fabric. Our better bet was managing the effects and aftermath of wet feet.

In camp, this meant having dedicated camp footwear, so that we could avoid avoid wearing cold wet shoes for several hours before bed. Some clients brought lightweight slide sandals, but most of us packed bread bags. After arriving in camp, we removed our wet shoes and hiking socks, and briefly let our feet dry. Then, we’d put on our dry sleeping socks and bread bags, then slide our feet back into our wet shoes. This system is remarkably effective and comfortable, in addition to being free and lightweight (about 1 oz).

To keep our feet warm in camp, we wore bread bags between our dry sleeping socks and our wet shoes.

6. Fantastic groups

Okay, this is where I will get mushy.

Even with all of the right gear (and the oversight of a world-class guide roster), these trips still could have been a bust, or at least a wash. Understandably, it’s difficult to get excited about spending three days outside in inclement weather and whiteout conditions.

But our groups rocked it. For the entirety, they were positive, cheery, and engaged. They were undeterred by the cold and rain; they were generous with each other and worked as a team; and they asked questions and undertook the voluntary challenges that will make them better backpackers.

Since 2011 I have guided over 80 groups. Most have been great, but not all groups would have handled themselves as well. I hope to see many of these alumni again — they are all-stars.

Still smiling after hiking four miles out on the notoriously muddy and wet Lumberjack Trail.


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19 Comments

  1. Tracy aka Black Wolf on May 19, 2019 at 5:13 pm

    No problems with wetting out inside the bread bags ? It’s a cheap vapor barrier system , venting from the top ? Low activity, low perspiration?

    • Andrew Skurka on May 19, 2019 at 6:04 pm

      They might collect a little bit of perspiration, but you’re just standing around in camp so you’re not generating much heat or sweat.

      • langleybackcountry on May 20, 2019 at 6:26 pm

        Since this is the “sleep sock”, if they just get a little damp they can dry overnight in the sleeping bag.

        I haven’t used bread bags since boy scouts in winter in New England many, many moons ago. But may be a good solution for the Olympic Coast next month. Many ways to get your feet wet there. 🙂

  2. Jesse on May 19, 2019 at 6:20 pm

    Will you be providing an in depth review of the Gore jacket? Looking forward to your observations.

    • Andrew Skurka on May 19, 2019 at 7:12 pm

      I’m going to work on it.

      • Ben on May 21, 2019 at 4:30 pm

        I have an original TNF Hyperair which seems to be allowing water in through the hood near the brim somewhere – I suspect a failed taped seam is to blame. Massively disappointed as it’s barely been used.
        I also have a Gore R7 which has seen even less action, but which I’m now twitchy about relying upon.
        Hope others experience better durability, the Shakedry material seemed like such a breakthrough when launched.

  3. Ginny on May 19, 2019 at 6:25 pm

    Bread bags for life!

  4. Rob on May 19, 2019 at 10:03 pm

    Latex cleaning gloves also work great, are cheap and easy to pack a ton of them. I use as base layer on my hands and add whatever additional layer is necessary for warmth.

    • Daniel on June 11, 2019 at 10:22 am

      I’ll be moving to Virginia this month and would love to attend one of these trips with you! I’m a longtime fan, have learned a lot from your blog but nothing beats spending time with experts face to face. How does one arrange such a thing?

  5. Sven on May 20, 2019 at 2:41 am

    Take one of those bread bags off your feet and use it to start the fire and you’ll be fine (and you can dry your shoes in minutes) That’s how they do it in rainforest communities that make the Seneca nf look like.the Sahara.

  6. Sarah on May 20, 2019 at 9:39 am

    I’m really surprised by your recommendation for packing an umbrella. How robust a tool is it in the woods, and was their anything fancy about it, like can it attach to your pack?

    • Andrew Skurka on May 20, 2019 at 12:59 pm

      It’s more durable than your standard street umbrella. Still not functional in high winds, but more because of control issues than breakage.

      Umbrellas that strap to your pack are out there, and you can also rig something up (e.g. two velcro straps on your shoulder strap). But personally I prefer to carry it on one hand, and to use a trekking pole in the other. One trekking pole is about 75 percent as good as having two, and having an umbrella in a downpour is about infinite percent better than not having one.

  7. Will Thomas on May 20, 2019 at 1:38 pm

    Awesome advice on the bread bag vapor barrier. I hadn’t thought of that. Any suggestions or advice on keeping water from getting up sleeves and into gloves while on the go? I haven’t found a good method/seall between jacket and glove. I can be completely dry, but rainwater always seems to seep in at the wrist and while using trekking poles, the back and forth motion has my hand higher than my elbow, then lower than my elbow. Water seems to slip in and traverse back and forth from my elbow to my fingers defeating the waterproofing of my gloves and jacket.

    • Andrew Skurka on May 20, 2019 at 4:16 pm

      That’s a good question re glove/jacket seal, and I’m not sure there’s a perfect answer besides having a jacket with integrated gloves, which no one makes.

      Maybe it’s kind of like wet feet: they’re unavoidable in wet conditions, so you’re better off learning to manage the effects and aftermath. You can keep your hands drier, but I think it’s inevitable that some water will work its way down the glove cuff or through the jacket cuff, depending on how you have it shingled.

      I will also see that I had much less of a problem with this issue on this trip because of the umbrella. It kept a lot of the rain off me entirely, so it wasn’t running down my jacket.

  8. bmcf on May 20, 2019 at 6:45 pm

    How do Coghlan Fire Sticks compare to using Esbit Fuel Tablets which are small, light and burn hot. Use to use cotton balls soaked in Vaseline, old traditional method, but Esbits are less messy, though they don’t light as fast. Any experience using Esbits as fire starters in the wet?

    • Andrew Skurka on May 21, 2019 at 2:09 pm

      I’ve never done a side-by-side test. Esbit may be better because it’s a more engineered fuel, but Coghlan’s are cheap and widely accessible — and they work pretty well.

  9. Todd on May 27, 2019 at 4:21 pm

    I tried bread bags but water got through them somehow. I wasn’t able to find any holes so I assumed they were just too thin. I switched to trash compactor bags that I cut off and they worked much better – not perfect because they are much wider than a bread bag – but they kept my feet dry. Was surprised to hear bread bags worked well – may have to try again…

  10. Daniel on June 11, 2019 at 10:23 am

    I’ll be moving to Virginia this month and would love to attend one of these trips with you! I’m a longtime fan, have learned a lot from your blog but nothing beats spending time with experts face to face. How does one arrange such a thing?

    • Andrew Skurka on June 11, 2019 at 12:35 pm

      I normally release the schedule in December and open registration in January. For info, go to the Guided Trips section of this website.

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