It happens to all of us. The perfect backpacking trip has been planned: gear prepped, food ready, dates set. When a sudden check of the upcoming weather reveals a hiker's works nightmare: RAIN.
Don't let a soggy forecast dampen your spirits! Stay safe and dry with these backpacker-approved tips and tricks.
Step 1: Protecting Your Pack and Its Contents
Keeping your pack dry is important, as it contains all the gear you need to survive in the backcountry. Protecting its contents from water damage will ensure that your trip goes without a hitch.
A pack cover is a waterproof layer placed on the outside of a pack which acts as the first barrier to protect against rain. Some packs come with a cover included, while others do not. If you need to buy a separate pack cover, be sure to choose the right size for your pack (most are measured in liters or cubic inches). If you plan to hang gear, such as a tent, on the outside of your pack, you may want to invest in a slightly larger size to accommodate the additional volume, or wrap the gear in trash bags to waterproof it.
A pack liner is a waterproof layer placed on the inside of a pack which acts as a secondary barrier against rain if the outside of the pack becomes wet. Like pack covers, they are measured by volume and may be purchased online. However, a more budget-friendly option is to simply line your empty pack with a trash bag before adding your gear.
Waterproof Stuff Sacks
Stuff sacks act as an alternative to a pack liner, as they protect packets of gear individually inside your pack. As a bonus, they come in many different colors, allowing you to use different color sacks for your clothes, cooking supplies, etc. to keep your gear organized by type. This option also has a budget-friendly alternative, in the form of plastic zip-lock bags.
Remember: keep important electronic communication devices (such as a phone or radio) as well as your map (if not laminated) in plastic zip-lock bags or other forms of waterproof casing.
Step 2: Keeping Yourself Dry
Getting wet while hiking in the rain is inevitable, regardless of how well your outer garments deflect water. Still, it is important to keep yourself as dry as possible to prevent hypothermia.
When choosing a rain jacket for backpacking, aim for a style that is lightweight and breathable, as you will likely be sweating during your hike. Some models offer "pit zips," which allow underarm ventilation if you feel you are getting too hot.
A poncho is a more budget-friendly alternative to a high-quality rain jacket. It has the advantages of not heating up as much and sometimes being large enough to offer pack protection. However, they do not offer much protection if rain is coupled with heavy winds, so keep the forecast in mind when deciding which upper body protection you'd like.
Rain pants are especially helpful in keeping your legs and boots dry. Like a rain jacket, rain pants will keep you warm. If the weather is too hot for this option, gaiters (worn over the calf and ankle) will protect your lower leg and boots from rain, but not indefinitely.
*WARNING*: DO NOT wear cotton clothing. Unlike synthetic materials which wick water away from your body, cotton absorbs water and can cool your body down to the point of hypothermia. If you are not a fan of synthetic materials, wool will also keep you warm and dry.
Step 3: Rain-proofing Your Campsite
Your campsite acts as your living area, so keeping it as dry as possible is of utmost importance. There are many hacks to direct rain away from a spot of land, such as digging small trenches in specific locations, but this segment will be focused mainly on gear-specific waterproofing techniques.
Hanging an overhead tarp is the first step in waterproofing your campsite. It will direct rain away from the area, keeping your spot dry. An important consideration to make when hanging your tarp is where the deflected rain will go. Be sure to angle your tarp so that the water will slide off and land where the ground is lowest. If deflected rainwater lands at a higher-elevation point of your campsite, it will travel downward and soak the ground. Remember to choose a campsite with a gentle slope that will carry water away from your shelter.
Setting a groundsheet is always a good idea, as it protects the bottom of your tent should rainwater seep underneath in addition to adding a layer of insulation between you and the ground. The size of your ground sheet is essential in keeping your tent dry: the sheet should be the same size or smaller than the bottom of your tent. If the sheet extends past the edges of the tent, rainwater can collect on this area and dampen the floor of your tent.
Waterproof Bear Bag
A bear bag keeps your food high, dry, and out of the reach of forest creatures. It is important to rain-proof your bear bag if it is not already waterproof. This can be accomplished with an outer or inner trash bag.
Alternative: Shelters and Lean-to's
Finding a shelter or lean-to on the trail is the best and simplest way to stay dry, as they have a rain-proof roof and at least three walls. Some may also include a bear box in the vicinity, so you don't need to worry about hanging your food. However, shelters are not always available, so be sure to pack prepared to camp outside in the rain.
Step 4: Staying Safe
Even more important than keeping yourself and your belongings dry is remembering to be cautious during instances of moderate to severe weather on the trail.
Sometimes with rain comes thunderstorms. Keep in mind that lightning can be dangerous, especially at higher elevations. If possible, try to seek shelter from the storm.
Be especially careful with your footing if the trail is muddy or rocky. A misplaced step on a wet rock can land you with a painful sprained ankle or worse. Be sure to carry a first aid kit and have at least one member in your group with basic knowledge of first aid.
Keep important electronic communication devices (such as a phone or radio) as well as your map (if not laminated) in plastic zip-lock bags or another form of waterproof case.
Making a fire can be difficult after a period of rain. If you are planning on cooking, pack fuel and a stove in case you are unable to make a fire due to wet wood.
Keeping all these tips in mind will allow you to make the most of your backpacking experience, regardless of what Mother Nature has in store. Most importantly, remember to enjoy your trip!