Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Backpacking in the Rain

In my previous post I mentioned that we encountered a lot of rain, both during the day and at night.  I've only encountered heavy rains during a hiking trip a few times.  I thought I'd summarize what I've learned so far about what works and what doesn't.  Keep in mind that this only relates to heavy rain.  If you are expecting a lot of drizzle then what I say below won't apply.

Silnylon Tarps and Shelters

When you first venture into ultralight backpacking you soon encounter a fabric called silnylon.  It's a ripstop nylon that has been impregnated with silicone.  Lightweight tarps are made of the stuff as are many single-walled shelters.  It's great stuff because it's lightweight and mostly waterproof.  By this I mean that with enough force water will be able to penetrate the fabric.  In a driving rainstorm you experience this as "misting": fine droplets of water that splatter on you.  If the intensity of the rain lasts for a while then you and your stuff will get damp.  I've experienced this on a few occasions and this was one of them.

Gatewood Cape

The Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape is a really neat piece of gear. It's made of silnylon and so misting can be (and was for me) a problem. But it's only 11 ounces for rain gear AND shelter and so it is something of an ultralighter's dream. The more you look at it the more you are impressed with the design. A lot of good thought has gone into it. It sets up with a trekking pole and six stakes. Setting it up takes some practice. Chris had to help me each time.
Gatewood Cape (downloaded from backpackinglight.com)

My Poncho and Bivy

I've used a poncho and bivy (a rather common combination) which means that your poncho is raingear and half your shelter.  You need the bivy because of possible splatter getting on you.  But bivy sacks are not weightless.  The idea of the Gatewood cape is to eliminate the need for the bivy.  In my experience this is only partially true.  The cape does provide 360 degree protection but is quite small if you pitch it close to the ground (even for me at only 5'5" tall).  The usual thing is to pitch it with a gap of several inches at the bottom.  This left me exposed to windblown rain on the first night.  The second night I was able to guess the direction of the weather and pitch one side down.  This would be a great piece of gear for when you thought  rain was possible but that a storm would be unlikely. 


The Gatewood cape or a poncho is rainwear and shelter.  However cool this seems it does raise some problems.  Chris had brought separate rainwear and so the second evening I had just barely finished eating when a storm rolled in so I had to huddle inside.  Chris strolled by and offered to hang my bear bag for me.  If he hadn't done that I don't know what I would have done.  You can't leave your shelter during the rain if you go this route.  I recommend bringing a pee bottle with you if you try this -- worked well for me (I doubt it would work so well for the ladies).

Even with a poncho or cape I would bring a hat.  The hoods on ponchos make your head and neck sweaty. 

The other way to go is to get a rain jacket and perhaps rain pants.  The problem is that your body produces moisture while you hike and if you are inside waterproof clothing you get pretty sticky.  Breathable raingear is a must.  The most breathable and least expensive is DriDucks.  They are not super durable though.  But for $20 you can afford to replace them often.   I don't think I would recommend wearing rain pants, whatever the brand.  My legs got really wet from the mountain laurel bushes that crowded the hiking paths even when it wasn't raining.  Rainpants might snag in such situations.  But my nylon hiking pants dried quickly so I didn't care if they got wet.

Synthetic Insulation

Backpackers are fond of down as an insulation. It's amazingly warm for it's weight and packs down small. However it can't stand a wetting. My modified winter quilt uses high quality down as insulation and since I use it in the cold weather (below freezing) I've never really had a problem with it getting wet. For warmer weather I use a quilt my wife made me using Climashield XP synthetic insulation. It's not as warm per ounce as down and doesn't compress as well but it works great in wet conditions. During the night on this recent hike the outside of my quilt took the brunt of the misting and got pretty wet. However I stayed warm inside.  In the morning the quilt dried quickly.  Down quilts don't insulate when wet and don't dry quickly if they get wet.  For spring hikes I think synthetic insulation is a must.

At this point I should insert another trick that I had heard about but never had to try.  In the evening my clothing was wet (especially my pants).  I didn't bring extra dry clothing because I wanted to try this trick.  Just go to bed wet.  The heat from your body dries your clothes at night, provided the moisture can escape (wouldn't work if you were in a bivy that wasn't very breathable).  This worked well for me.  So I went to bed with wet clothes under a somewhat wet quilt and woke up mostly dry.  Cool huh?


There were lots of creek crossings as you can imagine on this trip. But when hiking in heavy rain the trail itself turns into a creek so your feet are constantly wet. My hiking companions wore waterproof Gore-Tex boots but found they still had wet feet by the end of the day. The first day I felt smug with my sandals and Sealskinz socks. I could cross creek and hike through water all day and no water would get in. When the rain stopped I took them off and just wore liner socks with my sandals. So my feet were cool while my companions had hot, sweaty feet. I've used this strategy before successfully. But this time I ran into a problem. The second day the sealskinz socks were still wet from the day before, both inside and out. I think the issue is that the membrane inside is somewhat breathable and the heat from your feet allows sweat to pass from inside to outside. When the sock is off there is no temperature differential and so moisture seems to pass from outside to inside. At any rate it didn't look fun to put them back on so I just hiked in regular socks and changed them when I could. Not super fun. I think the better solution would be to continue to wear the sealskinz until they are dry outside and then take them off.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

West Rim Trail Hike

The day after Easter I went with a buddy from Hammockforums named Chris and a friend of his on a hike on the West Rim Trail of Pennsylvania's Grand Canyon, more correctly known as Pine Creek Gorge.  The trail is 30 miles long and we decided to take it in 2 1/2 days.

Chris' friend turned out to be  Curt Weinhold, a photographer from the area. If you have used guidebooks for hiking trails in Pennsylvania then you may have seen his work. If you click on PA Wilds or Nature on his page then you will see examples of his work. Some of the photo's I've posted below are actually his also.

Here's the man in the flesh, just as we began our hike, at a bridge over Pine Creek. We started at the southern end of the trail and hiked north to Ansonia, PA.

Another shot of him looking every inch the outdoorsman that he is. He has spent a lot of time in these woods.  He probably knows this trail better than any many alive actually.

It was wet when we began our hike as it has been all spring. We had a lot of rain during the hike as well. That made things uncomfortable but did make for some gorgeous views of waterfalls and creeks.

There were so many gushing creeks and waterfalls that after a while we realized that if I stopped hiking to take pictures of each one we'd never make any progress.

On top of the rim I was stunned at the quantity of Mountain Laurel. Mountain Laurel is a flowering bush which is evergreen and is the state flower of Pennsylvania. Here's Carl standing on the trail with Mountain Laurel behind him.

A first for me was to see porcupines in the wild. They are actually easy to spot because they make a lot of noise as they scamper up trees to get away from you. It was fun to see but my hiking buddies tell me they are a major nuisance. While you are hiking they will often eat through the tires, brake lines, and other important parts of your vehicle. Experienced hikers put mothballs near their cars when they leave them at the trailhead.  Apparently porcupines don't like the smell.

The problem with hiking a rim trail is the temptation to camp on the ridge to get nice early morning views. That left us exposed to windblown rain from the thunderstorm that raged all night. I was on the ground under a tarp rather than in a hammock so I got quite a bit of spray on my quilt during the night. In the morning we woke up to mist filling the gorge.

As the sun came up I hung my stuff out to dry and watched the mist clearing out.

The second day was sunny for most of the day but then thunderstorms came in the afternoon.  Below you see me hiking in a piece of gear called a gatewood cape that Chris loaned me to try.  It's like a poncho tarp but sets up into a shelter with 360 degree protection. On the right you can see it set up for our second night.

Near my cape setup you can see an ad-hoc creek forming. The ground was so waterlogged and there was so much rain falling that little creeks were forming everywhere. This one got within a few inches of flooding me out.

Here's Chris looking much drier than I was because he was in a hammock. While I enjoyed trying out the cape this hike reinforced my opinion that hammocks really are the way to go in rainy weather.

The next day provided some more great views of the gorge.

Here's me at the end of the hike. Not looking beautiful but feeling good.