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.


Philip Werner said...

Lots to chew on in here. Regarding rain pants - I really count on them, even in summer, when walking through close brush that is covered with water. I get very chilled if I'm not wearing a DWR/Waterproof leg layer. They're also very useful to wear in town on longer hikes while you're doing your laundry.

Regarding shoes and stream crossings, I've found that trail runners without a goretex lining are idea. They dry pretty quick at night and you are not burdened by the extra water weight of a wet leather boot. That's what kills me. Sealskinz never worked for me,

Glad to see your blog is still chugging away. Cheers.

Unknown said...

Thanks for dropping by again Phil!

I think you may be right about rain pants in colder weather. On our hike the daytime temps were in the 70s so rain pants would have become a sauna quickly. And wet pants are not chilling at all at this temperature.

If I experienced rain when it was going to be below 55 or so then I think I would want to bring my DriDucks suit.

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Unknown said...

Thanks for the compliment!