Heavy rain is common in the mountains. I’ve experienced my share of deluges and they’re a challenge to get through. Luckily, outdoor companies have come up with inventive rain gear for hiking. Rain hiking gear makes adventuring in wet weather possible. However, not all rain comes down the same, and downpours, flash flooding, and severe storms can also happen.
In this guide I’ll go through the essential rain gear every hiker should have. I’ll also go over some hazards that rain creates and when the best time is to turn around and call it a day. Consider this your wet weather hiking primer.
Essential Rain Clothing
Preparing for rain means more than slapping a rain jacket on. You should give some thought to the layers underneath your rain jacket and rain pants. Layering clothing for hiking is one of the easiest ways to make sure you're prepared for whatever weather you encounter.
A good combination starts with a base layer. This is the closest piece of clothing to your skin, so you want it to be comfortable. Moisture-wicking polyester or merino wool are nice fabrics to use. If it’s colder out, a mid-layer can also come into play. Depending on the temperature, an extra layer of fleece or down may be appropriate.
Your outer layer is for rain protection, which includes both rain pants and a rain jacket. Hiking rain jackets should come with an adjustable hood and exterior pockets. As for your pants, again, it’s going to largely be temperature driven. For cold mornings in the mountains, I’d recommend moisture-wicking long johns and a hiker-specific set of pants. Over that, wear rain pants.
Additional items you may like include a hat, maybe a light pair of waterproof gloves, a pair of socks (quick-drying or waterproof socks), and a pair of gaiters, which can be nice for mud, slushy snow, and water crossings. For more support and comfort, consider sock liners as well.
Keep in mind that rain jackets, pants, and waterproof boots work by repelling water via a membrane. No water gets in, but the membrane also traps body heat. In warm, humid environments, you may feel wet. It doesn’t mean your rain jacket or boots aren't working; it might simply mean that you're sweating underneath them, and the sweat can't escape.
Essential Rain Gear
Once you’ve got your clothing situation sorted, make sure you have the right rain gear for hiking. Here’s a quick overview of what I recommend:
- Backpack rain covers
- Dry bags
- Ziplock bag/waterproof container
- Hiking poles
- Blister treatment
- Waterproof hiking boots
Modern hiking backpacks can be protected with backpack rain covers. Dry bags can also be a great way to keep your gear dry. Stick one inside the biggest compartment of your pack and throw your valuables and extra gear in.
If you don’t have one, bring a ziplock bag or waterproof container to put your phone, keys, and wallet in. Whatever you want to keep dry needs to have some rain protection. You can also get a waterproof phone case (or a model that is waterproof) to make sure your technology stays protected.
I would also suggest hiking poles. Even if you don’t use them regularly, the added balance and support of hiking poles help you in wet conditions or when crossing creeks. I’d also suggest extra blister care in your first aid kit. Wet feet can easily lead to hot spots and blisters.
Remember, water-resistant gear is not the same as waterproof. Water-resistant items can block light rain for a limited time, but eventually, water will begin seeping through. Long-day hikes or multi-day backpacking trips need waterproof gear.
Last but certainly not least, a pair of good hiking boots is key. Sturdy, waterproof hiking boots will help keep your feet dry throughout the entire hike.
Hazards & Dangers Of Hiking In The Rain
Rainy hikes come with their own risks. Normally grippy surfaces may be slick, so you should be cautious on wooden bridges and wet trails. It’s also important to note what type of environment you’re in. Many gorgeous landscapes exist in dry places like the desert. However, if it rains, flash flooding risk increases.
A flash flood happens when a normally dry area experiences a big storm. The soil is so dry it can’t absorb the rain, so it begins to run. If you’re in a canyon or enclosed space, the water level can rise forcefully and quickly enough to carry you away. Be very careful around areas that are prone to flash flooding.
River & Stream Crossings
Stream crossings can also become a lot more treacherous after rain. If the water level is high, it helps to have waterproof boots, trekking poles, and gaiters. However, if the water level is higher than your knees, consider turning around. Rushing water masks uneven surfaces underneath. One fall and you could injure yourself or get swept downstream.
Rain can also create limited visibility, especially when wind and fog are involved. For well-marked trails, you may be able to continue without issue. But if it's not a well-traveled area or an area you're not familiar with, the safest course of action is to wait out the rain or retrace your steps back to your car.
Lightning is also a concern. Generally, the threat is more acute on taller mountains. Alpine areas are especially prone to severe storms, and up there, there isn’t much to hide behind. If you get caught in one of these storms, lay down as flat as possible until the storm moves on. If you’re carrying metal gear like an ice axe, set it down away from you until the storm is gone.
If you’re below treeline, make sure to wait out storms in heavily wooded areas. Lightning can still strike if you’re on the edge of the woods. Additionally, waiting underneath dead trees or snags is dangerous. One strong gust of wind and the snag could come down on top of you. Always look up and make sure there aren’t any hazards overhead.
When Should You Stop Hiking?
People living in rainy environments go on successful hikes in the rain all the time, but there is a point when the drudgery outpaces the joy. If you have water-resistant gear, as opposed to waterproof gear, this can happen pretty quickly. For me, if I'm caught in a storm for over 60 minutes, with no signs of the rain slowing down, I'll turn around.
Temperatures also play an important role here. If you're in extreme conditions involving rain, sleet, snow, and plummeting temperatures, I wouldn't wait for longer than 30 minutes before turning around. Hypothermia can set in very quickly.
If you’re caught in a potent mountain thunderstorm, the best bet is to wait it out. Moving quickly down the trail to outrun a storm can lead to slips, trips, and falls. In extreme cases, it can also increase the chance of getting struck by lightning.
5 Things To Check Before You Go Hiking
These five things are important to do before any hike. For more information, check out our hike planning article.
1. Check the weather
Start checking the second you come up with a plan and check periodically until you leave for your adventure. You're looking not only at rain chances but also when they’ll likely occur and what kind of system it is (heavy rainfall, light rain, chance for thunderstorms, etc.).
2. Check where you’ll be hiking
It is entirely possible to have rain on a mountain next to you while you have sun. It’s also possible to get caught in the open when it storms. Check where you’ll be, and if it involves any alpine or exposed areas.
If it does, try to time the hike so you are in a protected area when it’s forecast to rain. If it’s rainy all day, stick to well-marked trails to avoid getting lost.
3. Check to ensure someone understands your plan
Make sure people know where you plan on going, but more important than that, check for understanding. Make them repeat your plan back to you and what to do if you don’t make contact within a certain timeframe.
4. Check your rain clothing
Make sure you have a waterproof rain jacket, waterproof pants, and extra protection to keep your valuable items dry. If possible, hunt for lightweight rain jackets.
5. Check your hiking rain gear
Do you have a pack cover? Are you bringing trekking poles for added stability? Make sure to bring every piece of gear that will help you manage rainy weather, including a stocked first aid with blister solutions.
What To Do When You Get Back Home
Don’t leave your wet gear and clothing unattended! If you throw it all in a clump, smells will linger, the items won’t dry, and you invite mold and mildew in. Even if the rain tired you out and you want nothing more to do with your hiking gear, shelf the notion.
When you come home, take your boots off and, if possible, pull liners or insoles out and put them in a dry spot. If you have a ski boot heater, stick your boots on them and dry them out. This goes for any gloves you have as well. For the rest of your clothes, wash and dry them. Remember, some items cannot be machine washed; always check labels.
For your gear (pack covers, backpack, helmets, traction devices), find a dry spot and hang dry them unless they can handle the dryer. Last but certainly not least, take care of yourself. Treat any cuts, rubbing, bruises, or blisters quickly. Then, air your feet out to prevent fungus buildup, especially around your toenails.
When Should You Cancel/Postpone Your Trip?
If you’ve planned a big trip, start looking at the weather about a week out. Before that, things can change dramatically, so the forecast may give you a false sense of what to expect. Monitor the progress of storms consistently up until you leave.
If there are any active thunderstorms or tornado warnings, consider rescheduling. Additionally, if there’s a stalled front pumping down rain over an area for a long time, understand that hiking through it is going to be tough. The planning phase is key, but if it doesn't yield an answer, head to the trailhead to check it out.
If you arrive and it's pouring, follow the hour rule. After 60 minutes of hiking in the rain, you’ll know whether or not you want to continue. If you do, just be prepared to take advantage of any dry spells to air out your clothing and gear. If it’s constantly wet, there’s a higher chance it fails over time.
While thunderstorms are obviously a big threat, in the mountains, they don’t usually last all day long. If afternoon showers and thunderstorms are predicted, adjust your timing. Make sure you can hit your objectives or set up camp before the bad weather rolls in. Rain is a lot easier to handle when you’re in a dry tent with a rain fly.
Temperature is also an important consideration. In tall mountain ranges like the Cascades, Rockier, or Sierra, rain at the trailhead could indicate there’s snow up higher. This is super important to remember for shoulder seasons like early spring and later in the autumn. If you’re not prepared to deal with snow potential, call the trip off.
Hiking in the rain can be a fun experience. However, you need to plan appropriately. Always check the weather. If extreme conditions are forecast, consider going on a different day. Remember the 60/30 rule. Wait up to 60 minutes for rain and 30 minutes for snow or sleet before turning around.
If your caught in wet weather, make sure you’ve got the right layers (wicking layers, waterproof rain jackets, pants, and boots) and gear (pack covers, hiking poles, first aid kit, etc.). Trails will be slippery, and visibility may be reduced. Make sure you know where you are and where you’re headed. It’s also wise to tell someone where you’ll be and what time you expect to be back.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.