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A Guide: Rain Gear for Backpacking, Hiking and Camping

rain gear for hiking, backpacking, camping

Whether your summer camping trip got washed out, you’re thru-hiking the PCT or you’ve purposefully headed out into the wilderness for a soggy weekend away, nature can sometimes leave you hung out to dry.

Fortunately, for those of us who don’t want to wait for a cloudless day to enjoy the outdoors, rain gear technology has advanced and with a little bit of preparation there’s nothing holding you back from being in your happy place.

Always waiting for perfect weather means that you’re going to miss out on some potentially amazing adventures so embrace it, gear up and get out there! This guide has been designed to give you all the information you need to select the very best outdoor gear to keep you dry while you’re backpacking, hiking or camping.

1. Choosing  Rain Gear That's Right for You

Shopping for rain gear can be pretty overwhelming! There’s a ton of technical terms and the shop assistant’s always trying to sell you the most expensive, feature-filled item. And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll want the highest rated, most lightweight option that’ll keep you dry in a cyclone and last you a lifetime!

The reality is, when it comes to rain gear, the most hard-core product isn’t always best and your decision ultimately comes down to a mix of three factors; your activity, what weather you’re likely to encounter, and your budget. Before you go shopping, ask yourself those three questions and use them as a checklist to make sure what you’re buying will suit your needs perfectly.

2. Levels of  Wet Weather Protection

Before we delve into the best options for wet weather gear, there are a few basic terms that’ll help you to understand what degree of protection different products will give you.

Water-Resistant vs Waterproof 

Rain gear that claims to be water-resistant will keep you dry during short periods of light rain. It’s usually made of a lightweight, breathable fabric and is great for situations when there might be some light drizzle and you don’t want to carry something bulky or heavy.

Water-resistant products are usually less expensive, however, they won’t stand up to heavy rain or wind and if you’re out in the rain for a while, the water will start to seep through the fabric.

Waterproof gear provides the next level of rain protection it’s also windproof. There are two types of waterproof designs; non-breathable and breathable.

Non-breathable waterproof rain gear keeps the rain out with rubber or PVC but if you’re moving, it’s not the most comfortable thing to wear. Your clothes will soak up sweat and it’ll start to pool in your boots, gloves and everywhere else, leaving you wondering whether the rain was a better option. However, non-breathable waterproof gear like ponchos or emergency shelters are a cheap, lightweight just-in-case option that are great to have in the bottom of your pack.

Breathable, waterproof gear is the option that’s most commonly used by backpackers, hikers and campers. It provides a very good barrier from the rain and will keep you dry from the inside out by allowing your sweat to evaporate through the fabric.

It’s optimal for any outdoor activity where you’re active and often has features like wrist bands to keep rain out from all directions. With any breathable fabric, there is a limit to how long it will keep you dry and water will slowly soak through the fabric in what’s commonly called ‘wetting out’. How much exposure fabric can handle is dependent on its waterproof rating.

Waterproof Ratings

To test how waterproof a product is, the fabric is pulled tight and held underneath a tube of water to see how many millimeters of water it can tolerate before water soaks through. The total amount withstood forms the rating number that you’ll see on outdoor products and it’ll be stated in millimeters or pounds per square inch (PSI) where 1 PSI equals about 704mm.

In the United States, there are currently no generally accepted guidelines to dictate what is water-resistant vs. waterproof but as a general guide:

Rating

Resistent

Weather Conditions

0 – 1,500mm

Water-resistant

Very light rain

1,500mm – 5,000mm

Basic waterproof

Light rain, dry snow

5,000mm – 10,000mm

Waterproof

Light rain, average snow

10,000mm – 15,000mm

Waterproof moderate pressure

Moderate rain average snow

15,000mm – 20,000mm

Waterproof under high pressure

Heavy rain, wet snow

20,000 and above

Extremely waterproof

Heavy rain, very high pressure

Breathability Ratings

The breathability of fabric will impact how dry you stay from the inside out and will make a big difference to how comfortable you are in rainy conditions. It’s measured in grams and shows how much water vapor passes out through one square meter of fabric over 24 hours. A higher means greater breathability.

3. How Waterproofing Works

Breathable waterproof fabrics are made of two or three layers that are meshed together to form a single piece of fabric and includes:

  • An outer layer or ‘fabric face’ – This nylon or polyester layer protects the garment and makes it look good. It usually isn’t waterproof but is treated with a durable water repellent (DWR) so that water ‘beads’ off it.
  • A coated or laminated membrane – This layer is the main waterproofing and is usually made from polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) or polyurethane (PU). Microscopic holes allow water vapor i.e. your sweat to pass through but aren’t big enough for water droplets i.e. rain to penetrate.
  • A tri-coat mesh – This optional layer helps to protect the waterproof membrane and makes the fabric more comfortable to wear.

Water-resistant products are usually just treated with DWR to encourage water to run off.

Seam Taping

Sewing waterproof fabrics together creates small holes that water can leak through so a thin waterproof tape is applied with heat over the seams to mask any gaps and restore complete waterproofing.

Fully waterproof gear will have all of the seams taped for optimal protection while others will only tape ‘critical’ areas like the neck and shoulders, reducing the ability to withstand rain regardless of the waterproof rating of the fabric.

4. Wet Weather Hiking Boots

Selecting quality hiking boots is the first step in keeping your feet warm, dry and comfortable when you’re out in the rain or walking through mud or streams. Having warm feet is vital to maintain your body temperature and prevent hypothermia.

Wet skin is also much more likely to blister so looking after them will mean you can keep enjoying the great outdoors, regardless of the weather.

Choosing the Best Hiking Boots for You

Most outdoor enthusiasts, myself included, tend to find one boot they like and stick to them but having a boot that’s specific to the activity you’re doing will prevent you from being slowed down by stiff, heavy boots when you don’t need them.

When choosing the best hiking boots for you, consider what sort of terrain you’ll be covering, how long you’ll be hiking for and what type of weather you’re likely to encounter.

When trying on hiking boots, wear the same type of socks you’ll be wearing on the trail and if you wear orthotics, slip them in. Small differences in how the boot feels in the shop can translate to big differences in the field so spend as much time as you can trying on the boots and walking around in them.

The best fitting boots are snug but not tight and stop your feet from moving around while giving your toes plenty of room to wiggle around. If your boots are too loose, your feet will slip forward when walking downhill, making your toes very sore, very quickly. It’s not ideal if you’ve got a 4-hour downhill hike after summiting a mountain!

Types of Hiking Boots

Hiking Shoes

Hiking shoes are a lightweight, low-cut option with flexible midsoles that are great for day hiking on well-defined trails. They don’t provide a lot of support so aren’t ideal if you’re carrying a lot of weight or are walking through more rugged terrain but are a great breathable, summer option.

Water-resistant hiking shoes are more breathable than waterproof hiking shoes and do offer some protection from light rain. Most are made of synthetic fabrics so if you do get wet, they’ll dry quickly. For colder, wetter, muddy or snowy conditions, opt for a waterproof hiking shoe to provide more protection while still being relatively lightweight and flexible.

Hiking Boots

Hiking boots are often simply mid-cut versions of hiking shoes that offer more support and protection for day hiking or shorter backpacking trips. Most of the boots in this category are waterproof and have stiffer soles with lightweight plates that help to prevent bruising from walking over rough ground for extended periods.

Although they are heavier than hiking shoes, hiking boots are more durable and additional ankle support makes them great for carrying heavier loads or for beginner hikers.

Backpacking Boots

Backpacking boots are designed for carrying heavier loads over multi-day hikes. They have high-cut tops for excellent ankle support and thicker, stiffer soles for even better protection during on or off-road backcountry adventures.

All backpacking boots should be waterproof and will handle all sorts of weather conditions. Some have the added ability to attach crampons or snowshoes. Overall, they are heavier and more durable than hiking boots and take longer to break-in.

Mountaineering Boots

Mountaineering boots are the toughest, heaviest, most supportive and most durable boot available. They are less breathable with exceptional waterproofing technology that’s designed for extreme and alpine conditions.

The high-cut profile, stiff soles, insulation and impermeable shell will keep you dry trekking through wet and wintry conditions. If you’re ice climbing or walking on glaciers, they are the only option and can accommodate climbing equipment and crampons.

The Best Hiking Boots for Wet Weather

Some of the men’s hiking boots we love are:

Some of the women’s hiking boots we love are:

Hiking Socks & Sock Liners

When buying rain gear for hiking and backpacking the importance of quality socks to keep your feet dry is usually underrated. While waterproof boots will keep moisture out, your feet will sweat and to stay dry, warm and blister-free you’ll need moisture-wicking socks.

Avoid cotton socks and instead opt for a synthetic fabric that’ll wick moisture away and dry quickly. Merino socks are another good option that can absorb up to 30% of their weight in water and regulate your temperature with their thermostatic characteristic.

If you’re wearing less breathable boots, consider wearing sock liners underneath your socks to keep your feet even dryer. They’ll quickly wick sweat away to your outer sock and dry much faster than normal socks making them ideal for multi-day hikes.

If you know you’re heading out for a rainy hike or are wading through cold rivers, consider wearing waterproof socks. Sealskins Waterproof Socks provide good thermal protection and are made from a comfortable, stretchy material that you can wear instead of normal socks. It's super important to keep your feet dry as staying wet can lead to hypothermia and turn your hiking trip into  a survival situation.

​Even with the best waterproof boots and socks, if you’re trudging through streams, mud or are out in serious rain, your feet will probably get wet! After all there’s a huge hole in your boot so your foot can go into it!

Gaiters are a waterproof cover that stops water, dirt and mud from getting in the tops of your boots. They range from lightweight, breathable trail gaiters for basic protection, to alpine gaiters for snowy conditions and expedition gaiters for extreme protection from harsh conditions. Choose the gaiter that’s best suited to your activity type and make sure they fit snuggly, sealing well around your calf and your boot.

Pro Tip: How to Keep Your Feet Dry While Hiking & Backpacking

Eric Carrell Editor in Chief

Let your feet dry out - If your feet do get wet or sweaty, take your boots and socks off when you stop for a rest and let them dry out a bit.

Carry spare socks – Change your socks if they’re too wet and rinse out dirty or sweaty socks in a stream and hang them on the outside of your pack to dry.​

Treat blistering skin early - Pay attention to how your feet feel and treat blistering skin before it becomes a bigger problem by covering the tender area with strapping tape or applying a lubricating gel like Vaseline to stop the skin rubbing.​

5. Wet Weather Clothing

The best rainwear is not only waterproof and breathable to keep you dry from the inside and out, but it’s lightweight and compact so it’s easy to fit into a bag. The number one rule when it comes to dressing for the outdoors is to wear layers and this is even more true when you’re hiking or backpacking in the rain.

Layering allows you to adjust your clothing easily to suit changing weather conditions throughout the day and will help you to minimize how much you sweat to keep you comfortable and warmer cold conditions. When buying wet weather clothing choose pieces that will layer well so you can simply add another layer if the weather’s cooler.

Rain jackets

A rain jacket is an essential for every single hiking trip, regardless of the weather and in emergencies, they’ll help you to keep warm and dry. When selecting rain jackets, look for fully-taped seams, zip covers and pockets that you can access while wearing your bag. Although they can be quite expensive, a well looked after, quality rain jacket will last you years to come.

Types of Wet Weather Jackets

Hard shells – A hard shell is an uninsulated, waterproof and breathable jacket that can feel quite stiff due to its waterproofing and durability. They can be worn as an outer layer to protect from rain and wind or layered for additional warmth.

Soft shells – Soft shell jackets have an insulating layer with a water-resistant shell. They’re warmer, more breathable and more flexible than hard shells but offer less protection from the elements.

Hybrid shells – Hybrid jacket take the best qualities from hard shell and soft shell jackets by combining water and windproof fabrics that are used in exposed areas with more breathable and flexible fabrics on the sides, armpits and underneath the sleeves.

Insulated shells – Also known as a ‘puffer’ jacket, these jackets are filled with synthetic material or down for the greatest warmth. They’re usually water-resistant and breathable.

3-in-1 jackets – 3-in-1 jackets are an excellent option for hikers and backpackers as they offer great flexibility with a removable fleece or ‘puffer’ style jacket that zips into a hard shell to give optimal protection from the rain, wind and cold.

Features of Wet Weather Jackets

Hoods – I used to think that the sole purpose of a hood was to keep your hair dry but keeping your head dry while hiking in the rain actually makes the whole experience much more enjoyable. If it’s windy, cords are useful to tie the hood in place and a ridged peak or brim will stop the rain from dripping down your face.

Vents – Even with breathable fabrics it’s useful to have underarm vents to adjust your temperature and help sweat evaporate without having to take your jacket off.

Closures – Cords at the bottom of the jacket and closures at the wrists allow you to ‘seal’ the jacket for greater protection from the rain, wind and cold.

The Best Jackets for Wet Weather

Some of the women’s wet weather jackets we love are:

Rain Pants

In warmer, wet weather most hikers and backpackers find rain pants too hot and instead opt for fast-drying hiking pants or shorts. However, in serious wet and cold conditions, rain paints will keep you well protected.

When selecting rain pants look for fully-taped seams, adjustable closures and closed zip pockets for full waterproofness. They’re designed to be worn over regular pants or shorts so choose a pair that’s lightweight and packs down well to fit in your bag.

The Best Rain Pants for Wet Weather

Some of the men’s rain pants we love are:

Some of the women’s rain pants we love are:

Waterproof Clothing Accessories for Wet Weather

Rain mittens – You lose a lot of heat from your hands so rain mittens will give you added protection in very wet and dry conditions.

Rain hats – A rain hat helps to stop water dripping down your jacket but really, it’s just nice to have a dry head.

Pro Tip: How to Select the Best Wet Weather Clothing

Eric Carrell Editor in Chief

Avoid cotton - Cotton holds moisture and takes a long time to dry leaving you cold, damp and weighed down by wet clothing.

Opt for synthetic or wool layers – These are lightweight, warm and will wick moisture away from your skin. Note that wool isn’t as fast at drying as synthetic fabrics.

Opt for long sleeve base layers – Long sleeve shirts and pants are the most comfortable base layer for wearing under hard shells as they keep the jacket off your skin and help absorb sweat.

6. Wet Weather Tents & Camping

There’s something therapeutic about falling asleep listening to the rain pitter-patter on your tent but if you’ve ever been caught in bad weather with a lightweight, cheap summer tent, you’ll know there’s nothing worse than lying there waiting for the rain to start seeping through.

A good night’s sleep was never had wondering whether you’re going to be able to stay dry all night long! Read on to learn everything you need to know about choosing the best rain camping gear for you.

How to Choose a Wet Weather Tent

When buying a tent, select one based on the worst conditions you’re likely to encounter. However, if you’re purposes vary greatly from family summer camping to scaling snowy mountains in winter, you might be better off with more than one type of tent. Weigh up the following factors to find one that best suits your purpose.

Capacity

How many people will be sleeping in your tent? If you’re car camping, having more space isn’t a problem but if you’re backpacking, taking a tent that’s larger than you need means added bulk and weight to carry. Per-person size guides give a snug fit so if you want more room, opt for one size up.

Seasonality

3-season tents – 3-season tents are the most popular choice for camping in mild weather conditions. They’re lightweight, breathable and can withstand some wind, downpours and light snow. Most are designed with mesh panels to keep insects out and give good airflow to reduce condensation.

3-4 or 3+, extended season tents – If you’re camping in cooler or stormier conditions, at higher elevations or in moderate snow, an extended season tent is a good option. More poles and less mesh paneling than 3-season tents make them sturdier and warmer, however, they’ve still got reasonable ventilation for summer use.

4-season tents – This is the only option if you need a tent that can withstand strong winds, heavy rain or substantial snow but they can get warm and stuffy in warmer climates. With additional poles, little to no mesh paneling and a rainfly that extends closer to the ground, a 4-season tent gives you maximum protection from the elements to create a warm and snug winter shelter.

Weight & Size

Tents can vary greatly in weight so if you’re backpacking, choose a tent that’s going to lighten your load! You’ll find two different weight measurements on all backpacking tents; the minimum weight (tent body, rainfly and poles only) and the packaged weight (including stakes, ropes, footprint and stuff sacks).

Look at both of these weights and consider what you’re likely to carry with you when working out the total weight. In addition to this, consider the size of the packed tent and how it’ll fit into your bag. You may be able to strap the tent to the outside of your pack to save space and if you’re sharing a tent, consider how you can split the total weight between you.

Waterproof Rating

When it comes to waterproof rating on tents, more isn’t always better. Adding waterproof coating increases its weight and makes the fabric more ridged which can lead to tearing. The tent floor should have a higher waterproof rating to keep puddled water underneath the tent from seeping through the floor and the rainfly will have a lower rating so it’s flexible enough to withstand winds.

While it’s good to be aware of the waterproof rating of your tent, buy a quality brand, use the seasonality as a guide for its recommended weather conditions and make sure that it’s fully seam taped for optimal water-tightness.

Features of Wet Weather Tents

Rainfly – The rainfly is a separate waterproof cover that fits over your tent. A design with a rainfly usually has better breathability and improves its waterproofness.

Vestibule – A Vestibule is a separate, covered area outside of the sleeping area and is invaluable for storing wet gear and boots, keeping the inside of your tent dry.

Footprint – This is a separate ground sheet that gets placed underneath your tent for added protection from water, rocks, twigs and dirt that can rip the tent floor creating leaks.

The Best Tents for Wet Weather

Some of the 3-season tents we love are:

  • MSR Hubba NX – very lightweight, 1-person tent with vestibule and built-in rain gutters
  • Marmot Limelight – lightweight, 2-person tent with 2 vestibules, gear loft and footprint included – my personal favorite!
  • MSR Elixir – lightweight, 3-person tent with 2 vestibules and skylight for great views
  • MSR Papa Hubba NX – lightweight, 2-person tent with 2 vestibules and built-in rain gutters

Some of the 4-season tents we love are:

7. Wet Weather Backpacking

Getting wet is one thing but your supplies getting wet is a surefire way for a backpacking trip to quickly become glum. While a bag’s capacity and fit are key factors in choosing a backpack for your adventures, consider its waterproofness and develop a good system to keep your gear dry.

Waterproof Packs

Fully waterproof packs are the best way to keep your gear dry but are uncommon in large sizes and can be heavy and expensive. Most waterproof backpacks don’t offer full protection when submerged so don’t just jump in a river with one on.

Some of the waterproof bags we love are:

Water-Resistant Packs 

Almost all backpackers opt for a water-resistant pack along with additional waterproofing accessories (see section below). This type of pack is adequate in light to moderate rain for shorter periods of time but will wet out in longer or heavier rainfall.

Some of the water-resistant packs we love are:

Accessories for  Backpacking in the Rain

Pack rain covers – A lightweight rain cover fits over your pack to keep rain out but doesn’t stop water from seep through the back of the pack where it contacts with your back. A wet pack is a heavy pack and it’s great to prevent this but you’ll definitely want additional waterproofing for things that must be kept dry.

Pack liners – Pack liners are large, thick plastic or dry sack style bags that you put all of your gear into before placing inside of your pack for better water protection.

Waterproof dry sacks – Dry sacks are roll-top bags that are vital for storing electronic items in wet weather. They’re a great idea for your sleeping bag and other important items too.

Waterproof map case – You’ll still need to use your map in the rain so a waterproof map case is an essential for any rainy backpacking trip.

Hydration bladder – Almost all backpacking packs have an internal sleeve to store a hydration bladder and using one will stop you from having to open your bag to get a drink in the rain.

8. Tips for Hiking, Backpacking & Camping in the Rain

Check the weather forecast – It’s easier to have fun in the rain if you’re prepared for it. Check the forecast, dress appropriately, take the right gear and know it’s limitations. Light drizzle doesn’t have to spoil your adventures but if there’s extreme weather, play it safe and reschedule your trip.

Know your limitations – No matter what the weather, if you’re cold and exhausted, call it a day and set up camp or head home. Your safety is always the number one priority.

Check your gear when it starts raining – It sounds obvious but as soon as it starts raining, check that your gear is properly stored with all zips and buckles secured to keep everything dry.

Fuel your body – When you’re hiking in wet weather and it’s easy to forget to keep eating and drinking. Being properly fueled helps to keep you warm and regulate temperate and being dehydrated increases the chance of developing hypothermia.

Use external bag storage for snacks – It’s easier to keep snacking if your food is easy to reach and you don’t have to open your bag in the rain.

Take short breaks – When you’re hiking in cold, wet conditions you lose body heat very quickly when you stop moving so keep breaks short and put on an extra layer if you’re stopping for longer.

Stop sweat – If it’s cold and you’re wearing waterproof clothing, be mindful of how much you’re sweating. Sweating cools you down so to prevent your core temperature from quickly dropping use ventilation zips and wear moisture wicking fabrics.

Test your rain gear before heading out – Even if your gear is good quality and well-rated, test clothing, boots and tents to check for any tears or holes before you find yourself soaked and miles from home.

Dry wet gear – On multi-day hikes it’s important to keep everything as dry as possible to prevent mold from developing and stop one wet thing making everything else wet too. Hang wet clothing on the outside of your pack while walking, leave wet items to dry overnight in a vestibule and use campfires to keep everything toasty.

Dry wet boots with newspaper – Stuffing newspaper into wet boots at night will soak up water like a sponge to speed up their drying time.

Camp in a raised area – Always choose a raised area to set up your tent and never set up camp in a riverbed or a depression. Even if it’s not raining where you are, rain upstream could mean you wake up in a puddle or cause flooding that could sweep your tent away.

Keep your tent lines taut – Unexpected rain can hit overnight even if there’s not a cloud in the sky at bed time. Stake your tent out properly when you set up so you won’t have to do it at 3am in the rain.

Make your tent a dry zone - Keep anything that’s wet outside of your tent! If your sleeping bag and warm clothes get wet, you’ll be cold and miserable all night long.

Keep a positive attitude – When you’re equipped with the right rain gear enjoy all that the weather has to offer! The sound of the rain on your tent at night, walking through misty trees and fewer people on the trails are just some of the things that make hiking in the rain magical!

9. Caring for Your Rain Gear

Over time, dirt and oils will cause the waterproof finish on any rain gear to wear away, regardless of its quality. Fortunately, with a little bit of maintenance, it’s easy to make sure that your waterproof gear lasts for years.

All water-resistant and waterproof fabric clothing, boots and tents should be re-conditioned at least once a year with a durable water repellant (DWR) spray or as soon as you notice that water is soaking into the fabric.

While there are lots of DWR sprays available, Nikwax is my favorite with an award-winning and environmentally conscious formula. Make sure you thoroughly clean outdoor gear before re-applying waterproofing.

Nikwax also make a great Tech Wash product that’s specially developed to clean waterproof and breathable synthetic fabrics and a Down Wash for down jackets. To re-condition the waterproofing on leather boots use Nikwax’s Fabric and Leather Waterproofing.

Rainy days don’t have to be spent inside and this guide has given you all the knowledge you need to make sure that rain doesn’t ruin your next outdoor adventure! When shopping for rain gear for backpacking, hiking or camping, don’t forget to consider what kind of activity you’re doing and what weather conditions you’re likely to encounter to gear up with the wet weather gear that’s best for your trip so you can get out there and enjoy the liquid sunshine!

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About the author

Jack Neely

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