Hiking in the Rain - Pros, Cons, and Dangers
Hiking in the rain is a bit controversial and as such it has some strong proponents and fierce opponents among the members of the hiking community.
The hard-core advocates of wet-weather hiking claim that as far as you’re prepared to be wet and take some measures to mitigate the consequences of that, you need nothing more than a good set of rain gear, some dry socks, and a pair of good trekking shoes to be fine. According to them, backpacking in the rain is no big deal if equipped appropriately. Certainly, the availability of some basic equipment is often sufficient for hiking in wet conditions, though having a pair of trekking poles at hand may facilitate your efforts because hiking sticks offer additional support on rocky and slippery trails and can definitely help you keep your balance.
The staunch opponents would rather take a day off than hiking in bad weather risking getting a cold or an injury. They assume that the payoff isn’t worth it most of the time and, unless it is a matter of great urgency, they prefer not to hike in wet conditions.
Well, walking in the rain has its pros and cons and you may wish to know more about them in order to decide for yourself if it's your thing or not. Additionally, you need to be familiar with the dangers associated with hiking in rainy weather to avoid difficult and risky situations. This way, you’ll be in a good position to make the most of your next hiking trip in the rain. Now is the right time to remind you that good hiking gear (including clothing, footwear, etc.) is no substitute for basic outdoor skills. Moreover, experienced hikers know that gear nowadays is better than it was 20 years ago, however, they also know that outdoor gear today is often overhyped by the manufacturers and marketers. The reason for this is prosaic.
Is Hiking in the Rain for You?
It’s among the greatest perks of hiking in the rain. Bad weather clears the trails of other hikers faster than almost anything else can do it. The result is that there aren’t a lot of people on the trails so for those who enjoy solitude in nature rainy days are a real boon. Actually, some of the best and most memorable days of many hikers were in the rain. Sometimes all you need to feel rejuvenated and refreshed is a quiet and peaceful hiking day in the rain where you can get away from people, forget about mundane activities, feel comfortable, and connect with nature. If you’re concerned about getting a little wet, you should know that with some decent gear and positive attitude, wet weather hiking helps you appreciate the world more on a walk and it’s definitely an experience that’s worth it.
Opportunity to see wildlife
Have you noticed that rain makes nature more active? It’s easier to witness more wildlife while on the trail in wet weather than you do at other times. It seems that some wild animals love wet weather or just take advantage of the fact that people are cleared from the trails. In either case, bad weather is a perfect time to take some eye-catching pictures.
Some wild birds also become more active, often because of their prey. For example, earthworms love wet weather and when rain is falling they become more active and travel on the surface.
The ambiance when raining
Walking in the rain can be very relaxing - a lovely and pleasant experience that can reduce your stress levels. The sound of rain is soothing and relaxing, while the typical smell is pleasant and fresh. Actually, plenty of people claim that they can smell rain, however, they probably don’t know that rain itself has no scent. Have you ever heard of “petrichor”? Yes, that’s how the smell that permeates the air during rain is called. However, it doesn’t come from the rain itself but from the wet soil.
Hiking in rainy weather is a different experience than hiking on a typical sunny day and the pleasant sound and smell aren’t the only differences. In addition to them, you can witness some really astonishing and/or dramatic views. Just imagine hiking in a really mossy forest full of birdsong and the glow all around that make the whole place seem alive and other-worldly. Don’t miss the chance to witness a beautiful rainbow or storm clouds flowing over hills and into valleys either.
Photo by Nicole De Khors
Getting wet (soaked)
It’s by no means certain that you’ll get wet when hiking in bad weather. It’s just a matter of time. Of course, there’s a big difference between a light drizzle and torrential downpour. The former is pleasant while the latter causes temporary discomfort followed by beautiful weather.
You can prepare and dress for wet weather, but you need to understand that if you hike in the rain for long enough, there is no chance to stay dry. At least your feet will get wet either from rain or from sweat. Waterproof boots and shoes are a popular choice and in certain conditions, they will keep your feet dry for some time, however, in prolonged wet weather no waterproof footwear can keep your feet dry. The reason is that what keeps water out traps water in so if you’re out walking in the actual rain, for more than a couple of hours, wet feet is an inevitability. If you wear waterproof boots, they will get wet from inside because they don’t breathe well no matter what the marketing says. Remember, that the job of marketing specialists is to tell you what you want to hear, not what’s real. No shoes can evaporate all the sweat produced during an all-day trek. As a result, your feet get clammy and damp from sweat. Moreover, once wet, waterproof hiking shoes take forever to dry.
So, if you consider the possibility of wet-weather backpacking, you need to shift your focus on reducing the effects of having wet feet. Many experienced hikers prefer well-ventilated trail running shoes and merino socks. The benefits of this are twofold: 1) when wet, trail runners dry out pretty quickly as you continue hiking; and 2) merino socks will keep your feet warm even when wet. In addition, to mitigate the prolonged exposure to the wet, change your socks once or twice a day with a clean pair and try to air out your shoes and feet regularly.
Muddy and slippery
No one likes walking on slippery trails in the mud, though it’s often the case when hiking in rainy weather and you can’t avoid it.
Sometimes, everything gets messy and you have to flounder in the mud. On other occasions, the trail becomes so slippery that it forces you to pay attention to each step you take. In either case, it will inevitably slow you down, which leads us to the next disadvantage.
Slows your pace
Whether want it or not, you’ll have to slow your pace in wet weather. This means recalculating how far you can or want to hike. Take this into account when you devise the plan for your hike. Keep in mind, especially if hiking with a group, that not everyone can handle the rain so make sure that there’s no one unprepared, otherwise you won’t be able to get the most out of your walk in the rain.
Thunderstorms are very dangerous for those who underestimate these devastating forces of nature. Each year, thunderstorms in the mountains kill thousands of people worldwide mainly through lightning strikes but also by causing dangerous wildfires, flash floods, and winds of lethal intensity. Lightning is both spectacular and frightening and you should take the danger seriously. Just imagine the power of a single lightning bolt - it can heat the surrounding air up to 25 000°C causing the air to expand explosively, generating thunder. If it’s any consolation, being hit by lightning is very unlikely plus the chances that you survive such an encounter are close to 90%.
Hikers can avoid most accidents caused by thunderstorms by taking a few precautions. The easiest one is to check the weather forecast before hitting the trail. However, if you are caught out in the open during a thunderstorm, your main goal is to try to find shelter (don’t pitch your tent because of the metal tent poles). Additionally, remember some basics to avoid being struck by lightning:
- Get away from water.
- Seek low ground if you’re in an open valley or meadow.
- Avoid summits and standing on ridge tops or near lone and isolated tall trees. Look for even-sized trees if in a forest.
- Don’t remain near, touch or wear metal equipment.
- Don't lie down but crouch and cover your head and ears.
- Keep away from possible sources of electrical current.
- If in a group, separate.
Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it produces it and is more dangerous than lightning because it kills far more hikers. This means that hypothermia strikes even during summer. Actually, it’s especially dangerous during the summer months because then a lot of people aren’t prepared for summer storms. As we mentioned in our article about cold weather hiking clothing, heat loss doubles at 5°C compared to 20°C so you can get in trouble really fast when hiking in the mountains and get caught by a storm, especially if you aren’t equipped to deal with stormy weather. The main causes for hypothermia are wet, cold, and wind. Hunger, fatigue, and alcohol facilitate and accelerate hypothermia. The initial symptoms are shivering, lethargy, and irritability. They’re followed by a lack of coordination, collapse, coma, and death. You have to take immediate action to counteract the symptoms of hypothermia. Set up camp, change wet clothes for dry ones, have plenty of hot drinks, and eat well. Have some rest and try to exercise a bit. All these will make your body create heat.
Generally, properly equipped hikers who stay warm, dry, fed, and rested are in no danger of becoming hypothermic. Thus, it’s a good idea to bring a spare set of clothing and a thermos with a warm drink/meal in case you end up feeling cold.
Prevention should always be preferred over treatment. To avoid hypothermia, try to stay away from the wind because it transfers heat from the body to the environment cooling exposed skin. Do your best to stay dry (also avoid excessive sweating), eat and drink regularly to stay well-fed and properly hydrated.
Increased slipperiness is another danger you have to deal with when hiking in the rain. A slip might be embarrassing; it can also cause a serious injury such as a broken bone, a concussion or sprained ankle. Know ahead of time which places are appropriate for backpacking in the rain and which places aren’t. If you’re hiking alone, try to stay vigilant and focused, use common sense, and make your best not to slip and fall. Trekking poles make walking easier, facilitate river stream crossing, and will help you keep your balance on tricky sections and slippery surfaces. Always be extra careful around wet wood because an unfortunate accident can leave you badly injured. The same is valid when walking close to a canyon rim or fording streams and rivers. Safety should be your top priority. Hence study your crossing point carefully and keep in mind that one wrong step can have serious consequences.
Tips for hiking in the rainHere are some useful tips for hiking in the rain.
Get appropriate footwear
A combination of waterproof boots or shoes and waterproof gaiters can be a good choice for short trips and cold weather. For longer trips and especially for warmer weather, breathable trail runners are better because they are lighter and dry much faster than waterproof footwear. Is it that important? Yes, because whether you want it or not, you can’t keep your shoes dry when hiking in the rain during a multi-day rain trip. It is inevitable that your feet will get wet either from the outside due to rain or from the inside due to excessive sweating. It is also important to keep your feet in good condition and change your socks at least once a day to prevent blister formation.
Don’t forget hiking gear for rain
You need to be properly equipped to be able to meet the challenges of hiking in foul weather. Dress in layers to find a balance between heat loss and heat production to avoid being wet both from outside and from inside. For better protection from rain or water in cold weather, consider wearing a rain jacket and pants made from waterproof breathable fabric. Knowing more about different types of waterproof breathable textiles will definitely be of use when choosing your hiking gear for rain. There are also other waterproof breathable clothes such as gloves, socks, hats, etc. In warm and wet weather rain jackets/pants are more ineffective at keeping you dry than waterproof ponchos or umbrellas. Both ponchos and umbrellas are more breathable options than most modern hi-tech waterproof jackets.
A waterproof or water-resistant backpack can help you keep your equipment safe and dry. Using a pack cover (even a plastic bag can do the job) in wet weather can also be an effective solution. Keep in mind that sometimes even waterproof backpack and pack rain cover may not keep your stuff dry - especially if you open your pack regularly - so it is best to separate your clothes and gear into stuff sacks for extra protection.
Be able to build a fire
Fire can be a big psychological boost in bad weather. It provides warmth and comfort. Bring some waterproof matches or a fire starter kit and make sure to keep them dry (keep them in a waterproof container) for when you need them. In many situations, the ability to start a fire can be critical in the backcountry. To build and maintain a fire, you need three main components - oxygen, heat, and fuel. When heating fuel in the presence of oxygen (air), it burns. Fire cannot exist without these three components in the right proportions (the best way to learn the correct ratio is to practice).
Bring foods you can eat on the move
Proper nutrition in the backcountry is a must so bring enough food and fluid. Try to have warm meals whenever possible to boost your morale but also bring some snacks and keep them handy so that you don’t have to stop unless it’s really necessary. Hiking in the rain can be exhausting plus you need more calories when it’s cold. So don’t forget to refuel often throughout the day even if you don’t feel particularly hungry or thirsty.
Having first aid kit is important
Walking in the rain increases the chances to become ill as well as to suffer an injury. Hence, having a basic first aid kit can be both reassuring and extremely helpful. To be able to manage emergencies and illnesses during shorter trips, you don’t need a well-stocked first aid kit but only some basic things such as ibuprofen, aspirin, antibiotics, anaphylaxis, bandages, blister care pads, gauze sponges, and antiseptic towelettes. In general, your first aid kit should allow you to treat some basic conditions and illnesses like headache, pain, bacterial infections, inflammations, and severe allergic reactions.
Hiking in the rain is some of the best hiking there is, however, you need to be properly equipped and have the right mindset in order to make the most of your walk in the rain. Take a backpack with rain cover, good shoes with traction, waterproof outerwear and some extra layers of clothing, wool socks, and a pair of trekking poles.
Check the weather forecast several times while planning your trip, especially if you are going to walk up a mountain. If caught in a thunderstorm, seek for shelter and follow the basic rules to avoid being struck by lightning. Try to stay warm and as dry as possible and make your best to avoid hypothermia, slips, and falls.
Above all, prepare for empty trails, spectacular views of storm clouds rolling through valleys, opportunities to see more wildlife, and hear some beautiful birdsongs. Get a camera with a waterproof case and remember that walking in the rain can be a lot of fun!
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