Hiking in the Rain: Embracing the Elements

Sometimes I really enjoy getting out and hiking in the rain. There are days or trails that are just better when it’s raining. Of course, this assumes I knew it was going to rain and was prepared.

Regardless, it’s something you’re going to encounter as you continue your journey outdoors. Trying to plan around the rain means missing out on great hikes. So here are a few tips and tricks from someone that not only has been there herself, but has led new hikers through their first rainy hike.

Benefits to Hiking in the Rain

I know a lot of people are thinking, “Why would I even want to hike in the rain?” Well, besides the fact that if you want to avoid the situation you’re going to limit how often you can get out, there are other benefits.

Smells. Everything smells different when it rains. There’s a sense of calm as you take in the petrichor which is the term for the earthy smell when it rains.

Less crowded trails. This is a great time to tackle those trails that can be crowded on good days.

Things look different. Sometimes when you hike a trail opposite your usual path, it looks different. The same goes for hiking in the rain. It’s going to seem like a new trail. Plus the scenery may be more vibrant.

Waterfalls. Waterfalls and other water features are amazing in the rain.

Woman in red rain jacket and grey pants with green day pack covered with grey rain cover hiking through a forest where the trail is covered by red leaves.

Tips for Hiking in the Rain

While you probably know a lot of tips and tricks for hiking, hiking in the rain requires preparation and a certain mindset. There are a few things you’ll need to think differently about when heading out in the rain.       

Pick Your Trail Wisely

It’s going to be slick out there. Look for trails you’re familiar with and are well maintained. Try to avoid more difficult terrain where slippery surfaces can be an issue like rock scrambles. Also, be careful on trails that are near water, they may flood or be muddy.

I like to head for trails with a lot of tree cover. The trees tend to block the rain keeping me a little drier.

Check for Stream Crossings

Small creeks and streams can become roaring rivers when it rains. If you know there are several stream crossings you may want to find another trail. What was a simple rock hop yesterday could be knee deep, fast moving water today.

If you come across a stream crossing that looks dicey, be sure to evaluate. Do you have the right equipment and skill to safely cross?

Summit Views May not Exist

Summits often don’t offer spectacular views in the rain. You probably won’t see anything, and even if you do, you won’t be able to get a good photo.

If you’re in it for the accomplishment go for it! But, if you’re going for the views, try another day.

Pay Extra Attention to Your Location                 .

Getting lost in the rain is really easy, especially on unfamiliar trail. Blazes aren’t as visible and, if you’re walking with your head down, you may miss them.

On one trip we went 2 miles off course in the pouring rain before realizing our mistake and having to hike uphill 2 miles to get back on track. It wasn’t pretty.

Have Food Readily Available

Have snacks and other food readily available in your pack’s side or front pockets. Stopping, opening your pack, and sitting to eat won’t be easy or enjoyable in the rain. You’ll want quick food that’s easy to reach so you can keep moving.

Don’t be Afraid to Call It

Don’t let pride get in your way. Sometimes we get locked into the finish, but when it’s raining, you have to be smart. Be ready to bail.

If the weather goes south and you’re two-thirds of the way to a summit, or a thunderstorm rolls in, you may need to call it a day. Safety is paramount.

Embrace the Suck

This is a phrase you’ll hear a lot in backpacking, and it’s true for day hikes too. Sometimes things are great and you’ll see the most amazing sights, and other times you’re slugging through heavy rain. Those are the days were you put on a smile and say, “Well, I’ll be talking about this trip later. It’ll be a great story.”

Check the Weather Right Before Heading Out

It’s important to check the weather right before you head out because weather in the mountains can change quickly. What appeared to be a drizzle last night may have become thunderstorms this morning.

We were trying to climb up Clingman’s dome as a down and back in a day. That’s around 20 miles. A storm was expected to roll in around 3 pm but we would be almost down by then. Turns out the storm rolled in at noon. We had to bail with about 4 miles left to the top. When your hair is standing up due to static electricity, it’s time to go.

When to Cancel Your Hike

When should you consider canceling your hike? It’s difficult to put down a hard and fast rule because everyone has different skills and preferences.

If I’m leading a trip, I put safety first. I consider the terrain and the experience of my hikers. Does this seem safe? I’m not going to be negligent and take inexperienced hikers out in the pouring rain on a trail with 3 dicey stream crossings. But if the trail is level and I know there’s no danger of water or other issues, I’ll go for it.

For myself, I’ll head out in just about anything. My four no-gos are heavy storms, flash flooding, 60%+ chance of thunderstorm, or high winds.

Don’t forget it’s not just the hike, it’s the drive to and from the trailhead. Can you safely get there?

What to Wear Hiking and Backpacking in the Rain

Your goal is to stay as warm and dry as possible. Being comfortable is a long shot because rain gear doesn’t breathe well. I don’t care what the product descriptions say.

A pair of blue gloves like those worn by fish mongers laid out on top of red leaves.

Think About Layers

Layers are your friend. Start out a little cooler with one layer less than you think you’ll need under the rain jacket. If you’re cold after 10 to 15 minutes of hiking, add a layer. You don’t want to start sweating early in the hike.

When you stop, you’ll feel cold and may want to add a layer so have something readily available.

Choose Wicking Fabrics for Base Layers

When it’s raining, the humidity is 100%. This is going to impact how wicking fabrics work. Generally, they move your sweat to the outer surface and it evaporates. Well, nothing is going to evaporate in 100% humidity, so you’re going to get soaked from the inside out.

While what you wear depends on the season, I generally opt for a lightweight wool shirt which not only wicks but will keep me warm when it’s wet. It also doesn’t seem to make me overheat which I like. If I need a second layer, I’ll add a thicker wool shirt, or windbreaker.

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Several brands have their own wicking fabrics like Patagonia’s capilene. These are also good options.

Avoid fabrics like cotton. This includes denim jeans and khakis. These not only become heavy when wet, but they don’t wick moisture and will feel cold on your skin.

You can try quick-drying products, which tend to be thinner, but honestly, they’re not going to dry.

Waterproof Pants and Rain Jacket (or poncho)

You’ll need rain gear and I’m telling you right now, there’s no such thing as breathable rain gear. Your best bet is to look for jackets that have pit zips, pants with leg zips, and other ways to get airflow.

Here in the southeastern US where I live, the biggest problem we have is sweat. You’re either getting wet from the outside (rain), or inside (sweat). I wear a lightweight wool shirt and a rain jacket with long zippers on the sides.

Some people opt for a rain jacket and rain pants, others prefer a poncho. This is all personal preference. One advantage with the poncho is you can often pull it over your body and your pack which is nice.

When it comes to rain pants, I’ve found the Columbia pants you can get at Walmart for $20 have held up the best. They’re a little heavier than the fancy brands but they’re also bullet proof when it comes to rain.

My favorite rain jacket is the Columbia’s Mazama Trail Rain Shell. Columbia makes excellent rain gear in general. You can’t go wrong with any of their rain jackets. What I like about the Mazama is that it’s fashionable enough to wear around town, doesn’t wet out, and has long pit zips for excellent air flow. It’s a little pricy but well worth it. This jacket will hold up.

Note: Water resistant does not mean waterproof. Water resistant gear can put up with a light drizzle and small amount of wet, but if the rain picks up, it’ll soak through. You want waterproof.

Socks, Lots of Socks       

There’s nothing worse than wet feet. If you’re day hiking more than 6-8 miles, bring extra socks just in case. Six to eight miles is generally where things start to go wrong, or you notice you’re uncomfortable.

My personal preference is wool. I love wool socks. They’re perfect for protecting your feet and keeping them warm even when wet.

I also like to have a pair in the car, along with an extra pair of shoes for the ride home.

Hiking Footwear

I used the term footwear because we can debate on boots versus trail runners and waterproof versus non waterproof all day. Some people like waterproof boots and shoes, others don’t like the extra weight.

Waterproof footwear will help keep your feet dry and have more insulation for cold days, but aren’t foolproof. Also, they tend to be stiffer than the non-waterproof options.

I personally wear waterproof boots because they do help keep my feet dry and warm. But you do you.

If you opt for non-waterproof, you can try putting bread bags over your feet. This can cause you slide around in your shoes and it’s not breathable, but some people find it works.

What Not to Wear

Besides cotton, I don’t recommend down jackets (aka puffs, or puffies) for rainy day hikes. Once they get wet, they lose their loft and warming properties. Even if you manage to dry it, the down will be clumped.

Instead opt for a water-resistant shell or insulating layer under your rain jacket. Here in NC it’s never too terribly cold and I wear a short sleeve wool shirt under a windbreaker. I may take the windbreaker off if I have my rain jacket on. But I also run warm when hiking.

Woman in red rain jacket and grey pants kneeling on the ground in a forest covered with red leaves and pulling out a grey rain cover for a small green day pack.

Gear for Hiking in the Rain

While the right clothing is important, having the right gear will make your hike more enjoyable.

Keep Your Extra Clothes Dry

I cannot stress this enough. First, you do need to pack extra clothes in cooler weather. If you become chilled because your clothes are wet, you need to get into dry clothes and you need to do it NOW. Hypothermia can set in at milder temperatures if you have an underlying medical conditions, or it’s rainy and you become wet.

The two best ways to keep things dry are to either line your pack with a trash compactor bag, or use a pack cover. Many day packs come with a pack cover tucked in a pocket at the bottom. If yours doesn’t, or you prefer an internal liner, use a trash compactor bag, not a trash bag.

I’ve seen trash bags fail. Trash compactor bags are heavier and designed to withstand poking holes and other tears. You’ll likely have to order them online, but they’re worth it.

Trekking Poles 

Trekking poles are great on any hike. They help protect your knees in the long run and can be useful for stream crossings. In the rain, they help you stay upright on slippery trail, and can assist with navigating those dicey stream crossings.


Some people like to wear gaiters. To be honest, when I’m day hiking, I don’t bother. But, gaiters will help keep your feet a little drier and your shoes a little cleaner. I have a friend who hikes in shorts and tall gaiters when it’s raining. She says it’s comfortable because her legs can breathe, and she stays dry because she can easily towel off her legs.

Waterproof Gloves

I have tested so many gloves and found they all eventually wet out. I’ve tried waterproof gloves, waterproof liners, waterproof over cover thingies, you name it.

My final solution is a pair of nitrile exam gloves (which you can buy at the drugstore or maybe take a couple pairs as payment for having to sit in the doctor’s exam room for 30 minutes before they show up – just saying), and a pair of waterproof over gloves. My hands get a little funky in the nitrile long term because they don’t breathe, but it works and I I like that I have good mobility.

I have a pair of the Showa gloves that resemble what fish mongers use, and I do like them, but they’re not very warm so they’re not great on really cold days. It’s also hard to get my hands through the trekking pole loops with them on.

However, they do come in handy for getting water to filter though and to wear around camp.

Waterproof Cases for Electronics

Use a waterproof case or dry bag for your phone, chargers, maps, wallet, and anything else that shouldn’t get wet.

In a pinch, a Ziploc bag will do. Personally, I prefer the Ziploc freezer bags because they’re thicker. You can also buy waterproof cases. Both options are reusable.

Materials for a Shelter

Even if you’re just out for the day, consider bringing a tarp and rope. In the event the rain becomes heavy and you want to sit it out, it’s going to be more comfortable with something over your head. I’ve had to spend an hour waiting out a heavy storm with thunder. Sitting on my butt under rhododendrons was not my favorite hiking moment.

What to Do When the Rain is Heavy

Heavy rain may be an issue if you can’t see where you’re going or start slipping everywhere. When this happens, stop. Look for, or make, a temporary shelter.

As I mentioned above, I’ve plopped down in a forest of rhododendrons before. While not the most comfortable situation, they did a great job of holding back most of the rain.

Some trails can become rivers in hard rain. Wait until about 10 minutes after the rain stops to traverse them. They usually clear up quickly once the rain stops.

In situations where you can keep going, slow your pace and keep a careful eye out for hazards.

Don’t Forget to Drink Water

When it’s raining, it’s easy to forget about water. And it’s likely not easy to get it out to drink. But you’re likely sweating under your rain gear and you’re exerting as much, if not more, energy to hike. You need to drink as much, if not more, water than usual.

Try to think about drinking water every 20 minutes.

Wrap-Up: Hiking in the Rain

Hiking in the rain can be a rewarding experience if you have the right mindset. With proper planning, the right gear, and dressed appropriately, it could be an unforgettable adventure.

So the next time you see rain in the forecast, grab that rain jacket and rain pants and hit the trails!

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