Umbrellas As Standard Backpacking Gear

A First!

On a recent rainy day hike in the Olympic Mountains of Washington State all four members of our hiking group were using umbrellas to ward off the rain and wet snow. This was a first for this group (even though some of us had been using umbrellas off and on over the years). Could this be the start of a new trend in hiking and backpacking?

Packing a Trekking Umbrella for Rain and Sun Protection

Collapsible travel or trekking umbrellas are light, compact, relatively cheap and highly useful, especially for hiking in environments with lots of rain and lots of sun. Travel umbrellas can weigh as little as five ounces and cost as little as $10. Travel or trekking umbrellas tend to have effective diameters (edge to edge) from 32 to 40 inches. Lighter weights often mean higher costs; larger diameters usually mean greater weights.

Most people associate umbrellas with rain. With this standard use, not only will they shelter one from heavy precipitation, but they can also substitute for carrying heavy storm gear. In “on-again, off-again” showery type weather, an umbrella is much easier to deploy than putting on and taking off rain gear. The increased upper body ventilation options when using an umbrella (as opposed to wearing waterproof/breathable rain gear) means one is less likely to get overheated and damp from sweat. When it becomes necessary to supplement the umbrella with protective rain shells (yes, they should still be carried in most higher-elevation and exposed windy environments), an unzipped jacket/umbrella combination will allow for greatly increased ventilation. This dual protection arrangement will also allow some “wear-drying” of already damp clothing.

Besides rain protection, umbrellas ward off the damaging rays of the sun and keep one cooler when it is hot. The best umbrellas for this purpose are those with a topside silver coating and a larger diameter (e.g., GoLite’s “Chrome Dome”; 8.0 ounces, 38 inch diameter for $25). They are especially effective in higher altitudes and on snowy slopes where the sun’s rays are especially potent. Most hikers and backpackers wear sun-protective clothing and use sunscreen products, but regular use of an umbrella will lessen the need for these preventive measures (or make them even more effective when out in the elements for long periods of time). Using an umbrella will allow going hatless and shirtless in the hottest weather, thereby making the body’s natural cooling mechanisms even more effective. Nothing can sap one’s energy faster than being too hot when covered with protective clothing. In addition, hiking under shade all day can result in less dehydration and the need to carry less water.

Additional Reasons to Pack An Umbrella

Some side benefits of hiking with umbrellas:

  • during breaks, one can study the map, eat, nap or rummage in one’s pack while being protected from the elements

  • a staked-down umbrella offers increased protection from driving rain or snow for those using tarps or tarp-tents 

  • provides a prop for mosquito netting when sleeping out in the open

  • provides a darker sleeping environment when the moon is bright

  • provides a windbreak for a stove 

  • provides a larger field of vision and better hearing potential than under a hooded rain parka

  • provides more privacy for toilet stops

  • allows eyeglasses, GPS, camera, binoculars, etc., to stay freer of moisture

  • allows clearing the trail ahead of spider webs.

Replies to Arguments Against Hiking With Umbrellas

Umbrellas are tiresome to carry, hour after hour. Reply: This has not been my experience—it is a matter of getting used to it. Also, one can switch hands, attach it to one’s pack or simply go without for a while. It sometimes works to simply put the butt end in a shirt pocket and wrap the handle with the sternum strap, while resting the umbrella at an angle on one’s shoulder or pack. Lashing it to an external frame pack is even easier. Here is one anonymous hiker’s setup for attaching the umbrella to her pack straps: 

Get 2 pieces of elastic cord, each about 6" long with 2 cord locks and use these to secure the umbrella to the shoulder straps of the pack. Wrap them around the strap and the shaft of the umbrella about 6" apart and cinch it down with the cord lock.

Umbrellas don’t work well with trekking poles. Reply: Yes, it can get awkward using both. But there are several options. Easiest is to collapse one pole and stow it in the pack. Another is to take only one pole, if you know that the umbrella will likely be used a lot. If using two fixed length poles, it is not that awkward to use both poles in the opposite hand for a while (if using strapless poles). Finally, go without poles (unless they are an integral part of your shelter setup). Personally, I have used all of these options. My preferred option is two collapsible trekking poles and larger-size trekking umbrella that have a combined weight of 15.5 ounces.

Umbrellas catch too easily on overhanging limbs and brush. Reply: When hiking trails, most people gradually learn to maneuver the umbrella around such obstacles. When such obstacles are more numerous, collapse the umbrella, temporarily. Obviously, an umbrella will not work on brushy off-trail jaunts or in steep terrain when needing both hands.

Umbrellas break in stronger winds. Reply: If the wind is not too gusty, a quality umbrella will usually do quite well angled directly into the wind and supported against your body (granted, it becomes less protective from precipitation in this scenario). In heavy or gusty winds, having a finger on the collapse button is also a good idea. Again, carry protective storm gear if these conditions are a possibility. 

Umbrellas are obviously fragile. Reply: Only cheap ones break easily. Trekking-specific umbrellas are usually more durable. When I find a lightweight travel umbrella at a good price, I will often buy two or three. From a broader perspective, most lightweight backpacking gear is subject to breakage; it comes with the territory. One should generally carry alternative storm shell clothing just in case (unless it is warm enough that a broken umbrella is not an issue). In colder conditions, storm shells will add considerable warmth even when using an umbrella.

I will look like a dork; I don’t even use one in the city. Reply: Some of the best-known veteran long-distance hikers (e.g., Ray Jardine, Scott Williamson, The Onion) use them. It could be that, like trekking poles, they will become stylish and the next “in” thing for the backpacker’s kit.

Additional Considerations When Using Umbrellas

Travel umbrellas come in different sizes. My recommendation is to spend the extra money to obtain one with a larger diameter (38-40 inches). The larger size will give more pack coverage and will often be sturdier. An alternative is to have two or more umbrellas in the gear closet: a smaller, lighter weight one when not expecting much precipitation and a larger, heavier one for longer trips where more rain is predicted.

Consider purchasing a quality umbrella with a quick release button. This makes it easier to quickly fold up the umbrella to duck under logs and branches and pop it open a few steps later.

In moderate climes and lower elevations, an umbrella will eliminate the need to carry standard rain gear (but it’s still smart to carry a large plastic garden debris bag for emergencies).

A lightweight, water resistant windshell will often suffice for arm coverage in light drizzles when using a smaller diameter umbrella.

When collapsed, smaller umbrellas will often fit into the pocket of a windshell.

A heavier double duty walking stick-umbrella combo might be just the ticket in some situations.

Those using a hiking umbrella on a regular basis sometimes make a carry sleeve for it that is tethered to their belt, allowing for quick access.

Be the first in your hiking group to carry an umbrella; set a new fashion trend. Chrome domes unite!