Wet and Cold Weather Hiking Considered In Depth

With the right choice in clothing, gear and attitude, we begin to realize that nature has a beauty and rhythm in all her moods, and a cleansing, purifying aspect to the miracle we call rain.

—Ray Jardine, Beyond Backpacking: Lightweight Hiking, page 314

When you are out in the pouring rain, day after day, your body will get wet, regardless of which miracle textile swathes your exterior. The difference between good and bad rain gear is that the good stuff will postpone the soaking significantly, and both it and you will dry out faster once the skies stop dribbling.

—Dave Getchell, “The Raingear Test,” Backpacker, September 1995

Central Issues Addressed in This Article

Is it possible to enjoy hiking and backpacking in continuously cold and wet weather? If so, what are the best strategies to accomplish this goal? How effective are the suggested unique and controversial techniques? What are the most important general principles to keep in mind when backpacking in the cold and wet?

Philosophical Perspectives—Proper Mental Attitude

The first step in effectively dealing with cold and wet conditions is to have or to develop the proper mind set, a positive mental attitude about this kind of bizarre activity (i.e., hiking in continuous rainy conditions). In our culture this is not easy. Generally, most people prefer to stay inside and out of the elements most of the time. Only a small percentage of the population work or play outside in bad weather conditions.

From a sociological perspective, our culture encourages us to view being content and comfortable as a prerequisite to happiness. Some even make the mistake of equating contentment and comfort with happiness. It is often said that  our culture, as a whole,  has grown too soft and does not deal well with adversity and discomfort, pain and suffering. To deal effectively with cold and wet weather hiking, our cultural conditioning needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

While this cultural conditioning is true for most of us, experienced and dedicated backcountry travelers can develop a mindset that makes extensive travel in wet and cold conditions comfortable, or at least tolerable. Part of this mindset is a decision to carry the proper gear and develop effective skills and techniques to keep bad weather at bay. Another part of this mindset is to acknowledge what types of trips are personally most enjoyable to make sure that the rewards far outweigh the experienced adversities and discomforts. Yet another part of this mindset is developing a philosophy of life that says it is a good thing to be pushed out of our comfort zone. That is when we learn and grow the most.

With few exceptions, every hiker has to deal with discomfort and adversity when traveling extensively in the backcountry. The only real choice is to either deal with it gracefully and effectively without complaining or to greatly reduce our personal happiness by making experienced pain and adversity our focus. Put another way, one can go the route of dread and avoidance or the route of viewing hiking in the cold and wet as yet another challenge and adventure. Probably the most philosophical attitude (commonly associated with Buddhism) is that we can learn to distance ourselves from pain and suffering, adversity and unhappiness. We can learn to be objective observers where pain and suffering and unhappiness are simply experienced and then let go; they are not accepted as part of our true and essential self. For an in-depth analysis of the topic of discomfort and suffering related to hiking, consider reviewing the article “Maximizing Comfort and Minimizing Discomfort in the Wilderness” on this website.

 One last point about mental attitude. There is no right or wrong here. Many choose to be fair-weather hikers carefully monitoring weather forecasts before venturing out. If caught out in bad weather, they will hunker down until the storm passes or head for the trailhead. On the other side, some are dedicated four-season hikers, traveling in all kinds of weather. It is a matter of chosen style. As the saying goes, “hike your own hike.” 

Effective Techniques for Wet and Cold Weather Hiking

There are many books, articles, websites, etc., that deal quite adequately with this topic so a comprehensive treatment will not be attempted in this article. Reading the literature will provide tens if not hundreds of things to do to deal effectively with cold and wet conditions. Some suggestions for wet and cold conditions involve high-tech “performance” garments (e.g., “soft shells”), but much is common sense learned from the school of hard knocks (e.g., do not wear cotton in cold and wet environments). Here is just a sample of some of the interesting suggestions:

  • Use a storm shell parka with arms long enough to pull hands up inside the sleeves.
  • Use a pack with large external mesh pockets (easy access to rain gear and place to store wet gear).
  • Storm shell pants go over gaiters, not inside.
  • If not carrying rain pants, fashion a rain skirt from a garbage bag.
  • Use a spray-on treatment to restore the DWR (Durable Water Resistant) finish to waterproof and breathable fabrics; do not use a wash-in type of product because it will likely reduce the breathability of microporous fabrics.
  • If your feet will be continuously wet during the day while hiking, rub a hydrophobic lubricant on them in the morning before hiking and at stops during the day.

As mentioned earlier, there are many sources available for comprehensive information on this subject. Here are two highly recommended, in-depth, online articles:

A Lightweight Guide to Backpacking in Sustained, Cold Rain

Gear Suited for Wet, Cold Weather Hiking

Another comprehensive treatment of this subject can be found in Ray Jardine’s Beyond Backpacking: Lightweight Hiking, pages 305-314 and in his Trail Life, pages 240-248.

Unique and Sometimes Controversial Techniques for Hiking in Continuously Wet and Cold Weather

This section offers a number of unique, and sometimes sophisticated, techniques for your consideration. They are often controversial. Hopefully, a few will be new and will get you excited about doing some experimentation. 

Practice Fast and Efficient Camping Techniques

The longer it takes to set up camp in the rain, the more chance for getting chilled because your body is producing much less heat. With this problem in mind, choose your gear and develop your camping techniques so you can be under shelter sipping a hot drink from the warmth of your sleeping system in ten minutes or less after arriving at your selected camping spot. Achieving this goal will take some practice. Your shelter setup must be quick and easy. Tarp-tents or pyramid shelters fit this quick-and-easy criteria because of their simple set up (often no more than 4-6 stakeout points). Pressurized canister stoves fit this quick-and-easy format. Food that only requires boiling water rather than cooking is the simplest of all. Carrying extra water from the trail into your camp will even save more time. Obviously, having more than one set of hands will further increase efficiency. Practice becoming a fast and efficient camper for when you really need it.

Go Naked!

Now that I have your attention with this subheading it would be more accurate to say: wear the least amount of non-absorbent clothing possible (and little or no absorbent clothing). While hiking in the rain, wear the least you can legally get by with and still stay reasonably warm. Vary your speed proportionate to desired warmth and keep snack food handy so that you do not have to stop to eat. Granted, this technique is of little use as the temperatures drop closer to freezing. If successful in using this minimum clothing technique, there will be little to dry out at the end of the day.

[Note: In the complete article, 14 additional unique and controversial techniques are discussed and analyzed.]


The above paragraphs provide a preview of the complete article (approximately 17 pages) available as a free download.  Click on the following to download in either a Microsoft Word or PDF format.

Cold and Wet Weather Hiking Considered in Depth – Word Format

Cold and Wet Weather Hiking Considered in Depth – PDF Format

The sub-topics listed below are developed in this complete article:

Proper Mental Attitude—Philosophical Perspectives 

Effective Techniques for Wet and Cold Weather Hiking 

Unique and Controversial Techniques for Hiking in Continuously Wet and Cold Weather

Reader Participation: Experimenting Wet Weather Strategies

Recognizing and Dealing with Symptoms of Hypothermia

Principles for Enjoying of Wet and Cold Weather Backpacking

Reader Participation: Enjoyment of Wet and Cold Weather Hiking

Author’s Wet and Cold Weather Hiking Gear System