Hiking in the Rain — Tips for Selecting Rain Gear This Fall

Hiking in the Rain — Tips for Selecting Rain Gear

As the weather begins to change, you might feel the temptation to stay indoors. Resist it. Heading out for a soaking in the rain may seem like madness, but it can be refreshing after or during a dry, hot summer. The air is cleaner and fresher, and the smell of rain is known to have a calming effect. On trips to places like Rocky Mountain National park, fall is known for short-lived rainstorms, snow, and cool temperatures. Preparing for unexpected downpours can mean the difference between a memorable adventure and hypothermia. Here are a few tips for selecting rain gear for your upcoming outdoor adventure.

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Know the Jargon.

Rain gear comes with its own unique set of words that you must understand to stay dry(er).

Waterproof.  Waterproofed gear is resistant to penetration by water. A poncho is a common form of waterproofed gear. These type of fabrics do not let the water soak into them (unless there’s a hole. True story.)

Water-resistant. Water-resistant fabrics have been treated to repel water; they can handle rain for a brief time. however, the coating can degrade over time. One advantage is that they can offer much greater breathability (see below) than waterproof fabrics.

Durable water-repellent (DWR) clothing. DWR is a type of treatment or coating that causes water to bead on a fabric surface without impairing the breathability; it repels water on contact. Fabrics will often say that they are water-resistant or hydrophobic. One limitation of these types of clothing is that the coating works great when new. However, it degrades over time due to sweat, dirt, and abrasion.  Some need to be retreated to maintain water-repellant quality.

Breathable. Breathable fabrics allow air or moisture to pass through with some variance. For example, consider a hiking shirt versus heavy-duty hiking pants. Both may be considered breathable, but the pants may have a higher resistance to liquid water. Lightweight nylon pants are great for breathability and protection from the wet and windy weather, but they are still breathable.

Ventilated. Ventilation is the exchange of air, which often contains some heat and moisture. Hiking pants with side ventilation zippers are great in the fall and spring. Ventilated fabrics are sometimes better than those with higher “breathability” in keeping the user cool and dry.

Lightweight rain jackets are great against the rain and wind.

Rain jackets are a great travel item to always carry with you. They can help protect you from the rain, wind, and the sun on those cold, but sunny days. A good jacket can be expensive, but they are an investment for protection against flash-storms. Most are waterproof and breathable; some only weigh around 5.5 ounces. Ensure that you set your wrist straps comfortably tight to prevent the jacket from sliding up thus exposing your arm to rain. The jacket itself should be a little loose as most rain jackets have no stretch. You may or may not need the jacket, but the lightweight gear is helpful for when the sky opens up unexpectedly.

A quality rain hat can also keep you dry.

Another good tip to staying dry is to wear a rain hat under your rain jacket’s hood. Look for hats with shells that offer waterproof protection with a shaped brim to keep the rain out of your eyes and off your face and neck. It’s best to buy synthetic caps that dry quickly. Look for waterproof versus water-resistant hats. A good quality hat can last years, so there isn’t as much of a need to replace it like some jackets or umbrellas

Invest in a quality umbrella.

The thought of hiking in the woods with an umbrella might seem absurd, but a good umbrella is both convenient and practical. If it isn’t windy, an umbrella can be more convenient than a rain jacket or poncho because you’re not as likely to overheat. However, be aware that umbrellas can break in high winds and create drag. They also can snag on vegetation and don’t offer any protection in any type of driving or horizontal rain. An umbrella can be extremely useful in a calm rain (or the hot sun). Try to invest in one with a Teflon coating with fiberglass ribs or stick.

Rain ponchos are great but messy

A waterproof nylon poncho can be worn over you and your backpack or purse. One limitation of some ponchos is that they can leave your lower arms and legs exposed to cold precipitation, so its best to combine it with proper clothing. Or, look for a one with long sleeves. A poncho with a full-front zipper and arm sleeves, like the Packa, is a great alternative. Again, on walking trails during a gentle rain, it’s great. Just watch out during heavy winds as the poncho can make you feel like a human kite. In that case, just use a rope or a belt and tie it to you.

Water-resistant pants also offer excellent protection.

For full-body defense against the rain and the wind, waterproof pants combined with a rain jacket will help keep you dryer on the trail. Outdoor pants, such as the ones made by Outdoor Research, are considered breathable, lightweight, water-resistant, and wind-resistant. One limitation is that during prolonged exposure to rain, they can become heavy, especially from sweat. One joke that many people make is that you are going to get wet either way — either from the outside (rain) or from the inside (sweat). Also, cuff the hem of your hiking pants under your rain pants to keep the non-waterproof layers from getting soaked.

Hiking gear should also take care of your feet. Invest in waterproof socks and hiking boots.

Waterproof Socks

Look for waterproof socks to take along the trail. Be sure to keep an extra pair or two in your backpack. Socks that are listed as 100% waterproof are often said to be breathable fabrics that absorb little moisture. Most have multiple layer construction. Wearing wet socks during colder weather can potentially lead to frostbite and blisters. Try to change out wet socks as soon as possible. If you camp out overnight, take off your socks and let your feet dry out and breathe.


Gaiters are protective sleeves worn over the upper parts of boots to protect your feet from mud and water. They can help keep your feet and pants dry when walking through streams, puddles, or tall wet grass. If you’re just planning for a walk in the park, however, they might be a little too much. Most gaiters are made from nylon or softshell fabrics that offer waterproofing protection and breathability. They either have a DWR finish on the outside or have both a DWR finish and a breathable membrane laminated on the inside.  You can purchase ankle gaiters to cover the top of the footwear and the bottom of your pants or full-length gaiters that offer additional protection for the lower legs.

Hiking Boots or Running Shoes

A quality pair of hiking boots or running shoes can help you keep moving easily in a hard downpour or in a post-rain soggy mess. Combined with the waterproof socks, rain boots made with breathable materials and waterproof membranes will help to keep your feet drier longer. One limitation of hiking boots is that they can get very heavy, especially when wet, so a waterproof hiking shoe, like Keen’s Terradora, can offer protection without the heft.

Backpacking? Invest in a good backpack cover.

If you’re going for a quick nature walk through a city park in the rain, a backpack cover isn’t a necessity as a good umbrella or poncho will work great. However, if you are trapezing through the woods, protecting your backpack is a great investment. You can find a variety of waterproof covers on Amazon that range from cheap to the more expensive brands. Always keep the cover with your gear as a precaution. In addition to your cover, throw in a few trash bags both for cleaning up and as a make-do poncho.

With the right mindset and preparation, hiking in the rain can be a relaxing, memorable experience. Just be sure to keep an eye out for lightning and take cover. Add layers if you begin to feel cold and go home if the storm increases. Most of all, have fun!

Looking for somewhere specific to go? Check out the lists of state parks near you.