A combination of driving rain, high winds, and temperatures just above freezing, represents some of the most challenging weather that a hiker can face. In these conditions, hypothermia and frostbite (if the thermometer subsequently drops below 0°C / 32°F) are a very real possibility. Thankfully, cold-related maladies are far easier to prevent than they are to cure. Here are a dozen useful tips for hikers venturing into inclement environments:
1. Forecast: Always check the forecast before setting out. Adapting is a lot easier if you know what’s coming. This is a good habit to establish irrespective of the climate.
2. Awareness: Watch the weather (forecasts can sometimes be wrong) and know your limitations. If conditions are deteriorating and you’re feeling exhausted, don’t hesitate to set up your shelter and call it a day.
3. Appropriate clothing: If you are hiking in cold, wet and/or windy weather for an extended period of time, it’s not so much a question of staying 100% dry (which is nigh on impossible), as it is maintaining a reasonable level of comfort whilst out on trail.
When backpacking in regions such as Tasmania, Scotland, Lapland, the Pacific Northwest, Tierra del Fuego and Fiordland (i.e. cold, wet and windy), my preference is for multiple lighter layers that dry relatively quickly and retain warmth when wet. For example:
- Base layer: 150 or 200 Merino wool long sleeve shirt with zip neck (e.g. Montbell Super Merino Wool M.W. High Neck, Ice Breaker and Patagonia). I’m a big fan of Merino wool: good warmth to weight ratio, quick-drying, feels soft against the skin, and natural antibacterial properties mean that it doesn’t smell as much as synthetic garments. I always go with zip neck models for their versatility over a wider range of temperatures.
- Insulation Layer: When heading out into areas subject to heavy precipitation, I leave the down jacket and/or vest at home and instead opt for Fleece and/or synthetic fiber garments. Long time favourites include the Montbell Thermawrap Jacket & Vest and the Patagonia R1 Hoody & R2 Fleece Vest.
- Outer Layer: No garment is completely waterproof given extended exposure to the conditions I describe above. Working on the principle that damp is better than soaked and being comfortable rather than dry is the priority, I look for rain jackets with the following features:
1. A good DWR (durable water repellant) finish;
2. Relatively lightweight;
3. Quick drying;
4. Pit zips for ventilation;
5. Adjustable wrist cuffs and,
6. Fully adjustable hood with a stiff brim.
- Jacket preferences?: The last few years I’ve mostly been using a Montbell Peak Shell Jacket. It has performed very well in a wide variety of environments ranging from Southwest Tasmania to the Colombian Andes. For three-season hiking on well-maintained trails and/or open terrain (i.e. no bushwhacking or overgrown terrain), I think the DriDucks Ultra-Lite 2 Jacket represents great value, particularly for folks on a tight budget.
- Lower Body?: I usually take a combination of lightweight/quick drying “waterproof” pants (e.g. Montbell Versalite), along with a pair of lightweight long underwear to use at night (e.g. Patagonia Capilene 2, Montbell Merino Wool L.W. Tights).
4. Umbrella: Whether or not I take an umbrella into cold and wet conditions, depends on the character of the environment. For extended on-trail hikes in forests (i.e. relatively sheltered), I have found an umbrella to be worth its weight in gold by helping to keep my core temperature regular. For example, during my late fall/early winter hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2012, an umbrella helped to keep my torso warm and dry despite near-constant precipitation and temps that rarely got above 5°c (41°F). On the other hand, if I’m venturing off-trail and/or into exposed, above-treeline areas prone to driving wind and rain, umbrellas are usually more trouble than they are worth.
5. Avoid sweating: Over-dressing and/or over-exerting can lead to excessive perspiration, which in turn can result in a lowering of body temperature. Constantly monitor yourself and remove or add layers accordingly. Make ‘not sweating’ a priority. This is one of the biggest reasons to bring along an umbrella; they can’t be beaten when it comes to ventilation.
6. Pay Attention to the Extremities: Your head, hands, and feet constitute the body’s initial warning system in cold conditions. For trips in cold and wet environments, I take a fleece beanie, thin wool gloves, MLD eVent Rain Mitts and merino liner socks. I also carry a third pair of thicker wool socks (always kept dry) to wear at night, or for use on my hands in lieu of mittens if temps drop below freezing.
7. Short breaks: The longer you stop the colder you become. When the weather turns nasty, keep breaks short and to a minimum. If for whatever reason you do need to take a longer break, put on an extra layer or two until you begin hiking again.
8. Food & Water: During the day eat high-energy snacks at regular intervals. Before going to bed, your evening meal should emphasise fats and proteins, which are processed slower by your digestive system. Keep a chocolate bar in your sleeping bag, in case you wake up cold and hungry in the middle of the night. (Note: you may want to disregard this last suggestion if you are hiking in bear country outside of winter).
In cold and wet conditions, hikers often forget to drink enough water. Big mistake. If you are dehydrated you are more susceptible to hypothermia (see Hydration for details).
9. Pack Liner: Use a trash compactor bag to line the inside of your backpack. There’s not much point staying comfy during the day, if the rest of your gear (particularly your sleeping bag) is soaked when you arrive at camp.
10. Making and Breaking Camp: Putting up and taking down your shelter in pouring rain, rates right up there with a nagging case of bum chafe, in regards to things that hikers look forward to the most. Here are some pointers:
- Location, location: Look for a spot that has good drainage; avoid depressions, gullies and if camping in established sites, be wary of setting up on highly compacted areas where water may pool during heavy precipitation. If rain is accompanied by high winds, try to find a place that is at least somewhat sheltered from elements. If camping close to watercourses, be sure to set up above the high water mark.
- Preparation: Have your shelter at the top of your pack ready for immediate deployment. If you are heading into areas known for inclement conditions, make sure you have plenty of practice erecting your tent or tarp quickly. You don’t want to be faffing about with poles and guylines when its raining cats and dogs.
- Consider Waiting: Often deluges don’t last more than 20 or 30 minutes. If it’s really coming down and you suspect that the storm may pass quickly, consider biding your time under a nearby tree (Two Points to Note: 1. Trees aren’t always around when you need them, and; 2. This would be a good moment to break out the umbrella). Make the most of your wait by preparing stakes and poles. If its chilly, put on an extra layer, have a snack and do some pushups.
- Before Entry: Fill up your water bottles, double check all the stakes are well set, pee if necessary and just before you are about to enter, quickly get out of your wet clothes and footwear; this last part can be done in your shelter’s vestibule if it has one.
- Inside Your Shelter: Dry yourself, put on some warm clothes and make sure your wet items are separate from your dry stuff (once again, a vestibule is the ideal place to store wet items – see #11 below for exceptions). After you have settled in, try to avoid touching the walls in order to minimize condensation. Depending on design of the shelter and how hard it is raining, try to maximize ventilation by leaving the shelter’s entryway slightly open.
- The Morning After: It’s still raining hard with no end in sight. Crap. If you have no choice but to continue, load all your dry items into your pack, including your tent’s inner if it has one. Then fold over the top of the bag liner, and place any wet items you won’t be wearing in plastic bags or waterproof stuff sacks on top of that. Once everything is packed, put on your shoes, waterproofs, take a deep breath, step outside and take down your shelter. Place your soaked tent or tarp in an outside pocket, or in a plastic bag at the top of your pack
- During the Day: If you have a window of clear weather during the warmer hours, be sure to take the opportunity to dry out your gear. A combination of the sun’s rays plus a little breeze, will see most shelters fairly dry within 20 to 30 minutes. Do this for two reasons: 1. Dry stuff is lighter than wet stuff, and; 2. It’s a comforting feeling knowing that you have a dry shelter to get into at day’s end.
11. Drying Clothes: There are certain lightweight, direct-against-the-skin items that it’s always nice to have dry at the beginning of the hiking day. As best I can, I try to dry these items overnight using the following techniques:
- Gloves – I put directly against my head underneath my beanie.
- Wet socks – I place down my long johns.
- Hiking shirt – I will either wear over the top of a thin merino wool t-shirt or fleece, or alternatively (if it’s soaked), place it between my sleeping mat and the shelter floor.
- Note: I usually avoid putting wet items directly against my sleeping bag/quilt, as the moisture can compromise the bag’s insulation.
12. Attitude: Once you have the gear and experience required to hike safely in cold and wet conditions, the key is perspective. Yes, the conditions are challenging, but moaning and complaining won’t improve them. Stay positive by viewing such times as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks; learning opportunities provided by Mother Nature that will ultimately help you to improve your backcountry skill set.