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Staying Dry in the Wilderness - Part 1: Rain Gear

by Bill Greer

Storms are just as much a part of the wilderness as sunny weather is. Even so, staying warm and happy when the weather turns wet can be one of the most difficult parts of traveling in the wilderness. This is the first in a series of articles that I hope will help you master the fine art of staying warm and dry when the weather is anything but. This time we’ll take a look at choosing and using rain gear.

Your rain gear is just about the most important equipment you will take into the wilderness with you. Getting just a little wet when the weather is cold is a sure way to get hypothermia. Strong wind is just about as sure a way to get seriously chilled. Combine the two and you will be in real trouble if your rain gear doesn’t do its job. Even on a day that is just cold and windy your rain gear can be a vital part of your defense against the cold. It’s the most warmth you’ll find for the bulk and weight. I have worn mine more often for wind than rain. This is your first layer of defense against the elements. Good rain gear will keep the wind and rain off of you. You’ll layer under it any additional insulation you need to keep warm.

Unfortunately rain gear is something that can’t be rented so even if you’re just starting out it’s something you’ll probably have to buy or borrow. If you’re shopping for rain gear take any magazine reviews you see with a grain of salt. They may mean well but magazines depend on ad revenue for their existence and it’s not unreasonable to think that this might affect what and how they review things. Even if it didn’t the item that fits a writer just perfectly might not fit you well at all.

The first thing to talk about is the difference between “water repellent” or “water resistant” and “water proof”. The first two offer some protection from mist and more protection from wind. They are not what you need in your rain gear. You need a “water proof” outer layer.

Your rain gear must be made from a durable fabric. You will often see garments made from welded PVC plastic that are very inexpensive. They are completely useless because they disintegrate at the first thorn they see. This usually happens just before it really starts pouring. Don’t waste your time or risk your life with this junk. Some expensive ultra light gear isn’t much better. I’ve seen such equipment held together by large amounts of duct tape after only a few stormy days on the trail.

There are two basic types of rain gear I’ll talk about. The first is the good ol’ poncho. The poncho is a baggy garment with sleeves and a long hem rather like a shirt that’s long enough to reach your ankles. Some are cut roomy enough to cover your pack. It has a few advantages and several disadvantages. They are inexpensive and due to the open bottom and loose fit they ventilate well. This can keep you from sweating in a warm rain and reduces the need for expensive breathable fabrics (more on these later). One of their disadvantages is that all that fabric can be heavy and bulky. It can also snag on cactus and trees on a narrow trail. The worst disadvantage is that in the mountains where you can be exposed to wind your rain gear can turn into an out of control flapping sail that doesn’t do much to protect you from wind or rain. There are some new versions that feature lots of snaps to control this to some extent. Never the less, so far they are seldom seen in the mountains and are pretty much restricted to sheltered eastern trails where trees and valleys mean the rain mostly comes straight down.

Your other choice is the by far more popular rain suit consisting of a jacket and pants. No, they don’t have to match. I find I wear the jacket much more often than the pants. A good rain suit will keep you dry in amazingly bad weather. On an Arctic trip a few years ago I paddled a boat all day for several days in a row with steady rain in the low 40s. At the end of the day when I took the stuff off I was completely dry under it.

The first choice you have to make is what your rain gear will be made of. It must be some sort of fabric. Don’t for a moment consider the inexpensive “welded PVC” stuff.  Your choice is really what kind of coating you want on the inside of this fabric and you have two choices: breathable or impervious.

A breathable coating will allow some water vapor to pass out through the fabric. It won’t be as much as uncoated fabric would allow, but you’re not sealed in a plastic bag. The other choice is an impervious coating, usually urethane. The breathable coating will seem drier and more comfortable. It may require a bit more maintenance. The breathable coating will be $25 to $50 more expensive for a similar garment. The breathable garments tend to have more features and be more stylish which runs the cost up even more. Personally I think Gore-Tex is the best breathable coating but it’s getting harder to find and it’s expensive.

The features you should look for in a rain jacket are pretty much the same whether it’s breathable or not. The nice things will be easier to find in a breathable jacket. First, you want an uninsulated “shell” jacket. If it’s cold you can put stuff on under it. If it’s warm you can wear the jacket alone. You want the jacket to be roomy so that you can add stuff when needed. I take my down parka along when I’m trying on jackets. The sleeves should be plenty long enough to cover the tops of your gloves. The back should be long enough to not cause gaposis when you bend over. Women really need to watch this since short jackets seem to be stylish. If you’re buying it for hiking you want the jacket to be light in weight, but watch out for ultra light stuff that’s too flimsy to depend on for a long trip. Sealed seams are required and most will have them. “Pit zips”, zippers in the arm pits that help ventilate, are really nice in warmer weather. Your jacket will be worn more than the pants so if the budget is tight go for a good jacket and maybe less expensive pants.

The features you look for in rain pants are similar. You want them roomy and long enough to cover the tops of your boots. Watch for “low rise” pants. Put your jacket and pants on and bend over. Now imagine someone pouring slush onto the small of your back. Is your butt going to stay dry? It doesn’t take much freezing rain down there to give you a real thrill. Be sure you can put your rain pants on without taking your boots off. “Side zip” pants that have full length zippers are nice but practice putting them together. I usually leave the waist band assembled to avoid having to figure the things out in a sudden downpour. Breathable fabric is less important for pants than jacket but still nice.

Rain gear will come with a water repellent coating on the outside in addition to the membrane on the inside. This should make any rain bead up instead of wetting out the fabric. For breathable fabrics it’s very important to keep this coating in good shape. If the fabric becomes coated with a film of water it will no longer be able to breath. Your expensive breathable jacket just became impervious. You can find various spray on or wash-in potions to renew the coating. I prefer the spray on type. If you think your rain gear is leaking it could just be condensation caused by repellent coating that needs to be renewed.

It’s important to stay cool if you want to stay dry. You can get just as wet from sweat as you can from rain and the rain smells better. Open as many zippers as you need to. If it’s a warm, light rain consider just getting wet and changing in to dry stuff when you’re through hiking. If you have a 75 degree mist falling, you’re carrying a

heavy pack up a hill, and you put on rain gear you’ll probably get wetter from sweat than you would from the rain. Heavy rain is usually pretty cold.

If you wear glasses rain with little or no wind will make them fog up. Get one of the various potions ski shops sell to prevent this. Hiking blind can get you in real trouble.

I hope this helps you choose and use rain gear that suits your needs. I would have to confess that I much prefer a sunny day to a rainy one. But if you’re going to travel in the wilderness you have to be ready for the rain.

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