How to Choose the Right Raingear for Backpacking

If you’re expecting rain, or want to retain more heat in colder weather, you’ll want a “shell” to wear over your sweater. This could be a simple coated nylon jacket. Just make sure it’s large enough to put on over the sweater. If you find that wearing the two together is too warm, simply remove one layer.

Some people prefer to use ponchos for staying dry; they’re inexpensive and versatile. I’ve even seen over-sized ponchos that cover the backpack along with the backpacker! But if you’re walking along a slippery or rocky trail, or if there’s a wind blowing, ponchos can obstruct your view of the trail or get snagged on surrounding vegetation.

I prefer to use a full-zippered rain jacket and a pair of rain pants when traveling in the mountains. In the tropics, where it rains virtually every afternoon, I have used only the jacket as I hiked along, unzipping it if I got too warm, and letting my bare legs get drenched. However, this could be dangerous in the mountains. Cover up completely with rain pants, and consider using gaiters if your boots are not waterproof. Otherwise, you could get quite cold and even hypothermic.

backpacking raingear How to Choose the Right Raingear for Backpacking

Raingear can be made of vinyl, nylon coated with urethane or some similar material that will keep rain water on the outside (but will not breath or allow moisture generated from body heat to escape), or Gore-Tex ˇŞa waterproof breathable fabricˇŞthis allows perspiration to pass through, while keeping rain out. This fabric is very popular with mountaineers, who must depend on their equipment performance, and some people swear by it, but Gore-Tex garments can be quite expensive.

Vinyl or plastic is at the other end of the price scale: it’s the least expensive alternative, but also the least dependable, durable and the least comfortable. It tends to be stiff, tears easily, and sometimes lasts no more than one outing. It does not “breathe” well, meaning it will not allow perspiration to escape, so you may feel a bit soggy inside your vinyl coat or pants.

If you choose a vinyl rainsuit, look for a jacket with a “venting” system, such as a separate flap over the shoulders with an opening in back, or “pit zips”ˇŞzippers under the arms that can be opened while hiking. These allow body heat to escape from within the jacket.

Somewhere between these two extremes in price, you find coated nylon raingear. The price of garments made of coated nylon depends on the style (full length raincoat vs. waist length jacket) and features (pull-over vs. zipper fronts). Most well-made nylon rainsuits offer a venting system. The pants may have vents for the legs that unzip from the knee down. Often, nylon rainsuits come with tubes of seam sealer that should be applied over stitches and seams to keep the rain from seeping through.

If weight and bulk are a concern, look for extremely lightweight packable jackets and pants that come with their own small nylon carrying pouches. Always take something along that will help keep you dry, even if it’s “just in case.” Avoiding one cold, wet day on the trail makes carrying a few ounces of waterproof clothing a wise decision.


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