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In order to select the most appropriate rain gear, you must consider the available types of rain gear and the material it's made from. This along with the expected weather, load you're carrying, and trail conditions will determine the best type of rain gear for your needs. Once you've identified multiple options that would suit your needs, weigh them and take the smallest packing and lightest weight option.
Below are charts of functional types of gear and materials from which to choose. More complete discussion of some of these options follows the charts.
1 Jackets Are the most traditional rainwear worn on trails and in towns. They can be found in any store catering those participating in outdoor activites such as REI, MEC, Dick's Sporting Goods and more. Suitable jackets can also be found in some departments stores such as Target, KMart, and Walmart. Look for taped seams, adjustable hoods, protected pockets, and pit zips. The more bells and whistles, the heavier, bulkier, and more expensive the jacket is likely to be.
2 Ponchos have a place on many trails and I've looked on jealously while others have stayed cooler than me as I've worn my own personal sauna. However, there are many places where ponchos aren't an option.
Ponchos work well in protected areas without too much wind and on trails wide enough so that they don't snag on underbrush. This describes quite a bit of the Appalachian Trail (AT) but not all of it.
In places where you are climbing steeply, the dangling hem of a poncho could easily get underfoot. Tripping over your own poncho can be dangerous on steep and rocky trails.
There are places on the AT where the wind that frequently accompanies rain would turn the poncho into a sail. Getting blown a few feet off course on the flat tops of the balds in the south would be a mere annoyance though still potentially dangerous. Getting blown a few feet off the above treeline summits in the Whites in New Hampshire could send you over a cliff. More closely fitting rain gear is a necessity in those conditions. I've literally been blown over on dry days without rain gear and the added bulk of rain gear only makes your profile worse. Ponchos are a dangerous option in these conditions.
A few places I've been very glad to NOT have to rely on a poncho: the White Mountains of New Hampshire; the Pacific Crest Trail while in a sleet storm on the San Jacintos in southern California, and in the shrubland and steppe of Torres del Paine, Chile.
Ponchos also present the problem when you stop hiking of having to choose to protect either your pack or your body if it's still raining. You may end up carrying a packcover anyway.
3 The Packa is a rain jacket with a built in packcover. It's designed with the flexibility to use it as a jacket, a pack cover, both at the same time, and even just head and pack protection. I used a Packa and liked it a lot but lost it during an unsuccessful Search and Rescue. It's rather expensive so I haven't replaced it and have since been using other rainwear options.
Because the pack cover is integrated, if you stop hiking, like a poncho, you must choose to keep your body or your pack protected. On the AT where there are shelters at reasonable intervals, this may not be a problem. Elsewhere, you may end up carrying a pack cover, anyway.
4 Rain pants are most often used in bad weather on the trail rather than in town. They aren't as readily available as jackets. You may need to visit an outfitter to find some. It's inconvenient to take your boots off to get your rain pants on so you'll want wide cut legs or full or partial leg zippers. On the A.T. I made do with my heavy Gore-tex pants because I only carried them for the first, cold part of the hike. Since then, I've used extremely lightweight Pertex pants by Montane that are only water resistant, mostly waterproof lightweight silnylon pants, and fully waterproof pants from places like Dick's.
Because they may not cover your gaiters, they may keep your legs dry but still channel water into your footwear.
6 Gaiters can help keep feet dry, depending on the type of footwear you wear. Worn under rain pants, they provide a path for water to run off your body and feet to the ground. Read more on my page devoted to Gaiters.
7 Umbrellas have a place in town and in some backcountry uses. They don't provide much more than head and shoulders coverage, turn to sails in the wind, but for some rain storms where the goal is to keep rain off glasses in warm conditions, they may have their uses. They can also be used for sun protection.
8 Pack Covers are the most traditional way to keep your pack dry when hiking in rain or snow. They cover the bulk of the pack yet leave the straps exposed. They often have elastic and/or drawstrings to keep them attached.
9 Gore-tex and other waterproof, breathable materials, work on the principle that higher humidity inside the membrane forces the humidity out and keeps you drier inside the jacket than out. In very dry or cold climates, this can work quite well. In the relatively high humidity of the mountains in the eastern U.S., it may still work, but not nearly as well.
While wearing any waterproof jacket, you are going to get wet from sweat. If you are using a breathable membrane, it may take a bit longer to get wet however the difference between getting wet in 15 minutes when wearing a non-breathable jacket and getting wet in 45 minutes when wearing a breathable jacket, is not particularly relevant when you are going to be walking all day.
The trick is not so much as to stay dry, as it is to stay warm. If it's cold outside, the jacket will help you stay warm and wet. If it's warm outside, just leave the rain gear in the pack and hike wet. When you get to the shelter, you change into your dry gear and then keep that dry - no matter what. Change back into your wet gear in the morning if necessary. If it's still raining, it would have gotten wet anyway. If it no longer raining, it'll dry in a few minutes - until it gets wet from sweat.
Given the behavior of waterproof breathable membranes in eastern North America, it's not all that worthwhile to spend a lot on an item that can't work well here. A simple lightweight waterproof jacket is sufficient and saves some cash.
I started my Appalachian Trail thruhike with a Goretex parka. I sent it home when I realized that it was too heavy and too bulky. I replaced it with a simple, coated nylon shell and now only use the Goretex for my winter hiking.
I've since bought or seen similar jackets at places like Dick's Sporting Goods or Galyan's. I wouldn't be surprised if you could find an adequate jacket at places like Kmart and Walmart.
10 Microporous film rainwear like Frogg Toggs and Rainshield feel papery. They aren't designed to be as durable as other fabrics. Rub points (armpits, between legs, and pack rub areas) tend to get fuzzy and pill. This material rips easily. I've seen many of these garments held together with duck tape - often lots of duct tape. This material is light, but it's bulkier to bunch/fold/stuff than some other types of rain wear. It's also inexpensive. For some, it's perfect, for others, far from it. I've never worn O2 gear and I've only tried on Frogg Toggs, but I've seen it used in the field. Seams leak and worn material absorbs and wicks water. These garments are frequently adorned with large amounts of duct tape.
The weight of your rain gear adds up. As a data point, both my Sierra Designs jacket and my Galyan's jacket weigh 9 oz. each.
Doing without rain gear may work well in certain conditions: if the air is warm; if the terrain is easy enough that you can keep moving at a good pace or just the right difficulty to keep your metabolism moving; etc. But there are times when rain gear would absolutely be necessary: if it's cold and the terrain keeps you moving too slow to build up enough body heat; if an injury or other physical limitation keep you moving too slow; for those people who don't have the metabolism to get warm and stay warm when and if it starts to rain; and if it's necessary to arrive at your destination in dry clothing.
For these situations, it is dangerous to be out there without means of staying warm or inconvenient to get rained upon. Keep in mind, hypothermia can set in even at surprisingly warm temperatures.
On the trail, I generally say that rain gear is not meant to keep you dry, it's meant to keep you warm. There's nothing wrong with being wet if you're able to stay warm. There is a problem being wet if you get cold.
Last updated, February 18, 2014.
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