Here are a few common sense tips for staying dry while hiking on the trail. First, observe the sky. When out backpacking, be one step ahead of the weather. Stop and put your two-piece breathable waterproof rain-suit on before that big black cloud is overhead, not after the downpour has begun. And don’t even think of bringing a poncho instead of a rain-suit. Leave that worthless item at home. It may be useful for housebreaking a puppy (not there, pooch, do it on the poncho! On the poncho!) but a poncho is worthless for staying warm and dry in the mountains…..
OK, you’re smart enough to have stopped prior to the deluge. But it’s coming on fast. Off with your backpack! Unless it’s an unusually warm storm, as in the tropics, take off the cotton T-shirt, too. Put it in your backpack. Cotton is worse than worthless in cold wet conditions. And those conditions are the norm when it storms in the Rocky Mountains. Warm rain may fall in Missouri, but not often while backpacking in Montana, and certainly not while in Yellowstone. So get your wool or synthetic long-johns on, next to your skin, pronto, before you don your rain-suit. Add layers appropriate for the temperature. Then add the rain-suit, with the hood engaged, and be sure to tighten the wrist and leg cuffs. Also, when hiking in the rain, keep your arms parallel to the ground or better yet at a downward slant, which may require shortening your trekking poles. That’s because even with the best rain-gear, if your arms are even briefly slanted with your hands/wrists up, water will leak in. So don’t point at the sky or do jumping jacks in the rain.
And one final thought. Obviously, no matter how careful you are, sometimes the rain will win and you’ll have to change into rain-gear while it’s coming down. Don’t fret. Instead, learn to identify trees. That’s because in the western mountains, there are often large spruces around, which are nature’s umbrellas — at least for a few hours until the rainwater seeps through the dense canopy of sharp green needles. So change into your rain-suit under a spruce, then resume your backpacking adventure. True firs and then Douglas-firs are your next best bets if there are no big spruces available, and pine trees are less efficient, though sometimes better than nothing. Aspens and other deciduous species are no help at all in the rain. So consider: the next time your hiking guide is identifying trees for the group, pay attention! For this is not necessarily an esoteric exercise. It is applied botany. Yes, knowing the difference between an Engelmann Spruce and a Lodgepole Pine might indeed be the knowledge that keeps you dry and warm instead of cold and wet! Next blog I’ll consider a few options for staying dry once you get to camp.