How to Dress for Rain in the Backcountry

Some rainwear basics to help drive the storm clouds away from your big trip

Rain—the lifeblood of our rivers, lakes and wild places—is a wonderful thing. Until it's falling on your camping trip, soaking into your clothes, seeping into your boots and putting out your campfire. The more time you spend outside, though, the more likely it is you'll have to deal with rain. In fact, Mother Nature often holds out raining for weeks before and after I go canoe camping, seemingly so she can dump all her soaking fury on me when I'm most vulnerable.

But rain doesn't get me down, even when it persists for days at a time. If you know how to dress for it, you can physically (and mentally) deal with what nature throws at you. There’s no one way to dress for rain; it all depends on local conditions—warm or cold?—the activity you're pursuing and the length of your stay. But here are some basic rain pieces you should have.

Breathable Rain Jacket
If it’s mid-summer and you’re just going out for a day hike, it’s likely warm rain you’ll be dealing with, so you need water protection, not warmth, from your jacket. A lightweight, seam-sealed, breathable rain jacket will probably do, and it’s easy to throw in your pack even if there's only a slight chance of showers. A good option is the Outdoor Research Axiom.

If there’s all-day rain, which is often accompanied by a drop in temperatures, you’ll have to step it up to a more rugged stormproof, breathable jacket. You need one that’s reinforced in the shoulders, side and back to reduce wear and tear. You'll also want a large hood so you can wear a cap underneath to keep rain from trickling down your face by keeping the hood brim up. Good wrist and waist enclosures are also an asset; the wrist cinchers help keep water from trickling down your arms and the waist enclosures keep cold air out and hold your jacket in place on scrambles and when making long reaches. The Westcomb Shift LT Hoody is an excellent choice.

And if it’s cold out, you’re going to need to layer up under the rain jacket as well. Use a lightweight synthetic (not cotton) water-repellent fabric that will wick water, and your sweat, away from your body.

Rain Pants
The colder the temperature outside, the more rugged the rain pants: For off-season trekking you’ll have to upgrade to a thicker (but still lightweight) material with zippers, large leg openings and reinforced material along the lower inner leg. Arc'teryx Beta SL pants have everything you need. For lighter-duty use in warmer weather, Marmot's PreCip Pant does the job admirably.

Zippers Everywhere
On jackets, you'll want zippers under the armpits for ventilation. Otherwise, if you sweat, you’ll get wet from the inside-out. 

Rain pants need zippers, as well. They provide ventilation and allow you to pull your rain pants on and off over your boots (no one wants to take their boots off while it’s raining).

Rain Hat
A separate hat, such as a Southwestern, allows you more freedom of movement to look around than a rain jacket hood. Try the Marmot PreCip Safari.