Gear - rain and what it brings

(This is a slightly re-written excerpt from my book Smarter Backpacking, in Swedish Lättare packning från A till Ö.)
During continuous rain everything becomes wet, sooner or later. Or, almost everything. The sleeping bag has to be kept dry at all costs. Rain can cause hypothermia and it is important that you know how this dangerous, downward spiral may affect you, so that you can counter it with clothing, food and drink. When you learn how to hike in rain you become liberated – free to enjoy your hike in spite of the weather. This is a chapter on rain in general.

Rain is in many ways troublesome for a hiker, particularly if it goes on and on. In the long run, after several days of rain, most of your gear will be wet or at least damp. And with damp clothing you can easily become hypothermic. What begins with general discomfort can become apathy and extreme discomfort. You can in fact freeze to death, even if the temperature is above freezing. But this outcome is of course extreme. More common is that you are cold and you feel the vacation is a total failure.

In Scandinavia rain is always to be expected. It is not common that the rain pours down day after day, but it could happen. Frequent showers and persistent drizzle in the company of a cold wind are more common. If you are hiking in these circumstances, you should learn to cope with rain so that your hike does not turn into a complete disaster. Even with perfect rain gear, you can count on becoming a bit damp if the rain continues for a while. It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to keep your sleeping bag dry in those circumstances. A completely water-proof stuff sack for my sleeping bag and another for my extra clothing is a central part of my gear list. I prefer the slightly heavier versions of stuff sacks that take 10-12 litres of gear and weigh around 80-100 grams simply because they stay water-proof longer than the lighter sil nylon or cuben fiber bags.

It is also important that you are equipped with clothes that dry quickly and provide some protection against hypothermia, even when they are wet. This means that cotton in any shape or form is something you must scrupulously avoid – no T-shirts or bandannas in the material; not even fabrics with a cotton and synthetic mixture. I have found that there are many 100% synthetic materials that are just as comfortable, as well as thinner and lighter.

Thin fabrics always dry faster than the same fabric in thicker versions. Thin, synthetic shirts and pants is what I use and recommend. There is one exception. Thin merino wool base layers do not dry as fast as synthetics but are in my opinion more comfortable to wear when damp or wet. Strenuous exercise, like hiking, often makes you damp underneath your more or less breathable rain gear. This is definitely to prefer to becoming wet from large amounts of much colder water from the outside, but the dampness of your own sweat still has a chilling effect.

As long as you are in motion, this is often not much of a problem, at least not if the weather is not too cold and windy. But the moment you come to a halt, you tend to become chilled. To counter this, it is important, especially in rainy weather, to put on something insulating for short or long breaks. Putting on more clothes at break is not always as easy to do as it is to say. If you are chilled even while hiking, and weary when you sit down, you may easily want to skip the hassle with extra clothing. Struggling to open your pack in pouring rain does not feel so great. Also, you must keep your insulating clothing dry, which usually means you have to take off your rain jacket, don the insulating garment and then put your rain jacket back on top of it.

A dangerous, downward spiral of hypothermia can begin like that. It is a slippery slope of increasing apathy that can start with you becoming chilled while you are hiking. Being cold makes it awkward and uncomfortable to pause, so you skip the breaks. This apathy also leads to skipping regular handfuls of snacks being popped into your mouth. Because you cannot lounge in the grass and the sun, you might skip lunch. You just walk.

Everything becomes heavy, grey and wet. Finally, you are so tired that you have to stop. You just sit down; collapse into a big heap and wish you were somewhere else. Whose idea was it to go on this hike? If the above sounds like I have been there it is because I have been there. In a situation like that it is paramount that you restore your body heat by putting on warm clothes as well as providing your body with calories to fuel your inner furnace. It is also essential that you are on guard and aware of what is happening to you, or to someone in your hiking group.

Unless it is winter, you seldom run the risk to end up in a life–threatening condition, only the risk of feeling totally miserable. But this was hardly the vision you had when you planned your hike. In winter, the margins of error are smaller and the distance between being tired and apathetic is shorter. It happens that people freeze to death in the mountains beside packs full of warm clothing and food, which they were too tired to access and use. Good rain gear, awareness of the hypothermia danger and easy access to a big bag of snacks are important tools for you to be able to enjoy hiking even when it is raining.

If you are warm and your stomach is full, you are certainly able to enjoy seeing a curtain of rain, topped with a rainbow, rushing across the valley to meet you. Few things lull me to sleep better than resting in my dry and warm sleeping bag, listening to the rain pattering on the fly of my shelter.

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