Gear - Rain jacket and pants

(This article is a slightly rewritten version of a couple of chapters from my book Smarter Backpacking, in Swedish called Lättare packning från A till Ö)

Luckily, good quality light rain jackets are easy to find on the market. Often, it is better to bring one of those on your hike and leave heavier shells at home. I find it more comfortable to use my rain jacket as seldom as possible, in order to minimize condensation problems. As a consequence, I only use my rain jacket when it is raining heavily.

Many heavy rain jackets, usually called 'shell jackets' or similar, can be found on the market. You can fairly easily save around 500 grams by choosing one of the lighter ones instead of a heavier one. I consider the majority of the so-called shell jackets heavy. They are common in many wardrobes today and are usually made of some kind of Mextex. In my opinion, most of them are unnecessarily heavy and thick for hiking. Most of them are in fact made not for hiking, but for waiting at the bus stop, albeit with a wilderness look that might be confusing.

Even if the marketing information claims that they have been used on Mount Everest, I prefer to leave them at home. These heavy jackets are excellent in town or for other kinds of outdoor activities, when I am not as physically active as when I am hiking, and I have blessed them many times on outings with my kids – and when at the bus stop. However, for hiking I do not like to wear garments that, in fact, breathe as little as these in fact do, unless I absolutely have to, which is when it is raining so much so that my umbrella does not give sufficient protection.

This is how I dress when I hike: As long as it is not so rainy or windy that my windshirt and umbrella do not keep me dry, my rain jacket rests in my pack. And then it is very nice that the jacket weighs 200 grams and not 750 grams. But when the weather gets really nasty, with low temperatures, high winds and horizontal rain, the rain jacket, with its main function to keep the torso dry, is very important from a safety point of view. Hypothermia can kill even if temperatures are above freezing. The combination of a light windshirt of 100-150 grams (3-5 oz) and a light rain jacket of 200-300 grams (7-11 oz) is actually lighter than many shell jackets, and infinitely more adaptable to different kinds of weather and different levels of exertion. Not uncommonly, the combination is also less expensive than some of the flagship shells from well-known brands.

If you only use the rain jacket when the weather is truly miserable, it does not have to be as rugged, as you will use it fairly seldom. That way, even a light, thin rain jacket will last many years. A rip is easily fixed with a piece of duct tape and that patch can last for years if you are not particularly sensitive to how it looks – and you do not have to be, if you only use it when the weather is extremely poor. If you spend much of your outings in base camps, perhaps using fires a lot, you may feel that the lightest rain jackets are not rugged enough. They are more vulnerable to sparks from the fire than the heavier garments. This could be a reason to choose a slightly heavier jacket. But you can also choose another garment as general shell when it is not raining.

As for me, I always use my windshirt as shell in those kinds of situations. This garment is less expensive and does not have to be waterproof. When using so-called waterproof/breathable garments it is important to remember that they are much more waterproof than they are breathable. Most of the moisture is in fact not transported through the fabric, but ventilated through different openings. This means that you should always have the jacket as open as circumstances allow, if you want to minimize condensation inside the garment. (This is also a good idea in tents: If it is not raining, you do not have to close the foretent in order to minimize condensation).

So, do not tighten the jacket around the wrists or the throat if that can be avoided. And leave the front zipper as unzipped as possible. You can save quite a bit of weight by choosing a light rain jacket instead of a heavy one. Put the jacket you probably already have on a scale, and then ponder if it is worth its weight. My experience is that the heavy-expedition weight rain jacket is more useful in the bus line (or on winter ski trips) but for three season hikes, a lighter and cheaper jacket is better. But, it must be a rain jacket by definition. It cannot be so light and cheap that it doesn’t keep out the rain.

A pair of light rain pants need not be expensive. Like the rain jacket, rain pants are important for comfort and safety in colder climates and/or high elevation trails. When the wind blows cold, the rain pants also keep you warm, which means you sometimes can leave the long johns at home. However, you can save a considerable amount of weight by choosing from the lightest rain pants on the market.

My own favorite solution for leggings in rough weather is thin, synthetic pants coupled with light rain pants on top. The rain pants should weigh at the most 200-300 grams (7-11 oz). You can even find rain pants that weigh in at half of that. I have never needed rain pants with side zips, but most pants have them today. Zippers can be useful if you use boots that are a nuisance to lace off and on, but you pay a penalty in weight and complexity. Since I use light running shoes that are easily taken on and off, I don’t need zips like that at all.

In summer weather you could consider your rain pants as something to not only keep you dry, but also keep you warm. Leave the long johns at home and put on the rain pants when it is cold and windy. In theory, a pair of shell pants in waterproof/breathable material could be used as both standard pants and rain pants. All in one, that is. Personally, I am sceptical for a simple reason: I do not like to dress in rain clothing unless it is raining.

Even the best waterproof/breathables are a whole lot more waterproof than breathable. They tend to collect condensation if you walk in them for some time while carrying a pack. If you are mostly standing still, that’s a different ballgame, but now we are mostly concerned with hiking. All-round pants also tend to be on the heavy side, which is not so comfortable, and there is always a risk that daily wear-and-tear could make them leak sooner or later.

Picking a pair of really light rain pants can save 100-300 grams, compared to choosing the heavier ones.

For C2C I will be using a Haglöfs Shield Hood that weighs 215 grams in my XL. Pants will be Montane Minimus XL weighing 160 grams.

If you do not already have light raingear and hesitate to buy something like this, which is a bit costly, my favorite compromise between weight and cost when it comes to rain gear is the Packaway set from Swedish web store Idefixteko. It will add about 50% to the weight of the above but will only cost about 750 SEK for jacket and pants. Me and my family (with growing kids the price is right..) have used this set a lot and like it a lot.

I do not even try to keep my feet dry in my light trail running shoes and as long as I move they usually do not get cold. But prolonged rain and low temperatures sometimes chills them and I alway carry waterproof socks to be able to keep my feet warm. For C2C I will probably bring either a pair of SealSkinz socks or a pair of Rocky Goretex socks. Bike socks from Gore is another alternative as well as neoprene socks. More about socks like this here and about hiking in thin shoes with wet feet here. Both articles in Swedish.

This article would not be complete without a word about a piece of gear I frequently use; the umbrella. Most people snicker at the thought of seeing someone with an umbrella in the mountains and I have been snickered at. But fact is, in light rain with little wind using an umbrella is very comfortable. Easy to unfold and fold as showers come and go, protects your pack a bit and keeps you from overheating when using rain jacket and pants in warm, humid weather. I will be bringing my umbrella for C2C. More on umbrellas here. Using umbrellas with walking poles can be accomplished and here is an article with a film of the man who showed me how, Kristian Ingemansson, who will join us for C2C.

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