How Not to Let Rain Spoil Your Backcountry Adventures

Some of my favorite backcountry moments have been spent squatting for shelter from a pounding rain beneath the branches of a tree or in a rock cave, even though some of those times I’ve been cowering in fear as thunder booms nearby. I swear, sometimes I’ve even been able to detect a faint whiff of ozone after a particularly close lightning crackle. It’s enjoyable, even though it’s occasionally literally hair-raisingly scary, because there’s something deeply satisfying about being prepared for even minor adversity like rain in the wilderness.

I once enjoyed a summer-long backpacking trip as a member of a National Park Service-employed archaeology team, poking around some previously uncharted (archaeologically-speaking, anyway) high alpine stretches of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. Nearly every day for weeks at a time, the mornings would dawn blue and bright, with no hint of angry weather to come. But if you spotted even the most benign-looking poof of a cloud by 10 am, you could bet that a few hours later you’d be munching a handful of nuts or possibly a tangerine, while sitting on your pack, hopefully under a stand of trees, as a monsoon-level storm raged and fired lightning bolts at the ground in the never far enough-away distance.

The first few weeks of that routine were stressful and tiresome, but after time, it became second nature, and spotting good shelters was practically involuntary. The best part was the serene calm that came after the storm. The birds resume singing, the air smells richly of clean, wet slate and soil, the sun peeks through, and it’s like a miniature spring awakening in the midst of summer.

Just this past weekend as a spring storm threatened a backpacking trip I’d planned for weeks, my friends and I spent a little extra time to be fully prepared and headed for the hills anyway. We were rewarded with a normally busy springtime trailhead all to ourselves immediately following a morning hailstorm that had cleared the parking lot. We sprinted into the shelter of a big stand of trees just as another furious bout of hail pelted our campsite, but emerged minutes later into a completely silent natural cathedral of brilliant green grasses rimmed by towering blue oaks. We were the only souls for miles.

Here are tricks I’ve learned to lessen the potential for the dangers and unpleasantness of backcountry rain.

Stay optimistic

When a long-planned trip looks threatened by a last-minute sourness of weather, hand-wringing over the forecast and cursing your luck won’t help. Neither will grumpy trail sulking. Accept that rain is part of the adventure, and, unless you’ll be put in danger by rain (desert canyon trips, climbing or navigating lots of exposed, high alpine passes, for example), prepare and pack accordingly and hope for the best. A pleasant attitude will do wonders when your feet are soaked.

Protect your essentials

I line the large compartment of my backpack with a trash bag—even my waterproof pack—and put anything in it that needs to stay dry: sleeping bag, extra clothes, tent, electronics, and maps, among other goodies. It’s cheaper than a rain cover, it weighs almost nothing, and it’s an easy habit to form.

Have a plan

If it’s likely that rain and possibly thunderstorms are on the horizon, be off any exposed peaks, finished with any high elevation pass crossing, and hopefully with your tent pitched. While optimism can help keep a trip from a descent into emotional misery if rain is unavoidable, blind optimism that you’ll be able to hike 12 miles to a hoped-for site regardless of weather is asking for trouble once thunderclouds build.

Know your thunderstorm basics

If lightning is imminent, never, ever be the tallest thing around, or be particularly near the tallest thing around. Sheltering under a tree is fine if the tree is part of a wide patch of trees, and you’re not squatting right next to the trunk. Caves are wonderful shelters, provided you avoid the cave mouth, which can conduct electricity. If no shelter is present, squat on the ground, preferably on a non-conducive material, like a sleeping pad or even your backpack, provided it’s not an old external non-anodized-aluminum-frame pack.

Avoid making camp in a low spot

Even if you’ve planned ahead and made it to a campsite before the heavens doth open, pitching your tent in a depression, or right near a stream or lake can be a disaster, as water will rush through your camp and you will hate absolutely everything. Make camp in a high spot above any obvious flooding possibilities.

Eat and drink

String up a tarp for protection and fire up your stove for hot cocoa or coffee and have a snack. No tarp? If your tent’s vestibule will safely allow it, that’ll work too. The warmth from the hot drink is obviously helpful, and a little carbo-loading will help keep energy levels up.

Know how to dry wet clothes

Take the time to make a clothesline, sleep with slightly damp clothes in your sleeping bag, smoke socks over a fire—do whatever it takes to be sure you’ve got dry clothes. Sitting there wet and miserable is easier, but can be life threatening if temps drop.

Once the weather breaks, it’s as if the wilderness has woken from a deep sleep. Trees are greener, the sky is bluer, clouds are whiter, snow is brighter, and my god, the fishing. Trout love nothing more than gorging on the bugs that have been knocked down into the lake or river by a rain and your luck will never be better than when you cast a fly immediately following a squall.

Rain is as much a part of the wilderness as the most brilliant sunshine. We’re out here for raw experience anyway. So embrace all of it.


The North Face recently introduced what it says is the first softshell waterproof jacket, the Apex Flex GTX. Gear nerds can debate the meaning of “softshell” deep into the night, but suffice it say this isn’t your father’s crinkly, noisy shell, but rather a soft, comfy outer fabric girded with Gore-Tex. $199 • BUY

A generation or two after revolutionizing value in rainwear, Marmot’s PreCip continues to give the best bang for the buck—and last we checked it’s on sale. The women’s PreCip is just $49.

Finally, don’t underestimate the shelter potential of a compact umbrella. Obviously, don’t rock it in a thunderstorm unless you want to be like the preacher in Caddyshack, but otherwise…the ShedRain Mid-Compact pops open to give you 43 inches of coverage. $35.50 • BUY

Top Photo by Will Keightly

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