The first time I got caught backpacking in a serious rain I was an idiot. Nothing bad actually happened to me, but I was light years away from being prepared. I didn’t notice the ominous signs of a thunderstorm until it was nearly too late. I hadn’t packed the proper gear when I left home. I hadn’t considered the trail I was on and what it would look like in a torrential downpour. I was wearing jeans when it started raining. Jeans!
Thankfully, I had already set up camp when the first drops began to fall, and, fortunately, I’d lucked into a patch of high ground below a canopy of towering pines. When the first lightning bolts lit up the granite peaks nearby, just moments after I’d climbed into my tent, I realized how close I’d come to having to try to remember whether I was supposed to run toward trees, or away from them in an electric storm (I still can’t remember, to be honest). When the first pea-sized balls of hail started pelting the tent fly, piling up outside the vestibule like somebody had turned on a giant ice machine right above me, I thought of how, with no rain in the forecast, I’d almost left the rain fly behind. When I wriggled out of my soaked synthetic shorts and pulled out the only pair of pants I had in my backpack, which were, for a reason unfathomable to me now, denim, I couldn’t help but repeat to myself the mantra: “cotton kills.”
The rain poured and poured for close to an hour, great torrents of water sluicing past the tent, rushing to a low spot I’d almost set up my tent in, but didn’t, a stroke of good luck more than a wise choice to avoid a depression. Thunder would repeatedly crash and echo off the granite, filling me with a foreboding after each magnificent clap.
New to backpacking, every other trip deep into the woods I’d yet taken had been sun-kissed and carefree. I’d yet to learn a healthy respect for what it really meant to be several days’ walk from a road. For an hour or so I listened to the rain and wondered how I’d climb out of this valley on the sketchy trail out, with vertiginous drops on both sides, now certainly a river of slick mud.
Then the rain suddenly stopped. The spigot was shut off. Minutes later the sun was out. The trout bite was on after the rain as it always is, and soon my stringer had two healthy cutthroats pulling at the end. Everything worked out.
But I’d learned, the easy way, thankfully, how naive I’d been and I’d also learned a healthy fear of storms in the backcountry.
More importantly, though, I realized I’d actually enjoyed the experience. The—barely there, I admit—sense of potential danger thrilled in a way fair weather backpacking never had. I wanted more foul-weather backcountry experience.
I wouldn’t seek out 12,000-foot passes in a thunderstorm or anything, but setting out for a multi-day trek with rain looming or even falling is now its own kind of joy.
I like lining a pack with a trash bag to protect the contents, pulling on the pack’s rain cover just be sure. When rain starts, I get a little charge out of donning my rain gear. The mud sloshing around waterproof boots is satisfying. The sound raindrops make as they pound pine trees and boulders and meadows is soothing. Quickly setting up a tent (rainfly first, tent body upside down is my trick) during a downpour and keeping things relatively dry is a point of pride. Judging the towering buildup of thunderheads and predicting how much time I have to make shelter makes me feel like an overlanding explorer.
The mountains are never more beautiful after a rain passes. The clouds never whiter, the sky never bluer, birdsong never more beautiful. It’s like a miniature spring in the afternoon, as animals emerge from their bad weather refuges, me included. A little bad weather gives a more complete picture of the backcountry experience than you’d get if you only tramp around in 75-degree perfection.
Plus, it makes me feel like I’m having a real adventure. Silly and ego-stroking maybe, but true all the same.
Photo: Tony Hisgett