Q&A: How to Stay Dry on the Appalachian Trail

“No rain, no pain, no Maine,” goes a popular trail adage.  As many parts of the eastern woods receive upwards of 40 or 50 centimeters of rain each year, the Appalachian Trail is the wettest trail of the United States’ Triple Crown.  With all of that precipitation, one of the most important questions aspiring thru-hikers ask is how to stay dry while they’re living in the woods.

Except in years with extreme droughts, it’s probably impossible to stay completely dry and make it to Maine while thru-hiking.  However, most 2000-milers have a slew of tricks for dealing with wet weather, and I thought I should share some of mine:

1) Ditch the pack cover.

I thought I’d start off this post with some unconventional advice:  Don’t invest in a pack cover.  They’re overrated.

Newbies often assume that pack covers will keep everything in their packs dry, as this seems like the only reason to bring along a several-ounce elasticized piece of nylon.  I once held this misconception and spent an uncomfortable night in a rather damp sleeping bag.

Pack covers are intended to keep only packs dry, which their proponents claim is an important way to reduce pack weight.  In my mind, the weight savings on wet days doesn’t justify carrying the pack cover on sunny days.

2) Prepare to be amazed by the power of the trash compactor bag!

So, you may ask, without a pack cover, how will I begin to keep my gear dry?  Trash compactor bags are a favorite trail secret of mine.

If you’re not familiar with them, trash compactor bags are heavy-duty plastic garbage bags.  Using a trash compactor bag as a pack liner that is stuffed with and rolled down on anything that you’d like to ensure stays dry makes rainy days and stream crossings worry-free.  I recommend buying a small package of bags for a thru-hike, as you’ll probably wear out two or three over the course of the trek.  (You can put one in a mail drop every few weeks; if you don’t use it, giving it away to another hiker is a great way to make a friend.)

3) Pack for rainy weather.

This is one of those tips that might not be readily apparent but becomes second nature with increased backpacking experience.  It’s a good idea to have several different Tetris-like configurations for all the gear in your pack, and some of the most important configurations involve dealing with wet weather.

Suppose that it is raining while you’re packing up in the morning.  Can you pack up all your gear while staying inside your wet tent?

Suppose that you’re expecting it to rain today.  How can you ensure all of your most important gear stays dry and that your tent is easy to set up in the drizzle sure to accompany the day’s end?

Finally, suppose that it rained last night but will be a gorgeous day today.  Can you arrange your pack in such a way that you’ll be able to dry your tent and anything else that got wet at the first sunny spot you come to?

4) Forgo GORE-TEX boots in favor of quick-drying hiking shoes.

Gone are the days of hikers marching from Georgia to Maine in heavy leather boots; these days, “hiking shoes” or even “trail runners” are exceedingly trendy.  In my opinion, this is for good reason.  On rainy days, the Appalachian Trail gets wet — very, very wet.  While it’s raining, it’s not unusual to walk down the trail in a mid-calf-deep stream.  Because of this, everyone, regardless of their footwear, gets wet; the important thing becomes how quickly your shoes dry.

5) If you tend to get chilled easily, bring rain gear.

I really like having rain gear on the trail, even if my rain jacket is only marginally waterproof these days.  I’ve been told that, unless you shell out a small fortune to purchase them, you’re unlikely to find a rain jacket or pants that are both waterproof and actually breathable.  Some people use this fact to dismiss the value of rain gear:  Is it any better to get wet from sweat than from rain when wearing a rain jacket?  I would say that it is.  Rain gear cuts down on wind and allows your body to form something of a miniature sauna, which has kept me safe on cold, rainy days.

6) Embrace a set of rainy-day hiking habits.

Regardless of how you hike on sunny days, you’ll probably end up adopting a certain set of behaviors for rainy days.  You’ll probably take shorter breaks, and you’ll probably seek refuge in any shelters you pass.  You might cook less.  Perhaps surprisingly, you’ll likely put in more miles than you normally would.

On rainy days, some important behaviors to consider involve dealing with your wet clothes once you get to camp.  If it’s a warm day (and you’re tolerably chafe-free), you might choose to sleep in your wet clothing to allow your body heat to dry it.  Conversely, if the day is colder, the best thing you can do, in my mind, is to take off any wet clothing you’ve been wearing and don some of the layers your expert packing job and trash compactor bag have kept dry.  Instantly, you’ll feel warmer — and probably in better spirits.

How do you deal with rainy days on the trail?  I’d love to hear about your tried-and-true practices — or your favorite wet-weather hiking stories.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.
%d bloggers like this: