Cold and Wet: The Hardest Hiking

What to wear in what many people consider to be among the most difficult of conditions: cold and wet.

There are many possible environmental conditions that a backpacker can possibly face:

  • The cold and dry environment of the alpine areas
  • Muggy and hot areas
  • Hot and dry in the desert

…and many other combinations of weather that can be challenging to cope with at times.

In my mind, among the most difficult weather to cope with is not the single digits (or lower) of the Rockies in winter or the hot and dry environment of the desert.  The hardest weather to deal with in my opinion? Mid-30s to mid-40s in such areas as the Appalachians or  the Pacific Northwest with its many days of rain, sleet or slushy snow.   (Colorado will occasionally get days like this but they rarely last for more than a day or two. And typically only in shoulder season).

I’d rather deal with dry cold and fluffy snow than this type of weather if given a choice.

But it is not always a choice. :)  Sometimes you need to get out less you go stir crazy  or perhaps you are hiking a late season or early season thru-hike on any of the long distance hiking trails.

So how to stay reasonably warm and comfortable in these conditions? There are some different methods that work. Also, notice I did not say warm AND dry.  I find it is difficult to truly stay dry in these conditions 100% esp after multiple days.  In my opinion, being able to be comfortable while moving  and then dry once in camp is more achievable goal than being 100% dry. If you are too warm, you will sweat and your layers will get wet and cause you to chill.  Better to be a trifle cool and a little damp while hiking in these kind of conditions.

In any case, here are some approaches to clothing, layering and camping in this kind of weather.

The usual caveat: Everyone is different. What works for one person may not work for another. I tend to hike all day with minimal breaks, hike hot but cool off quickly.   Take some of these ideas and apply them for your hiking style.

The Base Layers

You will want to wear synthetic or merino wool base layers. In these conditions. Some people like bringing a pair to change into when in camp. I find since I move all day, my base layers actually stay damp or even dry rather than wet.  They will dry out quickly once I am in my shelter and sleeping bag or quilt.  For various reasons, I prefer synthetic base layers in these conditions vs wool, but that is my personal preference.

If the weather is more on the slushy vs merely rainy side, I actually prefer some thin wool socks that are a little thicker than typical trail running socks for my shoes.

A chair conveniently positioned on the BMT so I can show off thermal layers.

I should also add that while I don’t take additional long underwear, I absolutely do take an extra pair of warm socks. A warm and dry pair of socks not only is a psychological boost that helps keep me warm at night, but also keeps my sleeping bag a bit cleaner.

Hats

My warm hat of choice for these type of conditions is a thicker polypro balaclava. A very versatile piece of gear, it is warm when hiking, dries quickly and fits under my wide-brimmed hat.  Some people prefer to use the hood from a rain jacket, but unless it is particularly windy and nasty, I personally do not like using a hood. Again, this is just my personal preference.

Come on..this photo makes you think of this song. Doesn’t it!?!?!

I will often take an extra fleece beanie. Nothing fancy, just your standard fleece hat that is very warm, light and is compact. I find a dry and warm hat is key for sleeping well. Note that you can wear the fleece beanie in conjunction with the balaclava. The balaclava will dry quickly and provide a little extra warmth at night.

Hands

I do not like one all-purpose glove or mitten. For all four seasons, I like the combo of wool liner gloves and a shell mitten. This combo is versatile and allows me to stay warm and comfortable in all kinds of conditions.  Since cold, wet and nasty weather tends to make the clothing wet at some point, I’ll take a 1 oz or so weight penalty and carry an extra pair of liner gloves.

Outer Wear – Insulation

I will take some form of a puffy for camp only. It keeps me warm if I spend time in camp and helps extend my sleeping gear a bit, too.  I will not wear a puffy while hiking as a rule of thumb. The moisture from the evaporation of the sweat in my body eventually compromises the insulation (even synthetic) making it less useful.

Naturally in the cold, wet and generally sloppy  discussions we are discussing, the puffy layer will get wet and there may not be a convenient opportunity to dry out this layer.

If I am cold while hiking in these conditions (when!), I actually prefer fleece. Yes, this supposedly outdated piece of back country gear actually works well in certain conditions. Cold and rainy conditions in particular. In short, unlike the puffy layers above, fleece is less likely to have its fibers collapse and can still function when pretty wet. Fleece can be wrung out and dries quicker, too.

The equivalent of a 100 wt fleece jacket works well when moving in these cold and wet conditions without making you overheat.  If you run particularly cold, a 200 wt fleece jacket could work well (if with a  weight and bulk penalty)  Though a pullover, people speak highly of the 100wt-type C9 brand fleece from Target. Less than $20, and not too heavy           (~9+/- oz).  This could be a good layer to hike in during these nasty conditions.

Another option could be to use a fleece vest. Less weight and bulk vs a pullover or jacket, the vest will also keep the core warm while moving but not enough to overheat.   If I were in the Pacific Northwest, the Appalachians or areas that saw a lot of these cold and nasty conditions,  a fleece vest  would be something I would probably use more. I generate a lot of body heat when moving; others may prefer a full jacket or pull over.

Outer Layer – Shells

A fleece works best by itself in cold and dry conditions with no wind. In cold, wet and/or windy conditions, however, a shell of some sort needs to be used.

If it is windy, cold and drizzly, a wind shirt is a good item to use.  The fleece will still be damp (as opposed to wet), but you will still be warm. A wind shirt is more breathable than rain gear so you will not overheat.

In consistent and cold rain or even slushy snow (as opposed to drizzle or fluffy snow), a hard shell will be needed.  Though I love the Frogg Toggs type shells for three-season use when it is just occasional rain or perhaps only need wind protection, I prefer a Marmot Precip type shell for continuous cold rain esp if going off-trail or in overgrown trail conditions.

The beauty of this system is that you can mix and match as needed.  Extremely light drizzle but not particularly cold? Wear the wind shirt and base layer only.   A cooler and dry  day with no wind? Fleece vest.  And so on.

For my legs, I prefer to use simple wind pants. Again, I hike very hot. I find that even in cold and nasty weather, my base layers stay on the drier side of damp with wind pants on. Those who get colder on their legs may prefer actual rain pants.  I would not use the Frogg Togg type pants as these do not hold up well.

Outer Layer – Other Options

A lot of people love hiking with an umbrella. Great protection on breaks and just in general. Harder to use if you hike with poles and extra weight. If you go off-trail and/or hiking in overgrown conditions, an umbrella  may not be a good choice. But the versatility is a definite bonus for many.

Another option loved by many is the Marmot DriClime windshirt or similar. Very similar to the traditional lined windbreaker used by track teams, golfers and by New Jersey-based organized crime members on television and movies.

Hmm…the jackets really don’t look that different do they? I wear a compass around my neck rather than gold chain, though.

This piece of gear provides light insulation, wind protection and light drizzle protection as well.   Though I used this jacket in three-season backpacking for many years  (esp for colder and drier areas), I tend to not favor any clothing that does it all when facing mixed conditions. I personally prefer versatility as the variables do change a lot in this type of weather.

“Across the Pond” in the UK (and for Scotland in particular), many people swear by the similar, but sturdier, Buffalo Pertex wind clothing (gloves, jackets and pants).  I have not used this equipment personally, but the conditions encountered in Scotland hiking is on the cold and rainy side at times to say the least!  And many prominent outdoors people over there swear by Pertex clothing for cold and rainy conditions.  So something to consider as well.  Hard to get this clothing in North America – the windshirt/light fleece system is a  rough equivalent.

Again, all comes down to personal preference, hiking style and conditions if these alternate systems  would work for you.

Shelter

I prefer a large-sized silynylon tarp. An 8×10 tarp provides much versatility, is a palace for one and, when pitched correctly, provides an amazing amount of weather protection. At less than a pound, a tarp is exceptionally light.  A silnylon tarp dries quick, too.  Cuben fiber tarps are lighter and sag less, but I can’t justify the large amount of money for the weight savings personally.  “Losing pounds are cheap; losing ounces are expensive”.  

The downside of a tarp is that in exposed areas such as above treeline, you really need to stake it out low and firmly.

Others prefer a more traditional double wall tent as it provides  more protection than a tarp, can be pitched in exposed areas easier, and the inner layer stays drier.  But, I find these tents wet out, get heavy and take forever to dry. Still, for weather protection in cold and rainy conditions they are a very weather proof shelter.

A compromise between the two above shelters are  a tarp-tent or a similar single wall tent. This type of shelter is enclosed more, is a littler sturdier than a tarp and easier to pitch, but lighter than a double wall tent.

Go-Lite Shangri-La. Works well for winter, too. Photo courtesy of Andrew Skurka.

If you hike in the Appalachians, many of the trails (the Long Trail, the Appalachian Trail, local trails, etc). have three-sided lean-tos or fancier shelters. Some of these are almost a cabin!

Though they can be crowed on cold and wet days, esp in prime hiking season, they are undeniably great for drying out gear that is damp or even wet and will keep you quite dry and comfortable.  If you are fortunate enough to have few people in a shelter, lots of space to sprawl out, too.

Sleeping bag and pads

Your normal sleeping bag and pad should work fine (assuming it is the appropriate rating ). Some prefer synthetics for a sleeping bag, but I find as long as the shelter is big enough and the sleeping bag does not touch the shelter walls, a down bag works well.

Any puffy-type insulation (sleeping bags, jackets, pants) will soak up moisture (be it down or synthetics) from the ambient air or even perspiration at night. However, if I am warm and dry to start in my sleeping bag/quilt, I find the mild dampness will dry out.  Damp..not wet! :)  Use your usual methods to keep the sleeping bag dry. A lined pack and have the quilt or sleeping bag in a garbage bag for multiple protection works well.

A warm and dry Devil Duck.

As mentioned, your normal sleeping pad should work. Unless you are using a summer rated pad. Try to bring a pad with the appropriate R value. I like bringing my Z-Lite in these conditions. My blue foamer is too thin for these conditions. I do not enjoy or trust inflatable pads as I am hard on my sleeping pads.  Again, personal preference.

Stoves and cooking

Though I often go stoveless during three-season backpacking, I prefer a hot meal and drink at the end of the day for these kind of conditions esp if they go for multiple days  (e.g.  early or late season in the Appalachians). A psychological boost admittedly, but a rather nice one! Which type of stove to take all depends on personal preference.

Or any time it dips into cold temps. Hot coffee in the morning = luxury at times!

Depending on the shelter, you can cook from your bag while the stove is just outside. Very easy to do just outside a tarp or tents with a large vestibule. Be careful! Don’t want to tip over the stove or cook directly inside your shelter.     Of course, if you go stoveless, you don’t have to worry about  these considerations. :)   Naturally, if you are sleeping in an Appalachian Trail style shelter, it is very easy to cook in these conditions.

And the rest of the story…

Cold and wet hiking can be difficult.  It requires some extra clothing, perhaps some extra equipment and definitely the right mental attitude. But with the right mixture of gear, clothing and preparation you can actually enjoy these type of conditions at times. Honest!

There is no right or perfect way of doing things, but some ideas work better than others. :) Be prepared. Be flexible. And use some of the ideas above to make a system that works well for you.  Above all, as my fellow podcaster d-low says, “GET ON THE TRAIL!”.

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11 thoughts on “Cold and Wet: The Hardest Hiking

  1. I wear a 100 weight fleece pullover year round and it’s probably my most essential hiking garment. Stays warm when wet and dries very fast. Virtually indestructibe and inexpensive.

    • I suspect if I was back in my former stomping grounds of the Whites, that type of garment would be a permanent part of my kit. Part of the reason why I see the generally recognized weight categories as guidelines and not absolutes: It really is trip and environment dependent.

  2. Hi Mags

    Great article! I also prefer the double glove system with liner and shell. I use and old Columbia 100 weight fleece that is incredibly thin and light, on most any trip, west or east. I’m a gear junkie sometimes, and have purchased way too much “stuff,” but that old fleece has stayed with me through it all! :-)

  3. Great article! I too, having grown up (and currently living back) in the mid-Atlantic, default to fleece for insulation layers. I find the weight penalty to be not enough to give up the performance in wet weather.

    Like you, I find the fleece vest for active periods to be the usual great solution, and have even used a fully sleeved zip up or pull over as my in camp or inactive periods.

    In all fairness as to weight, as a larger person (even at peak fitness I clock in at 230+#), a few extra ounces/pounds have less impact on me.

  4. Recently went on a two night trip in NW Missouri with temps in the teens and for gloves wore midweight fleece liners sandwiched in a pair of batting gloves. Had great movement, warmth and the ability to grip from large pieces of wood to getting Oreo’s out of the bag.

  5. Nice write up of cold and wet hiking. Is fleece roughly equivalent to a nanopuff (Patagonia trade name)? I use my nanopuff the same way that you use the fleece.
    The one use I did not see mentioned was drying out base layers. When my base layers are wet or damp, I throw the nanopuff on: the water quickly moves to the outside of the nanopuff and evaporates. It certainly sounds like it would be the same.

    • The problem with any puffy, be it synthetic or down, is that it WILL get damp, or even wet, in these conditions if used while hiking. The loft will be compromised and the garment will not be effective. A puffy is best for camp/sleeping and breaks and not hiking. Even in cold and dry conditions, your body perspiration will get into the loft and, again, compromise the garment’s effectiveness. Only in very cold and dry conditions should a puffy be worn while hiking.

      A nano is roughly equivalent to a 200 wt fleece in terms of warmth. Naturally a 200 wt fleece is bulkier and heavier (and makes many people overheat while moving). That’s why many people like a 100wt fleece or even a vest for active hiking as the weight and bulk penalty is not as pronounced.

      • The Nano Puff is designed to be warm when wet. It uses Primaloft One insulation. The promotional material claims that when it is wet it loses just 3% of its insulation capability – that is, it retains 97% of its insulation capability. From my experience with it over two years that figure is quite believable. I find no difference in warmth whether it is wet or not. It draws moisture outward very well and is wind resistant too. Patagonia does make down versions of the Nano Puff but they go by a different name.

        I very rarely wear it while hiking – it is mostly for breaks and for camp. I too hike hot, if I have put on the Nano then it is below 15 F and I’m descending. But it is thin enough to use while hiking – thinner than fleeces I have owned.

        • Glad it works for you. But that is a very different experience from what most people (myself included) have with puffy layers…despite what marketing materials may say. :)

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