Bearing in mind, that staying dry is virtually impossible over time […]
Some will argue that getting wet isn’t a problem for them. They will charge right through streams without regard for their feet, knowing their trail runners will get somewhat “dry” pretty quickly. Others have similar regard for the rain: “In the last 50 minutes of a “Presi traverse” I allowed myself to get soaking wet. I was running down the trail and didn’t bother to stop and put on my gear; I just kept running. In hindsight, had I fallen, things could have gotten bad. But I didn’t fall, things didn’t go bad, I just got soaked.” To this, we say: each to their own. It’s easy to say the heck with it and just let getting wet happen. On a hot summer day it might feel great, while on a cool fall, winter, or spring day it might kill you. In any case, if you want to stay dry, if that’s how you roll — or want to — this article’s for you.
Water, Water Everywhere
“Where on earth is all this water coming from?” bellowed the captain. If we want to keep water out, it seeps in; if we want to keep it in, it leaks out. Just ask a boater, plumber, or roofer. It’s how things are.
Water From Above
When someone thinks of ways to get wet in the mountains, precipitation such rain, ice, or snow might top their list. Water from above us is common. It comes from other places, too. A windy morning after a rainy night might create a rain-like environment as water drips from trees. And along the same vein, wet snow falling from trees on a perfectly warm, sunny morning after a night of snow might surprise some unwary travelers.
There are other ways water from above can hamper our day; the attack isn’t always on us, personally. Snow and rain can also get into our pack when stopping for a break. Think about what is above you before you expose yourself… or your gear.
Water From Around
Sometimes getting out of the rain isn’t sufficient. Water can be all around us in the form of moisture from clouds and other sources of water vapor: waterfalls, as well as blowing rain and snow which can also find us, even humidity can contribute to us getting wet.
And there’s more: backpackers will know that a lack of ventilation can contribute to condensation inside a tent via respiration. Also, tight, brushed-in trails can lead to us getting wet if traveling in the the morning or after a rain shower — think car wash.
Water From Below
It’s not alway the obvious water crossings like streams, muddy and boggy wet sections of trail, weak snow bridges or surfaces, depressions (think tent placement while camping), that can allow water to seep into our bilges, so to speak. One culprit can be the morning dew. Walking through wet grasses can soak our footwear in no time.
Water From Within
The world is obviously a watery place. It accounts for the majority of the planet’s surface. It stands to reason, then, that there is so much water above, around, and below us. The fact we do stay dry is a bit of a miracle. And to further this, we are made of water, and we leak or sweat whenever we exert ourselves; it’s how our cooling system works. That sweat, even in winter, can quickly overwhelm us making us wet.
Since we are made of water and leak water — and not just through sweat but also through respiration, as noted, urination, even tears — it makes sense that we must replenish that water regularly. Thus we carry water (bottles, a hydration system, etc.), which can also leak.
What are we to do?!
Avoiding All This Water
Bearing in mind, that staying dry is virtually impossible over time if one is active in the outdoors, but at least for the short term, we can manage to stay somewhat dry, for some of the time… by way of magic.
One of the great challenges of covering ourselves to protect our clothing from water is that we will overheat much more quickly resulting in our getting wet from perspiration. A typical plastic or rubber rain suit, while very effective, cannot breathe and will make us overheat and sweat with the least amount of effort.
Technology’s answer to this is hooded raingear/hardshells with specialized membrane linings like GoreTex (as just one brand) and DWR (durable water repellent) fabric coatings, or both. Neither is entirely effective, and there’s always a trade off. Coatings wear out over a fairly short period of time, as do linings, though the latter typically last longer and are more effective. Neither breathe that well, despite claims, and tend to lead to sweating from within. To minimize sweating — besides using an antiperspirant in places where you sweat most (which can be used on your feet, too, if needed), it’s best to use protective layers that have physical vents. These can be located under the arms in the form of “pit zips” and nowadays some makers extend these zips to the hem allowing for the sides to be completely open like a poncho.
And speaking of ponchos, they are certainly worthy of consideration, even covering your pack at the same time, but they do have the disadvantage of being billowy and they may get snagged on the flora along narrower trail corridors, and often they don’t protect the lower legs and our footwear, but this may be solved with gaiters.
On the subject of legs, when wearing raingear/hardshells, the hooded jacket or top is just part of the system. Pants are also needed. Like the jacket, the pants can hold in heat and lead to sweating. Leg-length “full side zips” are a good feature to have to allow better ventilation (plus it makes getting them on and off easier over boots and crampons). Do be wary of water entering these access points on narrow, wet trails, though.
Other options, while definitely not at all sexy or cool, are the lowly umbrella and umbrella hat. If the trail corridor will allow the use of an umbrella, and many will, and you are okay with giving up a hand, they are very effective at keeping us dry from overhead sources of water like rain. These things are terrible in the wind, and may be cumbersome, but they don’t impede our personal ventilation. Also, do expect many looks and comments. The umbrella hat is even less annoying, but must be worn with other rain gear. Also, being about the least cool option on the planet, one has to make to ask themselves, and answer honestly: would I allow myself to be caught dead by SAR in this thing? Many will answer NO, emphatically.
When it comes to protecting ourselves, we must also consider the hands and feet. Whether wearing a full rain suit or a poncho, our hands and feet are the most exposed part of our body often making contact with nearly all sources of water. Even if wearing boots and gloves with waterproofing wax or actual waterproof boots or gloves, water can come in from over the top in deeper crossings and puddles. Water can also run down our arms and legs right into our gloves and boots if we don’t protect that access with tight-fitting gaiters, tape, or overboots, and long sleeves… and even that is only partially effective. Care must be taken.
If our footwear does get wet, all we can really do is either live with it until dry, or change our socks, slip our feet into plastic bags (which may lead to sweating), and put our wet footwear back on. We find the blue plastic “vomit bags” found at your doctor’s examining room work well for this (good for up to about a men’s size 9-11 foot, depending on sock thickness). They are tough bags that will last a day or longer. For gloves, bring spares, and not fleece-lined since they can be very difficult to take on and off with wet hands. Wool, as always, is awesome. Nitrile gloves — also available from your doctor — may also be used as glove liners in the manner that the vomit bags are, though less effectively unless you have liners.
Protecting Our Gear
Keeping ourselves dry protects us and the clothes we’re wearing, so the only thing left is to protect what we’re carrying. One option, aside from having a truly waterproof pack (a rare thing indeed, even from packs using cuben fiber and other waterproof materials), one can employ a waterproof pack cover. These covers, if not being blown off our packs, will keep the contents and pack material itself dry in a very light rain. If really tested, even a good pack cover will partially fail. That said, they will usually keep our packs from wetting out completely, and that’s worthy for the weight savings.
A bigger threat may exist thanks to river crossings. If we fall in all of our stuff will probably get wet. It’s important that we use trekking poles to help us balance, and that we use care to ensure good footing, but to better protect the contents of our packs, we recommend bagging. This can be accomplished by using “waterproof” stuff sacks or dry bags. It may also be done by putting all of your gear in a trash compactor bag — that specific type due to its incredible strength and durability (it can even be repaired with waterproof Gorilla Tape — our duct tape of choice). The liner bag is such a simple, cost-effective solution; one we employ, along with stuff sacks for organization, with our Ready Packs.
Between Ourselves and Our Gear
Using the information presented so far we can mostly isolate ourselves from water — barring the self-induced variety and inevitable failures — and we can also isolate our gear from water. Problem is, this leaves us isolated from our gear. To access our gear, we must expose both ourselves and our gear to some degree… or find shelter.
The solution is a straightforward one, albeit not always simple: cover the interchange. This can be done in a shelter, as noted, or with a poncho, since the two share the space to begin with, a tarp, or a specialized piece of gear such as a Bothy Bag (an above treeline safety product we use [info]). Again, straightforward but not simple… unless you keep these items on your person. Plan ahead!
The reality is that we shield this interchange as needed for the conditions and with the best of our ability. We do this with the terrain, our clothing and gear, and our bodies by leaning over our open packs. We also do little but important things like stow our gloves in our jacket to protect them while not wearing them. Also of importance, we must accept that some rain, some snow, some mist, or even some sweat, will ruin our cocoon of perfect dryness. We use gear that dries fast, performs wet, and wicks moisture for a reason.
This leads us to mention camping and backpacking. In that realm, if we plan well and can establish camp in dry conditions (which is to otherwise avoid misery, in other words), and if we can break camp in drier conditions — at least while it’s not actually raining — it’s not difficult to stay dry overnight. Obviously you need a tent with sealed seams, hammock with tarp, or a tarp with a protected floor. And, of course, you chose the right site.
On this note, to further the protection of these shelters, which should be roomy enough or offer a vestibule to protect our gear, it’s essential we set them up in a location that is raised to prevent the pooling of water under or around you, all while considering lightening, of course. Having tree cover if dealing with rain or snow can afford some protection, even when the trees become saturated. Do, however, be sure not to set up under weak or dead branches, or an atypically tall or isolated tree!
We also want to try to provide as much ventilation or air flow as possible to prevent condensation from our respiration. Using an open shelter or lean-to is great for this, when available (READ: If this is an option for you, plan your overnights if expecting wet weather).
In some cases, also realize you may have to forego stopping (a desperate move that requires great care and energy), or wait it out. This comes with the territory and its possibility should always be part of your master plan.
This article covers such a seemingly simple subject. Staying dry, however, is complex… kind of like healthcare, who knew? We had considered continuing it to include the what-if scenario of how to become dry should we or our gear get wet, then realized that in full, this is no longer a page, it’s a chapter.
For now, remember this: it’s easier to stay dry than to get dry after becoming wet. But if getting wet does happen — and it will — you should know that aside from the traditional methods of drying items (using sun and air), the best way to get stuff dry is to put it into service. If you have a wet article of clothing, put it on, then start moving, then eat for energy to allow this system to work. Will it suck? Yes. Putting on a cold, wet shirt on a cool morning is not fun, but it works. And if you have the right kind of clothing, as you should, it works surprisingly fast.
In the meantime, to turn a phrase: Stay dry, my friends.