Outdoor Smarts: Don't Get Drenched

How to keep you and your gear dry.

Life Scout Ashton Burk of Troop 720, Fort Worth, Tex., keeps dry in a downpour with a Seattle Sombrero from Outdoor Research and GorTex rain parka and pants from REI. Food, clothing, and small electronics are protected in dry bags from SealLine and a case from Otter Products, LLC.

You’ve planned an outdoor adventure for months, and now you’re finally striding out for that long-awaited weekend. Then you see them: angry-looking clouds the color of bruises. And they’re heading straight for you.

But soggy weather, whether expected or a surprise, doesn’t have to lead to soggy spirits. Here’s where experience can turn a trip around as quickly as the clouds roll in. A few pieces of key gear can make all the difference.


Rain jackets should be mandatory on anyone’s equipment list, even if the forecast promises nothing but sunshine. Waterproof-breathable jackets made with laminates like Gore-Tex offer the best multiseason all-around weather protection, but they are expensive. If you opt for cheaper jackets made of nonbreathable fabrics, be sure they include features like side or back vents to let sweat and body heat escape.

Ponchos are another affordable option. In cold, windy weather, wear them over an insulating layer. A piece of nylon cord tied around the waist keeps them from flapping and helps retain heat.

If you are camping in the mountains or during the spring or fall, consider adding a pair of weather-resistant pants. Waterproof-breathable fabrics perform best in cold, rainy conditions; in summer, a pair of lightweight nylon wind pants is often adequate.

Waterproof gaiters are leg coverings that reach from your lower leg to your instep. In addition to keeping water out of your boots, they also banish stones, twigs, grass seeds, and burs.

Every piece of rain gear doesn’t have to be high-tech. Throw a few heavy-duty garbage bags of various sizes into everyone’s pack. Use them as an emergency raincoat (cut out slits for the arms and head) or as a pack cover. They can also be used as a picnic blanket when the ground is wet or to line stuff sacks that aren’t waterproof.


Seams are the likeliest points of entry for rain into your tent. This includes any seams on the rain fly or tent bottom. You should always coat the seams of a new tent with a tube of glue-like seam sealer before taking it on a trip. (Note: Some tents are factory seam-sealed. Sometimes, however, only major seams are sealed, leaving small but vulnerable seams where water can seep in.)

A rain fly is a nylon tarp that fits over the top and sides of your tent. It’s always a good idea to set it up, even on a clear night. This way you don’t have to run around in a midnight thunderstorm trying to figure out which part of the rain fly goes where.

If you sleep without the rain fly (which on hot nights may be the most comfortable choice), be sure to put it somewhere that you can quickly grab it if the weather turns foul.

A large tarp, 9 or 10 feet square, is a lightweight means to make life more comfortable under drizzly skies. A tarp provides a cooking shelter as well as a place to gather, eat, and discuss the day’s happenings.

SealLine map case keeps topo charts and GPS dry. Use Nikwax to waterproof tents and boots. A watertight Otter Box can protect hand-held electronic gear.


Even if it doesn’t rain, paddling trips offer endless ways to get every single thing you’ve packed thoroughly soaked. In kayaks, gear goes in the hold, but it still should be packed in waterproof sacks.

In a canoe, pack as much as possible into one big waterproof bag, and strap it securely into the craft. (That way, if you capsize, your bags won’t set off on their own trip down the river.) Specially designed waterproof river bags with backpacking straps are handy for portages and for carrying gear from riverbank to campsite.

Waterproof stuff sacks can be used to keep everything from food to underwear dry. To be truly waterproof, they should be made of, or lined with, a waterproof fabric or laminate, and should have a tight closure.


Down sleeping bags are lighter than polyfill, and they compress better. But down provides very little insulation when wet. If you’re hiking in climates where rain is common, polyfill bags are a better choice. All sleeping bags should be protected in waterproof sacks.

For clothing, wear synthetic fabrics like fleece, pile, polypropylene, and Capilene. These retain some insulation value, even when damp or wet. A waterproof hat, such as the Seattle Sombrero, by Outdoor Research, will keep your head from getting drenched in a downpour.

There’s not much you can do about keeping lightweight fabric-and-leather boots dry, although models lined with Gore-Tex will keep out water for a while. You can also protect them with a layer of waterproofing treatment such as Nikwax (check manufacturer’s recommendations).

An assortment of low-tech zipper-lock plastic bags can be a hiker’s best friend. Matches, cameras, guidebooks, and notes can be fully protected with these simple plastic bags.

However, it’s better to use special containers, like the watertight box by Otter Products L.L.C., to store costly electronic gizmos like your GPS, cell phones, walkie-talkies, cameras, or video equipment. It only takes one bad storm to ruin several hundred dollars’ worth of equipment.

Maps also require special attention. (The only thing worse than being lost is being lost in the rain.) Not all outdoor maps are waterproof, and even waterproof ones start looking soggy after enough folding and refolding in wet weather. Use a sturdier map case, such as those by SealLine See Bags from Cascade Designs. A large one (about 16 inches square) will let you see a good chunk of the map all at once.

Karen Berger writes about hiking and backpacking for www.gorp.com, an on-line resource for outdoor recreation. She is the author of eight books, most recentlyHiking the Triple Crown (The Mountaineers Books).

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