When I set out to hike the Colorado Trail in July of 2020, I was mentally prepared for big climbs and stunning views. But I wasn’t ready for monsoon season. Trust me, you do not want to find yourself soaked through and freezing up at 10,000 feet.
My rain jacket sucked, but fortunately, there was one saving grace: my rain pants. Bringing rain pants on a backpacking trip can be an absolute game-changer, but they’re not always necessary or appropriate. Let’s explore why.
When do you NOT need rain pants?
Many thru-hikers don’t carry rain pants at all. They add extra weight to your pack and can be uncomfortably hot and stuffy. Since you don’t have any vital organs in your legs, they’re not quite as crucial to keep warm as your core, making rain pants an obvious item to jettison.
Some hikers carry rain pants only for certain sections of their hike. For instance, AT thru-hikers might want them in the White Mountains, since the terrain is often exposed and the weather is notoriously unpredictable. Similarly, PCT thru-hikers might only bring them for the Sierra or Washington.
When DO you need rain pants?
However, there are many circumstances in which rain pants are beneficial. News alert: rain pants are not just for rain! This is where the importance of pre-trip planning really comes into play. It’s critical to research the potential conditions and types of terrain you’ll be dealing with ahead of time.
READ NEXT – How to Choose the Proper Rain Gear for Your Hike
For instance, if you’ll be hiking through exposed sections of trail at elevation, you’re also likely to experience fast-changing weather. If conditions take a turn for the worst, rain pants can block wind and help you retain body heat. If it’s wet and cold, you certainly don’t want to put yourself at risk of hypothermia.
How about other types of precipitation, such as sleet or snow? Again, wet and cold = you need rain pants. If you’re dealing with snow that has already fallen, you can protect your exposed skin from postholing by cinching or tucking the bottoms of your pants into your shoes or gaiters. Rain pants can also shield you from poison ivy or oak, thorny vegetation, and mosquitoes and biting flies.
Backpacking Rain Pants Pros & Cons
- Multipurpose: protection from rain, snow, wind, vegetation, bugs, etc.
- Handy for “oh sh*t” moments (unpredictable weather/conditions)
- Not the heaviest piece of gear in your pack
- Might be hard to get to in a pinch (especially if they’re at the bottom of your pack)
- Extra weight and expense
- Can be stuffy and uncomfortable to hike in
Features to Look For in Backpacking Rain Pants
Provided that there are a lot of options out there, you should know what to look for prior to beginning your search. You should aim for quality rain pants that won’t break your backpacking budget—or your back, for that matter. They also need to be durable enough to hold up over the course of your trip. Let’s take a closer look.
Ideally, rain pants shouldn’t weigh much more than 10 ounces. There is a lot of gear on the market that can accomplish high quality at a low weight, and it shouldn’t break your bank either.
You can find decent backpacking rain pants regardless of your budget. While a higher price tag may translate to weight savings and better protection, that isn’t always the case. This is where it’s important to ask yourself questions like how much you’re willing to spend and what features are most important to you.
For instance, Frogg Toggs can offer excellent protection at a fraction of the cost of other products, but they lack the durability and features of other products and may need to be replaced at some point during a longer hike.
So, just how durable do rain pants need to be? Important things to look for here are how many layers the fabric is constructed of. Rain gear can be made with a 2-layer, 2.5-layer, or even 3-layer design (see ‘How rain pants work’ section below). The idea here is that the more layers it has, the more it can withstand abrasion (and rain).
4. Many other features…
- Zippers can come in the form of ankle or full-length zips. Ankle zips allow more airflow and easy wardrobe changes without having to take your shoes off. Full-length zips help control airflow (and sweat build-up) by allowing you to either zip up the leg or zip down from the hip.
- Drawcords allow you to cinch the cuffs of your pants, which can help keep out water and debris. Think splashing through puddles, walking through cold wind, or postholing in snow.
- Packability is an important consideration. If the material isn’t lightweight, it will also likely be bulky, which will take up more room in your pack.
- Pockets can be helpful for storage purposes. Some rain pants come with the ability to stow away inside their own pocket.
- Seam sealing is a must! This ensures that the seams are watertight. Most pants already come with sealed seams. Just peek at the feature descriptions to make sure.
- Windproof: Just like it sounds. There are also pants on the market that are specifically suited for wind (and not rain). Read on for more on this.
- Gussets and articulated knees allow for more flexibility in your range of movement (think hiking up steep terrain).
- $100, 7.9 oz (men), 7.2 oz (women)
- $119, 6.7 oz (men), 6.1 oz (women)
- $119, 12 oz (men), 10.9 oz (women)
Rain Pants Alternatives
If you’re not sure you need rain pants for your thru-hike, but you still want some protection for your legs, consider these lightweight alternatives. There’s no substitute for a good pair of rain pants, but these compromise solutions provide modest protection with less sweat-inducing weight and bulk.
At three ounces or less for most options, rain kilts weigh next to nothing and pack up really small. By design, they also allow for more ventilation and ease of movement.
As the name implies, wind pants don’t offer as much protection against rain, but they do offer superb wind protection and warmth during cold, driving rainstorms, and they only weigh about three ounces. Oftentimes, they’ll come with a DWR finish to repel light moisture.
- Patagonia Wind Shield Pants- Men, Women
- Enlightened Equipment Copperfield Wind Pants- Men, Women
- Montbell Dynamo Wind Pants- Men, Women
How Rain Pants Work
Rain pants should be both waterproof and breathable. You certainly don’t want water to seep in through the material, but it’s also important that moisture can get out. In other words, you don’t want to get drenched from your own sweat.
There are two ways to make rain gear waterproof: laminates and coatings. With laminates, a membrane is bonded to the inner surface of the shell, making it extremely durable in harsh conditions (think wallpaper). In contrast, waterproof coatings consist of painted-on films—they’re not quite as durable, but they’re typically lighter and more affordable.
Both types of waterproofing require extra reinforcement, which is where you’ll see the terms 2-layer, 3-layer, and 2.5-layer come into play. The important thing to note is the type of situation you would most benefit from each. Prioritize 2-layer construction for casual use (inexpensive but not best for backpacking), 2.5-layer for its ultralight properties (better for hiking), and 3-layer for heavy duty uses (best, but can come with a bigger price tag).
One last thing to note is that the outermost surface of rain gear has a durable water-repellent finish (DWR), which helps water droplets slide off the fabric. DWR is, in fact, durable, but it does need to be reapplied from time to time. It may be time to reapply if you notice water droplets starting to soak through rather than slide off the material.
What have we learned?
Before you embark on your next backpacking trip, take some time to evaluate your gear and consider whether you could benefit from bringing rain pants. Whatever you decide—happy hiking!
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