I traveled to Pittsburgh in September and fulfilled a bucket list item, seeing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater masterpiece. It rained relentlessly that day, and I still think back to the smell of the rain in the thick wooded brush as we descended the slippery trail steps to that iconic viewpoint.
The sound of rain competes against the growing torrent of the waterfall, rustling the leaves of the dense forest of oak and hickory trees. It was a beautiful moment I wish I could have extended with a long hike.
The rain in Las Vegas, where I’ve lived for over two decades, is a different experience. Our monsoon season brings sudden, short torrential downpours causing dangerous flash flooding across the valley. An ill-timed hike in desert monsoon season can be deadly.
You can’t discuss the dangers of hiking in the rain without considering the Narrows at Zion National Park, a famous slot canyon that leads hikers wading through knee to waist-high water. Even with clear skies above, a storm 20 miles north at the headwaters can send a deadly rush of water through the canyon, often hours after the rain subsides.
The narrows sadly claimed another life recently, a 29-year-old hiker in August of 2022.
Hiking in the rain
Hiking is already dangerous. Adding slippery conditions, flash flooding, and lightning makes it vital to remain cautious, aware, and vigilant at all times.
But when done safely, rain hikes make for incredible memories.
This article provides the information needed to hike in the rain safely, but using common sense and researching the weather pattern is your final task.
- Benefits of hiking in the rain. Nature already provides endless benefits, but rain elevates it to a new level.
- Wet weather hiking gear. Leave the cotton at home. Hikes in the rain need gear that keeps you dry and protects you against the elements.
- Trail hazards: Is hiking in the rain safe? You’re exposed to a new set of dangers in the rain, but hiking in it can be safe.
- Tips for hiking in the rain. A little advice can go a long way. If you’ve never hiked in the rain, these tips will be helpful.
Benefits of hiking in the rain
Wet, rainy weather isn’t for everyone. But those who brave the conditions reap the rewards. The isolated quiet on an otherwise crowded trail and viewpoint is one key benefit, but the advantages of hiking in the rain don’t end there.
The air is cleaner in the rain
Rain acts as an air purifier as it falls through the atmosphere. A natural phenomenon called precipitation coagulation occurs with each droplet, attracting and ridding the air of pollutants and providing fresh, clean air.
Rain improves your workout
Studies have shown that exercising in rain influences physiological and metabolic responses. Workouts in the rain use more energy to burn calories while lowering the body temperature and reducing the chances of heat-induced strain.
The rain has a calming effect
Negative air ions are generated in the atmosphere during thunder and lightning storms. They are also known to exist near waterfalls and in the forest mist. Breathing in negative air ions is believed to increase serotonin, improving your mood and relieving stress.
The smell of rain is wonderful
Humans have an enhanced ability to smell the rain, likely due to our early ancestor’s reliance on rain for survival. Petrichor, the smell of rain, combines ozone, soil bacteria, and plant oils to create a distinct, wonderful scent.
Colors are more vibrant in the rain
We hike because we love nature, so why not view it when it shines at its best? Rain removes dust and dirt particles from leaves while perking up grass and other green life, providing more vibrant colors and an even prettier hike.
There are fewer bugs when it’s raining
It’s more challenging for bugs to fly in the rain, with raindrops damaging many flying insects’ wings. Unfortunately, mosquitos can brave through rain, but you’ll deal with fewer annoying gnats and flies.
Wet weather hiking gear
Dry clothes are comfortable, keep you cool in warm weather, and prevent hypothermia in the cold. Plus, soggy clothes make for an awful hike.
Preparing with the proper wet weather gear makes for a comfortable, enjoyable hike.
Avoid cotton when hiking
Cotton kills, a popular mantra amongst hikers, Scouts, and Park Rangers, refers to the absorbent properties of cotton that can lead to hypothermia in cold and wet weather.
Even in hot weather, the body can’t properly cool itself since the sticky, wet shirt prevents evaporative cooling. And cotton shirts aren’t the only material to avoid. Denim cotton is equally bad, so avoid hiking in jeans, especially when it’s raining.
Essential gear for hikes in the rain:
- Raincoat. Wear a hooded, waterproof outer shell — or rain poncho in warm weather — to keep your baselayer dry and comfortable.
- Waterproof backpack or rain cover. Many hiking backpacks are waterproof or provide a rain cover. You’ll need a dry spot for a change of clothes, snacks, and your essentials.
- Waterproof boots. An easy path to a dreadful hike is wet, soggy feet. Keep your feet dry hiking in the rain with waterproof boots.
- Hiking pants. The best waterproof boots won’t prevent rain from seeping through the top, making long hiking pants invaluable in the rain.
Additional wet-weather gear to consider:
- Trekking poles. Using trekking poles helps to reduce your reliance on grip, which is especially important when descending steep hills or creek crossings.
- A towel. You never know when you need a dry towel to wipe your face or hands. Keep one in your backpack or pocket.
- Headlamp. On cloudy days in dense woods, you might need some assistance with lighting. A headlamp keeps your hands free and your path illuminated.
- Emergency bivvy. Hiking in the rain risks becoming trapped by rising creeks and rivers swallowing the trail. An emergency bivvy can be life-saving if you must hunker down for hours or the night.
Bringing along zip-lock bags and trash bags helps to store essentials, like your phone or GPS, while acting as a backup in an unfortunate rip or tear of clothing.
Trail hazards: Is hiking in the rain safe?
You can safely hike in the rain, but slowing down and taking more caution is essential. On wet hikes, you trade loose gravel for slippery mud and rocks. If you’re not prepared with the proper footwear, you’ll only increase your odds of a painful slip and fall accident.
The trail’s condition depends on the geology of the area. When a layer of clay or compacted rock sits inches below the dirt, the water sits on the surface, pooling and creating slippery mud.
Trail deterioration becomes a dangerous and destructive problem on trails when hikers venture out in the rain, forcing some trails to restrict it. Trails can be closed during the rain with no physical signage posted. Research the trail in advance to check for any weather warnings.
Some trails are rockier, making climbing over sharp, slippery rocks unavoidable. But avoiding those trails is easy. Stick to well-maintained gravel and dirt trails, preferably with low-elevation grade climbs.
Avoiding trails near creeks or rivers is best when hiking in the rain. Suppose the tributary three cities over saw heavy rain. In that case, your hike back might find the slow-flowing ankle-high creek turned into waist-high rapids.
If you’re forced to cross fast-moving water, release your backpack straps first so you can ditch the bag and not be pulled along with it.
Flash flooding happens when heavy rainfall exceeds the ground’s absorption ability. When water has nowhere to go, it rushes to lower areas. In 2021, a year that saw a surge in new hikers, eight hikers were killed in floods. Check for weather warnings when researching your hike.
When wet, your core temperature declines quickly, increasing your risk of hypothermia. Avoiding cotton and wearing clothes made with moisture-wicking synthetic fabric is best to keep dry.
Furthermore, flash floods or landslides can trap you when hiking in the rain, increasing the risk of hypothermia from cold overnight temperatures. An emergency bivvy is compact, light, and inexpensive. Staying warm will be essential when the sun goes down, and starting a fire in wet conditions won’t be easy.
Tips for hiking in the rain
Going for hikes in the rain is an activity you’ll love and create memories with. It turns a familiar trail into a new experience and changes the beauty of the scenery. But the reward comes with risks, calling for an elevated level of awareness and preparedness, including:
- Self-evaluation. Weather rarely cooperates, and when it doesn’t, knowing it’s time to hike out is essential. As hikers, we’re used to powering through to get to the summit, our finish line. But when hiking in the rain, the finish line is simply getting home safe.
- Packing extra dry clothing. You just hiked five muddy miles in the rain. I bet a change of clean, dry clothes before climbing into your car sounds incredible.
- Watching for lightning and listening for thunder. Lightning can strike as far as 12 miles from a thunderstorm, far enough to not hear the thunder. If you can hear thunder, you’re too close.
- Continuously monitoring the weather. Most smartphone weather apps can show precipitation maps; the challenging part will be finding cell service. You’ll need to trust your eyes and instincts on the trail.
With the right preparation, hiking can become a year-round activity for you to enjoy. But every season comes with a new set of dangers.
If you’ve never hiked in the rain, consider starting with a familiar trail. This allows you to learn your footing without unexpected surprises along the way.
Looking at the rain as a feature, not an obstacle, opens a new world of hiking possibilities. As long as you lead with a safety-first mindset, hiking in the rain will be an exciting new adventure you will continue to enjoy.
From now on, turn every hike into a scouting trip by asking these questions:
- Would rain improve your experience?
- Does the trail seem secure?
- Is there a risk of flooding?
You’ll either love or hate hiking in the rain. But either way, it will be a memorable experience.
Use common sense, be prepared, and do your weather homework.
Do you know the perfect trail for hiking in the rain? Share this article with friends and family to inspire them next.