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How to Find the Right Rain Gear for Year Round Hiking

If you hike in the Pacific Northwest, you’re eventually going to be hiking in the rain. If you’re lucky, it’s just a few drops or a short shower; sometimes, it’s a torrential downpour that lasts for hours or even days. At these times, rain gear of some kind is essential for safety and comfort. It will get you through the rough spots, keeping you dry and warm enough to help avoid hypothermia. But there are so many options for rain gear. How do you choose the best for any particular situation?

By Sandra Saathoff

If you’re a hiker in the Pacific Northwest, you’re eventually going to be hiking in the rain. If you’re lucky, it’s just a few drops or a short shower; sometimes, it’s a torrential downpour that lasts for hours or even days. At these times, rain gear of some kind is essential for safety and comfort. It will get you through the rough spots, keeping you dry and warm enough to help avoid hypothermia. But there are so many options for rain gear. How do you choose the best for any particular situation?

Matching rain gear at Independence Lake.
Geared up for a classic PNW drizzle and Independence Lake. Photo by Jason Roselander

First, I’m going to make a confession: I own multiple sets of rain gear, and I’m sure I’m not alone. And none of it is expensive. Sure, many of my friends have more expensive rain gear with bells and whistles and it seems to work wonderfully. But I have a rain jacket I got on sale online ($40), a set of Frog Toggs ultralight jacket and pants ($25), a Frog Toggs poncho ($20) and a homemade rain skirt ($1). I wear the rain jacket or poncho when I’m day hiking on local trails and the Frog Toggs jacket and homemade rain skirt go with me on backpacking trips. It all works well and has served me for multiple years. So if you’re on a budget, don’t let sticker shock keep you indoors!

Before we dive into a deeper discussion of rain gear, let’s consider one question. Is any rain gear truly waterproof? Yes and no. Given enough rain for a long enough duration, you gear is eventually going to “wet out.” Whether that happens in a day or in a couple of seasons depends on the materials that make up your gear. Some rain gear is designed to be waterproof, while some is water resistant. But, besides waterproofing, there are other features to consider, as well as the ever-present price tag.

Rain gear — what’s with all the options?

Rain gear comes with a huge range of features. Here’s a rundown of things to consider, so if you’re looking for a new garment, you can narrow down the many choices.

  • Waterproof vs. water resistant vs. water repellent: It’s the difference between staying dry in a downpour versus a light rain. Higher quality waterproofing often adds to the cost of the garment, but can also save your trip. Water repellent finishes actually make water bead up and roll off the fabric.
  • Breathability: A waterproof and breathable item keeps the rain out, while wicking your sweat out as well. Some jackets are more breathable than others. A nonbreathable item will keep you dry from the outside, but if you’re sweating, you’re going to be wet anyway.
  • Zippers: Some jackets have zippers that allow you to unzip the jacket in the armpit or side area to help prevent the sauna effect.
  • Hoods: Most rain jackets come with hoods, some with more adjustability features than others. Some roll up for storage along the collar; some zip off as well.
  • Pockets: Not all jackets come with pockets, but they can be quite helpful for keeping your hands warm in the rain — or perhaps for storing a snack. Pockets, especially those with zippers, do add a small bit of weight.
  • Cut: The length of a jacket determines how much coverage you get and where the drip line is.
  • Sealed seams: These add waterproofing, keeping the rain from seeping through the jacket or pant seams.
  • Adjustment features: Drawcords around the waist, hood or hem allow you to control how tight you want to the item to fit — keeping the rain out or increasing ventilation.
  • Packability: Some jackets come with a self-storing pocket.
Option Pros Cons Price Range
Rain poncho Breathable; waterproof in light rain or heavy rain for short durations; some are cut to fit over a pack. Can allow shirt or jacket sleeves to get wet, depending on length. $25 to $100
Rain jacket and pants You can be covered from head to toe. All your options will be a trade-off for breathability, waterproofness and cost. Pants take time to get on and off. $50 to $400+
Rain skirt of rain kilt Waterproof, breathable, simple, inexpensive. Easy to put on or take off. Doesn't keep your pants dry to the group. A homemade version is not particularly durable. $1 to $30

Technology

When you’re paying the big bucks for rain gear, what you’re really paying for is the time and technology that goes into making these high-tech clothing items. So let’s take a look at what that’s all about.

  • Laminates: Think of it like the vinyl that may be glued to your kitchen floor. A laminate is a layer of protection glued to one or two other layers in a jacket. These offer high performance with waterproofing, breathability and durability.
  • Coatings: This is like a layer of paint on your wall. Coatings also work well for waterproofing, breathability and durability, though perhaps a bit less well than the laminate. They also tend to be lighter and less expensive.
  • Layers: Rain gear comes in one to three layers.
    • One layer: The least high-tech option often costs less, but has fewer of those features like breathability and durability
    • Two layers: Found in moderately priced jackets. Two-layer rain gear has a membrane or coating layer applied to the inside of the outer layer, with a liner on the inside, next to your skin.
    • Three layers: Found in the most expensive jackets, this option tends to be the most robust, with a rugged outer layer, a middle membrane and an inner liner. This option tends to have the best performance for waterproofing, breathability and durability.

Gear needs love

Once you’ve decided which route you want to go and have acquired your rain gear, you want it to last as long as possible. Here are some considerations when caring for your rain gear:

  • Clean it — but not too frequently! Dirt, sweat and oils from our skin are enemies of our rain gear. Dirt can attract water, causing the jacket or pants to “wet out” and cutting down on breathability. Sweat and oils can attract bacteria, causing the item to break down or delaminate faster. To clean your gear, you can quickly wipe dirt off using a soft cloth and water. Washing your rain gear too often will break it down, so it is somewhat of a balancing act. When the washing machine is needed, use a cleaner made for waterproof items, like Tech Wash, by Nikwax.
  • Follow the care label. The manufacturer does know best and following their instructions will add life to your rain gear.
  • Treat it: Once your gear is clean, you can treat it with Nikwax, TX.Direct or something similar to help keep the waterproofing intact. When the rain stops rolling off your gear, it’s time to reapply your water-repellent coating.

Put it to use

Now that you’ve found the best rain gear for you, it’s time to hit the trail. Fall and winter can be some of the best times for hiking in Washington. Enjoy everything nature has to offer, and stay dry while you’re out there!

Sandra wearing a homemade rain skirt.
Sandra Saathoff, the author of this piece, shows off her own rain skirt in the photo. Sandra finds hiking a great source of adventure and mental health and can be found hiking with her dog most weeks of the year in Eastern Washington. Photo by Rika Ream.

How to make your own inexpensive rain skirt

Acquire a 39-gallon trash bag — the heavy duty kind. It should have a plastic tie closure. The opening will be the waist, with the tie serving as a belt. Hold the bag up to your waist and measure down to your knees or as long as you’d like your skirt to be. At that point, use scissors to cut straight across the bottom, so that the bag is now completely open at the bottom. Step into the bag from the top and use the plastic tie to cinch the bag around your waist. You now have a rain skirt — and it only cost you maybe a dollar. Top this with a rain jacket or poncho of your choice, and you are set!

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.