The thought of hiking in the rain isn’t a great draw for the AT thru-hiker. But, unfortunately, it is a certainty that rain will find you if you spend five or six consecutive months on the trail. My rain strategy became more effective as my thru-hike progressed. I first encountered serious rain on the sixth day of my hike. It was mid April, and I was approaching the border between Georgia and North Carolina. Early in the day, the temperature dropped into the low 30’s, the wind increased, and I was buffeted for several hours with rain and sleet. I had become familiar with the phrase “to make it to Maine one must hike in the rain” during my pre-hike reading, so I never considered the option of staying in my tent until the weather improved. The decision to take a zero day on the trail is not made lightly, because it usually entails a drastic cut in food rations until the next resupply.
When the rain storm first blew in, I donned my rain gear and deployed my pack cover, which looks like an over-sized shower cap. As the rain persisted and the temperature continued to drop, I put on more and more clothing, until, eventually, I was wearing every article of my meager wardrobe: two pairs of socks, long underwear, pants, shirt, wool sweater, rain pants, rain coat with hood, stocking cap, and neoprene gloves. Even dressed to the hilt, I still had to hike as fast as I could to stay warm.
The trail followed steep and exposed ridge lines for most of the day. It didn’t take long for the rain to breach my rain gear. The rain teamed up with the sweat from my exertion to effectively soak everything I was wearing. The rain let up during the late afternoon, but the temperature stayed cold as night settled in. I pitched my tent and crawled under my down sleeping quilt, hoping that my body heat would dry the socks and long underwear that I wore to bed. It was a long, long night. The next morning, the long underwear and socks that I had arduously dried during the night were instantly soaked when I donned the rest of my clothing, which hadn’t dried in the humid night air. “There has to be a better way” I thought to the cadence of my squishing shoes.
Many rainstorms later, while hiking in southern Maine, I was again accosted by a cold front escorted by several hours of rain. When the first sprinkles reached me, I stripped off my shirt, underpants, and socks and tucked them away with my other clothes in a water proof bag. Clothed only in rain coat, base layer top, shorts, and shoes, I hiked briskly through the following deluges. At the end of the day, I reached a shelter where I changed into my dry clothes and spent a snug night listening to the rain pelt the metal roof. If the shelter had been full, I would have waited under the eves until a lull in the rain, and then quickly pitched my tent. The next day, I put my wet clothes back on, stuffed my dry clothes in the rubber bag, and continued hiking in the rain.
I had learned over the course of my thru-hike, that when you hike in the rain all day, everything you wear will end up wet regardless of how good your rain gear is. I grew to think of rain gear as a means to stay warm rather than to stay dry. I wore only enough clothing to maintain body temperature (and modesty). The strenuous activity of backpacking, and mostly mild temperatures during the majority of the hike allowed me to keep most of my wardrobe dry for use during the night.
You may think “what happens when it is so cold and rainy that you have to wear all of your clothes under your rain gear to stay warm?” I contend that such weather events are predictable. Local hikers who are out for short excursions are a great source for weather forecasts. You can recognize them easily because they are clean. After my first storm, I always asked the clean ones if they had heard a recent weather forecast. I always had at least two days of warning for the rain storms I encountered on the rest of my hike. The advanced warnings allowed me to time my town stays to coincide with the rain. The most pleasant hiking weather, especially during the summer, occurred for two or three days after each rain storm, when breezes and lower temperatures kept the humidity down. I tried not to succumb to a reactive cycle of soaking all of my clothes during a storm and then seeking a town to do laundry during the best hiking weather.
Besides making you cold, rain can also make the trail more dangerous. The steep descents on bedrock in the White Mountains and southern Maine become especially hazardous when wet. On several occasions, I spent extra hours at camp in the mornings, or made camp earlier than usual to avoid negotiating the steepest descents in the rain. In Maine, where there are few foot bridges, streams can become un-fordable after rain. When rainy weather arrived, I found it advantageous to hike farther than usual if necessary to ford the larger streams before they became swollen. All said and done, some years are rainier than others. I think I was lucky because I never had to hike for more than three days at a time in rain. I heard stories of moisture-crazed thru-hikers quitting with less than 100 miles to go after several weeks of continuous rain. Thankfully, I did not have to test my rainy hiking strategy against such extreme conditions.