12 Helpful Tips for Dealing With Rain While Hiking the Appalachian Trail
No pain, no rain, no Maine. Every AT thru-hiker knows the expression. Unlike its western counterparts, the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails, the Appalachian Trail is perpetually damp. Rain, the threat of rain, and the aftermath of rain will be your constant companions on the way to Katahdin. It’s therefore critical that you’re prepared to deal with the emotional and physical effects of hiking in bad weather.
12 Ways To Deal With Rain on the Appalachian Trail
1. You don’t ALWAYS have to embrace the suck (but sometimes you do).
Conditions will vary year to year, but the AT is a long trail through a humid part of the world, and you are likely to encounter many rainy days along the way. Sometimes it will drizzle lightly for an hour or two. Sometimes it will downpour for seven days straight. It’s not feasible to hike 2200 consecutive miles in one hiking season and avoid regularly walking in the rain altogether.
Can you ever wait out a storm in a warm, dry hotel room? Of course you can. In fact, I highly recommend it; few things are more delicious than relaxing indoors while it pours outside. You just can’t do it all the time.
I zeroed roughly once per week on my thru-hike and tried to time rest days to coincide with bad weather when possible. It was nice when it worked out, but I accepted that if it was still raining the morning after my zero, I still had to get up and hike.
In the end, I only managed to dodge a fraction of the rainy days I experienced during my thru by timing my zeros right. The rest of the time I learned to “embrace the suck” and got used to being damp all the time. In time, I even came to appreciate the magic of being alone in a quiet forest in the rain. Fair-weather hikers never get to enjoy that unique solitude.
2. Look on the bright side.
Sure, squelching out 20 miles in a cold drizzle isn’t fun. But hey, that accursed sky juice is also the reason those delightful babbling brooks keep flowing year after year. Rain keeps the forests of the Appalachian Trail lush, green, and decidedly not on fire.
If you were a Pacific Crest Trail hiker, you’d be facing 25-plus-mile water carries through the baking desert on the regular, only to reach northern California and Oregon later in the year and find that the world is on fire and everyone is screaming and the smoke is in your eyes and lungs and everything is terrible.
Yes, on the Appalachian Trail your clothes, gear, and entire body will smell of mildew from being wet 24/7. But that’s the smell of LIFE, my friends. Embrace it.
3. Sometimes, it’s OK to just get wet.
Hiking while wearing my rain jacket is terrible. It’s hot and stuffy, the hood droops in my eyes and crinkles in my ears, and I end up just as wet from sweat as I would have from rain if I never put the durn thing on to begin with.
The primary function of a backpacking rain jacket is to keep you warm, not dry. Rain can suck the warmth out of you with incredible speed on a cool day, leaving you at risk of hypothermia even if the temperature is well above freezing.
But in the blistering heat of an Appalachian Trail summer, it’s OK to leave the rain jacket off. Hiking will keep you plenty warm, and the droplets will, if anything, feel refreshing. I often see hikers encase themselves in head-to-toe Gore-Tex the moment rain threatens, even on a hot summer day. This self-inflicted torment really isn’t necessary. Just keep hiking. If you find yourself getting cold, stop and put it on then.
Also, when it’s been raining hard for a time, the trail can flood pretty badly in places. You may feel tempted to step off the trail to skirt around large patches of mud and sludge puddles. However, Leave No Trace ethics discourage this practice since doing so creates damage to the surrounding environment. It’s also just plain impractical and a waste of time. Your feet will be drenched one way or the other. Just walk through the puddles and save yourself some time and energy.
4. Rain pants are optional.
On a related note, you don’t have any vital organs in your legs. Also, your legs stay pretty warm thanks to their hard work propelling you up the trail.
I recommend rain pants for shoulder season conditions where you need all the warmth you can get—especially if you’ll be hiking through snow. March starters will probably want to hang onto a pair of rain pants at least through the Smokies, or further, depending on how conditions develop throughout the spring.
READ NEXT – Do You Really Need Rain Pants for Backpacking?
The rest of the time, I vehemently do not recommend rain pants. They’re heavy, bulky, hot, and uncomfortable. In mild conditions, your legs will be just fine without them.
Some AT hikers opt for a lighter, cooler alternative to rain pants, such as an ultralight rain skirt or a pair of wind pants. Personally, I’m on Team Wind Pants. They’re somewhat breathable, easy to move around in, and don’t weigh much. For the scant weight penalty of about two ounces, I have a thin extra layer to repel light moisture, cut wind, and keep me warm if conditions turn dire.
Even wind pants are unnecessary in the low, hot mid-Atlantic. However, I’d definitely want them by the Whites, where conditions can change on a dime even in summer.
5. Extra. Socks.
Socks are one of the only items even ultralight hikers will pack extras of. I never carry a spare hiking shirt or pants, but I always have at least one more pair of socks I can throw on in a pinch. (I carried as many as seven pairs on the AT while I was recovering from a minor bout of trenchfoot in Pennsylvania).
Under normal circumstances, I like having two pairs of hiking socks and one pair that I keep extra clean and dry for sleeping, but that’s just me and my cold feet talking. The main thing is to have at least ONE extra pair.
Why? Because on the AT, your feet will constantly be wet. As Yoda once told baby Anakin, wet feet lead to blisters. Blisters lead to hate. Hate leads to suffering. Bring an extra pair of socks.
That way you can always have one pair drying while the other is steadily getting drenched by all the puddles you splash through during the day. Starting the day in dry socks will help protect you from blisters. Perhaps more importantly, it will do wonders for morale.
6. Wear your clothes dry when you get to camp.
Assuming it’s not actively raining when you reach camp (which is a big assumption), resist the urge to peel off your soggy clothing as soon as your tent is set up. Things don’t dry on the AT: the air is too humid. If you hang your wet clothes to dry, they’ll be just as limp and clammy in 10 hours when you go to put them on again. But if you wear them around camp for an hour or two, your body heat will get them pretty dry.
Important: Sleep with your dry or semi-dry hiking clothes in your sleeping bag overnight. Even if you don’t wear them bone-dry, your body heat will continue to work on them while you sleep. And you’ll have nice, warm clothes to change into in the morning. I actually found that my sweaty hiking clothes would reabsorb moisture from the air overnight (presumably because of the salt from my dried sweat?) if I didn’t sleep with them inside my warm sleeping bag, so don’t skip this step.
On a related note, drying your shoes overnight can also be a challenge. If the temperature dips below freezing overnight, your shoes can freeze and become stiff and difficult (and terrible) to put on. Non-waterproof trail runners are the quickest-drying footwear type. You can increase your odds of having dry shoes in the morning by removing the insoles, and also by bringing the shoes inside the tent at night. You can even put them in a grocery bag and stick them inside your sleeping bag.
7. Watch out for wooden bridges.
The Appalachian Trail is riddled with little wooden boardwalks and bog bridges that let you navigate streams and marshy areas without getting your feet wet(ter than they already are).
These bridges are a gift. Can you imagine what the AT must have been like before volunteers built them all—slogging across streams and through soupy mud all the time? Not only would this be unpleasant for hikers, but wet areas on the trail would quickly get torn apart by all the foot traffic churning the soil.
So yes. We like the bridges. The bridges are good and benevolent. But let me tell you this: those innocent little boardwalks turn into slimy, slippery death traps when wet. This is generally because of thin layers of algae and mold that grow on the wood, transforming the bridge into a frictionless oil slick of doom.
How many times have I gone flying because I stomped glibly onto a wooden murder bridge without paying attention? Too many times, my friends. Too many times. I’ve flailed, I’ve fallen, I’ve done the splits, and I’ve even rocketed several feet across the boardwalk, launched off the far end, and ended up knee-deep in swamp muck. Every time because of one careless step onto treacherous boards.
All this to say, approach all damp bog bridges and boardwalks with extreme caution. This wisdom also applies to wet roots and rocks.
8. Rain down low might be snow up high.
The rule of thumb is to subtract five degrees Fahrenheit from the temperature for every 1000 feet of elevation gain. You may gain several thousand feet of elevation in the course of a single long climb on the Appalachian Trail. A cool 40-degree rain down in town could be a snowstorm 10 miles later after a big climb.
Be on your guard if you’re hiking in cold rain, especially in March when the Appalachians still haven’t quite gotten winter out of their system. You don’t want to get wet down low and then hike up into freezing temperatures. That’s dangerous and puts you at risk of hypothermia. In fact, even rain in the high 30s and low 40s can already be cold enough to put you at risk of hypothermia even if the temperature doesn’t drop below freezing.
So the moral of the story here is to be extra cautious of wet weather when hiking around freezing point. Wear your rain gear, adjust your layers to limit sweating, and keep a dry pair of camp clothes for the end of the day.
9. Keep an eye on the forecast.
Just a little PSA that ATWeather.org is a thing. This handy site spits out a localized forecast for every shelter on the Appalachian Trail. This helps you can get a sense of the weather on the actual trail (because the forecast in low-elevation trail towns doesn’t always translate to what’s happening in the mountains).
In fairness, you can also look up localized forecasts for coordinates anywhere in the US yourself with the National Weather Service’s point forecasting tool—you don’t need to go through AT Weather to get this information—but the process is cumbersome. AT Weather makes it easy for thru-hikers to keep an eye on the conditions on trail.
If you carry a Garmin inReach satellite device, you can get a limited local forecast through that device anywhere you are. The forecast will be based on your current coordinates, and because it’s a satellite device, you can get it even if you have no cell service.
Honestly, when I was on the AT, I stopped paying close attention to the weather by late spring. I was no longer worried about freezing or near-freezing temperatures, so tracking the forecast became less important. But it’s good to keep at least a casual eye on the weather so you know about any extreme weather events on the horizon.
10. Avoid exposed ridgelines during thunderstorms.
When I was on the AT, one of my non-hiking friends one day asked me what I would do if lightning kicked up while I was hiking. And I was like, “??? Die I guess??”
Lightning usually isn’t a big concern on the AT, but you should know what to do in the worst-case scenario. Backpackers in the middle of nowhere don’t have the luxury of going indoors to wait out violent storms. Fortunately, the AT is mostly below treeline so you will rarely be the tallest thing around.
But you should pay extra attention to the weather in New Hampshire and Maine, where you will be above treeline a good amount of the time. Avoid exposed summits and ridges on summer afternoons, when thunderstorms are most likely to develop.
There are exposed balds in the southern Appalachians as well, but most thru-hikers pass through this region in early spring or late fall, depending on their hiking direction, and thus are unlikely to contend with thunderstorms.
If you are caught above treeline in a thunderstorm, get to lower ground and find some cover if you can. Count the number of seconds that elapse between lightning and the corresponding thunderclap to estimate how far it is from you. Five seconds equals roughly one mile. If your hair stands on end, ditch any metal items (including trekking poles, jewelry, and metal backpack frames). Crouch down in the lightning position until the threat passes.
11. Choose your rain jacket wisely.
First of all, I am over the “waterproof breathable” trend in rain gear. I’m not saying “waterproof breathable” isn’t a thing, but… it’s barely a thing. On the muggy Appalachian Trail, your Gore-tex will be no match for the unstoppable sweating machine that is your body. Seriously.
These days I’m into cheap rain gear like Frogg Toggs and non-breathable rain jackets with huge pit zips for ventilation. That airflow does more for my sweat situation than any waterproof breathable fabric ever has.
Even so, I still sweat while wearing it, but at least I didn’t pay $400 for a raincoat just to have it not work very well. I accept that some sweat is an inevitability. It goes back to my first point: embrace the suck.
Second, your rain jacket needs a brimmed hood. Better yet: wear your baseball cap underneath the rain jacket hood. The brim will keep the rain off your face, which is crucial, especially for glasses-wearers, and keep the hood out of your eyes.
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12. Make use of the shelters.
The AT’s robust shelter system is one of its most unique features in the modern hiking world. To have a 2200-mile trail through mountainous terrain with over 250 huts spaced at roughly fie-to-ten-mile intervals is honestly a miracle. Thank you, shelter builders.
The lean-to system is a relic of a time when ultralight backpacking gear was not a thing. Back then, most would-be backpackers couldn’t feasibly carry all the heavy gear they would need to be self-reliant in the mountains. But though backpacking gear has evolved, the shelter system remains. You may as well take advantage of it.
Many AT hikers prefer sleeping in shelters on rainy nights: no setting up or breaking down camp in the rain. They also make lunch breaks infinitely more pleasant when it’s wet out. They give you a dry, sheltered place to sit and explode your pack. Don’t underestimate what a gift this is. The shelter system has its flaws, but if you go on to hike other long trails, you will think fondly back on the comfort and logistical simplicity afforded by the AT’s many lean-tos.
Rain is a fact of life on the Appalachian Trail—its constant presence challenges thru-hikers both physically and emotionally. Before you hit the trail, try to get out into the woods for at least one rainy shakedown hike to get a sense of how you and your gear respond. Knowing how to deal with bad weather can make or break your thru-hike. The happiest and most successful thru-hikers learn not just how to deal with the rain but how to embrace it. It’s part of what makes the AT so special.
Featured image: Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
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