My Fear of Hypothermia and the Rain

Cold rain scares me more than anything else on the trail. We’ve had more than our share in the last week.

Staying Dry in Heavy Rain

It’s not possible!

My first day of heavy rain in Maine, I just got soaked. It worked great at first.

Look at that happy face! Then, things started to chafe. So I started using my rain shell, wearing shorts, and using body glide to prevent chafing.

But the shell was hot, and water seeps through after about an hour. So I experimented with my most fashionable rain gear.

The trash bag worked pretty well, but ultimately, if the weather is warm, the simplest approach is best.

Hike in your underwear! Or just quick dry shorts.

But now, rain with 30-45 degree weather is a whole different ballgame. Here’s why.

Hypothermia Is No Joke

I learned this in college, when the Harvard first-year outdoor program introduced me to backpacking. As an incoming freshman, I ventured into the White Mountains with eight other students for my first-ever overnight experience. It completely kicked my butt. But we had two wonderfully positive leaders, and our group of students bonded quickly over blistered feet and sore muscles.

A year later, I became a trip leader. During one of my trips in June, a student decided not to wear his rain shell as we summited an exposed peak in windy rain. As we started to descend ten minutes later, he was shivering badly, slurring his speech, and a three-foot slab on the trail seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. He froze and wouldn’t move. We had to coax him down from the ledge, feed him candy to elevate his blood sugar, and walk him through some jumping jacks to get his body heat up. And he was an experienced backpacker.

Since then, I’ve been terrified of cold rain.

And It’s Getting Colder

Our first two days in Tennessee were beautiful. Since we never manage to leave town early, we caught a few balds while the sun was setting on day one.

Then, we spent the night at Overmountain Shelter and lit a roaring fire. Other hikers out for the weekend were great company (and they gave us hot dogs and s’mores!).

We even caught a sunrise the next morning. Griffin opted to watch it from the warmth of his sleeping bag, a smart move.

But then, we had our first night with temperatures in the teens. The higher we ascended, the more frigid it became.

Our water froze before we even set up camp.

And we all slept with almost all of our clothes on. Fingers too numb to type, I sent my fiancée a selfie to get across how cold it was.

So when we saw several days of rain in the forecast, we got creative to minimize our chances of ending up in a dangerous situation.

Bigger Days in Better Weather

It was Saturday, and we had 100 miles from Erwin to Standing Bear. My friend Nate was meeting us to do a section of the Smokies on Friday, so we really needed to get there on schedule. We also had a friend who was going to take us off trail in Asheville on Thursday when it was supposed to rain, so we had five days for 100 miles.

On day one, we left late but pushed three hours in the dark to get some more miles in. On day two, we did 30 miles with an eye on the forecast—rain for the following three days. We hung up our lights and Christmas stockings to cheer ourselves up.

Hiking at Night

The forecast predicted 40-degree rain the following day starting at 7 a.m. We had 19 miles to go to Hot Springs. The plan?

1. Wake up at 3:30 a.m.

2. Hike from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. and make it eight miles to the next shelter.

3. Have a lunch break there.

4. Get soaked and cold for the last 11 miles into town.

5. Take the best shower of our lives at Laughing Heart Hostel.

The wake up was tough. Coffee and breakfast in our sleeping bags was a must.

Sonic is not a morning person.

The 4-7 section was perfect. It started to rain exactly at the moment we arrived at the next shelter. I ate burritos with mashed potatoes, summer sausage, cheddar cheese, Doritos, and Taco Bell hot sauce at 8 a.m..

A Scary Moment

Then, the cold caught me off guard. My bottom layer was covered in sweat, and I was slowly starting to shiver. I took it off, but it was too late—I couldn’t get warm. I put on both pairs of pants, both pairs of socks, and two jackets. But I was still shivering, and my feet and hands were getting numb. I struggled to get out my sleeping bag and liner and crawled in. Still cold. It wasn’t until I blew up my sleeping pad and got on top that the feeling started to come back in my toes.

This was the first time in my thru-hike that I got truly freaked out. At that moment when I first crawled in my sleeping bag, it felt like I would never get warm. Hiking the last 11 miles in the rain loomed in my mind.

Sonic and Griffin crawled in their bags as well. We all slept for two hours as the rain fell heavier and heavier outside.

Running to Keep Warm

What followed were by far the most miserable three hours of hiking on my trip. The rain seeped in quickly, and when the wind picked up coming from our left, that side of my face went numb. We were grateful for every uphill that got our blood pumping, but it was mostly downhill into town. I got cold fast, so anytime the trail was free of roots and rocks, I jogged to keep warm.

Drenched from head to toe and with nothing but a hot shower on our minds, we finally walked through town to the Laughing Heart Hostel.

After showering, drying all our clothes, and spending the night, we hiked 34 miles over the next two days to Standing Bear. The rain was on and off as we hiked into the first night, but we got to Max Patch in dry weather.


Doesn’t Griffin look like Ryan Reynolds in Amityville Horror?

Sorry, I digress.

We got soaked for the last few miles to Standing Bear.

And now we’re doing my absolute favorite thing to avoid this weather.

Zeroing in the Rain

Sisuphos, Dandelion, and Insect (left to right, with Griffin in the middle) were waiting at Standing Bear.

The place had everything we needed for a day off.

Boston Jack, our caretaker, went to great lengths to get our cabin heated—cycling through three space heaters to bring up the temperature.

The more time I spend talking to him, the more my accent comes back.

Our game of Risk got heated.

And as of this morning, I’ll never touch another margarita in a can.

But even a hangover beats hiking in cold rain.

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Comments 2

  • Nate - Day Hiker : Nov 15th

    Ha. I recall being in nearly the same spot this March on my NOBO hike. Had single digit nights in the Smokies and then around freezing pretty much the rest of March up through southern Virginia. Frozen water bottles was the worst. I had to carry my water inside my coat during the day to keep it from freezing. Was probably carrying close to 3 pounds of ice with all the frozen water I was carrying from accidentally leaving my water in pack overnight at a shelter. Great times when getting to a town to shower was the greatest feeling in the world.

    Enjoy yourself.

    • Kreg Moccia : Nov 15th

      Nobos had a TOUGH year! I have mostly been really fortunate with rain. Someone told me that you guys got snow in the Smokies and then 12 days of rain in a row later on.

      Props on making it through!


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