Handling Rain on the Appalachian Trail
The AT is known for being the rainiest of the major thru-hikes. Data shows most years often over a third of the 2,194 + miles of the AT will be rainy days. I live in the Pacific Northwest and usually embrace the rain – but the rain along the east coast is definitely different from the regular drizzle in the PACNW.
Here are some tips on how to better manage the rain and your thru-hike.
Accept one way or another, you are going to get soaked.
The challenge here is two-fold. One, rain will obviously soak you from head to toe, so dealing with wet clothes, soggy boots or shoes, and wet gear are things you are going to have to accept on trail. Two, some of your rain gear, such as rain pants or jackets, will also leave you soaked, but by your own sweat buildup. As you continue to hike your body will give off heat and sweat. Most rain gear, while advanced and very durable, will not breathe very well, leading to the heat buildup under your clothes. This can be a net benefit on a cold rainy day in April or September, but can be a nuisance to get the right nuance of rain protection and heat build up. For me, I found it better to only use rain gear in town or at a campsite. Out on the trail, unless it was especially windy or cold, I did not use rain gear during the hike.
Adjust your mileage plans
Rain changes the trail. Rocks become slippery and dangerous, dirt tracks become mudslides, fog makes views, well, invisible. All of this makes for slower going and will wear you out faster. Consider adjusting your mileage plans for the day and stopping at a tent site or shelter closer to you, or getting off trail to a hostel.
Staying warm will be a struggle
Personally while hiking the AT my body acts like a furnace. I give off regular heat to the point where I often don’t need to add layers in higher elevation or during a rainy section of the trail. The important thing here is am constantly moving. As soon as I stop moving on a rainy day the heat I created with my physical activity almost immediately dissipates and I end up colder than I ever expect. Knowing your body and planning for the heat loss as soon as you stop is an important tactic to keeping safe and comfortable on a rainy day.
Take care of your feet!
Most thru-hikers seem to be in trail runners or lightweight hiking shoes in one form or another. I am the outlier who still wears boots. Boots do not dry out as fast as modern trail shoes. You will need to be cognizant of your feet and their condition as they stay soaked from water and mud on a rainy day. Take care to stop and remove your shoes and socks and let your feet air out for a little while in a dry or dry enough place. No one wants to risk actual trench foot or other ailments on their feet from hours standing in water.
Weather apps are focused on cities and towns, not the mountain or rural area you are hiking through
This has been a regular source of frustration for AT thru-hikers. Most weather reports focus on conditions around population centers even if it is a small town. The reason for this is obvious because that is where the population is and that is where forecasts matter most. It can be very difficult to get an accurate forecast for a specific mountain or rural area you may be hiking through because many of these areas often have their own microclimates where we have seen rain on one side of the field or mountain and sunshine on the other. The best estimator for local to the trail weather has been AT Weather.org where you can filter to a specific shelter along the way, and this tends to be the best estimate of what to expect. ATWeather.org
Thunderstorms and severe weather
Thunderstorms and severe weather can be one of the most challenging aspects of the AT. You are better avoiding hiking at all on days with guaranteed severe weather. Often thunderstorms form in afternoons, so being at lower elevation in the afternoon is safer than being on a ridge line, and exposed areas can also suffer from wind gusts or microbursts. Keep an eye on the type of clouds you see on the horizon, you’re looking for the anvil-shaped clouds called cumulonimbus approaching, those are a clear indicator of potential thunderstorms. Seriously, turn back rather than progress forward if your destination isn’t safe and reachable quickly.
You are better off finding a fully four-walled shelter if you are caught in a storm. Shelters are a small improvement in safety but are not fully protected from a lightning strike, which can fork for yards in any direction.
Some of my worst days on trail in NC VA and PA were due to very close calls on the trail from lightning even after taking precautions to get to lower elevation and finding shelter. Staying safe and limiting mileage on major thunderstorm days is the best thing for you to continue safely on the AT.
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