Updated: Dec 1, 2019
Pisgah National Forest and Shining Rock Wilderness
Note: If you prefer to "cut to the chase", so to speak, and skip my story telling, then scroll about halfway down to learn about my strategy for dealing with wet weather.
From the windblown, treeless bald the trail descended into thick shrub, and finally down into the tree line. Just beyond Black Balsam Knob the Art Loeb trail is well worn, but can be a bit rocky. The up-and-downs are only slightly tricky, with a few large rocks requiring some big steps. By mid summer the brush can be thick enough to rub against your legs. Not much change to that come late September.
We continued up and over another bald, Tennent Mountain, and then back down into the tree line. The Art Loeb trail turned sharply left, back to the northwest, matching the map I carried. It was soon after when the distant rumble of thunder transitioned to rain. A few drops at first. Within minutes it became the most intense driving rain storm I have encountered on a hike.
I could write that this rain shower came out of nowhere. But that would be an inaccuracy. Thunderstorms can and will surprise you in the mountains. This one, however, I knew full well was coming. Not long beforehand, just as we were enjoying panoramic views with our lunch, I could tell something was forming straight above us.
Mother nature had presented me with a decision.
When backcountry hiking and camping one is often faced with moments of decision. Do I carry a little more water? Should I turn back? Camp here or look for a better spot? Is that branch high enough for my bear bag?
I don’t like the idea of unexplored terrain. It bothers me. On a smaller scale, I don’t like knowing there is someplace - a trail, a mountain top - where others have been and I have not.
If I’m only steps from the point of crossing that imaginary line into new ground there is little which can convince me not to press on. Maybe it’s a trail millions have walked before. Maybe only a few. Doesn’t matter. I have not walked it. I have not seen the other side of that ridge line. A forming rain cloud directly above me? Bah!
Not too long after the deluge began each step pushed squishing water from my soaked boots. Squishing water I can’t see because I’m walking in a stream on the Ivestor Gap Trail. A trail which had been bone dry just minutes earlier. And the thunder is getting close. We all have raincoats. We are not immune to lightning.
Note: I did not purposefully hike into a thunderstorm. Lightning is a serious threat. When the thunderstorm hit us we were inside the tree line. Lightning can still get you inside a tree line, but it's better than being out in the open.
By the time we reach our campsite the rain has broken. Small patches of light blue appear in the thick clouds above. We camp at a beautiful site along Flat Laurel Creek. A warm meal lifts our spirits. Sleep comes easy with nature’s white noise of a creek in the background.
The next morning I awake to dry pants and warm socks. The same pants that were completely soaked just 12 hours prior. How did I do this?
A raincoat and pack cover are all that I carry to combat rain on the trail, in the summer months. Hiking and backcountry camping requires a strategy of weight and space within your pack. It can be difficult to have enough to cover every contingency. I have learned over time what I need to combat the things mother nature can throw my way. See What's In My Pack to learn more about what I carry.
When encountering rain I’ve decided to allow my pants to get wet, and the socks I’m wearing if the rain comes down hard enough. For me it is the ability to get dry once at camp. I wear pants which wick moisture. Cotton is fine at camp, but my enemy when hiking. The things I wear and carry allow me to get dry.
Note: This strategy is for summer hiking. Colder temperatures might require more protective clothing. An article on cold weather hiking is coming soon.
On this day, when we first arrived at camp, I knew from experience to resist the urge to get out my wet clothes. First things first. Setup my tent, get my sleeping pad inflated, and open my sleeping bag. Then find a tree and string the ropes for my bear bag, and set up the area where I will eat. Refilling my water containers occurs around this time as well. Other hikers might have different priorities when first arriving at camp.
By the time I finished my chores my pants had begun drying just a little. On my hiking trips this is when I change into dry clothes. I hang my pants in the netting at the top of the inside of my tent (assuming they are not dripping wet). Same thing with my hiking socks, especially the wool outer layer socks. I use the two-sock system when hiking. Read my article about that
Dinner. Then hygiene. Then hang the bear bag. The real drying work begins while I sleep.
My hiking shirt on this trip was damp from sweat (recall I was wearing a raincoat). At bed time, both my hiking shirt and pants go inside the sleeping bag with me. Usually halfway down so they rest against the mid portion of my body. Whether or not my hiking socks end up in my sleeping bag depends upon what I’m doing the next day.
If I am going home the next day then the wet socks are shoved in a corner of the tent to be packed away the next morning.
If the next day is a full day of hiking then my wet hiking socks will also go inside my sleeping bag. I’ve probably wrung them out by now. These will go down below my feet (my sleeping bag has enough space at the bottom such that I won’t feel the wet socks).
On this specific night the temperature dropped to around 50 degrees. Because we were leaving the next day I placed my 2nd set of hiking socks (reserve, dry pair) in my sleeping bag instead of my wet socks. The next morning my boots were still wet, but not completely soaked. I left them within the vestibule of my rain fly. My hiking pants and hiking shirt were almost dry, and warm. I hiked out feeling comfortable. My previously dry hiking socks did become slightly damp during the hike out from soaking up the wetness of my boots. If it had been a full day of hiking without rain, my boots would have been completely dry by the time I reached the next campsite.
When spending days and nights on the trail I do my best to prepare for the worst. If it rains every day I am going to be wet out on the trail. It becomes a strategy of minimizing how wet. As long as I can get dry once at camp I will be okay. I carry four pairs of hiking socks, and one pair of camp socks. I make certain my camp socks never get wet. I also make certain my sleeping bag and camp clothes remain dry. As for my body, as long as my head, arms, and torso remain relatively dry in a rainstorm, I should be okay.
Building a fire is not always an option. It can be too wet. But you always have the thermal heat from your body within your sleeping bag. With this you have a method to start the next morning with dry clothes.
The socks may not be completely dry. It might take two nights inside of a sleeping bag using body heat. But that is okay. In the scenario where my hiking socks become soaked on day one, and the next morning they are still damp, I am now using my reserve pair. Fast forward to the next evening, the same damp socks are back inside my sleeping bag, as well the socks I wore on day two. Are you following me here? I’m now sleeping with four pair of hiking socks in my sleeping bag. By day three hopefully I now have at least one pair of dry hiking socks.
Again, keep in mind that I wear two pairs of socks when hiking. A thin pair and a pair of wool socks on top of the thin pair. And once again, see my article Hiking Socks & Footwear for why I do this.
Most of my hiking clothing is moisture wicking. Cotton is very difficult to dry. Wool socks are not as bad, and I need wool socks to absorb the moisture coming from sweaty feet, which is wicked away by the thin nylon socks. My hiking pants are nylon, which allows them to dry relatively fast overnight.
When it comes to encountering rain in the mountains, for me it is not about staying dry. It is about getting dry. Wearing moisture wicking clothing is large part of this. And sleeping with my moisture wicking clothing is another large port of getting dry.