Note: This post was amended on Sept. 23, 2015, to reflect my more recent discoveries in great rainy day gear.
I awoke to gray skies, a steady rain and temperatures in the upper 50s.
Perfect day for an off-trail hike.
Alas, only nine other folks shared my feelings for Rod Broadbelt’s annual Wilderness Hike at Umstead State Park. The hike, 98 percent of which is advertised as being off-trail, has in the past attracted more than three times as many hikers. Through the Raleigh Recreational Hikers Meetup alone, at least 25 people were signed up. Yet the prospect of 10 miles in the rain off-trail apparently dampened the spirits of the masses. The weather only made me that much more excited. There’s something more intimate about the forest when it’s dripping wet, especially in winter. The season’s drab brown leaf-littered floor takes on a coppery glow, gray tree trunks take on a metallic sheen and the close, wet air adds an intimacy, a coziness if you will that makes hiking the woods a more personal affair.
I was excited by the weather for another reason: I’ve got the gear for it. Trust me, if I didn’t I would have stayed snug in bed, stirring about the time the hike was returning to the trailhead. I hate being wet. But the seductive allure of a cozy, gray rain forest has forced me to seek a solution. That’s why I have the essentials for staying dry in the rain:
Waterproof/resistant shell. You can spend $500 on a shell absolutely positively guaranteed by the manufacturer to keep the rain out and let your body breathe — and you’ll still get wet if you don’t carefully manage what you’re wearing underneath. Despite advances in breathable rain gear, I have yet to hear anyone rave about a particular garment. If the temperature’s much above 70, there’s a good chance you’ll produce more sweat than any miracle fabric can vent. That said, one of the best recent advances in the fight to stay dry is the Patagonia Supercell Rain Jacket. The jacket is endorsed by Lindsey and Andrew, with Great Outdoor Provision Co.’s store in Greenville, who will be relying on the Supercell to keep them dry on their upcoming assault on the entire Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Say the duo: “This jacket is comfortable, breathable, and GoreTex makes it truly waterproof! This is great for backcountry endeavors because of the oversized hood (can fit a helmet underneath) and the harness-friendly pockets. So you can access your jacket pockets without taking off your pack. The pit zips help ensure that you won’t get too hot during the summer. And the colors are pretty awesome!” Retails for $269.
Rain pants. You can spend a bundle on rain pants as well, but, for me at least, sweaty legs aren’t an issue. A pair of coated $99 Patagonia Torrentshell rain pants keep the rain and related trail slosh out. I wear regular hiking pants underneath; at hike’s end I peel off the rain pants to keep the car seat dry and clean on the drive home.
Pack. I get especially giddy over rainy day hikes now that I’ve added the Mountain Hardwear Scrambler OutDry 30 to my arsenal. Designed for rock climbing, the pack has a retro simplicity that keeps it light and the OutDry coating means you don’t need to keep a wary eye on the sky so you can slip your pack cover on in time. Retails for $130.
Hat. I wear a waterproof ($20) ball cap, mainly to keep the rain off my glasses. If the rain picks up, I flip my rain jacket hood over top.
Wool socks. I remember having to enroll in group outdoor retail therapy the first time I dropped $20 for a pair of socks. Until then, I probably hadn’t spent $20 on athletic socks in my entire life. (Hey, I can score tube socks 6 for $6!) But what a difference a great pair of socks make: They get wet, they dry out. No more wet foot/blister guarantee. Lots of good options with American roots to chose from, including Fits, Farm to Feet and Smartwool.
Boots. Pardon me if I get misty here. Until recently, I thought heavy leather boots were the only way to keep your feet dry in wet weather. Even then, they required a good deal of maintenance, spending the evening before a big trip working a goopy waterproof treatment into their skin. And even then, leather boots were known to crack. Over the last several years, though, I’ve noticed an increasing number of folks going the fabric boot route, not just on day hikes, but on backpack treks of three and four weeks duration. I’ve experimented some over the past several years with the growing number of lighter weight, comfy and dry options, most recently treating my feet to the Merrell Capra Waterprooof. Easily the most comfortable hiking shoes I’ve encountered to date.
Back to the hike with Rod: a great day on the trail thanks to my high-tech, not-all-that-high-cost wardrobe, and only good memories and photos to show for it. Nary a blister or sniffle to be had.
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