Do you really need rain pants for hiking? It’s a common question. After all, when you’re walking and the heavens open, your legs don’t tend to get as wet as your head and shoulders, plus it can be hard to fit yet another layer in your backpack along with your waterproof jacket and insulating layer. Surely you can risk just getting a little wet and you’ll dry off quickly?
That’s what I thought for a long time, and when I lived in the Rocky Mountains, I was quite correct. Colorado is blessed with nearly-constant sunshine and when there is rain in the forecast, you certainly won’t be heading out on the trails. But when I moved back to Scotland in 2020, I remembered that if you wait for a dry day to hike, you’ll never get out there. Oh, and when it does rain, it’s often blowing sideways, so your legs can end up as waterlogged as your torso. On one hike, I became so saturated within the first hour that I was struggling to move my legs, and of course all the water dripped down my legs and soaked my socks, too. Realizing I was no match for this deluge, I turned back and, from the train home, ordered myself a pair of Keela Rainlife 5000 waterproof trousers. Now I feel quite confident going out in any weather.
Now that said, I’ll admit it – the rain pants still only come with me when I’m heading out in severe weather. Otherwise, it’s just extra bulk and weight in my backpack. And you might be reading this and thinking, well I don’t live in Scotland and rain pants are a hassle that make me extra sweaty when I’m walking. So do you really need rain pants for hiking?
It depends where you are…
Honestly, whether or not you need rain pants for hiking largely depends on where you are. If you’re in New England, the Pacific Northwest or in the UK, for example, there’s a good chance that you’re going to encounter some precipitation and should probably look into getting a pair if you don’t want the weather to ruin your hiking plans. Getting soaked isn’t just uncomfortable – rain is usually accompanied by a drop in temperature and wearing wet clothing means it’s harder to keep yourself warm, which leads to the risk of hypothermia. If you’re carrying rain pants and the rain starts to get heavy, you can just pull them on over your regular hiking pants and keep walking.
But if you’re in California, Colorado, Utah or pretty much anywhere west or southwest? Carrying rain pants would probably be overkill. Although there is one caveat to that, so keep reading.
…and how long you’ll be out there
Another consideration in addition to your location is the length of time you’re likely to be outdoors. For a day hike, you really may be able to get away with getting soaked. As long as there’s not likely to be a wild temperature swing where you get soaked and then temperatures drop below freezing (which could easily, by the way, happen at altitude) then you could just get back to the car, change your clothes and dry off.
But if you’re backpacking, or even thru-hiking, you’ll want to start thinking about bringing some extra leg protection for your adventures. It may not be raining when you set off on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, but when you arrive in New England six months later, chances are you’ll hit some wet weather. When you’re backpacking and it starts raining, you could stop hiking and set up camp, but carrying rain pants could mean that you get to keep going and don’t fall behind on your journey.
Tips for choosing rain pants
If in reading this, you’ve realized that you do really need a pair of rain pants for hiking, you might still have some reservations. One of the main reasons people resist carrying rain pants for hiking is because they can be difficult to get on and off, make you sweaty and don’t always have pockets, so choosing the right pair is an important first step.
Make sure the legs are wide enough that you can get your hiking boot through them without falling over and look for a pair with thigh vents and pockets so you can still reach your gear. Haglöfs L.I.M ZT Shell GTX Pro Pants check all the boxes for us if you’re seeking a really rugged pair, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a cheap and lightweight pair of rain pants, so long as they’re easy to get on and keep the rain off.
Alternatives to rain pants
If you think rain pants aren’t necessary for where you’re going and you just want some lighter protection against the odd passing shower, all you really need to do is pick the right hiking pants. For day hiking or extremely arid locations, a suitable alternative to rain pants is a pair of water-resistant hiking pants that are made from really quick drying fabric. My favorite pair of hiking pants in this category are my Black Diamond Alpine Softshell Pants, which keep a light rain off and dry quickly when the rain stops. With a little wind protection, they’re adequate for cold (but not freezing) weather and I’ve worn them in all seasons in Scotland.
If, however, you might be looking at a lot of rain and cooler weather but still aren’t sold on the idea of stopping to pull on extra trousers every couple of hours, your best option is to choose waterproof hiking pants that are designed to be worn alone. Models such as the Páramo Cascada II Trousers are waterproof, but they’re not overtrousers, meaning you can wear them all day as your hiking pants.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.