Inclement Weather Hiking: Ten Tips to Stay Comfortable & Alive

After 57,000 Miles & 56 Countries, Cam “Swami” Honan Knows Inclement Weather.

Tasmania
Arthur Range (photo courtesy of Viktor Posnov)

Photos & Text by Cam Honan

Tasmania’s Arthur Range is arguably Australia’s most spectacular mountain chain. Unfortunately for hikers there’s a catch. It’s called the “weather.”

Backcountry trips in the Arthurs are a meteorological roll of the dice at any time of year. When it’s fine you’ll be treated to sublime views of jagged quartzite peaks, hanging valleys and glacier carved lakes. If a big storm front rumbles through, all you will likely see is horizontal rain, thick fog and the brim of your baseball cap pulled all the way down over your forehead.

When coupled with the fact that much of the hiking is done on open rocky ridges exposed to the full brunt of the Roaring Forties (i.e. gale-force westerly winds found in the Southern Hemisphere, generally between between 40° and 50° latitude), the Arthurs is not a place you want to be without good backcountry skills and the right equipment.

If faced with these sort of extreme conditions, a hiker’s #1 priority should always be safety. Preset itineraries and/or mileage objectives should run a very distant second.

Sarek National Park | Lapland, Sweden | With its long valleys, winding rivers, glaciers and distinctive peaks, navigation in Sarek is not overly difficult when conditions are fine. However, when the mother of all storms rolls through, as it did during the last 1.5 days of my hike in 2009, much of your time may well be spent hiking through driving rain and fog.

In such circumstances, I try to focus on core temperature management and sound choices. In regards to the latter, I find it helpful to put myself in the role of “objective observer” rather than “subjective participant.” In other words, take emotion out of the decision making process. Admittedly, this is sometimes easier in theory than it is in practice, however, in my opinion it represents one of the most important, as well as most overlooked, wilderness skills that a hiker can develop.

Ten Tips for Inclement Weather Hiking

Areas such as the Arthur Range, represent some of the most challenging conditions a hiker will face. When trekking for extended periods in driving rain and temperatures that hover around freezing, hypothermia and frostbite (i.e. if the thermometer subsequently drops below 0°C / 32°F) are a very real possibility.

Thankfully, cold-related maladies are far easier to prevent than they are to cure. Here are ten proactive measures that hikers can take when venturing into such environments:

1. Forecast
Always check the forecast before setting out. Adapting is a lot easier if you know what’s coming. This is a good habit to establish irrespective of the climate.

2. Awareness
Keep an eye on the weather (forecasts can sometimes be wrong) and know your limitations. If conditions are deteriorating and you’re feeling exhausted, don’t hesitate to set up your shelter and call it a day.

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Southwest Tasmania Traverse, 2016 | Dinner on the Indian ocean

3. Appropriate Clothing
If you are hiking in cold, wet and windy weather for an extended period, it’s not so much a question of staying 100% dry, which is nigh on impossible, as it is maintaining a reasonable level of comfort whilst out on trail.

When backpacking in regions known for inclement conditions, such as Tasmania, Scotland, Tierra del Fuego, the Pacific Northwest and New Zealand’s Fiordland, my preference is for multiple lighter layers that dry relatively quickly and retain warmth when wet.

For example:

• Base layer: 150 or 200 Merino Wool long sleeve shirt with zip neck.
I’m a big fan of Merino wool: good warmth to weight ratio, quick drying, feels soft against the skin and natural antibacterial properties means it doesn’t smell as much as synthetic garments. I always go with zip neck models for their versatility. They help to keep things cooler when you are working hard and/or the is thermometer is rising. On the flip side, you have the option of “shutting up shop” when you are taking a break, cruising along mellow terrain or the outside temperature is dropping.

• Insulation Layer: Fleece and/or synthetic fiber garments.
When heading out into areas subject to heavy precipitation, I leave the down jacket and/or vest at home. Long time favorite synthetic/fleece options include the Montbell Thermawrap Jacket & Vest and the Patagonia R1 Hoody & R2 Fleece Vest.

• Outer Layer: No garment is completely waterproof given extended exposure to the conditions I describe above. Working on the principle that damp is better than soaked and being comfortable rather than dry is the priority, I look for rain jackets with the following features:

  • A good DWR (durable water repellant) finish;
  • Relatively lightweight;
  • Quick drying;
  • Pit zips for ventilation;
  • Adjustable wrist cuffs and,

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    Cam “Swami” Honan in Tasmania’s Arthur Range | Arguably the ultimate in field tests for both rain gear & positive wet weather mindsets
  • Fully adjustable hood with a stiff brim.

What do I carry? The last couple of years I’ve mostly been using a Montbell Peak Shell Jacket. It has performed very well in a wide variety of environments ranging from Southwest Tasmania to the Colombian Andes. For three season hiking on well maintained trails and/or open terrain (i.e. no bushwhacking or overgrown terrain), I think the DriDucks Ultra-Lite 2 Jacket ($22) represents great value, particularly for folks on a tight budget.

• Lower Body: I take a combination of lightweight/quick drying waterproof/resistant pants (e.g. Montbell Versalite) and thin thermal underwear (e.g. Patagonia Capilene 2) to wear at night.

4. Avoid Sweating
Over-dressing and/or over-exerting can lead to excessive perspiration, which in turn can result in a lowering of body temperature. Constantly monitor yourself and remove or add layers accordingly. Make ‘not sweating’ a priority when hiking in cold and wet conditions.

5. Pay Attention to the Extremities
Your head, hands and feet constitute the body’s initial warning system in cold conditions. For trips in such environments I regularly take the following items: lightweight fleece beanie, merino wool liner gloves, MLD eVent Rain Mitts and two pair of merino liner socks. In addition, I’ll also carry a third pair of thicker wool socks to wear at night and if I’m expecting temps to regularly drop below freezing, I’ll add a pair of wool mittens.

6. Short breaks
The longer you stop the colder you become. When the temps head south and the heavens open, keep your breaks short and to a minimum. If for whatever reason you do need to take a longer break, put on an extra layer or two until you begin hiking again.

Cam Honan
Southwest Tasmania Traverse, 2016 | A quick stop for afternoon tea on an otherwise wet & windy day

7. Food & Water
During the day eat high-energy snacks at regular intervals (e.g. every 1.5 hours). Before going to bed, your evening meal should emphasize fats and proteins, which are processed slower by your digestive system. Consider keeping a chocolate bar in your sleeping bag, in case you wake up cold and hungry in the middle of the night. (Note: You may want to disregard this last suggestion if you are hiking in bear country outside of winter).

In cold and wet conditions, hikers often forget to drink enough water. Big mistake. If you are dehydrated you are more susceptible to hypothermia.

8. Pack Liner
Use a trash compactor bag to line the inside of your backpack. They’re cheap, lightweight and surprisingly durable (i.e. Less than $1 per bag; 2 oz, and; one to two months of regular usage).

9. Drying Clothes
During the night, I dry my hiking clothes as best as possible using the following techniques:
• Gloves – I put directly against my head underneath my beanie.
• Wet socks – I place down my long johns.
• Hiking shirt – I will either wear over the top of a thin merino wool t-shirt or fleece, or alternatively, place it between my sleeping mat and the shelter floor.
• Note: I usually avoid putting wet items directly against my sleeping bag/quilt, as the moisture can compromise the bag’s insulation.

10. Attitude
Once you have the gear and experience required to hike safely in cold and wet conditions, the key is perspective. Yes, the conditions are challenging, but moaning and complaining won’t improve them. Stay positive by viewing such times as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks; learning opportunities provided by Mother Nature that will help you improve your backcountry skill set.

You can find more from Cam Honan on his website TheHikingLife.com

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Dusky Track | Fiordland, New Zealand | Accessible only by air or water, the Dusky is one of NZ’s most challenging hikes. Situated in an area that receives an average of 8000 mm (315 inches) of rain per year; it may not be the best option for fair weather hikers and/or folks with a mud-phobia