Staying dry and keeping your gear dry is one of survival strategies, when in the backcountry, especially in cold months, high exposure or mountains. Wet clothes rarely provide any insulation and often even drain your body’s heat, depending on the materials. In this article I will discuss the main strategies how to keep yourself and your gear dry to avoid dangerous situations, such as hypothermia.
Have appropriate gear
There is no way around it; you will need a way to protect yourself from rain/snow/rivers/etc. The major pieces of waterproof kit are rain jackets (hard-shells), trousers and tents. Backpacks should ideally be as waterproof as possible, but the problem can be resolved with backpack covers, liners and gear sacks (more about it later).Each of these items are categorized based on the waterproofness capacity – PSI (pounds per Square inch). This just shows how much water/snow the piece of gear can handle and is also usually a good indicator for how long will the insulation last. Do not be fooled – no waterproof clothing is fully waterproof – seams, folds from moving, and added durability all contribute to your waterproof gear to start leaking eventually. The best of producers, however, usually make sure their technologies are the best available and the quality is the best you can found (not to mention excellent warranty service). If you are travelling in summer conditions, waterproof rain jacket should be sufficient, but waterproof pants are a must have layer, when in winter conditions. Hard-shell trousers will not only keep the water away, it will also offer you shelter from storms and incredible insulation.
Waterproof sacks are one of the most useful items in the backcountry and an excellent way to ensure you are staying dry. Even more than keeping yourself dry is to have at least one set of clothes or sleeping bag dry, for when you stop for the night. Waterproof sacks are incredibly lightweight, waterproof and allow achieving exactly that. They are also incredibly useful, when trying to compartmentalize your gear in the back that allows faster packing and easier access to your gear. Waterproof sacks/bags usually last a long time, but if you feel that you’re a bit on a budget or do not have access to some, even harder plastic bags can serve the function.
Finally waterproof sacks come in various sizes (volumes) from large backpack to tiny pouches for your phone and wallet. Several different sizes will usually do the trick. In terms of backpack liners, I prefer plastic backpack liners, as they usually are much lighter, and in case, can serve more functions such as emergency signaling, emergency bivy (and are much cheaper).
Being able to make/have access to shelter is crucial in the backcountry. When heading out on a multi-day trip, always think carefully about where will you be spending nights and if you will a way to get shelter in case everything does not go according to plan. People that most frequently get in trouble re day-trippers who did not anticipate spending a night out. Hence you should always carry some emergency shelter, for example space blanket or emergency bivy. If you are planning a multi-day trip, make sure you have enough time to get to your backcountry hut, or, ideally, always carry a lightweight tent, especially if travelling alone. If you will be able to make shelter at any time, you will avoid most of backcountry risks, such as being trapped in bad weather, stuck behind risen water level and being injured. Having shelter will make sure you are dry and warm.
Plastic in nature
Ironic enough, plastic has a lot of use in the great outdoors. It is waterproof and lightweight and is perfect for packing in food, compartmentalizing your gear, packing out rubbish. Large rubbish bags can serve as emergency shelter. Hence, I always take some plastic bags with me for multi-purpose use.
How to dress
In order to keep dry, or as dry as possible, you need a good clothing system. As mentioned before, you always should keep one set of clothes and/or your sleeping bag dry, to be able to warm up when you stop. If you will make sure that along with a tent, you will be able to avoid most of backcountry trouble. If it’s raining are you are choosing to be outdoors, minimize how much of your clothing items are getting wet. If your pants are not waterproof, there is no point of wearing those in a heavier rain, as they are just likely to get wet. Shorts are often the best choice for summer hiking in the rain.
Always have a reliable rain jacket with you, as keeping your core dry and warm will help you avoid hypothermia. You can then layer base merino or synthetic shirts and insulating merino, fleece or other synthetic layers.
If hiking in winter and having snow to deal with, a pair of waterproof jackets and trousers is a must, as getting wet in this weather will result in quick loss of body warmth.
To keep your feet dry in the backcountry, choose waterproof hiking shoes with leather and Gore-Tex. In some cases, waterproof socks can do magic if keeping you warm; I have never encountered waterproof socks in hiking range, but mountain-bikers have a selection of those. Finally, to prevent your shoes getting wet from the top, use gaiters – they will not only protect your feet from snow, water and loose grounds, but will also protect your calves from sharp grass.
Avoid cotton in backcountry
Cotton is completely the worst in the backcountry, and I sincerely suggest you avoid it. Cotton absorbs water and is very slow to dry, which means that once wet, you will remain wet and will progressively get colder and colder. Instead, choose merino and synthetic layers; they usually provide warmth and insulation even when damp and dry very fast.