Monday, October 15, 2012

Hiking in the rain is hard.

Those are some seriously, soaked-through backpacks, folks!

Hiking in the rain is hard... but just like any tough experience, it is also rewarding.

I remember back to 2007, shortly after my mom and I finished thru-hiking the American Discovery Trail. We did a few speaking engagements to a variety of audiences. There were a few questions we were asked each time. The most popular was “How long did it take?” to which we’d answer, “8-1/2 months.” The second most popular was, “How many pairs of shoes did you go through?” to which we’d answer, “Nine each.” And third, “What did you do when it rained?”

I thought back to that question and it came back to me, quickly and clearly... as I hiked along, soaked to the bone. I have a poor memory, but with repetition things tend to stick.
“What did you do when it rained?” My answer to that question? “We got wet.”

We were totally soaked through at this point (about 12 miles in). Still smiling, though!

There's just no other way. You just get wet. Water is tricky. It’s not like snow that will pile up, and might get damp as it melts, but still allows you to brush most of it off. Rain seeps into every nook, cranny, wrinkle, divot, weak spot... and it just gets you wet. Plain. And. Simple. When you’re hiking in rain, all day, and there’s no place to hide from it, there’s no way to avoid it. You just get wet. And to go out into the wild thinking you’re going to stay dry because you bought a $400 “waterproof” rain jacket is just going to bring you down. If you are in a light rain or an off-and-on rain, and you are naturally granted the opportunity to give your gear a break, “waterproof” works. It’s perfect. And you smile and think to yourself, “I’m so glad I spent all that money on this jacket!” I’ve been in that exact situation before! But when dealing with an unrelenting, all-day downpour? Nope. It doesn’t matter – it’s not going to work. It will get in. Rain will find its way!

I consider hiking in 35-45°F temps with an all-day rain without a break one of the toughest conditions out there, right next to a strong, cold, nonstop wind – that’s right up at the top of my list, too. The toughest conditions usually end up being in the “they never give up and go constant all day long” category – because you don’t get a mental break from it. And 9 times out of 10, I’ll break mentally before I break physically. Which can also save my ass, to be honest. If I break mentally, I’m more likely to set up my tent and curl up in my sleeping bag to get warm and start over again in the morning – or high-tail it to the car and crank up the heater. Even if I wanted to hike 20 miles, but only hiked 16.5. Conditions can sometimes create an equally or even tougher challenge than what you originally set out to do. And know what? That’s one of the coolest things about this kind of stuff. That’s why I love it so much!

One big advantage to rain-hiking? It makes the late-fall colors even more vibrant!

So let’s go back to the rain thing. When Rachel and I were hiking on Saturday we had the 40-50°F conditions, with the all-day downpour that never let up. We did just fine for the majority of the day, but as the day wore on, the rain came down harder and harder and the temperature actually dropped about 5°. Our trails became rivers in some places, and in others it became ponds 6 feet in diameter. The rocks and roots were slick; the leaves covered some of said rocks and roots, as well as some deep puddles. Cruising along on the trail, you wouldn’t even realize there was an eight-inch-deep pool of rainwater built up until you stepped in it. When I’d find myself stepping into one of these pools through the pretty, floating layer of leaves and feeling the cold, fresh water hit my warm toes, it reminded me of a booby trap. Remember when you were kids, and you’d dig a small hole, then cover it cross-wise with small twigs, then cover that with leaves? Then you’d sit behind a tree and wait for your sister to walk by and step in it? I was never successful with this kind of booby trap, but my brother and cousin sure were! Well, it made me think of that. Thankfully, by the time I started stepping in deep pools along the trail, I’d already given up on dry feet, so it just made me laugh and feel a little nostalgic for my childhood... and miss my brother.

We did manage to find a pavilion to take a break in at about 9 miles in. Hot caramel latte to the rescue!
However you look at it, my and Rachel’s 20-mile dayhike on Sunday turned into a 16.5-mile crazy-rain challenge. We tested gear we weren’t originally planning on really “testing.” It was all good stuff, though. We smiled, laughed, hiked and had a typical good hikin' time – even when we lost our trail and had to bushwhack up and down a steep hillside full of unstable, moss-covered rocks, wet leaves, tangled vines and lots of downed trees. Towards the end of the day, though, we knew we were done when our gloves were so soaked we had to wring them out, our fingers were freezing cold and our bodies were starting to follow, despite the layers we switched out throughout the day. Everything was wet, and once that happens thrown in with a chilly temperature, and no matter how much you walk, you just get and stay cold. Hypothermia can set in during just these types of conditions (wet + cold = bad), and we weren’t at that point, but we sure as heck weren’t going to push ourselves another hour or two and see if we could! We were going to keep this a happy hike, and that’s exactly what we did! We were smiley and happy when we finally got back to the car, stripped ourselves of the heaviest and wettest of clothing and gear as quickly as we could, jumped in and cranked up the heat. It was fabulous.

We drove straight to the nearest gas station, changed into a dry set of clothes, grabbed a hot cocoa, a corn dog and a rice crispy treat, and went back to Rachel’s house to unpack and just see exactly what kind of “wet” we were talking about.

First observation? The giant puddle underneath where we set our packs on her entryway. Um, yeah. Kind of wish we’d had rain covers on. Mostly everything else inside was wet, too, with the exception of a few things that were in sturdy gallon-size ziplock bags or a hardy waterproof stuff sack.

Last observation? That was a brutally awesome 16.5 miles that we took on strong, laughed at, tumbled over, cruised on and got totally 100% completely soaked through on. Thanks, rain. We’re always up for new learning experiences when it comes to backpacking.

Even the waterproof camera struggled in the pouring rain!

Things we learned and/or were reminded of:

1.       Nothing is waterproof when it rains really hard, constantly, all day long. Nothing. No matter how you describe it, no matter how much you pay for it, and no matter how you use it. Water will get in. It is really sneaky that way.

2.       It’s important to eat and drink when you’re hiking lots of miles, even if the weather makes it difficult. Unless you enjoy bonking and feeling random parts cramping and hurting. Eat. Drink. And keep eating and drinking.

3.       A good pack rain cover would be worth gold on an all-day-rainy kind of hike. Even referring back to #1 above, it won’t keep water out completely, but for the amount that it would...  it would be worth it. Packs get heavier as they (and everything in them) get wet. Ugh.

I’ve ready SO many opinions about “oooh, yaaaah... just make sure everything INSIDE is in waterproof stuff sacks and ziplock bags.” First, it still gets heavy; second, your pack is SOAKED and no matter how you look at it, that sucks; third, that only works in a sprinkle, not a pourdown; fourth, it’s hard to get at anything when everything is tucked away in ziplock bags and stuff sacks – referring to #2 above, even food, and that’s no good.

Lesson learned! This is my new opinion – rain covers are GOOD.

4.       Bathroom hand dryers are the freakin’ BOMB diggity when it’s cold and rainy outside. If you can be lucky enough to find one on your route.

5.       Black squirrels are super-awesome. And they’re not afraid of the crazy down-pouring rain. Just like me and Rachel. (Can you hear that horn tooting? Yup, that’s ours.)

Enjoying the hand dryers in the bathroom. Aaaaaah.

It was a great hike, we were totally worn out at the end of it, and that exhaustion even carried over to the next day. It was good. As challenging as the weather can be when backpacking or hiking, it’s always good to have a plan, and we did. We took the opportunity to talk about our strategy if we were actually out backpacking and needed to spend the night in the woods – how we’d first set our packs down on our sleeping pads and get the tent set up as quickly as possible. Pull whatever was dry out of our packs and toss it in the tent. Then we’d take turns getting in and putting on dry clothes and rolling up in our sleeping bags to get warm. We’d toss as much of our soaking wet clothing in a trash compactor bag and tuck it under our feet. Then we’d pull out a cold dinner – probably the bagels and peanut butter we didn’t eat for lunch because it was too hard to stop and get out in the rain. Then we’d sleep and start over in the morning. Hopefully it wouldn’t be raining. But if it was...

We’d get out, we’d hike, we’d get wet, and we’d talk about how awesome it was to be out hiking.

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