On umbrellas and rain skirts, and why you should try hiking with them.
Umbrellas, Skirts, Breezes… Oh my!
Are you tired of slogging through the rain, sweating your butt off, wondering why you even bother wearing a rain jacket as you trudge forward in a humid swamp of your own sweat? Fed up with the latest and greatest waterproof/breathable fabric that is anything but? Looking for a way out… or perhaps for the ultimate rain gear for backpacking? Well, look no further, I have a solution for you! One that is gloriously breathable, astonishingly adaptable, and not a bit sweaty. I propose that you give backpacking with an umbrella and rain skirt a try. Seriously… well ok, there are a few caveats, but let me explain.
The pacific northwest is an ideal candidate for the umbrella/rain skirt combo
While many backpackers and ultralighters have worked hard to hone their gear down to it’s optimum form, there is one place where nearly everyone struggles. Rain gear. There aren’t many choices available (or are there too many?!), and nearly all of them have major downsides or are outright unbearable. Let’s first take a look at the two most common options presented to hikers:
Waterproof/Breathable Shells! …Are a myth. A glorious white unicorn in a misty forest that turns out to be a malnourished horse with a stick duct taped to it’s head upon closer inspection. Sure, in a lab setting, Goretex, Event, and Pertex Quantum fabrics all seem to be incredible, high-tech solutions to the sweat issues that rain jackets can’t seem to avoid. You may have even seen the impressive videos showing a steam wand blasting moisture outward through a waterproof shell. Surely this means that your sweat can escape too right?! Well, a little, but not nearly enough to keep up with the moisture the average human puts off with mild exertion. What’s worse is that humid conditions, you know, like the conditions that are almost always present when it’s raining, slow down this process even more. What incentive does vapor trapped inside your humid sweat swamp have to leave, when what awaits it outside is more humidity? Combine this with that fact that DWR coatings tend to wear off fast and now you’ve got water trapped inside with you and water slowly invading your shell from the outside like creeping death. It’s a trap! The sad fact we must face is that waterproof/breathable fabrics are mostly marketing hype. Sure pit zips can help, but not enough.
My waterproof/breathable face. Not so breathable... Kinda waterproof
The Poncho. I’ve got to admit… I really like ponchos. They breath much better than rain jackets do, simply due to the fact that they allow for much more airflow. That, in my opinion is true breathability. Rain jackets may have pit zips but ponchos have gigantic arm holes and a skirt shape that allows much better airflow. So much air flow in fact, that most ponchos actually use 100% waterproof (i.e. not “breathable”) fabrics. This means that you are dealing with a vapor barrier (a fabric that traps moisture and doesn’t let it escape through the fabric itself.) However, because air flow is dramatically higher than in a jacket design, the negative aspects of the vapor barrier don’t tend to be of much concern. Plus, water isn’t going to slowly “wet out” your poncho from the outside.
But there are still downsides. Even with all of their added breathability, ponchos still tend to get really hot and steamy with a brisk hiking pace. With pack straps and hip belts holding the poncho tightly to your body, breathability in some areas is reduced to zero and heat and sweat begin to collect. Not as badly as you’ll find in a rain shell, but still not ideal.
Additionally, the more open and flowy design that allows for such great airflow in ponchos can also be a downside. When hiking through dense foliage, or when bushwacking, ponchos have an amazing ability to snag on every little branch that happens to cross your path. While not a huge deal, this can become a major issues in areas with thorns or spines. A shredded poncho might be super breathable, but good luck keeping the rain out. On windy days, you’ll find that a poncho can quickly become a parachute, pulling and shoving at you as it traps the wind. This billowing can also leave parts of you uncovered and tends to create open backdoors for rain to sneak in at. Not ideal.
A new challenger approaches
So, why the umbrella/rain skirt combo?
Four reasons really…
You stay dry.
1.) Maximum breathability. Short of hiking stark naked, you’re not going to find a more breathable rain system than an umbrella. In fact, this is the only system I would call truly breathable. Umbrella’s allow you to wear whatever feels comfortable underneath them. In warm weather you can strip down to a t-shirt to keep the heat at bay and keep up a brisk hiking pace. In colder weather, you can layer up to be warm enough but still avoid the sweat swamp that you’d find in a rain jacket. It is simply perfect for regulating your temperature in the rain.
Rain skirts are equally impressive with their breathability. Sure, silnylon and cuben fiber may not be breathable fabrics, but when you’ve got a slit down the entire side of the skirt and a giant hole that your legs stick out, you have more than sufficient airflow. I’ll say that I’ve never overheated or sweated out wearing a rain skirt.
2.) You stay dry. Better yet, most of the rain isn’t even touching you. In a rain shell and even a poncho, each little drop of rain that rolls off of you is stealing some of your heat. While this is not a concern in the summer, in cooler weather it can make a huge difference in your warmth. Plus you don’t have those freezing little drops of rain constantly sneaking in around your neck and wrists.
Another key benefit is that you can use an umbrella to stay dry while actually doing more than just hiking. If you need to read a map, access your gps/phone, eat lunch during a downpour, get something out of your backpack without letting water in, or even just snap a picture during a rain storm, an umbrella allows you to do just that. All while staying dry. Plus, you can deploy and retract an umbrella so much faster than you can put on or take off a rain jacket. This makes hiking in intermittent rain so much easier. Also, there’s pooping. Yeah… it’s much more pleasant pooping in the rain when you’ve got an umbrella.
3.) Adaptability. An umbrella has far more uses than just shedding rain. In the blazing sun of the desert, an umbrella may be your only source of shade. I can’t tell you how many times I was thankful to have even just a few square feet of shade in the scorching heat of the deserts of Southern California along the Pacific Crest Trail. Additionally, at high elevations, like those found along the entire length of the Continental Divide Trail, an umbrella can save you from the harsh UV rays that bombard you throughout the day.
Taking advantage of the desert shade. Not pictured: the umbrella over my head, keeping my brain from frying.
If you are a tarp user, umbrellas are perfect for keeping rain out during the crazy and or windy rain storms. While I am constantly amazed at how dry I stay in a tarp (an article for another day), there are occasionally times where the wind and heavy rain conspire to sneak in the front opening of my tarp. In times like these I simply deploy my umbrella and stick it in the front door to keep the sideways rain out. If it is super windy, I’ll throw something onto the handle of the umbrella to weight it down.
Some other umbrella uses: use it as a modesty screen while peeing in the backcountry, use it as a windscreen while cooking or sleeping, use it as a makeshift support pole for your tarp, poke stuff with it, or use it to replicate the spitting Dilophosaurus dinosaurs from Jurassic Park (and potentially scare off predators??)
Rain skirts are adaptable too! I use mine as: a sit pad to keep my butt dry, a modesty shield during laundry days in town (on long thru hikes), a dry place to set gear down on wet ground, a table cloth for lunchtime picnics, and much more.
4.) It’s lightweight. At around 8 ounces (~227g) for an umbrella and 2 ounces (~57g) for a rain skirt, you’re looking at a total of 10 ounces (~284g) total weight. As light or lighter than most fully featured rain shells you’ll find on the market. And that’s not even including rain pants, which will add significantly more weight.
My personal umbrella has survived the PCT and CDT (7.9 oz, 224 g)
A DIY rain skirt (1.7 oz, 48 g)
As is the case with most things in life, including mountains, there are certainly downsides to the umbrella/rain skirt combo. Take these into consideration:
Seasonality- While this combo works great in summer months and into the shoulder seasons, when the temperatures begin to drop towards freezing you’ll likely want a little extra warmth available. It’s in times like this that rain jackets excel. When temperatures are trending towards freezing, I will throw a minimalist rain shell (~6 oz for an OR Helium ii) into my pack in addition to my umbrella and rain skirt. It helps to assure absolute dryness and gives me one more layer to add extra warmth with. I don’t typically use my umbrella in the winter months, as the warmth of a fully featured rain jacket is nice to have, and snow is much easier to repel than rain is.
Wind- Anytime I mention hiking with an umbrella, I am questioned about wind. And while I think it is worth talking about, I don’t think it should deter you from trying an umbrella. The two most common questions I get are: “Won’t it blow the umbrella inside out or rip it out of your hands?” and “Doesn’t the rain blow underneath and soak you?” Let’s start with the first question. No. The umbrellas designed for backpacking are much hardier than your typical umbrella. Not only that, but they are designed with plastic support rods that flex in the wind, they won’t bend or break like those of a traditional umbrella. Most also have a strap that you can secure to your hand if you don’t feel capable of keeping ahold of the umbrella in driving winds. To answer the second question, it is pretty rare that rain is driving hard enough sideways to create an issue. The fact is, when rain is blowing sideways, you just tilt your umbrella into the wind and the issue is solved. The real issue is in extremely high winds. Winds high enough to begin to flex the rods of the umbrella. In these cases I’ll take the dome of the umbrella and put it directly agains my body letting it flex around me keeping mostly dry. I’d be lying if I said I stay completely dry in these situations, but I stay dry enough and these situations are few and far between on trail.
Trekking Poles- For trekking pole users, one concern with the umbrella is that you’ll have to stash one of your poles in order to hold the umbrella. Not a huge deal, but this may bother some.
Wet Feet/Pants- Though most people are hiking in non-waterproof trail runners and shorts these days, there are some that still prefer waterproof boots and pants. I’m going to just go ahead and say that waterproof shoes are mostly pointless in the rain and will undoubtedly get soaked through in any significant amount of rain, thereby nullifying their purpose. Whether it be from puddles, soaking through, or rain dripping down your legs, your shoes are gonna get wet, deal with it. Preferably by using shoes that dry out fast. Now if you wear pants often, rain skirts may leave you wanting for more. Rain skirts generally provide rain coverage down to the shin area, leaving a small portion of the legs uncovered. If you are wearing pants, your core will stay dry, but the bottoms of your legs will get wet. This is not a big deal, but an annoyance nonetheless. The harsh reality here is that there isn’t really a better solution short of rain pants… which are a horrible solution.
The quick and dirty conclusion:
The umbrella/rain skirt combo is an amazing way to hike comfortably in the rain. Breathability is maximized, functionality is incredible, weight is minimized, you won’t find yourself soaked in sweat, and there are a plethora of uses for umbrellas and rain skirts outside of just stopping the rain. Yes, this is a viable option in the wind… No, you don’t have to worry about your umbrella flipping inside out, just point it into the wind. Downsides are limited to wet feet and having to stash a trekking pole. This is not an ideal system for winter use, though it can be done.
So which umbrella/rain skirt should you get?
Umbrella: The GoLite Chrome Dome has been the go to umbrella for backpackers since its debut. It’s lightweight (just under 8 oz.) and nearly bombproof. Since the fall of GoLite, several people have begun selling the exact same model as the Chrome Dome. Check them out below:
There are other options available in the backpacking world, but to be honest I don’t have enough experience with any of them to make a recommendation. If you are interested in even lighter umbrellas, check out Montbell’s selection of super light umbrellas here (www.montbell.us/products/list.php?cat_id=1405) I’m eager to give their 3 oz. travel umbrella a testing!
Rain Skirt: While rain skirts can be purchased, I’d recommend making one! It’s much cheaper, super easy, and it’s a perfect introduction to the world of DIY backpacking gear. Plus, you can make a rain skirt that is sized perfectly for your body dimensions. Check out my video below for more info on making your own:
If you are still interested in purchasing one, check out these options:
Joe Brewer is a triple crown hiker with a serious addiction to the trail and all things thru hiking. Currently he resides in Denver, Colorado where he is working at a gear store, creating videos for his Youtube channel (https://www.youtube.com/biophthera), doing his best to avoid dropping everything and starting up another thru hike, and producing content for his hiking website BackcountryBanter.com.