When planning a thru-hike on the Colorado Trail, one factor many hikers should take more stock in is rain gear. Staying dry should always be a top concern for backpackers. Depending on when you hike the Colorado Trail, rain can make or break a trip. Being prepared — by researching and testing quality rain jackets, pack covers and sleep systems — will help you stay safe and minimize discomfort on any trip when it starts to pour.
Learning from experience
When I hiked the Colorado Trail in 2017, rain was one of the biggest challenges I faced, and one that I was not adequately prepared for. Like many hikers, I started my thru-hike in early-July. The first few days of hiking were hot and dry. As soon as I hit the Continental Divide near Breckenridge, CO, the state’s monsoon season began right on cue.
I tried my best to dodge afternoon storms by starting early and getting off high passes in the morning, but when it rains everyday, it becomes hard to meet your hiking goals. Rain soaked through my clothes and drowned my last morsels of morale.
I started the CT with a rain jacket I had used successfully on past trips. On shorter outings, even if I got wet, it was easy to keep hiking, knowing that a hot-shower and dry clothes were never far away. Thru-hiking proved to be a different story.
I soon realized my normal rain jacket couldn’t withstand day-in and day-out exposure. If I tried to hike with the jacket on, my sweat quickly built up on the inside and compromised the supposedly waterproof layer.
Colorado’s sun, dry air and wind usually make drying clothes or a rainfly easy. But hanging gear to dry takes time. If you’re planning to hike fast, setting aside an hour of daylight to hang your rainfly will quickly slow you down.
After the first week of incessant rain, I was able to get off trail, find better gear and refine my strategy of dealing with rain. If you’re planning to hike the Colorado Trail, learn from my mistakes.
Timing rain on the Colorado Trail
When you hike makes a big difference in influencing how much rain you’ll encounter on the Colorado Trail. Early hikers who start in late-June will encounter more snow on high passes, but may be able to dodge the bulk of the monsoon season. For most hikers, who start in early to mid-July, rain is inevitable. By August, afternoon storms start to abate. Hikers in August and September will likely encounter cooler and drier conditions.
If you’re curious about historic rain levels along the Colorado Trail, you can play around with Colorado State University historic data for precipitation. Using data from their records, I found that when I was hiking in 2017, Silverton, CO saw only 0.16 inches of precipitation in June. July, however, brought 3.78 inches of rain to the town. In August, Silverton’s precipitation was back down to 1.93 inches.
Rain Gear for the Colorado Trail
Rain jackets are by far the most important piece of rain gear. A solid jacket will not only add warmth to your layering system and provide wind protection on ridges, but it will also keep you drier and happier. While some hikers try to save weight by packing light rain jackets, or even wind-breakers, a durable, high-quality rain jacket is essential.
One of the problems with my first rain jacket was its lack of breathability. Many cheaper rain jackets will do their job well if you’re not moving. Breathable, water-resistant materials like GORE-TEX are more expensive, but they allow you to continue hiking in the rain. Instead of trapping moisture on the inside as you sweat, GORE-TEX and other more-breathable fabrics let moisture escape.
The best way to find a good rain jacket that works for you is by testing multiple options. If you buy a jacket through REI, you can hike in it and see how it performs outside. If you’re not satisfied, they’ll take it back. Smaller outdoor gear shops will likely have people who can suggest specific brands and give you good advice. I found a clearance jacket at Sierra Trading Post that’s held up remarkably well. If you’re a complete cheapskate like me, it’s understandable to be skeptical about the merits of GORE-TEX. Yes, it’s expensive, but a good rain jacket is an investment in your sanity. Don’t skimp here.
It’s important to wash your jacket to ensure dirt and oils don’t harm its breathability. This fabric wash is designed for GORE-TEX fabrics.
While a rain jacket will help to keep you dry, it’s equally important to keep your gear dry too. A large, heavy-duty contractor bag —the type you might use to bag leaves or yard debris— works well as a pack liner inside your backpack. Before loading your gear, put the trash bag inside your backpack. You can trim off excess material if the bag is too big. These bags are hard to tear and will act as a last-resort measure to keep your sleeping bag dry.
While some newer backpacking bags are made with water resistant fabrics, larger and older bags will benefit from an additional pack cover that fits over the outside of the bag. Light nylon pack covers come in a variety of colors. Some backpacks come with pack covers. When it starts to rain, stretch the pack cover over your bag. With both a trash bag and pack cover, you can have great peace of mind knowing that your essential items will stay dry.
Some hikers hate rain pants, but I have come to love them. Rain pants are often made of the same material as rain jackets. Once again, GORE-TEX will be more expensive, but it’s likely worth the extra cost. I started using a pair of rain-pants my mom received working for the National Park Service in the 1980s. The pants work great and are easy to patch with duct-tape when they tear.
Rain pants can add extra warmth for cold-nights or mornings at camp. If you’re hiking through tall grass or willows, rain pants will keep the dew off your clothes.
Where rain pants really shine, however, is when sitting out a thunderstorm. If you’re huddled under a tree, rain pants will keep your butt dry and prevent you from having to squat to keep your legs warm. Most rain pants are quick to put on, include zippers to maximize airflow and may even allow you to rip them off, if you need to flash someone.
If you’re skeptical about rain pants or simply want to up your trail fashion, you might consider a rain skirt or kilt. Rain kilts will give your legs some added protection against moisture, while saving several ounces and making sure you don’t get hot.
Tents and Tarps
Finding a proper tent or tarp that will keep the rain out and not trap condensation is essential. No one wants to climb into a wet sleeping bag or awake to a droplets falling on your forehead like a Chinese torture test.
When I hiked the Colorado Trail, I found that my frugal-tendencies got the best of me when it came to picking a tent. The cheap, one-person tent I bought kept the rain out, but like my rain jacket, also kept moisture in. Every morning I woke to moisture on both sides of my rain fly. The only way to beat condensation is with proper air flow. Make sure that whatever tent you plan to use on the Colorado Trail has adequate breathability. It helps to stake your rain fly out, using all the guylines, so that air can get in from all sides.
I was able to solve my condensation issue by ditching my tent’s bug net and using it more like a tarp. If condensation is an issue, you may wish to consider a backpacking tarp. Tarps are lighter. They do have more exposure to the elements, but breathability will never be an issue.
Although I’ve never used a backpacking umbrella, some hikers swear by their utility for shedding sun and rain. Ultra-light umbrellas, won’t add much to your weight total, but probably shouldn’t serve as a substitute for a proper jacket. Seeing other hikers who are waiting out storms under an umbrella, rather than a lodgepole pine, has made me envious. If you have experience with backpacking umbrellas, let me know what you think.
Trees work great for drying gear, but if you’re looking to dry clothes while you walk. Adding a DIY drying rack to your backpack can help. On my backpack, the easiest method was to undo several of the straps and add stretchy hair ties and shoe laces with fasteners to secure socks, shirts and even my tent.
Without the proper gear, rain can quickly ruin a trip. However, with a little bit of preparation, rain is much less of a hassle and can even be a nice surprise, helping to cool down hot afternoons. The smell of sagebrush after a rainstorm may even be enough to neutralize toxic hiker-trash fumes.
Like all things, the best way to get comfortable backpacking in the rain is through practice. Make sure to test your equipment and schedule some of your training hikes for days when everyone else is inside. If all else fails, find a tree to hunker down under, pull out a book and try to remember what you were thinking when you decided to hike the Colorado Trail.