Do You Need Rain Pants for Hiking and Backpacking?

Hiking rain pants are designed to protect you from the chilling effects of rain or wind. If you plan to hike in a climate where it rains frequently and/or you’re exposed to cold wind, carrying rain pants, rain chaps, or a rain kilt is advisable. If it does rain and you don’t have rain and wind protection for your legs, or conditions are too unpleasant to continue, there’s nothing stopping you from setting up a tent or shelter and getting dry and warm. It’s often the best option, so it’s surprising that people don’t do it more frequently.

Chilling Effect of Rain and Wind

We constantly lose body heat under normal circumstances, so if we feel cold, we add extra clothing to feel warmer and hold onto more of it. But if your clothes and skin get wet, your rate of body heat loss increases by a factor of “25” because water is so good at conducting heat away from an object. Rain pants can help prevent heat loss by preventing water from reaching your skin. Rain pants are also another layer that helps trap your body heat and keep you warmer.

Rain pants will keep you drier and help insulate your legs
Rain pants vary in the amount of venting they provide to reduce perspiration and internal condensation.

Wind can also have the same effect as rain by quickly stripping away your body heat: the stronger the wind, the colder you get. You won’t notice this as much on a warm day as on a cold day in the form of wind chill, which can result in cold injuries like frostbite if it’s too high. Rain pants can also help keep the wind off your skin while also providing added insulation by trapping your body heat.

Some hikers carry wind pants instead of rain pants if they know that wind chill is an issue when rain isn’t. Wind pants are virtually identical to rain pants, except they’re seldom waterproof. Rain pants can serve double duty as wind pants and are often used for this purpose.

Some rain pants have full size zippers and can be removed or put on without removing your shoes
Some rain pants have full-length side zippers and can be removed or put on without removing your shoes.

Types of Rain Pants

There are many types of hiking rain pants available that are best suited for different conditions. Some are best used in cold weather and some in warmer temperatures. Some have zip-off legs, zippers that run the full length of the outer leg for venting, partway, or have zippers up to the tops of the ankles.  You can also buy rain pants without any venting at all.

If there’s one common property of rain pants, it’s that they WON’T keep your legs absolutely dry when worn for hiking in the rain. If you’re hiking, it’s more than likely that you are perspiring. Plus, if you’re wearing rain pants and it’s raining, condensation will form inside of your pants if it’s colder outside (That’s why rain jackets can feel wet inside when worn in the rain.)

The most effective way to reduce moisture build-up is to have vents built into your rain pants that release body heat so you sweat less. Waterproof-breathable rain pants can help, but they will rarely keep up with the perspiration-levels hikers produce, let alone added condensation.

Hiking Rain Pants – Purchase Considerations

When choosing which rain pants to get, you’ll want to consider the following factors in addition to weight.

a. Does the drawstring wrap around the entire waist or is it sewn in?

Drawstrings that run around the entire circumference of your rain pants are much more durable than ones that are only sewn to points located in the front waistband and have a tendency to rip out when you pull them tight. Hint: Loop the drawstring of your rain pants through a cord lock so that the cord doesn’t disappear into the waistband. This also makes them easier to tighten without a knot. 

b. Can you pull on the rain pants and take them off without removing your shoes?

This is mainly an issue in cold wet weather when you want to avoid getting your socks wet by having to stand on wet ground while you struggle to put on or remove your rain pants.

c. Are the ankle cuff openings too baggy or adjustable?

It can be awkward and noisy to hike in baggy rain pants. Some rain pants, like the Montane Minimus or the Montbell’s Versalite Pants have volume adjusters that let you reduce the volume of the legs or ankles.

d. Are they available in shorter and longer lengths?

Rain pants that are too long are also awkward to hike in. I like wearing mine short by a few inches and tucking them into stretch gaiters.

e. Do the rain pants have any external pockets?

Many rain pants are devoid of pockets, which can be a limitation if you plan to wear them during town resupplies when the rest of your laundry is in a washing machine at the local laundromat.

f. How good is the breathable membrane/factory DWR?

If you have a pair of waterproof breathable rain pants, there’s a good chance that they’re coated with a factory strength chemical coating called DWR (durable water repellent) that makes water bead up and roll off when rain lands on it. This coating wears off a little bit every time you wear the rain pants, you fold them up or wash them. Some DWR coatings are fabulous and can last a year or more while others fail much more quickly. While you can reapply DWR coatings to waterproof/breathable gear with a product like Nikwax TX-Direct, they’re seldom as long-lasting as a good factory treatment.

g. How warm are the rain pants?

Rain pants made with thicker and heavier materials tend to be much warmer than gossamer-thin or ultralight rain pants. Sometimes it makes sense to own two pairs and use the warmer rain pants in winter and the cooler ones the rest of the year.

Alternative Rain Clothes and Gear

A lot of people don’t like wearing rain pants because they’re an added layer to hike with if you put them over your hiking shorts/pants, they feel cold clammy against the skin when they get wet, they’re too hot, or don’t fit well.

Rain Kilts

One alternative is to wear a rain kilt which is a long waterproof skirt that you can wear on top of shorts or underwear to keep your upper legs dry. The kilt provides excellent airflow to combat perspiration or condensation build-up in your sensitive areas, although your feet and socks are likely to get wet when hiking in rain. Rain kilts aren’t as effective at blocking wind as ran pants are, but they provide more freedom of movement and better ventilation than rain pants, especially in warmer climates.

The ULA Rain Kilt is long and provides a lot of leg coverage
The ULA Rain Kilt is long and provides a lot of leg coverage

Rain Kilts can also easily paired with high gaiters if you want more lower leg warmth and mud protection. Gaiters aren’t really waterproof, but they can add a lot of warmth for your lower legs.

Rain Chaps

Rain Chaps are essentially long waterproof gaiters that come high up your thighs but leave the area around your crotch and between your butt cheeks uncovered so less perspiration accumulates there. Whereas rain kilts are designed to keep your upper legs warm, rain chaps are designed to keep your lower legs warm. They’re also particularly well suited for wading through high wet grass or off-trail where you’ll brush up against wet vegetation.

Mountain Laurel Designs Rain Chaps
Mountain Laurel Designs Rain Chaps

Rain chaps also provide good wind protection. While they are a bit more involved than pants to put on, that’s offset by their lighter weight.

Ponchos, Cagoules, Trench Coats, and Umbrellas

While rain kilts and rain chaps can be used with a regular rain jacket, they are more comfortable and effective with looser fitting upper garments like ponchos, cagoules, hiking trench coats, or when used with an umbrella.

  • Ponchos come in two main flavors. Some are loose-fitting body-sized shrouds while others can be used as a combination poncho and pack covers Ponchos can be a bit unruly in wind, but they provide excellent airflow around your torso and waist.
  • A cagoule is a British term for a long hooded raincoat designed for hiking. Its American counterpart is a hiking-style trench coat. Both fit less closely than a regular waist-length raincoat.  Sierra Designs tried to revive both types of jackets a few years ago during its glory days, but the idea never caught on. You still pick up these jackets at a hefty discount though.
  • A trekking umbrella makes a good adjunct to a rain kilt in desert conditions and can serve double duty as a sun shade or as a front door for an A-frame tarp.

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About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the 36th person to hike all 650 of the hiking trails in the White Mountain Guide, a distance of approximately 2500 miles, completing a second round in 2021. Philip is the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire.

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