Now that the rainy is season is fully upon us, I hope you have had a chance to go hiking in the rain or are planning on going soon—it is a great way to enjoy the outdoors! The big problem with hiking in the rain is that at some point you will get wet. It might take 2, 3 or 8 hours, but if you spend long enough outdoors in the rain, getting in wet is inevitable. You can "arm" yourself with as many waterproof garments as you wish: jacket, pants, boots, gloves, the lot, but at some point you will still get wet. The biggest issue with many waterproof garments is that despite the fact that they are considered breathable, you will sweat in them, given enough exertion. If you are new to the world of waterproofs, you should start with this waterproofs 101 post.
So we now have a predicament: getting soaked while hiking in the rain can be very dangerous; on the other hand, wearing your wp/b (waterproof & breathable) jacket and pants almost guarantees a chilling sweat that can be almost as dangerous. So what to do? Well, there are other solutions that can keep you mainly dry and are actually very breathable, though you will get a bit wet from both rain and sweat (but not nearly as much as in the traditional wp/b clothing). In this category are two main items: umbrellas and ponchos (or capes). Personally, I have never used an umbrella for hiking but am a big poncho user, so I'd like to give a bit of insight into these wp/b alternatives.
First, a few issues to consider
Hiking with wet feet is a big controversy that I won't go into now, but the gist of it is this: waterproof footwear is bound to leak at one point or another in wet conditions. If it doesn't leak, it traps so much heat and sweat inside the shoe that you might as well have just gotten your feet wet.
Due to those reasons, many hikers opt for light mesh trail shoes that allow water in the shoe, but will dry quickly.
If you choose the alternatives below without using waterproof shoes, you will need to accept hiking with wet feet.
The place where a "proper" jacket and wp/b pants excel is when dealing with wind. They hug and hold well in any conditions. They also protect you from wind chill.
It is pretty obvious that if you are going to be in very windy conditions, you should probably stick to a more traditional system of a wp/b jacket and maybe also pants.
This is my favorite waterproof garment and what has been my go to solution for a couple of years now. I find it to be the best balance between rain protection and breathability, especially when it is also a pack cover.
Ponchos are essentially big sheets of waterproof fabric with a hole for the head, a hood and the ability to keep them somewhat closed. They are rectangular in shape, where the narrow part is draped over the shoulders and the length is used to cover the front and back. Many of the more dedicated hiking ponchos can also be used as an emergency shelter.
There are cheap, simple and light ponchos out in the market but those tend to be seen as disposable items which are both functionally and environmentally inefficient. Good hiking and backpacking ponchos tend to be made from SiNylon or Dyneema; I prefer SilNylon, as it is nicer to handle.
The biggest issue with ponchos is when the weather gets really nasty: windy and heavy; or when the trail is more challenging and you need your hands more. For those conditions, a rain jacket and pants that add warmth and wind protection tend to be the best solution.
Bottom Line: the poncho is a great solution for shoulder seasons or potential rain in summer, especially as it can also be used as an emergency shelter in a pinch.
Rain Cape (vs Poncho)
Slightly different than the poncho, a rain cape has a more closed structure and doesn't open to a full rectangular sheet (or tarp). This kind of structure means that capes offer better protection compared to ponchos, but have less breathability. This is a great option if you are usually hiking in colder and wetter conditions.
The ultimate WP/B kit: full air flow all around with good protection for your head, and sometimes body. Umbrellas do offer great protection; they can also double as heat protection in very hot, desert conditions (when made from reflective fabrics) and can be used as an emergency pole (for stream crossings, shelters, etc).
When it comes to umbrellas, investing in a high quality, hiking or golf (yes, golf) specific umbrella will make a world of difference: lighter materials, stronger components and construction, small pack size, etc. You can find really good ones by Euro Schirm, Montbell, Liteflex and others.
Umbrellas do have two, pretty big, drawbacks: they are absolutely useless in windy conditions, even the very good ones, as you get sideways wind; and you need to hold them. Similar to a poncho, in windy conditions or when hands are needed, umbrellas tend to be a poor choice.
There is, though, a solution to one of these issues: strapping your umbrella to the backpack shoulder strap offers a really convenient solution for non windy conditions. Section Hiker has a good little guide for that.
Bottom Line: when hiking in mild yet rainy conditions on a good trail the umbrella is the ultimate solution, especially as a potential moving shade.
Rain skirts (or kilts...) are a great solution to avoid waterproof pants while allowing for better leg protection. They can be easily combined with a jacket, poncho or an umbrella for dry hips and waist. The same limits that a poncho or a cape might have are true here, too: in windy conditions skirts can end up blowing all over, not covering you at all. Another issue can come up in winter conditions or when delicate footwork is needed: you can't really see your feet.
On the other hand, skirts can be opened up, just like ponchos, and be used as a ground sheet or a very small and improvised shelter.
Bottom Line: Great addition to increase rain protection to a poncho system while maintaining breathability in non-windy conditions.
What Should You Choose
As always when it comes to hiking and gear, there is no one, definite, answer. Conditions will forever be the main factor around what gear to take; stick to common sense and experiment to see what works for you. As a bonus, here is an extra tip from my poncho usage experience: use a wind jacket underneath for anything but summer conditions; they really help boost that system while being highly breathable.
So, what are you using for rain protection?