It’s raining steadily today so I’m relaxing at home, but if the rain were lighter or the showers more scattered, I would probably head out on the trails. Some — strictly fair weather hikers — probably wouldn’t find this idea at all appealing. I, on the other hand, find some real advantages to it:
There are fewer people on the trails (and the ones I do run into tend to be cut of the same cloth, so to speak); there are fewer bugs; and I love the cooler air temperatures afforded by the lack of sun. Additionally, if there is fog or mist I find it’s more mysterious in the forest and a bit surreal. Moreover, if I’m actually heading for a mountain summit, the lack of long sight lines can sometimes help me focus on the next step instead of the summit way up there. It’s a psychological thing.
Hiking in the rain, however, is only nice if you stay dry by wearing your required rain pants and jacket with a hood or covering hat, you keep your gear dry (which can be done with a pack cover and/or, better yet, a trash compactor bag inside your pack), and you don’t overheat in the process. Sheltered trails on flatter terrain tend to be a good choice to mitigate perspiration by way of reduced effort.
Dangers exist on rainy days that may not be a concern on sunny days. The number one danger is probably stream crossings, since that is, after all, the biggest hazard in the backcountry on any given day. Not only can rocks and logs be more slippery on rainy days, but every minute of rain adds to the water levels once the ground is saturated. An easily doable crossing in the morning, for example, may be a dangerous or even impossible crossing in the afternoon. Know this going in!
Lightning is another danger. As a general rule, never venture above treeline if the possibility of lightning is higher than average for a summer day or if virtually guaranteed such as it is in the afternoon hours on Long’s Peak in Colorado, for example. You’re better off staying in a forest where the trees are all similar height. You do not want to stand out or be next to something that does. In a sheltered forest as I describe, a direct lightening strike is very unlikely. You need to worry more about: 1) a nearby strike causing ground currents and; 2) falling branches, trees, widow-makers, etc., especially if the storm generates high winds such as that which may be experienced in a microburst. To protect yourself from the former you need to be squatting on a foam pad or atop your pack on slightly raised ground (not in a water-collecting depression, but not on a hill or high point either), arms wrapped around your legs. Think small. This is known to as “assuming the position.” To protect yourself from the latter just look up and find a spot that doesn’t have overhanging branches that look weak or dead and try to avoid dead or drying trees. Stay alert.
These are all objective dangers, but you can minimize your risks and enjoy the benefits.
I wouldn’t go out in a thunderstorm intentionally, but like many summer days, it’s always a possibility later in the day. I learned years ago, when I boated in the Gulf of Maine, that I have to be careful about letting weather forecasts run my life. If I didn’t go out on days that rains and scattered thunderstorms were possible, I’d miss out on half of my adventures.
As Facebook friend Richard A Gracie, wrote: “The power of nature doesn’t need to be feared, but it does need to be respected.” Truer words cannot be spoken. Know the dangers, learn how to avoid them, calculate those risks, then go have fun.