The pacific northwest is soggy. If I wanted to do hikes or trail runs only on good days I wouldn't get much done before July, so I've been exploring options for dealing with various forms of wet. Like most people I usually rely on some form of jacket for rain protection, but I've recently been rethinking this approach and dusting off a few older but tried and true techniques. Before I go into these I should mention that there is an excellent article at backpackinglight.com that addresses the efficacy of air permeable membranes and the marketing hype that accompanies many of the claims. This multipart series is worth the annual membership fee of $25 in and of itself.
This week my daughter and I went for a training hike, perfect for taking advantage of relentless drizzle and rain to test out some newer older options; the umbrella and poncho. I especially wanted to put my poncho to a good soaking test as it has become an essential part of my minimalist shelter kit. The weather icing on the cake was relatively warm (75F) and humid conditions, excellent for testing moisture buildup whilst hiking uphill. Another bonus; overhanging grasses, bushes and various soaking flora just in case the actual airborne droplets didn't do the job. So I'll cut to the chase. My upper body, including head, stayed completely dry throughout the drenching. I found versatility in various configurations. Most of the time I had the side zippers on my ZPacks poncho/groundsheet zipped up with arms out. However, in uphill hiking through feet to chest high moisture laden flora, I found that unzipping the sides and bringing my hands and arms inside, I could use the poncho as a blunt sort of plow, deflecting all moisture away from my upper body and still maintain maximum ventilation, essential for keeping internal moisture buildup at bay. When on flatter ground I zipped up the sides and kept my arms inside to maintain warmth. In becoming reacquainted with the venerable poncho I realized why it is used in many cultures to this day.
In the meantime my doubting daughter condescended to use the Golite Chrome Dome umbrella during our soggy sojourn. A different tool but the same result, completely dry upper body from excellent coverage to ultimate ventilation. It's like taking a portable shelter, so I was secretly smug when she told me she was digging it.
However, one must be fully aware of the limitations of these accoutrements. Despite the versatility, multifunctionality (raingear, front and backpack cover, shelter, groundsheet) and relative cheapness of the poncho, I'd be hard pressed to use trekking poles in any but the usual arms outside configuration, and I certainly couldn't stow them in a pocket of my pack as the poncho covers it. Tackling more severe conditions with wind driven rain, sleet or snow would find difficulties maintaining ventilation without allowing moisture encroachment. As for the umbrella, which also has the versatility of providing excellent sun protection with its reflective coating, add any amount of wind into the equation and one could be holding onto the foil like an ill behaved dog on a short leash. But for our balmy, humid and relentlessly wet conditions through forest carpeted with feet seeking moisture missiles, these two options beat any $400 plus wonder jacket hands down. Something to consider before laying out a small fortune for some blank-tex garment that in many instances would underperform these two frugal tools.
GoLite Chrome Dome Umbrella on sale: $20
ZPacks cuben poncho/groundsheet: $145
Specifics of hike: 11 miles, 1800 feet climb/descent, well maintained trail through forest with large sections of overhanging brush, continuous rain for 4 hours, light to no wind