How I Fell in Love With Hiking in the Rain

Humans, like trees, grow best in damp soil.

Photo: deimagine/E+ via Getty Images

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On October 1, 2022, Hurricane Ian swept up the Florida coast, churned across the inland South, and dumped several inches of rain in Western North Carolina. It felled trees, closed trails, and left the rocky bones of the Appalachians slick and dark with its passing. 

It felt like an inauspicious beginning to the first day of the rest of my life.   

I was on a plane when the rain came in, watching the storm with a bird’s eye view. Drops began to patter the windows somewhere north of Atlanta. The flight attendant chirped something about turbulence.

I leaned my head against the seat in front of me as the plane rocked from side to side. Few flights scare me, but this one did. My stomach felt like it was dropping into my toes with every dip, an organ on a yo-yo string. I was sure I was going to be sick.

I tried to take my mind off the nausea by thinking through the trail options my hiking partner had sent me. When I’d planned to meet him for an October 1 hike on Asheville’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail, he’d warned me the weather could be bad. I’d brushed off his concerns. We were going to hike rain or shine, I told him; I needed to be in the mountains. I needed to clear my head.

A few months prior, I had ended a relationship with the man I thought I was going to marry. We’d grown apart, we wanted different things—the details don’t matter. All that matters is that the parting left me shattered. Desperate for a change of scenery, I signed a lease on a house in London, almost 5,000 miles from my home in Colorado. With me in the sky over Atlanta were all my belongings, sloshing from side to side in the belly of the plane.

 I landed in Greensboro, North Carolina, the night of September 30, planning to spend a few days before crossing the pond. That night I slept in the little guestroom of my mother’s house. The next morning, I woke before dawn to drive west. I met my friend in Asheville, and we headed to the hike we’d settled on: an 11-mile out-and-back to Lane Pinnacle.

 “It’s so green here,” I said as we plunged into the forest. “So different from home.” As soon as I said it, I bit my tongue: I had no home, not anymore. I’d torn the roots out of the life I’d built in Colorado. Now, I was living out of a suitcase. I was between houses. I felt like I was between lives.  

Misty trails offer a new kind of beauty for brave hikers. (Photo: LeonU/E+ via Getty Images)

We talked as we hiked, about life and death and the places in between. We spent the first mile uncomfortable. The rain felt cold and needling, and I was obsessive about trying not to get wet. We leapt over dripping leaves and dodged wet branches. But soon, despite our best efforts, we were soaked to the bone. It wasn’t until then that I started to feel better. Not just better, but free—to run, to slide, to splash into creeks. Free to fall. Free to make mistakes. When you’re fully soaked, water can’t scare you anymore.

As we crested Rich Knob—our first summit—I looked up. The air was eerily still. Mist clung to the tree branches like tufts of gauze. Walls of white curtained every horizon.

“It’s like the end of the world,” I said.

At first, we lamented the lack of views. But then, as we talked, I realized that having views would have robbed us of something way more precious. 

I often lose myself in postcard-pretty views while hiking. But when there’s nothing to see but fog, I find myself looking inward instead. I put my phone away. Lulled by the metronome of dripping water I started to think about love and loss. And in that way, I felt myself start to heal.

As we climbed into the clouds and the fog closed in around us, I kept thinking back to the plane the day before—to putting my head down and closing my eyes as we rumbled blindly through mist and darkness. Maybe that’s what all transitions feel like: You’re scared, but you barrel headlong through the storm anyway. 

On the top of Lane Pinnacle, we paused to stand on the ridge. I looked down into the valley that should have existed beneath us, but saw only a whitewash of water vapor. I felt the raindrops splash against my face and on the backs of my hands. And looking into the empty white of the sky, I tried to imagine that it wasn’t the end of the world—but that it was a blank canvas instead.

A raindrop landed on my forehead, trickled down my temple and into my hair. This time it didn’t feel like a cold needle. It felt like a caress.

 In that moment, I realized rainstorms are not so different from heartache. They can break you down. They can leave you longing for warmth. But like getting your heart broken, rain can teach you a lot of things. It will force you to look at the contents of your own head. It will make you yearn and ache and grow. It will make you feel.

Hiking in the rain, like heartbreak, reminds us that we’re alive. And though it’s never easy, I can promise you this: You get a little better at it every time.

6 Tips for Learning to Love Wet Weather

Mastering rainy weather comes down to having both good gear and a good mindset.

1) Gear up the right way: The key to enjoying rainy-day hiking is having the right stuff to keep warm and dry. Choose a rain shell with an adjustable hood and pit zips for easy venting, and add a ball cap beneath to keep water from running into your eyes. If it’s cold or windy in addition to wet, consider wearing waterproof boots, waterproof gloves, and rain pants in addition to a rain shell, which will keep your extremities dry when it’s really dumping. If it’s warm or you’re a heavy sweater, consider sticking with breathable footwear and synthetic, quick-dry bottoms instead. Otherwise, you’ll end the day drenched anyway—just from sweat instead of rain. 

2) Start warm, stay warm: You’ll hear some hikers advise “starting cold,” which means stripping down to your hiking layers at the trailhead. I disagree. Getting started is the hardest part of any hike, and it’s even harder when you’re uncomfortable. Bundle up to maximum comfort before you leave the house or car. (Just be sure to drop layers as soon as you start sweating.) When you stop for breaks, add a sweater or puffy under your rain shell ASAP to trap the heat.

3) Bring emergency chocolate: Morale can be harder to maintain under gray skies. Good snacks and a vacuum bottle of hot tea or cocoa go a long way. Chocolate, especially, seems to have magical properties in crummy weather. If spirits start to take a dip, pass around a bar to get everyone back on track. 

4) Stash dry clothes: The only thing worse than hiking while damp is sitting in a damp car full of damp people afterward. Leave towels, a dry shirt, dry sweatpants, and either sandals or clean socks in the car. Your friends—and your upholstery—will thank you. 

5) Have a warm-up plan: Rainy-day hiking is way more palatable when there’s certain warmth to follow. If you’re backpacking, put your sleeping bag and some dry clothes in a drybag, and plan to cook an elaborate hot dinner that night. If you’re dayhiking, scope out a favorite drive-thru or cozy restaurant option that’s accessible immediately post-hike. Feeling fancy? Consider booking a B‘n’B near the trailhead and making a weekend of it; having a hot shower in the immediate vicinity does wonders for morale.

6) Bring a good friend: This is not the time to invite the buddy with a negativity problem or the rando friend-of-a-friend. Instead, bring someone who’s good at finding the beauty in socked-in landscapes and the adventure in everyday circumstances. On rainy-day hikes, the conversation is the view; make sure they’re someone you can really talk to

From 2022