Surviving the Wet

Soaked clothing always spells trouble.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Sportsmen need to stay dry to stay in action. Even a warm summer rain that feels comfortable enough on your skin opens the door to hypothermia, as the cooling effect of evaporation lowers your body's core temperature. The process is accelerated when the rain and wind are cool or cold. Stay in those conditions long enough and you're asking for trouble.

In wet weather, a combination of proper gear and good survival techniques is what gets you through. Let's talk gear first.

Dressing Dry
What you wear is your first line of defense. Start with waterproof boots, because the difference between wet feet and dry can literally mean the difference between being able to hike or becoming lame over time. Choose your boots wisely-style means nothing. Concentrate on quality, function and fit. Make sure the seams are watertight and that your foot fits snugly but comfortably, with a little wiggle room for your toes. Also, you should apply waterproofing leather finishes to your boots (see Private Lessons, June/July 2002).

Add an Outer Layer
Dry pants come next. Slogging through tall, wet grasses or underbrush can soak you from the waist down. A pair of waterproof/breathable trousers is ideal, and there are lots of name brands to choose from, but an easy alternative to pricey Gore Tex pants is to slide a pair of nylon wind pants over wool pants in cold conditions. The nylon will shed some of the water and dry quickly. The wool will resist soaking up what moisture does get through. Wool retains its insulating quality even when damp. In wet, knee-high grass, gaiters of any style work well, and these can be bought most cheaply at army-navy stores.

Now comes the waterproof coat. I use a hooded, wind-resistant shell cut large enough to fit over my insulation layers. Or you can fit this over a thick, fleecy coat. Breathable fabric with layers that can be opened easily for venting is what you want because you can get hypothermia from both rain and perspiration. In warmer conditions, a good nylon waterproof jacket with a hood is fine.

Some manufacturers produce rainsuits that help to keep you dry from the outside. Unfortunately, cheap ones trap body moisture inside and soak you quickly as your perspiration gets trapped inside your clothing. When it comes to foul-weather clothing, the best garments are those that breathe, allowing your perspiration to escape while keeping precipitation out. Some more expensive, breathable rainsuits allow this, but if all you have is a bargain-basement rainsuit, you'll have to slow way down so your activity doesn't cause you to perspire. Then open the suit so it can vent.

Build a Simple Shelter
If you have a waterproof tent, you're in luck. However, when you get caught in a storm without wet-weather equipment, you'll have to improvise. In my survival kit, I carry a tube tent, a compact poncho and a space blanket for emergency shelter from the rain. I deploy these by using lengths of rope to tie them to trees or boulders or whatever is handy.

The tube tent is easiest, because it is self-contained and provides decent shelter with little effort. To rig up a poncho or space blanket to serve as a shelter, think in terms of a low lean-to, with the top corners tied a few feet above the ground to trees, and the bottom side anchored to the ground by placing a log or rocks along that edge. Angle the shelter away from the prevailing wind; then add natural materials around the perimeter to break the wind or turn the rain away. Make sure the poncho hood covers the neck hole so water drains off.

Campsite selection is critical in wet conditions, or the shelter may end up in a puddle or in the path of running water. Choose a spot that affords natural drainage away from the shelter. Look for a ridge or knoll that will provide the best chance for a relatively safe and dry shelter site.
Try These Tactics
Simply living and moving about in wet weather while remaining relatively dry demands its own set of techniques:

  • Stay under shelter as much as you possibly can.
  • Keep a fire going so you can continually dry your clothing and warm up.
  • Protect your firewood inside the shelter to keep it dry.
  • Use a walking stick to part the wet grass and brush as you walk.
  • Choose your path to keep your feet as dry as possible.
  • Avoid sitting on or leaning against damp objects.
  • Use a dry "sit-upon" (a poncho, tube tent, etc.) to sit on.
  • Take advantage of any breaks in the weather to gather firewood, improve your shelter and perform other tasks. If wet weather catches you completely unprepared and you have no equipment at all, you'll need to use what nature provides.

Get Creative
Be observant, and be creative. Look for overhanging ledges, undercut banks or caves that can provide cover. Seek the lee side of anything that will break the wind and rain. I've crouched in the lee of a boulder to spare myself from wind-driven rain.

Study the vegetation too. I've taken shelter beneath the dense foliage of a bush and found perfectly dry ground. You may find a downed tree with bark that can be peeled off in slabs and laid against the trunk to form a low lean-to that will shed water.

Yes, when there's lightning, taking shelter under trees is hazardous. So your survival priorities change when there's lightning. Avoid lightning hazards first, and then deal with being wet. Always have fire-starting materials with you so you can dry off.

Staying dry isn't always easy, and those of you who regularly traverse swamps or have hunted in Alaska or the Pacific Northwest know that getting drenched is part of the deal. But the more you plan on being wet, the less wet you'll get.