What is the worst enemy of a hiker?
Not the cold: you can quite easily defeat the cold by wearing an extra layer of clothing – and by pulling your thickest sweater on top. It’s not the heat, either – there is an old and trusted weapon against hot weather, called “taking it easy”. It’s not even short winter days: you can leave early. And neither is it the snow – I have hiked through snow, old snow admittedly, and found it surprisingly pleasant.
Walking in the Rain
No, the hiker’s worst enemy is rain. I can be even more specific: not the sudden downpour, the summer storm, the sunny-one-moment-deluge-the-next-sunny-again kind of rain.
No, I’m talking about persistent rain, the one that starts and then shows no signs of stopping ever again.
Ever, ever, ever.
In the beginning, this kind of rain may not seem too bad. Who has ever been hurt by a little water, after all? But then, after a while, this little water will begin to seep through all your clothing, including the presumably “waterproof” items, which will henceforth hold you in their wet embrace like a cold, dead fish.
When you finally seek shelter somewhere, most likely under a “leaking” tree, chances are you have already lost your will to live. Obviously, you are waiting for the rain to stop. But for how long: five minutes, 30 minutes, an hour? And if it does not: what then?
Most hikers have their own strategy against walking in the rain. And it’s always the same strategy: crossing fingers and hoping for the best. This strategy normally works very well for them until, one day, they are hit by the perfect downpour. They always are, sooner or later. Believe me. I am speaking from personal experience here.
There is, of course, nothing wrong about crossing one’s fingers and believing in the principle of hope. It is, however, better to have a healthy dose of optimism AND a plan in the event that this optimism proves groundless.
Here are my three bits of advice
Firstly, do not paint yourself into a corner. The best way to combat rain is to avoid it altogether. If you were to plan a hiking daytrip for the coming weekend, do not determine the specific day of your departure a week or so in advance but keep both the Saturday and the Sunday option open until the last possible moment.
Similarly, if you are planning a week-long trip to – say – the Alps and want to reserve one day or even two for hiking excursions, do not plan everything in detail while you are still at home but wait till you have arrived and studied the short-term weather forecasts before you make your final decision as to the exact dates. Following which, you obviously go for the day with the worst forecast so you can apply my other bits of advice.
Secondly, don’t walk into the rain in the morning. Wait for a maximum of one hour and then decide what you will do with the rest of the day. No schedule is (or should be) so tight that an hour of delay will totally throw you. If the weather has not improved after one hour, roll out Plan B.
You should always have a Plan B!
Do something else, obviously something less weather-dependent but something equally enjoyable – a trip to a near-by historic Old Town, perhaps, or to a museum you have always wanted to visit. Do this if only to prevent you from looking out all day and to shout at the first dry spell: ‘I knew it! I should have gone after all!’
Also because all the build-up to your “big day out” and all the anticipation must not have been totally in vain. This is particularly true, obviously, if you have planned to go out and have fun together with other people (your kids, for example), but equally applies if you are all alone. You should not disappoint yourself either.
Thirdly, what to do when – despite all your precautions – you have gone out and been caught in the rain. Seek shelter, but be clear for how long: set yourself a time limit after which, in the event that it still rains, you are prepared to call the whole thing off.
While you are sheltering from the rain, study the map and look for a near-by road or village with a bus stop from where you can get to the next town. Make sure, under all circumstances, that the day ends well, that the outing enters family folklore as “the day when we were drenched, walked into the coffee shop and the owner took pity on us, placing us next to the chimney fire and serving us the two largest whiskeys I have ever seen”. Or some such like, not, at any rate, as “the day we were miserable and cold and went home, tails between our legs”. This will give you the confidence to set out again the next time – when, of course, the sun will shine all day and everything will be for the best.