Another question I get asked a lot has to do with rain gear. What’s appropriate, what’s necessary, what’s not OK, what works, what doesn’t, etc. I think rain gear is another of those things where many people can make do with less. I wouldn’t, of course, advise anyone to venture out under-prepared. But, I would say that spending more money on higher-end gear isn’t necessarily something you need to do. I’ve used a number of different shells, from lighter-weight jackets like the Marmot Precip to heavier (and way pricier) Gore-Tex XCR shells by Arcteryx. Whilst I will admit the Arcteryx stuff is awesome, I think it’s more than most people need. Unless you’re out in the backcountry an awful lot, or need a jacket that you’ll use very regularly, I think many of the lighter weight shells are fine. My marmot Precip is awesome and keeps me dry in even those long all-day drizzles that seem to prevail in Alaska.
I think keeping your jacket well-maintained is one of the factors that will affect how well it works. I clean it regularly, even sometimes just rinsing dirt off it, if I don’t want to hit it with soap and detergent. Keeping it dirt-free helps, IMO, to keep it rainproof. next, I’ll use some kind of DWR treatment, at least once a year (depending on use). I haven’t found any particular brand or anything to work better than any other, nor have I noticed a difference in whether I use the wash-in style or just a spray-on treatment – both seem to work fine.
I think, with the high-end gear like Gore-Tex XCR stuff, you get something that should last longer, and will take a bit more abuse, wearing it through brush and so forth, it tends to wear a bit better, I’m on my 3rd pair of Marmot Precip pants now, and probably will be in a 4th pair before the summer of 2008 is over. A good XCR jacket or pair of pants you should get more wear out of. That being the case, I think it really depends on the amount of usage your gear’s going to get as to what will be the best rain gear for your backpacking. I tend to be out backpacking in the backcountry more than most folks, so my Arc’teryx jacket has more than paid for itself. But, if I want to go a little lighter, I’ll often bring a Precip jacket instead. Cloudveil also make some great gear ($$$). I’ve also found Moonstone to be great – I have a pair of their pants that cost about $70.00 and they’re awesome; lightweight, durable, waterproof, and most importantly of all, stylin’! 🙂
In short, I don’t think you’re necessarily getting your money’s worth with higher-end rain gear, over some of the cheaper options out there. Sure, the higher-end gear generally has its own value, but that might be something you may well not need, in which case, save your cash, buy something perfectly functional, and head for the woods.
Other options I don’t like, for Alaska hiking, include ponchos, garbage bags, etc. I do think it’s critical that for a remote trip like a fly-in hike in Alaska, or even a walk-in backpacking trip, having gear that’s going to keep you dry can be critical. Ponchos, even if you’re experienced with them, aren’t a good option. They’re too much hassle to fit properly, and rarely cover your backpack – every person I’ve seen on a trip with a poncho got wet. Secondly, I think rain pants are critical – often you’ll be walking through some brush and a good pair of pants will be well worth it. Staying dry is a big part of staying happy, not to mention staying alive sometimes. Anyone who’s bushwhacked through some thick Alaskan brush after a rainfall knows how wet you’ll get .. willow and alder leaves stay wet forever, it seems, and they constantly slap against you when you walk through the brush – even low, knee-high brush will get you soaked, unless you’re wearing some good rain gear. In fact, I’d even suggest that wearing excellent rain gear isn’t going to keep you perfectly dry in wet brush – but it’ll keep you WAY drier than not having rain gear, or having poor rain gear.
Gaiters come in handy in the brush too, but I don’t think they’re critical – I rarely bring them anymore. I try to find rain pants that’ll wear reasonably well without gaiters, and lately, my Moonstone pants have been great. If you have a lightweight pair of gaiters, by all means, bring them along, but I don’t think they’re absolutely necessary. Some of my friends wear them on every trip though, so that’s a personal call, IMO.
Waterproof boots, IMO, don’t exist, but I will give a big thumbs up to Gore-tex lined boots. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can make a pair of non-waterproof boots waterproof by spraying some DWR spray on them – that won’t work at all. Synthetic boots are nice, but they need a good Gore-tex lining to make them waterproof. If you’re looking for boots, even with a leather boot, I definitely recommend gore-tex lined boots (make sure your boots fit well, of course – a topic for another post, perhaps). I’ve tried leather boots, and even with a good wax treatment, I’ve never found them to be as waterproof as gore-tex linings. Other mileage may vary.
Lastly, DO get yourself a rain cover for your pack. Make certain it’s seam-sealed (many are not) and it fits your loaded pack. Don’t go with a plastic bag or poncho cover. Spend the $50.00 and get a proper cover. Outdoor Research makes a great cover, and even the REI covers are good (they didn’t use to seam seal them).
To sum up, don’t skimp on rain gear. A poncho isn’t, IMO, a good option – it’s a bad option. Decent lightweight waterproof shells (don’t go with “water resistant”) will run you around $100.00 for a jacket, and a little less for pants – though you can definitely find them available for WAY more than that, too. Get a proper rain cover for your pack, and some waterproof boots, and enjoy your backpacking.