On a recent rainy day hike in the Olympic Mountains of Washington State all four members of our hiking group were using umbrellas to ward off the rain and wet snow. This was a first for this group (even though some had been using umbrellas off and on over the years). Could this be the start of a new trend in hiking and backpacking?
Packing a Trekking Umbrella for Rain and Sun Protection
Collapsible travel or trekking umbrellas are light, compact, relatively cheap and highly useful, especially for hiking in environments with lots of rain and lots of sun. Travel umbrellas can weigh as little as five ounces and cost as little as $10. Travel umbrellas tend to have effective diameters (edge to edge) from 32 to 40 inches. Lighter weights usually mean higher costs; larger diameters usually mean greater weights.
Most people associate umbrellas with rain. With this standard use, not only will they shelter one from heavy precipitation (rain or snow), but they can also substitute for carrying heavy and sometimes expensive storm gear. In “on-again, off-again” showery type weather, an umbrella is much easier to deploy than putting on and taking off rain gear. The increased upper body ventilation options when using an umbrella (as opposed to wearing waterproof/breathable rain gear) means one is less likely to get overheated and damp from sweat. When it becomes necessary to supplement the umbrella with protective rain shells (yes, they should still be carried in most higher-elevation mountain environments), an unzipped jacket/umbrella combination will allow increased ventilation. This dual protection arrangement will also allow “wear-drying” of already damp clothing.
Besides rain protection, umbrellas ward off the damaging rays of the sun and keep one cooler when it is hot. The best umbrellas for this purpose are those with a top-side silver coating and a larger diameter (e.g., GoLite’s “Chrome Dome”; 8.5 ounces, 40 inch diameter for $25). They are especially effective in higher altitudes and on snowy slopes where the sun’s rays are especially potent. Most wear sun-protective clothing and use sunscreen products, but regular use of an umbrella will lessen the need for these preventive measures (or make them even more effective when out in the elements for long periods of time). Using an umbrella will allow going hatless and shirtless (or minimal cover) in the hottest weather, thereby making the body’s natural cooling mechanisms even more effective. Nothing can sap one’s energy faster than being too hot when covered with protective clothing. In addition, hiking under shade all day can result in less dehydration and the need to carry less water.
Additional Reasons to Pack An Umbrella
Some side benefits of hiking with umbrellas:
Replies to the Arguments Against Hiking With Umbrellas
Umbrellas are tiresome to carry, hour after hour. Reply: This has not been my experience—it is a matter of getting used to it. Also, one can switch hands, attach it to pack straps or simply go without it for a while. It often works to simply put the butt end in a shirt pocket and enclose the handle under a sternum strap, while resting the umbrella at an angle on one’s shoulder or on the pack. Lashing it to an external frame pack is even easier. Here is one hiker’s setup for attaching the umbrella to her pack straps:
Get 2 pieces of elastic cord, each about 6" long with 2 cord locks and use these to secure the umbrella to the shoulder straps of the pack. Wrap them around the strap and the shaft of the umbrella about 6" apart and cinch it down with the cord lock.
Umbrellas don’t work well with trekking poles. Reply: Yes, it can get awkward using both. But there are several options. Easiest is to collapse one pole and stow it in the pack. Another is to take only one pole, if you know that the umbrella will likely be used a lot. If using two fixed length poles, it is not that awkward to use both poles in the opposite hand for a while (if using strapless poles). Finally, go without poles (unless they are an integral part of your shelter setup). Personally, I have used all of these options. My two collapsible poles and umbrella have a combined weight of 12 ounces.
Umbrellas catch too easily on overhanging limbs and brush. Reply: When hiking trails, most people gradually learn to maneuver the umbrella around such obstacles. When such obstacles are more numerous, collapse the umbrella, temporarily. Obviously, an umbrella will not work on brushy off-trail jaunts or in steep terrain when needing both hands.
Umbrellas break in stronger winds. Reply: If the wind is not too gusty, a quality umbrella will usually do quite well angled directly into the wind and supported against your body (granted, it becomes less protective from precipitation in this scenario). In heavy or gusty winds, having a finger on the collapse button is also a good idea. Using an umbrella and protective rain gear in these conditions is a good idea.
Umbrellas are obviously fragile. Reply: Only cheap ones break easily. Backpacking-specific umbrellas are usually more durable. When I find a lightweight travel umbrella at a good price, I will often buy two or three. From a broader perspective, most lightweight backpacking gear is subject to breakage; it comes with the territory. One should generally carry alternative storm shell clothing just in case (unless it is warm enough that a broken umbrella is not an issue). In colder conditions, storm shells will add considerable warmth even when using an umbrella.
I will look like a dork; I don’t even use one in the city. Reply: Some of the best known veteran long-distance hikers (e.g., Ray Jardine, Scott Williamson, The Onion) use them. It could be that, like trekking poles, they will become stylish and the next “in” thing for the backpacker’s kit.
Additional Considerations When Using Umbrellas
Travel umbrellas come in different sizes. My recommendation is to spend the extra money to obtain one with a larger diameter (35-40 inches). The larger size will give more pack coverage and will often be sturdier. An alternative is to have two umbrellas in the gear closet: a smaller, lightweight one when not expecting much precipitation and a larger, heavier one for longer trips with more rain predicted.
Consider purchasing a quality umbrella with a quick release button. This makes it easier to quickly fold up the umbrella to duck under logs and branches and pop it open a few steps later.
A lightweight, water resistant windshell will often suffice for arm coverage in light drizzles when using a smaller diameter umbrella. When collapsed, smaller umbrellas will often fit into the pocket of a windshell.
A double duty walking stick-umbrella combo might be just the ticket in some situations.
Those using a hiking umbrella on a regular basis sometimes make a carry sleeve for it that is tethered to their belt, allowing for quick access.
Be the first in your hiking group to carry an umbrella; set a new fashion trend. Chrome domes unite!