Let’s be real for a minute.
The weather on the Olympic Peninsula can be downright nasty. It isn’t unusual or out of the ordinary to have a storm dump over an inch of rain a day. You can leave your house any month of the year and find yourself caught in a deluge of rain. Even on sunny days, some trails will leave you wading through mud, into deep puddles and over fallen old growth. Yet, there is nothing more true to the spirit of being a resident of the Pacific Northwest than heading out into the wilderness on a less than optimal weather day.
Hiking during the rainy days might seem counterintuitive, especially during the winter months. Normally on rainy days, you’d want to cuddle up with a book, text your friend, or just watch Netflix and chill with your favorite person. While that does sound awesome, you can still do that after a day out in the elements. We deserve to enjoy every day we can out in the wilderness of Washington State, which means we have to head out in less than ideal weather. To best do this, I have put together a short list of how to have a good day in nasty weather, while still being safe. This is by no means an absolute list, but should help you start thinking about how best to be safe, happy, warm and even dry.
There is absolutely no excuse for getting caught unprepared in bad weather. We live in an age when weather forecast apps come preloaded on smartphones, and newscasts constantly give up to date weather forecasts every hour on the hour. With access to data at our finger tips, there are a few ways to ensure you know what to expect while heading out on the trails. Keep in mind that if there are warnings and watches for the area you plan to explore, you should probably make other plans.
There are two apps worth downloading. The first app you need is the Weather Underground app. Called Wunderground, this app lets you search anywhere in the world, and gives hourly forecasts that include temperature, windspeed direction, and even the percentage of possible precipitation. If you’d rather not use the app, I highly suggest using their website. There is no excuse not to use this app or website to check the weather before your adventure.
The second app I use regularly is called RadarCast Elite. The app costs $2.99, but if you are a weather nerd, it is worth every penny. RadarCast helps “Know what weather is coming your way with future-cast technology, allowing you to see hi-def radar and anticipated conditions one hour into the future. Instantly know when it’s about to rain or snow with push-notifications to your iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch.” The app can be a little tough to figure out at first, but once you get used to it, it is incredible. Using NOAA forecast models and radar loops, you can feel confident about the weather before you head out.
Finally, I also check the forecast for the Olympic Mountains around Hurricane Ridge. While this doesn’t really help for accuracy, it does show what the expected snow level is and possible accumulations. This is the link for the Zone Forecast for the Olympics.
Once you know the forecast, it is time to choose where you want to go and explore. If the weather looks bad, don’t head out into an area where the elements will be truly terrible. That means during storms, avoid trails with numerous stream crossings, don’t hike up to the summits of mountains and avoid regions where treacherous weather is known to linger. If the weather is calling for strong winds, avoid walking in forests. Use common sense. Nobody is ever going to be impressed with you having to be rescued.
During nasty weather, your three best bets will be to hike along rivers, trek to waterfalls, or explore along the coast when the tide is low. While it may be tempting to try to get up on tops of mountains, the cold weather and wet conditions will make most mountain hikes and climbs extremely dangerous. Instead of pushing your limits on bad weather days, why not rediscover your favorite areas, or explore the lowlands. I put together a list of seven fantastic rainy day hikes around Olympic National Park to help serve as a guide. I also have this piece on the best waterfalls around Olympic National Park.
For 77 hikes around the region, as well as more information, I suggest buying a copy of The Definitive Guide to the Olympic National Park and Peninsula.
There is no better time in human history to live than right now, at least for fantastic waterproof gear. if you don’t have proper gear, I don’t suggest heading out into the wilderness unprepared. To be fully prepared, you will need waterproof shoes or boots, gaiters, waterproof pants, a good rain jacket, gloves and a hat. You should also have a pack that is either waterproof or a way to keep your gear dry while carrying it. I know carrying minimal gear is popular right now, but you should always be over prepared than underprepared. That includes keeping an extra set of clothes and towels in your car for when your journey is over. You are only as comfortable as your gear lets you be, so don’t think you can head out in summer clothes during a rainstorm.
Every year, 20,000+ people climb to the summit of Mount Ellinor, with many not bringing proper gear. While the majority of unprepared adventurers can get away with it, as they explore in decent weather, there are a handful of people each year who need to be rescued. Being prepared means not wearing cotton clothes, jeans or just yoga pants, a light top and shoes. It means actually being a responsible adult and being prepared for any conditions that you may encounter.
We all know people who like to do things that some consider extreme. Hell, even walking during a rain storm is extreme to the majority of the population. As outdoor enthusiasts, we have a duty to be good examples for everyone. That means not taking unnecessary risks. Stay on the trail especially in bad weather. Turn around if it starts getting terrible. Make decisions that won’t endanger you or the rescue crew that will have to come find you if you take risks.
Being responsible also means sticking to your itinerary, bringing the 10 essentials and leaving a detailed note with someone of where you are going. I also take this one step farther, and tell a few people that if they don’t hear from me by a certain time, to contact the local search and rescue crew and let them know where I am. I also carry an emergency shelter and a days worth of food, just in case. You never know what may happen, so being responsible and prepared is something we all should be doing.
Bad weather can suck, but only if you let it. Sure, walking in rain and having the potential of getting absolutely soaked sounds terrible, but it can be the best time spent in the woods. You can have the best gear in the world, be perfectly prepared and know the forecast, but if you aren’t in a positive state of mind, you won’t enjoy your day. To stop myself from endlessly cycling about how shitty hiking in a downpour is, I repeat a little mantra every few minutes to help cheer me up and remember my surroundings. Negativity is the number one cause of mad days in nature, and we all need to do more to stop it from sneaking up on us, especially in bad weather.
As I trek along muddy trails, climbing over slick downfall, I repeat the following to myself.
“Water is the life-force of the region, and I am lucky to be able to be part of the wilderness.”
I, like all of you, have no idea how much longer I will be able to hike, so I need to enjoy it now, no matter the weather. I know. It sounds lame, but it is true. Each and every step we get to take exploring the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest beats any day stuck inside, working or sitting in traffic. Each raindrop that hits my jacket is a reminder that we are now part of the world, exposed and vulnerable. It is then, and only then that we truly feel alive, and we truly understand just how amazing the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula can be.
Next time you are hiking, take a minute to stop and listen to it rain. Remember to smile, because this is life in the Pacific Northwest.
Be inspired, explore Olympic National Park.