“Who do you think you are; Mary Poppins?” a passing day hiker asked me. A day hiker! How would they understand the need for an umbrella on the Appalachian Trail?
We didn’t start our hike with umbrellas. To be honest the concept of hiking with one never crossed my mind. Pre-hike I looked at rain gear, ponchos, hiking kilt, rainproof jacket and pants, but not an umbrella. Being English you would think I would have thought about the advantages of carrying one, but I didn’t.
Day 4 of our hike we met a former PCT thru-hiker called “Skinny D.” She was carrying a pack weight of about 12lbs (in the winter) and said her luxury item was an umbrella. Initially I thought this was bit of a gimmick, but as we set off to climb Blood Mountain it started to rain and up popped Skinny D’s umbrella and off she went. No rain jacket, no rain pants, no sweat from overheating and not wet from the rain. We never saw her again as she ploughed up the climb past us, but the umbrella was spoken about on several occasions. That is, until we met Spider-Man, who had an umbrella and shared the secrets with us.
It appears that umbrellas are common on the PCT and, after hiking the AT a while, we met several former PCT hikers that bestowed the virtues of the device. Great in the rain, better in the sun, light and cheap (relative to rainwear). We were sold; and while at Pearisburg I ordered two from Golite (other fine umbrella suppliers are available).
The brollies (an English term for umbrellas) arrived at Four Pines Hostel, although we could have used them going over Dragon’s Tooth before then as it was a super-hot, sunny day! As you will find out, the value of a brolly isn’t just in the rain; in fact, I used it more due to the sun than rain.
One advantage of the Golite umbrella was its construction. If I came to a tight gap between trees or rocks, I could grab the struts and pull them in to myself so I could fit through the gap. Then, when I let them go, they sprang back to their original position. Also, and this only happened once, if the wind blew the umbrella inside out, it didn’t damage the struts and they just popped back to their original position.
So, despite the risk of gaining the trail name “Mary Poppins,” there are many reasons you should consider an umbrella as part of your hiking gear list:
Initially during our thru-hike we used rainproof jackets and pants, but as any of you having hiked know, they are neither totally rain proof nor breathable. It’s also likely that you get so wet with sweat you may as well of not worn them in the first place. I actually believe wearing them is more psychological projection than rain protection; we feel better wearing the gear! Soon into the hike, we both parted ways with our rain pants and never missed them.
However, we did keep our rain jackets, but more for an extra layer and windproof than for protection in the rain. The weight to benefit ratio meant that an emergency layer of a rain jacket made it worth carrying, plus it could be worn on laundry day! I would likely leave my rain jacket at home on any future hikes and just go to a warmer base layer for sleep and/or cold days.
What the umbrella offers is not only protection from the rain, but also from sweat. When hiking with an umbrella you don’t have to wear any rain gear, although I would still wear gaiters as these protected against ground water. Not wearing rain gear means you don’t get soaked through with perspiration, as you can remain cool while hiking. The umbrella would also cover the top of my pack and therefore help with its protection.
One of the major benefits we found with a brolly is its protection against the sun. Sounds unusual, in fact a parasol, often used in Europe, is no more than an umbrella but not usually waterproof (“para” means to stop or shield, and “sol” means sun). On a hot, sunny day the brolly can offer a permanent shade to hike under. Not only does this prevent sunburn of the face,neck, and ears, it also reduces the temperature of your head. A hat, while offering shade, does trap heat escaping from your head. The ability for air to circulate around your head assists in the cooling process and venting. I also believe this assisted in reducing water usage as your head, and therefore body temperature is reduced, so your need for water is reduced (note: this is opinion not scientific fact). The reflective surface of the Golite umbrella meant the radiated heat of the sun was reflected away from the brolly and not absorbed. The inside being black meant the suns rays were not reflected on to the head.
A Golite hiking umbrella weights around 8oz, which is a small price to pay for a multi-use piece of gear that can replace a waterproof jacket, pants and pack cover (mine was a combined weight of 32oz). I initially purchased the Chrome Dome Trekking version, which is a fixed handle brolly, however it “disappeared” while staying at a hostel. When I went to order a replacement, the trekking version was sold out so I purchased the collapsible version. Both worked extremely well although the collapsible version weighs 12oz, 4oz more than the fixed handle.
A piece of gear that is multi-use is always of benefit. I used the brolly for the following situations:
- To cover my pack when I had to leave it in the open, such as leaving it outside rather than bringing it inside a shelter (and subsequently soaking the floor).
- We would cook under the brolly in the rain, using it as a shield.
- When in town I would carry the brolly instead of needing to take a rain jacket round with me; it was easy to walk with a collapsed umbrella rather than a jacket.
- I even used it to scare a bear by opening and closing it while pointing it towards the bear. Worked like a treat so no need for those big bear spray canisters!
Using the Umbrella
I fixed the umbrella to my pack with flexible ties. This worked extremely well and meant my hands were free to use. My son would carry his and never had an issue. He would change hands every so often but it meant he could be flexible on its position in relation to the rain/sun direction. Now that I am back from the trail and have access to tools, I plan to construct something more permanent that will allow me to fix the brolly to either the side of my pack or the shoulder harness.
Use one! It’s as simple as that. I will carry one in the future and leave my rain gear at home. You will likely get unusual looks from passing hikers and run the risk of being called “Mary Poppins,” but you will be dry and cool.