Backpack + Umbrella
You’re out hiking. It starts to rain. You put on the shell jacket you bought for this very thing. It’s designed to “breathe” — to let water vapor out — while blocking the rain. But you’re hiking. You’re working up a sweat and your jacket’s high tech space age fabric isn’t breathing as much as you’d like. Now you have a decision to make: get soaked by the rain or soaked by your own sweat.
Back in the old days of the Camino—the Middle Ages—the days of wool, leather, and fur—a pilgrim on the road could either find the nearest shelter or just suffer through the damp. This was the case even in the days of jeans and flannel. The promise of the high tech fabrics is that you don’t have to stop. We don’t have time for that these days! The reality, however, is anything that keeps rain out is also a warmth layer, and if you’re already sweating, that means more sweating. It’s a conundrum faced by all hikers at some point: unless it’s cold enough out to keep you from sweating while walking, you may as well not even wear the jacket.
I barely escaped the rains on my first day on the Camino, but got a little on the second day. In the half hour or so that I wore my jacket (Marmot PreCip) before reaching the albergue in Larrasoaña, it became clear that I was sweating as much as it was raining.
In the next day or so I tried a cheap poncho I had brought along “just incase.” It was better, ponchos are naturally billowing on the sides so they let a breeze in, but the problem was the hood. Wearing either hood, be it the high tech breathable one on the PreCip jacket or this cheap plastic one, was just baking my head. The poncho seemed to be working, but the hood had to go. I walked that day without the hood and just let my head get wet. Fortunately it didn’t rain ALL day. (That day would come much later.)
This was not good enough. Rain on your face is annoying, it runs down your neck and soaks your shirt anyway, and there was another problem to be solved: my pack was getting wet around the shoulder straps where the tight fitting rain cover couldn’t cover.
The obvious solution was an umbrella. It would keep my face out of the rain and also cover the gap between my back and pack that no rain cover would cover. (Yes, there are ponchos that are made to cover you and your pack, but they too have hoods, which is the thing I was trying to avoid.)
Umbrellas have their own problems: you have to hold them and they look ridiculous. I figured I could deal with looking ridiculous, but the hand-holding problem…
I had an idea—I checked my bag. Yes! The straw hole for a water bladder was in the center. I figured I could brace an umbrella in my pack by shoving it down the straw hole and into the water bladder pocket. I also figured that if I got one of those big ones with the round J-shaped handle it would brace itself laterally instead of sliding one way or the other and allowing the umbrella to lean too much to one side.
We had a few days without rain so I lost motivation. Then after one very rainy morning, motivation returned. In Viana, I bought a large umbrella with a J-shaped handle for something like seven euros. I figured out the positioning that night. We woke up to rain the next morning so I was able to put the “backpack umbrella rig” to the test immediately.
It was perfect. Here was my system: The umbrella covered my head and the part of my pack not covered by the rain cover. This would also keep my shoulders and upper body dry, but rain never comes straight down, especially when you’re moving through it, so I wore the poncho without the hood to keep my torso dry. I wore rain pants, rolled up past the knee, to keep my shorts dry. I let my lower legs get wet. My “waterproof” boots kept my feet pretty dry.
Even better: as the morning wore on the rain stopped, the clouds burned off, and the sun came out. I kept the umbrella up to keep the sun off my head. Which brings me to hats: the other conundrum. You want to keep the sun off, but putting a hat on traps heat. Hoods and hats: they’re both like wearing ovens on your head. (Note: I did bring straw hat and it worked pretty well, but not as well as the umbrella’s shade.)
Now, I couldn’t get the umbrella to stand up perfectly straight, there was always a bit of a lean. The direction of the lean depended on which way the J-shaped handle was oriented inside the backpack. I kept the umbrella leaning to the left because I was always walking west and therefore the sun was always on my left. Conveniently, the rain seemed to always blow in from the left as well.
So I used my backpack umbrella rig whenever it was rainy or sunny. “Rain or shine.”
It worked so well I thought other people would start doing it. I told people “in two weeks, everyone will be doing this!” Not quite. Most people admitted their rain jackets were too hot, but only a one or two offered to buy my umbrella.
Recently I found proof that I’m not the only one who thinks attaching an umbrella to your pack is a great idea. I was reading this article by a guy bicycling from Oregon to Patagonia. He describes how his parents walked across the US in the 1970s, and shows this picture:
Pros and Cons
The only obvious downsides to the umbrella rig are 1) it catches the wind and 2) it adds weight. To me the weight is worth it, and honestly it doesn’t weigh THAT much. As for catching the wind, it wasn’t as big a deal as you might think. I wasn’t trekking across windswept plains or high mountain passes. I used the umbrella frequently from day 7 (leaving Viana) basically until the end on day 37 (arriving in Finisterre), and the only wind problem I had was crossing the famous bridge into Portomarín (day 28). The wind came up from below and inverted the umbrella. I couldn’t pull it back into shape because the wind wouldn’t stop so I made a hasty crossing and fixed it under the first covering I could find. By day 35 (the day-it-rained-all-day) the umbrella was loosening at the seams and water would trickle down the stem and into my pack. That’s a big problem, but it’s a problem with the cheapness of the umbrella, not the soundness of the idea. An idea which I highly recommend to anyone walking the Camino.
I left the umbrella with my friends in Barcelona. I figured I wouldn’t need it on the rest of my trip. Later on my trip, some time in Nepal or India, I was talking about rain jackets with . . . I can’t remember now . . . a tour guide or a fellow traveler. The problem of sweating came up and he said to me “Yeah, the best you can do is carry an umbrella.”
For not-too-much advice on walking the Camino check out my post “Advice without Spoilers.”
 I put “waterproof” in quotes but these particular boots (Vasque Scree 2.0 Low UltraDry) kept my feet reliably dry for six hours, which I think is the most you can ask.
 When I realized water was trickling down the stem and INTO my pack, I switched to hand-holding the umbrella. I was nearing the end of the Camino and didn’t think buying a new one made sense.