Strategies for Drying Wet Gear

Strategies for Drying Wet Gear

It’s like searching for Sasquatch: An ongoing saga where your quarry is elusive, and possibly fictitious. I am talking, of course, about the search for the best technique for drying wet gear in the backcountry.

Roasting a Shirt
Campfires make drying wet gear way easier. Unfortunately, this is not always an option. Photo Credit: Stephanie Hughson

The dilemma of how to dry wet gear weighed heavily on my mind as I prepared for my March-to-May trek on the Oregon Coast Trail. Spring on the Oregon coast is no joke: I vividly remember a run my dad and I did on the beach during spring break back when I was in school. It began with diagonal rain, and quickly escalated into an invigorating march through sideways hail. This is not an uncommon occurrence, and as a Wilderness First Responder, I also am well-versed on the dangers of hypothermia. Getting warm and dry was going to be critical – and challenging.

Of course, I packed a raincoat and water- and wind-resistant pants. I packed plenty of warm clothes, including two pairs of Darn Tough Merino wool socks, which wick moisture well and stay warm when wet. I always pack the Ten Essentials, and I have built a fire in the rain before. But I knew my gear had its limits, and so the big, complicated question was: What do I do when my rain gear eventually gets soaked through (because it will), and all of my clothes are soaked through (because that will happen next), and I have no chance to dry my wet gear in the sun (because there may be none) or with a fire (because it may be impossible to build)?

I knew that my safety and the success of my trip hinged on finding an answer. So one of my goals was perfecting a method of drying my clothes in wet weather.

Before you start talking about that trick where you sleep with your wet clothes, let me just say this: NO. I’ve tried it. It makes my wet clothes warmer, but not any drier. It gets my sleeping bag damp. It gets my warm nighttime layers damp. It is uncomfortable and clammy and doesn’t set me up for a pleasant night’s sleep. I do not see any redeeming aspects to this “technique.” Before I set out on the OCT, I already knew that that was a no-go for me.

Then of course there is the option of simply airing wet items out. I have a cord around the top of my tent that can serve as a clothesline during the night. Or you can drape your wet items on the outside of your pack, allowing them to dry as you hike. However, even drying clothes on warm summer trips can be challenging, and it was not going to be warm or dry. So I knew I had to be more creative than that.

My creativity ultimately paid dividends: Over the course of my journey on the OCT, it became abundantly clear that I was hiking during a rainy spring of record-setting proportions, and yet I was able to stay warm and at least somewhat dry when it counted. Since I honed the my methods for drying wet clothes in such conditions, you can rest assured that they work. Otherwise, I would have morphed into a mound of fungus and would probably have trouble typing this article. But I digress. Here are my three favorite techniques, listed from most to least effective, with pros, cons, and helpful hints:

  1. Drying Agent + Gallon Ziplock Bag. 
    Effectiveness: Pure magic. 5/5. Will use again.
    Upsides: Nearly 100% effective in drying and reducing odor.
    Downsides: Heavy, bulky, item only serves one purpose, possibly toxic.
    Key Component: Drying agents, or chemical dehumidifiers, are formulated to pull moisture from their surroundings. They are typically used to dry out damp basements, closets, etc. (Please note that these chemicals can be hazardous, so please handle carefully.)
    The Experiment: I purchased a DampRid Hanging Moisture Absorber at Fred Meyer midway through my trip.After a long bout of rain and wading through marshes in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, I figured I needed a heavy-duty gear-drying solution. I put one of my notoriously hard-to-dry sports bras; some soggy, stinky socks; and a wet tech t-shirt into a gallon Ziplock bag with the drying agent. After leaving the clothes in the bag overnight, the sports bra and socks were significantly drier (85% dry, and definitely bearable to wear again), the shirt was nearly dry (let’s say 95%), and everything was a lot less pungent. I decided to go for the gold and left these items in the bag for another 24 hours, or 32 hours total. (Don’t worry, I had a change of clothes to wear in the meantime.) After 32 hours in the bag with the drying agent, all the clothes were 99% dry, and the socks were nearly odor-free. Considering what I was starting with, that is truly impressive!
    Keep in Mind: The bag needs to be sealed, or the drying agent will be wasted on the fruitless task of sucking all the moisture out of the Oregon air.
  2. Microfiber Towel + Hand Warmers + Gallon Ziplock Bag.
    Effectiveness: Great. 4/5.
    Upsides: Easy to pack, components have multiple uses, quite effective.
    Downsides: Towel ends up damp, handwarmers aren’t reusable, not 100% dry by morning.
    Key Components: Microfiber backpacking towels aren’t typically that great for wiping oneself off after a dip in a lake, but they are AWESOME at soaking up moisture over an extended period of time. Hand warmers are great to pack for multiple reasons, including, as it turns out, drying your wet gear! I purchased a large bag of Grabber hand warmers at REI before my trip. These are the BEST because they stay really warm/hot for a really long time.
    The Experiment: At the end of my second day on the OCT, everything I had was soaked, so I tried this technique out: I rolled some soaked socks, a soaked sports bra, and my soaked gloves into my towel, interspersed with hand warmers. Then I put that bundle into a gallon Ziplock bag. After leaving the clothes in the bag overnight, everything was significantly drier (maybe 75% dry, and definitely bearable to wear again), and my socks smelled better (the odor was somehow miraculously eaten by the towel). I tried this trick multiple times throughout my trip, both with and without hand warmers. I will say that the hand warmers aren’t 100% necessary, but they do accelerate and enhance the drying process.
    Keep in Mind: If you are drying your socks along with other, less stinky, clothes, make sure that they are not touching. The bag should be slightly vented, so some of the moisture can escape.
  3. Hand Warmers + Paper + Gallon Ziplock Bag.
    Effectiveness: Solid. 3/5.
    Upsides: Uses lightweight and packable materials that served multiple purposes.
    Downsides: Materials aren’t reusable (except Ziplock bag), not as effective as other methods.
    Key Component: Hand warmers are the real key here. They will drive off the moisture by producing heat. Obviously, they also need to be hot enough. I can’t say enough good things about the Grabber hand warmers! Next, the moisture needs somewhere to go. First of all, it is important to make sure that the Ziplock bag isn’t entirely sealed. Secondly, it helps to wrap your wet gear in paper, or paper towels, which will absorb some of the moisture. I advise against using toilet paper, because it will disintegrate and cover your clothes in gooey white blobs. For my part, I used the maps that I didn’t need anymore. I had created and printed all of my own topo maps because there aren’t that many good resources for the OCT (yet). I had elected not to laminate them, so that they would be easier to use as tinder, or as gear-dryers, etc. I kept them stored in a Ziplock bag until it was “go time.”
    The Experiment: As mentioned above, Day Two on the trail was brutal. So after a day filled with sideways rain, I put hand warmers in the pockets of my soaked-through raincoat and rain pants, and rolled them up with a bunch of sheets of paper. Then I placed the bundle in a Ziplock bag. After leaving them in the bag overnight, they were significantly drier (maybe 70% dry, and definitely bearable/useful to wear again). However, when I did this trick with some other clothes later in my trip, it didn’t seem as effective. I have a suspicion that has to do with how waterlogged an item is – and so, in a roundabout way, it has to do with the fabric. Items that hold on to a lot of water will not get very dry from this method.
    Keep in Mind: The bag should be slightly vented, so some of the moisture can escape. Thicker items like socks may not do as well with this method – but it’s certainly better than nothing.

So there you have it: Three trail-tested ways of drying gear, which were vetted during a record-setting rainy spring on the Oregon coast.

Have you tried these? Do you have a method that you like better? I’d love to hear about it! Let me know in the comments.

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