Ah, the old waterproofs dilemma: wherever you’re going, unless it’s Antarctica, there’ll be a chance of rain, so you really should take some weather protection. Of course, it might not rain, you damn well don’t want it to, and weight is at a premium, so you resent carrying them, never mind buying them in the first place. Is it really necessary?
Okay, so if you’re planning on hiking that’s a definite affirmative (and yes, even the over trousers) because if you get soaked out in the wilderness you’ll be uncomfortable or, worse, dead. But general travelling? Surely you can just duck into a shop or a café? That is a possibility but there are inherent dangers. During one afternoon cloudburst in Sihanoukville, Cambodia Gerda and I popped into a convenience store to escape and only emerged several hours later, well after the storm had passed, drunk on Klang beer. Klang is actually Khmer for elephant although the word also onomatopoeically describes the state of one’s head the morning after drinking it.
Where was I? Ah yes, if the aforementioned downpour is tropical (usually brief and scheduled to the minute) then you can plan to avoid it but sustained drizzle can really dampen your day, especially if you have a weather-dependent outing planned and only no spare days. There’s nothing worse than waking up early for an adventure-filled day’s sailing around the spectacular limestone karsts of Halong bay, Vietnam and thrusting open the curtains (if you’re lucky enough to have any) to reveal a leaden sky throwing down rain drops the size gin n’ tonics. A beautiful beach destination is never quite same when you’re drier in the sea than on the sand.
So, we’ve established that rainwear is useful. Modern waterproof/jackets are excellent but if space is an issue then there are options:
a) You could drop $800 on the latest ultra-packable Gore-Tex jacket from Arc’teryx.
b) You could buy disposable plastic ponchos for a couple of dollars apiece whenever the need arises. I did exactly this when hiking the Inca Trail in Peru, and the 223km Larapinta Trail in Central Australia. Both times it rained and I ended up slimy with sweat and stinking like a fishmonger, but I saved myself carrying a jacket for the rest of those trips.
Curiously enough I observed an interesting phenomenon in Vietnam: on any given day the scooter riders (90% of the traffic) would be self-cooled in the tropical heat by the self-generated breeze. The second the inevitable afternoon storm hit I would look around from my hastily-found shelter to see every one of those previously-uncovered riders swathed in a full-length plastic poncho. Yet at no point did I ever see one of them stop to don said garment – they were just simultaneously on. What’s more, after ten minutes of biblical deluge, lo and behold, every rider would just as suddenly be poncho-less in the sunshine. I saw this many times but never worked out how they did it.
c) The Helly Hansen Stratos. It’s light, windproof and packs down to the size of a baboon’s prostate. It is coated with a durable water repellent chemical which is quite remarkable in its hydrophobia, but it isn’t fully waterproof – after 15 minutes of average-strength rain water will start leaking through the unsealed seams – but it is a good compromise. Call it emergency protection to stuff in the bottom of your pack and then struggle to locate when urgently necessary.
Option c is what I chose on my last trip and I was very impressed. Well, I only used it a handful of times but then I was lucky with the weather. If it was properly raining I stayed inside, of course. Look, I still had to buy a crappy $2 poncho for the six-day hike up Roraima in Venezuela but the Stratos is not built to cope under such conditions. It isn’t waterproof! One has to know one’s limitations. As long as I didn’t wear it outside in the actual rain – it was perfect!