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Backpacking Umbrella: Everything You Need to Know

Backpacking Umbrella: Everything You Need to Know

I can’t believe what a difference a backpacking umbrella made for my sanity on thru-hikes! If you want to radically improve your thru-hike or backpacking trip, get yourself an umbrella.

I will never forget the first time I could hike through the rain without my hood on, without water hitting my face, and still holding onto my hiking poles.  If you want to learn how to use a hands-free backpacking umbrella, this post is for you!

Moreover, the backpacking umbrella does wonders in the hot sun as a portable shade.  Are you a person who burns easily? This will revolutionize your backpacking trip.

My partner and I have used ultralight umbrellas as a KEY item in our gear since 2016 and will never go back.  We’ve carried them on 12 different thru-hikes at the time of this writing and used several different types.

Once you’ve backpacked long enough, you’ll start to hike smarter, not harder.  So, let’s dig into it!

This post contains affiliate links.  I have used every product mentioned and if you purchase one of these products I can make a small commission at no cost to you.

Ultralight Backpacking Umbrella 101: What, When, Where, and How

Thru-hiking couple hiking through the rain in their rain gear
It’s All Smiles with the Right Equipment

You’ve probably seen those silver umbrellas floating around your Instagram or TikTok feed on thru-hiker’s backpacks. 

It’s common to think the backpacking umbrella is a useless piece of gear that will just weigh you down. 

However, that’s the mentality of someone who has never tried one or never tried it in bad weather!

First, the ultralight backpacking umbrella has come a long way since its inception.  They’ve gotten lighter and stronger as the years go by.

Second, with the reflective coating on the outside, the backpacking umbrella does wonders against both rain AND sun.

Third, when you make the backpacking umbrella hands-free, you can use your hiking poles, eat a snack, change your music playlist, etc.

Best Ultralight Backpacking Umbrellas (The What)

Let’s start at the beginning!

There are several ultralight backpacking umbrellas on the market right now. 

One of the main differences is if you want the regular or mini.  Both have roughly the same size of protection.  However, the mini has extra joints which allows it to fold down much smaller.  There are pros and cons to this.

Here are the 5 Best Backpacking Umbrellas on the market right now:

Six Moon Designs Silver Shadow Carbon Trekking Umbrella

👉 By The Numbers

  • Weight: 6.8 ounces (193 grams)
  • Length: 25 inches (63.5 cm)
  • Open Width: 37 inches (94 cm)
  • UPF: 50+
  • Shaft: Carbon Fiber
  • Canopy: Polyester

My review:

I’ve used the SMD Silver Shadow Carbon backpacking umbrella on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) and the Desert Winter Thru-Hike (DWTH) and I love it.  It’s my go-to umbrella. 

It’s easy to use, easy to attach to the pack, easy to store, and durable.  It can withstand a decent amount of wind.  If you’re dealing with gusts of wind, it’s easy to pop up and down as needed.

✨ IMO, the SMD Silver Shadow Carbon is the best overall backpacking umbrella. ✨

Six Moon Designs Silver Shadow Mini Trekking Umbrella

Hiking through the heat of Arizona on the GET
Hiking in the Heat

👉 By The Numbers

  • Weight: 6.8 ounces (193 grams)
  • Length: 10 inches
  • Open Width: 37 inches (94 cm)
  • UPF: 50+
  • Shaft: Aluminum
  • Canopy: Polyester

My Review:

I used the SMD Silver Shadow Mini on the Grand Enchantment Trail (GET) and it was fantastic for its small storage size.  The GET had more miles of spiky bushwhacking than I like to remember.  I went with this option for the GET because I knew we’d bushwhack through catclaw and I didn’t want the backpacking umbrella to get shredded on the side of my backpack.  The mini could fold down and fit into the back mesh on my pack which protected it. 

The only downside was that it took longer to put up and take down because of the extra joint in the canopy ribs.  I found I pulled it out less because of this extra work.  Overall: if you’re going to bushwhack A LOT this is a great option.  Otherwise, I go with the SMD Silver Shadow Carbon above.

Gossamer Gear LightTrek Hiking Umbrella

Thru-hiker hiking in Olympic National Park on the Pacific Northwest Trail.

👉 By The Numbers

  • Weight: 6.3 ounces
  • Length: 25 inches
  • Open Width: 38 inches
  • UPF: 50
  • Shaft: Aluminum
  • Canopy: Polyester

My Review:

I used older versions of the Gossamer Gear Umbrella between 2016 through 2019 when it weighed 8 ounces.  I liked it well enough to keep using it throughout.  It went on trails like the Pacific Northwest Trail, the Hayduke Trail, the Scottish National Trail, and more. Back then, I found it overall durable, useful, and easy to use.  Now, I cannot speak specifically to this newer version though.  Its new claimed weight is 6.3 ounces.

ZPacks Ultralight Umbrella

👉 By The Numbers

  • Weight: 6.8 ounces
  • Length: 25 inches
  • Open Width: 38 inches
  • UPF: 40
  • Shaft: Fiberglass
  • Canopy: Polyester

My Review:

I have not personally used this umbrella. While ZPacks has good customer service, I’ve been a little disappointed in the other products that I have used.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Essential Umbrella

👉 By The Numbers

  • Weight: 6.8 ounces
  • Length: 24 inches
  • Open Width: 37.5 inches
  • UPF: 40
  • Shaft: Carbon Fiber
  • Canopy: Pongee Black Fabric with Silver Coating

My Review:

I have not personally used the HMG backpacking umbrella, but I have used other products from the company and found them durable. However, it is the most expensive option.

When to Use a Backpacking Umbrella

There are two primary reasons to use an ultralight backpacking umbrella: for rain and sun.

However, the backpacking umbrella is a multi-use item and I’ve found several other uses.  Those being: when you need to pee and you think someone might come up, a wind block for my stove, and an extension to the tarp for extra wind protection.

Rain

A thru-hiker with all her rain gear on looking back at an incoming thunderstorm.
Umbrella for the Rain

The primary use for an ultralight backpacking umbrella is when it’s raining. 

Personally, I hated hiking in the rain…until I got an umbrella. 

Attaching the umbrella to your backpack will have two main benefits: keeping the rain off your face AND keeping the rain from running down your hood between your backpack and your back. 

In attaching it to the pack, you’ll also keep your shoulder straps drier and the top of your back.  The keyword here is “drier” not totally “dry.”

When paired with a DIY pack cover, a DIY rain skirt, and a rain shell…the umbrella finishes the ideal rain gear setup!

Sun

Thru-hiker using a backpacking umbrella as portable shade in the hot sun.
Portable Shade

The second main use for the ultralight backpacking umbrella is sun protection.

Each backpacking umbrella is coated with silver on the canopy which reflects the sun away from your head and upper body. 

With the ever-increasing UV index during the summer hiking season, the backpacking umbrella becomes vital protection.  Essentially, you get portable shade.

Under your portable shade, you’ll notice a temperature decrease of 5–10 degrees Fahrenheit! 

5-10 degrees is not insignificant when the sun beats down on you at 90-100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Remember: hike smarter…not harder! Bring your portable shade and keep your body temperature more regulated.

Other Uses

Like any good thru-hiker, we make our gear multi-purpose. While the backpacking umbrella is inherently multi-purpose for rain and sun, we’ve found other uses for it.

I particularly like to use it when I need to cook and there’s just a little too much wind for the stove. This method does work better with a partner to hold it for you.

Other uses are when I need to pee, but I’m afraid someone might come up. Or, road visibility. Cars will give you a lot more space if you have to road walk because they don’t quite understand the umbrella. Lastly, if too much wind comes up into your vestibule, you can pop the umbrella to assist the tarp or tent!

When NOT to Use Your Backpacking Umbrella

Let’s talk about wind.

You can use your ultralight backpacking umbrella in some wind.  However, not a ton of wind.  It’s a fine line.

Since 2016, I’ve tried to use the backpacking umbrella in all sorts of wind.  I’ve found several rough rules for it:

  1. You can keep it in the hands-free position on your backpack until roughly 5-10mph.
  2. Between 10-15 mph, you can hold it in your hand and point it toward the wind gusts as they come.  Sometimes, you’ll need to brace it on your spare arm.
  3. Above 15 mph is usually not worth the up and down between larger wind gusts. 

You’ll find out very quickly that if you think a wind gust is going, you can collapse it fast still on your pack.  When the gust is over, you can pop it back up.  Sometimes, you play the up-down game.

Where to Put Your Backpacking Umbrella

Thru-hiker with her backpacking umbrella stored in the side pocket of her backpack until it's needed.
Stored Until Needed

Most thru-hikers will use one of the full backpacking umbrellas and place it on one side of their backpack in the side pocket.  That is where I like to keep it as well.

However, if you do go with the mini option, you can put it anywhere in your pack.  When we used the mini, we kept it on one side of the back mesh.

When the umbrella is in use, you’ll want to rig up some shoulder straps to hold it in place.

How to Attach Your Backpacking Umbrella to Your Pack Hands-Free

Thru-hiker with a hands-free ultralight umbrella so she can use her hands for things like photos.
Hands-Free for Camera Use

Making your backpacking umbrella hands-free really makes or breaks your umbrella experience.  Once you know THE TRICK, it’s actually very easy.

THE TRICK works on any backpack, but it might look a little different between shoulder strap styles. 

Basically, THE TRICK is to have two points of contact.  You want the backpacking umbrella attached to one shoulder strap at two points which are 6 inches or more apart. 

Many packs come with a ladder-webbing strap sewn into the shoulder strap.  This makes for easy installation of two small bungee cords with single-hole spring toggles.  If you put your backpack on with some weight, add the top toggle around the area where your shoulder curves.  Then, place the second toggle just below or around where your sternum strap goes.  Adjust as needed.

If your pack does not have this shoulder strap ladder, you can add the toggle around the entire shoulder strap.  Place one above the shoulder strap and one below.  On my SMD Swift X, I add the upper toggle around the entire shoulder strap above the sternum strap.  Then, I use the flight harness pocket as the second toggle for the bottom of the backpacking umbrella.

Final Thoughts

If you’re ready to level up your backpacking game, get the ultralight backpacking umbrella.  It will totally change how you feel about the weather like that cold Washington rain or that hot California desert sun. 

I’ve used them across the whole US on trails from the Appalachian Trail to the Pacific Northwest Trail.  Moreover, I’ve used them on Caminos de Santiago and the Scottish National Trail…both of which have US East Coast-style rain deluges. 

I highly recommend adding a backpacking umbrella to your thru-hiking or even weekend warrior pack setup. 

Trust me…when it’s pouring and you have a hands-free backpacking umbrella and you pass someone who doesn’t you’ll understand.