Rain, it is an uncontrollable variable when you embark on a long distance hike. You commit to living outdoors and taking the elements as they come. There is a saying on the trail "No rain, No Maine". You either get moving or stay put on rainy days. Here are some tips on how I dealt with inclement weather.
The best piece of gear available for bad weather is a positive attitude. It's going to rain, get over it and have fun. I can't tell you how many people I would come across during downpours that would be sulking in their own misery. You have a choice whether to enjoy or hate the rain. I agree that sunny days are always more pleasant but you made the choice to live outdoors and you must accept everything that goes with it. The first month of trail it rained close to 20 days on me. I learned very quickly how to deal with it and made the rain fun.
There is a big myth among the outdoor industry about a "waterproof breathable" material. It does not exist. I don't care if you spend $300 on the fancy rain shell at the outfitter. There is not a material on the market that will ventilate the sweat your body produces during a 8-12 hour hiking day.
And with that, you still need a rain jacket. I am guilty of having been duped into buying a nice rain jacket in the past. Truth is my Marmot Precip works no better than my Driducks. The Driducks are incredibly cheap, light and simple. No pockets, cinch hood and elastic cuffs. Heck the set even comes with rain pants (I left them at home) for $20! The material is not the toughest but you get your moneys worth out of it if you treat it carefully. Mine lasted me the entire trail so I say it was $20 well spent. Worked great on windy nights above treeline as well. I just can not ever justify spending big bucks on another rain shell that I know will not live up to its expectations. Simple and smart decision to go with this set up.
Keeping Your Gear Dry
If you're soaking wet and have a dry sleeping bag and clothes, you're set. If you're wet and all your gear is wet, you're up s**t creek. Keeping your precious items dry is not hard but it takes some doing. EVERYTHING should be in simple dry sacks. Once again don't break the bank. If you take all of the precautions below it would be fine if you bought the cheapest silnylon sacks off the shelf.
I never did like using pack covers. They dangle off your pack in odd ways and are always strange colors. In addition you have to stop and strap it on at the first sign of precipitation. They still leak around the perimeter and they block every pocket on your pack holding water, snacks, etc. I prefer to line my pack with a trash compactor bag. You can buy a box at your local hardware store for less than $10 and have a few years supply. I went through about 4 bags during my hike and replaced them only because I could, not because I needed to. Your gear is always 100% sealed off from the elements regardless of the weather. You can create a dry and wet compartment inside your pack. Dry gear goes in the compactor bag, gets rolled over and wet gear sits on top. What if your pack is wet? Who cares? Everything that is exposed to the outside is sacrificial in my mind. I do not care if I am soaked as long as my gear is dry so when it's time to get some rest.
Alternate Rain gear Choices
When the heat of summer there are some days you will beg for rain. A number of hikers sent their rain gear home and chose to tough out rainy days with no protection in the summer. I did not. I have carried an umbrella as in the picture above for awhile now. It is a fantastic system I learned from John Williams at Pack & Paddle. It allows you to keep your hands free for using trekking poles, or scramble up rocks. Not to mention that you are not cooped up in a clammy jacket for hours on end. Some people would make jokes and laugh but I am a strong advocate for the umbrella. It allows you to hike without a rain layer and not subject yourself to a dripping water torture hike. I picked up a GoLite Dome umbrella from their website for only $15! It does not pack very small but the umbrella is solid. I also really liked the umbrella for incredibly hot days as I was able to provide myself with shade as I trekked through the corn fields and farmlands of the Cumberland Valley.
I guess if you're not sold on these systems you could try some of these. I have no experience with ponchos but they don't seem to bad. Maybe check out a Packa or a Poncho. Just find what you like and remember it's a function show, not a fashion show. And on long rainy stretches you'll learn to appreciate the sunny days that much more.