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This protip is organized into 2 sections: 1) gear and 2) practical advice for how to camp and hike in the rain. Thanks to the good folks at Hipcamp, who helped greatly with this protip! Check out Hipcamp, the easiest way to book your next camping adventure, here.
Good campers and backpackers should always be prepared for inclement weather. Some popular trails and wilderness destinations are criss-crossed by microclimates, such that literally it can be raining in one square mile and sunny in another. Here are some important gear considerations. When you get back, remember to air out your gear immediately (set up a tent and let it dry off that way, don't just spread it out on the ground) to prevent mold or mildew from ruining it.
Of course, if you’re renting from Last Minute Gear, we help you stay prepared as much as possible; so our backpacks include rain covers and our tents have rainflies & footprints or tarps.
Whether flat ground is preferred over a slight slope depends. For example during rain, a slope can direct more water to your tent (bad) or direct water to not collect under or around the tent (good). Look at the other factors of your site to manage your risks. Also some people are sensitive to sleeping with their head downhill (the blood rush may lead to headaches in the mornings). In any case, avoid pitching a tent over a depression in the ground, since that can definitely cause water to accumulate.
As much as you can, keep the tent dry as you're pitching it. Set up an extra large tarp overhead, preferably over the entire campsite if possible, or hold the tarp overhead. If you don’t have a tarp, do this with the rainfly. Consider tying guy lines in advance, at home, to minimize time exposure to the rain.
The below components of a tent are designed to keep water out:
The rainfly, the most important element, needs to be structurally pitched in a way that keeps water out. Specifically it should not...
Both of the above mean that you need to keep the rainfly as taut or tensioned out as possible. This is why sometimes you need guylines to guy-out your tent. What this means is that you take rope, and pull outward on the tent fabric, stretching it to be as taut as possible & not touching the body, then tie the rope off to a stake or tree or other support. Why the fancy name? Imagine the wind suddenly changes direction, and you need to pull on the fabric in a different direction. With rope, you'd have to untie & redo the whole set-up. Guylines have a plastic tensioner piece that you can pull on to adjust the "tension" in the line, therefore making it easier for you to keep your tent taut in changing, inclement weather. For a great guide on how to use guylines, click here.
Don't push out the tent body to touch the rainfly, either! You've spent so much time getting a perfectly taut, no-touch rainfly, don't ruin it by pushing outward against the tent body fabric. This is also we mentioned that in smaller, ultralight tents, people sometimes size down (e.g., 1 person will sleep in a 2-person tent). Sometimes, with the exact capacity of people, it's very easy to push outward on the body when you move.
As we mentioned, the larger a tent gets, the more important it is to minimize water transference and to guy it out, because it starts to pick up wind so much more easily! Here's a good visual example for the theory of water transference and the challenge for large tents (e.g., 6+ person and up).
Can you use a tarp as a rainfly? Tarps are inherently water resistant or fully waterproof, depending on the model. When you use it as water protection, make sure it has not been used previously as a ground cover, since that could create lots of small holes that compromise water resistance (for this reason, our rental tarps shouldn't be used as water protection, since we can't guarantee that people have not used them on the ground). If you're using a tarp as rain protection for a tent it's best to string it up over the tent using nearby trees or vertical poles, like an umbrella. It's not as good of an idea to drape the tarp over your tent like a rainfly, because it's not cut to the shape & contours of your tent, so draping could leave lots of unprotected areas. Not to mention without the right structural support, a tarp could trap condensation or allow water transference from the exterior.
Can you use a tarp as a footprint? Always worth repeating! When using a tarp as a footprint, make sure it is folded to be roughly 2in (5cm) smaller on all sides compared to the tent body's floor side, in other words, the tarp should not poke out beyond the tent floor. If it pokes out or is too large, it can collect water, that then pools underneath the tent. Of course if you fold it too small, it won't protect enough of the floor.
Ah yes... condensation--that phenomenon where weater vapor in the air condenses upon contact with the cool exterior of a drink glass. Unfortunately, this means you can get wet without actually coming in contact with external water! When water vapor in the air is high, at best you might get that clammy, high humidity feel. At worst, the water vapor actually condenses into real water drops that effectively get you wet. Annoyingly, that water vapor can be generated by you, via your sweat or your own breath (our ultimate guide to outdoor clothing discusses more how sometimes being wet under rainwear is a condesantion problem, not a failure of waterproof effectiveness). There are 2 general strategies to follow:
A third strategy that is not based on physics but your gear itself: get a double-wall tent. (Defined above in the tent gear guide, basically a tent with a separate rainfly.) With a double-wall tent, water vapor passes through the mesh (inherently breathable) and condenses on the rainfly, and then rolls down to the ground (assuming the rainfly is taut and not touching parts of thet body which can cause water to transfer back in!). Of course, there is a trade-off here as single-wall tents (no separate rainfly) often don't have a mesh layer and are more insulating.
What if you're suddenly caught without gear and it starts raining? Honestly, find you way home as soon as you can. A mildly unpleasant scenario can become dangerous in the backcountry. If you haven't left yet, seriously consider whether or not you want to go (you may end up being in the tent the whole time, anyway! That said, if you're appropriately prepared, camping in the rain can also be an experience that makes every other kind of camping feel much easier, and a way to see a different site of nature!
Thoughts, ideas, questions? Let us know in the comments below! We're Last Minute Gear, the only outdoor gear shop where you can buy, rent, or borrow gear!