Camping in the Rain: Top Tips, Hacks, and Gear!
Going backpacking only when there is a wonderful weather can mean you will never go. It’s much better to assume there will be rainy days in your future and prepare accordingly. Especially, that hiking and camping when it rains can be really rewarding and magical.
When we talk about camping in the rain, one of the most important safety concern is hypothermia and the dangers of flash floods. Keeping some things dry is absolutely crucial not just for our comfort but survival. We have to make sure that after a rainy and cold day hiking we can change into dry clothes and go to sleep in a dry sleeping bag, in a dry tent.
So what can we do to make it happen?
1. Prepare well before you hit the trails
You have to learn your tent. Trying to figure out how to pitch your new tent while it’s raining is no fan and a recipe for disaster. Make sure you pitch it at least once in your backyard or a local park to see what goes where and how you can pitch it fast. If you use double walled tents (which are majority of them), see if it’s possible to attach the inner tent to the outer to speed up the set up time and protect the inner from rain drops.
When you pack your tent it has to be easily accessible. You don’t want to be forced to take all your backpack’s contents out before you can reach your tent!
If your tent is older you might want to re-waterproof it. There is a number of technical sprays that you can use to reinstall the waterproof layer on your tent’s flysheet. Pay attention to the seams!
If the rain is in the forecast for both night and day it’s worth to familiarize yourself with a few good tips for hiking in the rain, too.
2. Pack the right equipment
Make sure you have all you need to not only survive but enjoy your rainy trips. In addition to a good, waterproof tent, take care of waterproofing your backpack and other gear. Invest in a number of dry bags to protect all your electronics, clothes, and gear. Pay extra attention to any down products - like your sleeping bag. Always have at least one set of dry clothes to change into.
If you have a choice - take a bigger tent for rainy camping adventure. Being stuck in a tiny, coffin-like tent for long hours (or a whole day) might be somewhat discouraging…
Additional must-haves for warmth and comfort
During rain it’s often dark and gloomy. Don’t forget your headlamp and some entertainment - maybe a kindle or a deck of cards.
When you set up your camp, the ground will be wet and cold. You need a high-quality sleeping mat with high RV (insulation factor) and a sleeping bag that’s much warmer than the actual temperature. You may even take a second mat (one air mat and the second a silver-lined foam pad) to insulate yourself better from the ground.
Remember, moisture makes everything feel colder and if you add to it being exhausted after a long hike, you may shiver in your bag. Grab a sleeping bag which comfort temperature is set at least 10 degrees below what is expected, I prefer even more to be on the safe side. It’s good to also have an extra warm (but light) puffy (down/synthetic) to wear to sleep if it gets colder. Good, warm sleep is the most important thing for a proper night rest.
Tarp and a seat
If you know heavy rains are in the forecast, you may want to take a tarp to install over your tent - or even between two tents to make a nice and dry “living room”. It would help with preparing a meal and simply spending more time outside - even in the rain. If you hike with a whole group, it’s easier to divide the extra gear among you. You can even take another tarp to serve as a waterproof carpet. Make sure you set up the tarp at an angle and stretch it well, so water doesn’t gather on it.
If you plan on staying longer in one spot, the space right in front of your tent will become a muddy hell pretty soon. It’s good to put something there - a piece of tarp or something of that kind.
You want also to have something to sit on - a light and packable foam seat is a great addition for any hike.
Dry and extra warm clothes
In addition to the right gear, you want extra clothes. When it’s rainy outside, it feels colder, than it really is. Make sure you have a nice insulating layer with you - a light synthetic jacket and a rainproof shell. Put a warm hat on and cover your neck to stay warm and comfy!
I hope it goes without saying that you should never wear cotton! Your base layer should be fast-drying, moisture-wicking fabric, synthetic or merino.
If you camp in cool weather, it might be a good idea to pack some foot and hand warmers, too.
2. Choose the right campsite
If you plan on camping on an established campsite, your work is easier. They are generally flat and clear areas and there is not much danger of flash floods running through it. If, on the other hand, you are picking a wild spot, there is a bit more work for you to do.
Avoid getting flooded
Find a spot that is more or less flat but not in a hollow of a ground where water could gather. It’s actually better to pitch your tent on a slight slope, so water can flow away. If you hike in the mountains, make sure you are not at the lowest point between mountains where you are in danger of being on the route of flash floods and rain water flowing from the higher levels.
Find some protection
It’s funny that I found advice both for and against pitching your tent under trees. On one hand - trees give you some protection from all that rain, on the other - long time after the rain has stopped, droplets still fall on your tent from branches and leaves. I would suggest using the trees more as a wall protection from heavy winds accompanying rains but not to set up the tent right under. A nice clearing would be perfect. Just be careful if strong wind accompanies the rain. Look around for dead trees and branches that can fall on your tent with stronger gusts.
You may also try to find a spot that’s a bit sheltered thanks to a bigger rock or a hut.
Clear the ground
Remove loose stones, rocks, and sticks. Check if there are no sharp objects that could puncture your tent’s floor. If you have a groundsheet place it on the spot you want. Check also what’s the wind direction – to avoid condensation as much as possible, it’s good to have proper air ventilation in your tent. You want the breeze to go through your tent but if it’s strong, set your back to it.
3. How to pitch your tent when it’s raining
Short answer: Fast. The time is crucial. That’s why you need to practice before – you need to erect your tent as fast as possible to avoid soaking your inner tent. If you have friends with you, they could help by holding the fly sheet over you while you set the inner tent.
If you are alone, you just have to do it really fast. Attaching the inner to the fly sheet makes a better chance of keeping it dry. Check that the fly sheet covers the inner as much as possible.
If the wind is really strong, check additional tips for pitching your tent in high winds here.
Once it is set up, check everything again. Make sure your groundsheet does not stick out from under your tent – tuck it all in and under. Otherwise, rain water will gather on it and create a pool under your tent. You may even choose to place it inside your tent, to avoid water gathering on it.
Stretch your fly sheet well and use extra guy lines when needed. See that there is no place where the inner tent touches the fly sheet.
If the soil got soft and your stakes are loose, find rocks to place on them to stabilize them. Tie the guy lines around bigger rocks to hold it down.
I still remember when I was a kid scout, we were always digging trenches around our tents. But there really is no need and doing it causes erosion and is not in line with Leave No Trace rules. If you set up your tent well, there is no need for digging a molt around you.
4. Unpack and prepare for the night
Place your stuff in the vestibule. Don’t put any wet things inside. Take dry things from the backpack but leave it outside, together with any other wet clothes or gear.
Prepare for the night
Grab all you need before you start to get ready to disappear indoors for the night. Take all the water you need and prepare your meal.
Pay extra attention when moving around your camp - the ground is probably really slippery and you don’t want to fall into a big muddy puddle on your way to a water source (or to pee).
Cooking in the rain
Even if the weather is nasty, don’t cook inside! It’s dangerous – you can easily get carbon monoxide poisoning and set up your tent on fire. If you have an extra tarp set it over the entrance so you have a bit more rain-free space. If vestibule is your only rain protection – cook under it but as far from the opening to your tent as possible.
In addition to the regular food, it’s good to grab some mood-boosters, like hot cocoa or other dessert of choice.
I don’t share any advice here on how to make a fire in the rain, as I’m against making fires. I find that using a compact gas stove is perfectly enough for any hiker’s or camper’s needs - except for the most dare occasions of life endangerment. If you prepare well, with warm clothes to change to - you don’t need fire for warmth.
If the weather is really nasty (especially with heavy winds) it might be that cooking is hard to do. Make sure you have some food that doesn’t require cooking - bars, nuts, cookies, crackers, etc.
Moving around the tent
Set your gear and yourself such that you do not push the walls. When the fly sheet gets wet, it stretches and needs tightening up. Check that your sleeping bag or other gear do not push on the walls.
Drying your wet clothes
If you have a few things that are just slightly damp but not completely wet, you may want to stuff them into your sleeping bag – they should be dry by the morning. Don’t just dump your wet clothes in the tent - try to hang them out under a tarp on a paracord or the tent’s awning.
If there is a fire going in your camp - don’t place your boots close to it or you have a recipe for disaster.
5. How to pack in the morning when it’s raining
If it rains throughout the night you probably have to deal with moisture both on the outside and inside of the tent (from condensation). Move carefully so you don’t cause the droplets to fall on your dry gear.
Pack all your sensitive gear and clothes in dry sacks – pay special attention to down products. Always make sure you have one set of dry clothes with you. If your clothes from previous day did not dry overnight, put on the wet clothes and pack the one dry set for the night. It’s nasty cold in the beginning but the moment you start moving, you will warm up.
If you have some more wet or damp clothes – don’t mix them with dry ones. Just stuff all the wet into a dry bag and dry them when you find a chance.
Now, what to do if you need to pack your tent and it’s still raining? Not much, really. You can’t dry it. Some people try to at least shake it a bit but I don’t think it does much. You simply pack it all into its waterproof bag (to protect your other stuff) and hope that the weather clears a bit later on.
When, the next evening, you pitch it again, you need to stretch it nicely, open what you can to create breeze and dry with a towel or sponge you should carry for that thing. The floor should be dry within minutes, the walls would take much longer. So just unpack and set up carefully, making sure you don’t touch the walls.
6. Dry your stuff whenever possible
If only there is a break in the rain and sun comes out (or nice wind), stop and dry your tent or clothes as much as possible. After a few days of hiking and camping in a rain, if the weather gets better – consider taking a day off to dry your gear before you move on.
When you get home, always clean and dry your gear properly. You don’t want to go on another adventure just to discover your tent is all moldy…
Remember to dry your boots slowly - don’t place them near heat source (like a fire or a heater). You may want to stuff them with newspapers to speed up the process.
7. Know when to quit
It’s one thing to encourage you to brave the weather and enjoy a camping trip, it’s another to be stubborn and stay Outdoors when a serious storm is coming. One of the most important skill for any hiker or camper is to know when to quit and get out of the way of elements. If you know the trail you want to hike is exposed and known for volatile thunderstorms - cancel your plans if a storm is coming.
If there is a narrow gorge or canyon on your way, they can become extra dangerous as flash floods might sweep you off the ground.
When you plan your trip, know the escape routes. Check what are safe ways to cut your trip shorter and evacuate once the weather turns dangerous. Find if there are mountain shelters or huts on your way to use instead of wild camping.