Wet-Weather Advice: Pitching a Dry Camp in the Rain

Into everybody’s life a little rain must fall, and while rain helps hydrate the land and prevent drought, it also can put a damper on your camping trip. This doesn’t have to be the case. Camping in the rain can be a pleasure, but to make that happen, you’ll need to be prepared, and you’ll have to know how to pitch a dry camp when rain is falling. Tamia explains how to make it happen.

by Tamia Nelson | May 20, 2018

Camping Article on Tamiasoutside.com

Rain has fallen at least some of the time on most of my multi-day trips by bike, boat, and on foot, but being prepared prevented those trips from being washouts. In truth I rather enjoy the experience. A day or more in a wet camp doesn’t have to be a prison sentence. Instead, it can be a time to relax and live life in the slow lane. The success or failure of a rainy camp comes down to a number of factors, though. And top of the list is to…

Keep Your Stuff Dry Pack your kit in waterproof bags. If your panniers or packs aren’t waterproof—mine aren’t—then line them with very large heavy-duty plastic zipper-locking bags. Tuck vulnerable belongings into smaller heavy-duty plastic bags, too, before putting them into the larger sack.

This is a good start. But it’s just that—a start. Keeping yourself and your belongings dry under way is one thing. Making camp in the rain is another, and managing the transition from bags to bedroom while the heavens weep is the keystone in the arch. It’s best to do things by the numbers. Each and every camper will in time evolve his or her own routine, but the one I know best is my own. Here’s what it entails:

  1. Choose a site with an eye to drainage and natural shelter. (But avoid camping next to the tallest trees in the woods during a thunderstorm.)
  2. If cycling, park the bike where it won’t fall over. If paddling, secure the boat(s) against wind and wave. Beach campers should note the wrack line, and sea kayakers would do well to consult a tide table.
  3. String up a tarp. This gives you a dry place to muster your gear.
  4. If your tent is one of the self-standing breed, pitch it under the tarp, then lay out your groundsheet where you want to spend the night. Now place your tent over it. If, on the other hand, you’re using a tarp tent or a similar “primitive” shelter, …
  5. Pitch it where you want to sleep—a slight slope is better than a sag—then place the groundsheet inside. (NB: Whatever your shelter, if it’s raining hard, it’s best to have the door near to the tarp, so that the tarp forms a sort of extended vestibule or porch. Take this into account when you choose where to pitch the tarp.)
  6. Shift packs from the boats to the sheltered staging area under the tarp.
  7. Remove stuff sacks containing air mattress(es), sleeping bag(s), and camp clothing from the pack(s) and stow them in your tent. If tent and tarp are far apart—avoid this, if possible—don’t dawdle on the journey. (A compact umbrella can be very welcome for this purpose.)
  8. String up a second tarp some distance from the sleeping area to serve as your kitchen and dining room. In bear country, 150 feet is not too far to walk, even in a pouring rain.
  9. Carry food packs and kitchen pack to the cook tarp.
  10. Unpack your stove and fire up. Put a pot of water on the stove for tea or soup.
  11. Make a final inspection of bike(s) or boat(s) and paddles. Are they properly stowed?
  12. Hang your rain gear under the vestibule tarp to drip dry, and change into your camp clothes. (If the rain is really bucketing down, or if you’re camping in bear country, you’ll want to defer this step till you’ve eaten and hoisted your food bags.)
  13. Prepare a meal, eat it, do the dishes, and secure your food.
  14. Wash off the day’s grime—this is best done under the cook tarp—and prepare for bed.
  15. Slide into your sleeping bag, bring your trip journal up to date, and drift off to dreamland while listening to the rain drumming on the tent fly.

That’s the executive summary, so to speak, but a few of the items on the list demand some elaboration, beginning with …

#1. Location, Location, Location.  Even if the rain has stopped when you’re making camp, it could return in the night. Every shallow depression will then become a lake, so pick a tent site that’s on a slight rise or gentle slope. Don’t waste time constructing trenches or other engineering works. These are probably illegal, and in any case, they’re worthless. Avoid campsites close to flashy streams—this includes dry washes in arid areas—and give thought to the combined effects of wind and tide if you’re camping on a beach. Large lakes, though not subject to tides, sometimes experience tsunami-like seiches which can first lower and then raise water levels by as much as several feet in a matter of minutes. Keep this in mind.

#3. Tarp Tips.  Campers who needn’t weigh every ounce will find that it’s a great convenience to equip their home from home with both a porch and a kitchen. This is especially true when the rains continue without let-up, day in and day out. You’ll also want to pitch the porch tarp so that water drains away from your tent. And lastly, mind the drip line. Though the gear stowed near the perimeter of a tarp or fly is protected from falling rain, it will likely be wetted (and dirtied) by splash.

#4. Groundsheet Rules.  A groundsheet is a good idea even if your tent has a sewn-in floor. Some campers place the groundsheet inside the tent, where it can serve as second line of defense if the sewn-in floor springs a leak, but I prefer to put my tent on the groundsheet, so that the groundsheet protects the tent floor from soiling. (Packing up a muddy tent is a nightmare.) I make damn sure the groundsheet doesn’t extend beyond the edge of the tent floor, though. If it does, it’s sure to become a good imitation of a wading pool, and then you’ll find yourself tenting in standing water.

#12. Did You Remember to Pack a Towel?  This is another luxury denied Go-Lighters, but having a brisk rub-down with a cotton towel before changing into your camp clothes can prove quite a treat during an extended spell of chilly, rainy weather.

And while we’re on the subject, do I have to remind you of the importance of bombproof (or at least truly waterproof) rain gear? I didn’t think so. But you might also find that a compact umbrella makes a good addition to your foul-weather wardrobe. It will protect both you and your gear as you dash away from shelter to meet nature’s call.

OK. You’ve weathered a rainy night, and since you had it on good authority that tomorrow would be another day, you were hoping that this new day would dawn sunny and clear. But you wakened to the sound of rain hammering on your fly. What next? What’s the best way of …

Breaking Camp in the Rain? The answer can be found in the routine for making camp that you’ve already established. Just play the tape back. Pack up sleeping bag, air mattress, and spare clothing in your tent. Transfer these bagged items to the shelter of the porch tarp. Then strike the tent (move it under the tarp first, if practicable), shaking the water off the fly before packing up. The groundsheet, which can be relied upon to be both wet and muddy, should go into a separate sack. Once you’ve marshaled all this gear under the porch tarp, take the opportunity to don your “workday wardrobe,” packing your (still dry and clean) camp clothes away. Any wet items go into a separate bag, along with washcloths and towels, to be dried whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Now continue “playing back the tape.” Retrieve your food bags. Cook and eat breakfast, wash any dishes that need washing, and pack up your stove and utensils. Once that’s done, shift the kitchen pack and food bags to the porch tarp and strike the cook tarp. Load your panniers or boat(s). Strike the last tarp and stow it. And that’s that. You’re ready to continue on your way.

Camping in the Rain! - (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop - Tamiasoutside.com

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For half a century, Tamia Nelson has been ranging far and wide by bike, boat, and on foot. A geologist by training, an artist since she could hold a pencil, a photographer since her uncle gave her a twin-lens reflex camera when she was 10, she's made her living as a writer and novelist for two decades. Avocationally her interests span natural history, social history, cooking, art, and self-powered outdoor pursuits, and she has broad experience in mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking, cycling, snowshoeing and skiing.