March 18, 2017

Camping in the Rain: Tips for a Fun Experience in Wet Weather

Don't let rain spoil your camping trip. Prepare yourself with this guide filled with tips for packing, cooking, and setting up camp in rainy weather.

Believe it or not, camping in the rain can actually be fun. And if it’s not fun, at least it’ll be memorable! Above all, don’t fear the rain—prepare for it. Rain is a common occurrence in the world, so surely you’ll encounter it on a camping trip at some point. The better equipped you are to handle wet conditions, the better your trip will be.

Check the forecast before your trip, but remember that the weather can change at any moment. Look at weather patterns for the area you’re camping in—does it usually rain for an hour every afternoon in the spring? Learn how to tell if a storm is approaching; some types of storms bring a calm before they begin, and others usher in strong winds that rapidly change direction.

Constantly evaluate your surroundings so you can make smart decisions. If you see a storm rolling your way, do you really want to be hiking on a rocky mountainside that can become slippery? Rain can definitely bring danger, but if you’re aware and prepared, you can still be a happy camper.

rainstorm in sky over campsite

What to pack in case of rain

It’s always smart to pack as if it’s going to rain, even if a storm isn’t in the forecast for your trip. Below is a list of gear that’ll keep your camping trip running smoothly if the weather takes a turn for the worse.

  • Store your gear and clothes inside economical garbage bags or resealable plastic bags, and use dry bags for electronics and other sensitive items.
  • For an added layer of protection in a downpour, consider investing in a waterproof rain cover for your backpack. Some newer backpacks come with one.
  • If you’re camping among trees and don’t mind packing extra weight (when you’re car camping, for instance), bring a tarp and rope/cord. That way, you can stay dry without having to huddle in your tent.
  • When choosing clothing, avoid cotton, which can quicken the onset of hypothermia once it’s wet. Select base layers and insulating layers that will stay warm when wet, such as wool, fleece, silk, and synthetic materials. And, don’t forget your rain gear!   
    • As our guide on packable rain jackets explains, rain jackets come in many varieties. Regardless of what type you choose, always carry a waterproof outer layer. Lightweight and durable, The North Face Dryzzle Jacket and the Outdoor Research Aspire Jacket are good choices to keep you dry. They both feature a waterproof, windproof, and breathable GORE-TEX® membrane for excellent performance in stormy weather.
    • It took me a few years into my backpacking life to spring for rain pants, opting for quick-drying pants instead, but now I can’t imagine a rainy adventure without them. Cabela’s GORE-TEX® EXV™ Pant can easily slip over your other layers in a pinch.
    • Bring extra socks to wear only in your tent. Store them inside of a plastic bag, inside your sleeping bag, so there’s no chance of them getting wet. Dry socks are a huge comfort at the end of a long, rainy day.
  • If you plan to make a campfire, pack a fire starter that will work when wet in case your natural surroundings are too damp to forage for fire fodder. REI and other outdoor retailers sell multiple types of fire starters, but you can save a little bit of money and create your own—cotton balls covered in petroleum jelly are an easy option.
  • Along with a lighter, carry stormproof matches that will keep a flame when rain or wind would snuff out an ordinary match.

For more information on what gear to bring camping, check out our Beginner Backpacking Tips or The Handy Dandy Backpacking Checklist.

wet rainfly on tent

Pitching a tent in the rain: 10 tips

Whether you’re a camping novice or an expert, setting up camp in the rain can be a pain in the you-know-where. No matter how fast or careful you are, some errant drops are bound to make their way into your tent during setup. But that’s OK, a little water won’t hurt and most tents are made to dry quickly. The following tips will help you keep your tent and gear as dry as possible.

  1.    Choose your campsite wisely. Camp high enough above any streams or bodies of water that you won’t wake up in a puddle if flooding occurs. Make sure your campsite is well-drained; avoid any areas where water could pool. If you’re camping in a forested area, be careful not to set up directly under heavy branches that could break off and fall on your tent if the weather gets really nasty.
  2.   If it’s not raining (or not raining hard), don’t wait to pitch your tent. You never know when the weather might worsen. However, if you’re caught in a deluge, try waiting a little while before you start setting up to see if the rain might pause or ease up. Downpours usually don’t last long. Usually.
  3.   Keep your tent easily accessible inside your backpack—or attached to the outside—so other gear won’t get wet when you’re removing it.
  4.   Speed is your friend when pitching a tent in the rain. This is when knowing your tent inside and out comes in handy. If you borrow a tent, make sure you practice setting it up a few times at home with no confusion. You do not want to be fumbling around, wondering what goes where, when the roof of the world is leaking.
  5.    When camping with a group, use teamwork to be as efficient as possible. Formulate a plan. Designate who is going to do what. Get the poles ready, lay the stakes out, and unroll the inside of your tent last so it stays as dry as possible. If you’re with a few people, two of you can hold the rainfly over the inside of the tent while someone else quickly sets up the inside.
  6.   Better yet, if you brought a tarp, hang that up first and then pitch the tent underneath it so the inside of the tent stays completely dry. Remember to hang the tarp at an incline so water doesn’t pool on top. Afterward, you can move the tent to a different location and use the area under the tarp as a cooking or hangout spot. (If you’re cooking under a tarp, make sure it’s well ventilated and the flames are very small.)
  7.   Pull the rainfly taut to prevent small pools from forming on the outside of your tent and weighing it down. You do not want a soaked rainfly to come in contact with the inside of your tent because it will likely leak.
  8.   Use a lightweight, compact towel such as the REI MultiTowel Lite to soak up any rain that makes its way inside your tent during setup.
  9.   Even if the inside of your tent is dry when you fall asleep, it’s likely to be at least a little damp when you wake up, especially in cold weather. That’s because moisture from your warm breath will condense on the cold surface of your tent. To minimize condensation, keep your tent well ventilated. Many tents have covered vents high on the rainfly that you can adjust to improve airflow. As a precaution, store sensitive items (anything electronic or made of paper) in sealed plastic bags while you sleep.
  10. Once your tent is assembled, keep your backpack outside the tent but under a rain fly flap, so it’s still sheltered. Make sure to remove wet clothing and footwear before heading into the tent. (Otherwise, what would all your hard work to keep the tent dry be good for?) I recommend quickly stripping off your rain jacket and pulling down your rain pants to your ankles, ducking under the rain fly, opening the inside of your tent, and sitting partially inside your tent while removing your boots and pants. It’ll require some awkward wiggling, but everything that needs to be dry will stay that way. Store your rain gear on top of your backpack or in a plastic bag.

Packing up your tent after a night of rain can be just as challenging as setting it up. If you’re planning on camping for another night in a different location, store the rain fly and the inside of your tent in separate stuff sacks or garbage bags. To prevent mold or mildew from forming, completely dry your tent as soon as possible—whether that means laying it out during a period of sunshine on your trip, or right when you get back home.

Cooking in the rain

A warm meal or hot cup of tea can improve morale on a wet day, so don’t ditch your cooking setup just because it’s raining. You may, however, need to get creative.

When the rain isn’t that bad, staying outside is a worthwhile experience, especially when you can make a toasty fire. Brush up on your fire-building skills before your trip, and make sure to bring tinder that will light up when damp (see gear list). Your surroundings can also offer excellent fire starters, if you know what to look for. For example, birch bark easily catches fire in the rain.

For rainy-day campfire food, anything you can wrap in aluminum foil and throw on the fire will work wonderfully. The Flaming Vegan has some great veggie-friendly campfire ideas. Carnivores might enjoy foil-wrapped sausages and vegetables. One of my favorite campfire snacks in recent memory was a wheel of Brie. We wrapped it in foil and let it melt for a few minutes, and then dove into it with crackers. Whatever you’re cooking, make sure to tightly seal the foil. If steam escapes, the food will dry out easily.

In the backcountry, campfires are usually out of the question, if not downright illegal. I usually bring freeze-dried dinners when I head into the backcountry because all I need to do is boil water in order to have a hot meal at the end of the day.When the rain is coming down in sheets, sometimes I just want to hide inside my tent, let alone boil that water. I often end up lighting my backpacking stove (an MSR PocketRocket) a couple feet from my tent and monitoring it from underneath the rain fly. The pot typically shelters the flame enough to keep it going.

No matter what, never cook inside your tent or any enclosed spaces, even with a small backpacking stove. Not only is there a danger of melting your tent or completely burning it down, but there’s also a real possibility of poisoning yourself with carbon monoxide from whatever fuel you’re using.

Though a warm meal is worth the extra effort, it’s smart to bring a variety of food that you don’t have to cook in case the weather is really foul. Protein bars, trail mix, and beef jerky are simple options that will keep you fueled. Get fancier and prepare sandwiches or wraps before heading outdoors. Make them with tasty combinations, such as peanut butter and bananas or cream cheese with salmon lox and greens. Just make sure to eat any foods with perishable ingredients sooner than later to avoid food poisoning.

If you’re backcountry camping, especially in bear country, always play it safe and remember the triangle: leave 100 yards between your tent, cook site, and food storage site so animals don’t trace your food back to you. When it’s raining, sticking to this safety guideline is much less appealing, but it’s important to follow regardless of the weather. Campgrounds often have animal-proof food storage containers for hike-in sites, but it’s good to check before you arrive.

Camping activities in rainy weather

Though it might seem like a bummer at first, camping in the rain can bring you closer to the people on your trip. It’s the perfect opportunity to bond and share stories without the distractions of daily life, especially if you’re all huddled in a tent together.

If the conversation is dwindling, break out a deck of cards or a game. For an adults-only car camping trip, Cards Against Humanity will surely make things hilariously awkward in no time, and you can even download and print the game for free.

For campers of all ages, try a simple storytelling game. Take turns writing sentences of a story, and see how the tale evolves (or devolves!). The more outlandish it is, the better. You can do this aloud, but it’s better if you write it down so you can read it later and start the laughter all over again.

Of course, make sure to store any activities in waterproof bags. A soggy card game would just be sad!

If everyone is wet and cold and grumpy at the end of the day, remind each other why you went camping to begin with. Even when it’s raining, camping is an adventure worth having. Sometimes it’ll be uncomfortable, sure, but camping isn’t always meant to be relaxing. When conditions aren’t ideal, I like to remember a climber I interviewed in Talkeetna, Alaska, who’d summited Denali several times. I asked him what motivates him to keep going in harsh conditions, and he said: “I look up at the mountains and I thank God I’m walking around the mountains instead of sitting at home watching Oprah.”

Regardless of what inspires you to head out on a camping trip, being prepared for all sorts of conditions will help you make the most of your time outdoors.

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