How To Camp in the Rain
Camping isn’t only for the beautiful days of summer. Sometimes the only days you have are the rainy days. Don’t cancel those plans, just dress for the weather and know how to stay dry, and get dry when it does get nasty.
Being willing to camp in the rain gets you outside more, gives you free rein over often busy campsites, and reintroduces once familiar areas with new sounds, smells, and feelings.
Have the Right Gear
The first step in preparing for wet weather is having the right gear. That, of course, means the clothes you wear but also the gear you bring with you. The right gear will keep you dry, keep your spare clothes dry, and provide extra protection.
Get Wet Clothing Dry
To figure out the best way to dry out your clothes, even in the nastiest weather, we spoke with a true expert. Jeff Wohl has been a guide with NOLS since 1999 and is currently a Senior Field Instructor.
The classic clothesline: “If you get a clothesline in the sun that is going to be your best bet, the sun is just amazingly powerful like that, but wring your clothes out first.”
Keep those wet clothes on: “If the rain stops and you’re not super cold wearing your wet clothes will help dry them out faster. Also, if I’m doing work where I know I’m getting wet again I’ll stay in my wet clothes.
What I want to avoid is having wet clothes changing into dry clothes, it starts to rain again or I walk through wet vegetation and now everything is wet. The more you can keep your clothes from getting wet, the easier your job is.”
Dry on the go: “Hanging clothes off your backpack works, but the risk is always that you lose stuff. Is the stuff more useful to you wet or lost? But it can be done. The nice thing about that is every break you take, find a sunny bush and spread that clothing out, and dry as you go along.”
Put wet clothes against the skin: “Wearing wet clothes and generating body heat is very effective at drying. It’s something that people don’t realize, and it’s not very comfortable, but it works well. Wet socks I’ll tuck into the waist-belt of my pants so they’re against my thighs”
Dry while you sleep: “Drying socks in your sleeping bag is your best bet in environments you can’t hang things up outside, putting those socks near your body in your sleeping bag, it’s pretty easy to dry two pairs”
Use water, to get rid of water: “I’ll heat water in my Nalgene or a metal water bottle and put it inside my wet jacket.
That creates more heat, and because of the temperature gradient that heat forces the moisture to the outside of the jacket. Maybe I’ll focus on just the sleeve and put the water bottle right on it. That will really help dry it out.”
Wet boots: “Boots are tricky. All leather boots area hard to get dry, synthetic boots dry out much faster than a leather boot. Dry them in the sun then hike in them.
Around camp, put a plastic bag over your dry socks when you walk around to help the boots dry and keep your feet dry.
Do not dry your boots by the fire if your feet aren’t in them. I’ve seen so many people ruin their boots by trying to dry them by fire”
Picking the Right Tent Site
One of the best ways to stay dry during a rainy campout is having the right shelter. But a tent is only as good as the spot you pick. While older techniques to stay dry included digging a moat around your tent, this practice has fallen out of favor with new Leave No Trace policies in place. Instead, focus on finding a space that will already work for your needs.
- If you’re on the move, like backpacking or bike packing, look on your map ahead of time for areas that will work well. Flat, elevated spots are always good.
- Look at the terrain around you for signs of where water might collect or run downhill. Things like clusters of twigs and leaves at the bottom of a hill, or the seam where two slopes intersect are telltale warning signs.
- Look for an elevated area in your campsite. The flattest spot may be where all the rainwater pools. You’re much better off sleeping on a slight incline than a puddle.
- Make sure you are not close to the edge of a lake, or on a shallow spot near a river. Water can rise in rain, even over river banks, you don’t want to be near it. In any weather, make sure your campsite is 200 feet away from rivers lakes and streams.
- Avoid being directly under a tree. Even after the rain stops, the tree will keep dripping water on you.
- Look out for dead trees and dead branches on live trees. A strong wind or heavy rain could break them loose and bring them crashing down. They didn’t earn the nickname “Widow Makers” for nothing.
- If a storm is windy, look for a windbreak, like a boulder, wall of shrubs or trees that you can put between yourself and the wind.
- Don’t have your door pointing uphill. You don’t want rain, water, or mud running into your tent. And if you happen to track it in, you don’t want it running down the inside of your tent.
- Look for a place that has already been used. Limit the impact camping has on your area. And well-worn areas may just give you a bit of guidance as to where there are dry spots.
When Rain Makes Things Dangerous
A little water never hurt anybody a lot of it can kill.
Water is a powerful force. Powerful enough to create things like the Grand Canyon, so have some respect for what it can do to you in the outdoors. Rain can make previously safe areas dangerous, and even deadly, to pass. Know what the warning signs are and how to survive.
According to the National Weather Service, flash floods usually happen shortly after a heavy rainstorm. Areas that are not able to soak up the water, like mountainous streams and river, low-lying areas, and even urban areas, are most susceptible.
Flash floods have an enormous amount of power, only 6 inches of rushing water can knock over a full-grown human, and if you are knocked over, there are all kinds of detritus to become entangled in beneath the surface
Warning Signs: If a storm stays in an area for a long time, especially if it’s an arid area or one with steep canyons, be wary of flash floods.
Stay Safe: A flash flood can have the sound of a truck or train as it comes down a river bed toward you. If you suspect, or are concerned about a flash flood, get to an elevated area.
Be especially wary of hiking near river beds, in narrow canyons, and low areas. If a flood does come, stay out of the water. Not only could you fall or get entangled in debris, but flash floods often contain agricultural runoff that could make you sick.
When a storm rolls in lighting can be a real danger. According to the National Weather Service lighting strikes land in the US about 25,000,000 a year and kills on average 47 people a year, not to mention all the people it severely injures.
Warning Signs: Look for large storms on the forecast before you leave for a trip. If you can hear thunder, you are within a reasonable range of a lightning strike.
Stay Safe: Know the usual weather in your area. In mountainous regions, for example, storm formation often occurs in the early afternoon. If a storm comes, avoid wide open fields and tall or isolated trees. Look for a low forested area for protection.
If you’re on a mountain or ridge, descend. If you have the choice, go down the side with fewer clouds. If you’re in a group, spread out from others, and avoid metal objects like fences or flag poles. Don’t forget to drop your hiking poles.
Even after a run-of-the-mill rainstorm, danger can still lurk on the trail.
Warning Signs: Look out for bare rocks that may be slick. Be careful stepping on moss-covered rocks, or damp logs as they can be especially slick.
Stay Safe: Don’t be afraid of using hiking poles, or even your hands on the ground, to keep you steady on slippery areas. Pick each step carefully, especially on downhills where gravity accelerates any misstep.
Don’t cross a stream when the water is turbid or your normal stepping stones are covered. It only takes 6 inches of water to knock an adult over.
If you are crossing water, at any time, make sure to unbuckle any hip belts or sternum straps so if you do fall you can ditch your pack
An already steep slope, laden with the weight of rain, can be in danger of a landslide, and that is not something you want to be anywhere near. Landslides destroy homes in developed areas and can pose a real threat if you are in an in danger area.
Warning Signs: According to FEMA, you can see many warning signs. Look for changes in how water flows down a slope. Also, look for small scale slides, and trees leaning as they haven’t before. Also look for mounds of earth at the bottom of slopes, which might indicate a slide has already slowly begun.
FEMA also calls for using your ears. Listen for a low rumble, or unusual sounds like boulder knocking together and trees cracking. According to Ready.gov areas where forest fires have occurred are particularly susceptible as they lack much of the vegetation that holds the earth to the slope
Stay Safe: Avoid an area that you suspect could be susceptible to a slide, and leave if you feel you are in one. If a slide does occur, avoid the area, as other slides may occur. Look for injured or trapped persons without entering the slide.
How To Hack the Rain
For a few final tips, NOLS Senior Field Instructor Jeff Wohl has some hacks to make your time in a storm more fun.
Suffer a bit now to relax later: “In wet weather, I’ll take off my warm layers and invest them in my future. Maybe I’m a little cold while hiking but my body heat is keeping me warm and safe but when I stop moving I want to make sure I have good insulation and that it’s dry. Once I’m moving and my tent is set up, I’ll get in and put on my warmer layer and warm up.”
Protect your clothing: “Put the heads up on rain jackets, and zip the front. They’re silly little things but they make a big difference.”
Consider switching to trail runners: “I gave up hiking boots ten years ago and never looked back, boots are hard to dry. Trail runners get wet, but they dry quickly.”
Bring an umbrella: “If you’re hiking on trails and it starts raining, they’re so nice. Almost any rain gear you get a little bit damp. An umbrella creates a dry bubble if you have that moveable shelter and you’re creating that body heat you can dry a lot of layers by unzipping that rain jacket. If I do have a fire in the wet weather, I can stand with my umbrella and the heat dries my layers. It’s also great for sun protection. It’s just not great for bushwhacking or windy conditions.”
Trash bag skirt: “Stretch out the top and climb in, slit the sides. If you don’t want to bring rain pants, the trash bag skirt keeps your legs a lot drier. And depending on how tough your bag is, you can reuse them.”
Protect your sleeping bag at all costs: “If you have nothing else dry figure out how to keep your sleeping bag dry, that’s your safest layer. You can have a lot of wet clothes but if you have a dry sleeping bag you’re going to be safe. Pack it in a dry bag.
Another great strategy is lining the whole pack with a contractor’s trash bag that you roll-up. Then you know that the whole interior of your pack is dry.