I’m generally pretty good about planning camping trips so it doesn’t rain. In the summer in the mountains, you might get a rain shower or two but they usually don’t last very long. It is often raining on one side of the mountain and not on the other. You can literally see the rain clouds coming and passing over. That said, not everyone can plan their camping trips during the dry season, or reschedule a camping trip if it starts downpouring. So here is what to do when it starts raining while camping.
Gear for Camping in the Rain
Even if the weather forecast calls for sunshine every single day, you should still plan for your camping trip as though it will rain. I sometimes make a contingency plan in case it pours for days without stop. For example, when backpacking in Rugova Klisura in Kosovo, I knew that there were cabins for rent by the trail head. I wasn’t about to hike up a steep mountain with my 4 year old in the rain! The rain plan was that we’d wait until dry weather to go up. Luckily, I’ve never had to use my contingency plan.
Planning for rain means having the right gear. Here is what you absolutely need for camping in the rain:
- A waterproof tent (hydrostatic head of at least 2000 is recommended) OR tarps and rope
- A waterproof jacket or poncho
- Waterproof cover for your backpack
- Waterproof bag for sealing food (this can be a trash bag)
- Waterproof flashlight
- Food that can be prepared without cooking
- Footwear that you can wear in the rain
- Extra socks, preferably wool or a synthetic which dries fast
Choosing a Rain-Safe Campsite
When setting up your campsite, keep in mind that it may rain. Look around you. Where will rain come down from the mountains above you? Will the river next to you likely surge?
- Choose a campsite on elevated land
- Make sure there aren’t any overhangs which water could run off of and onto your tent. You could end up at the bottom of a mudslide!
- Camp on well-drained land. Otherwise you are going to have to step through a mud pit to get in/out of your tent!
- Note the high-water mark in canyons or at dry stream beds. If it rains, flash floods could come to here and wipe you away!
Setting Up Your Tent for Rain
Your tent absolutely must be waterproof! Yes, this sounds obvious but you’d be surprised how many people go camping with a cheap $20 tent which provides no protection from the elements. When it rains, the water will flood the tent and turn it into a giant puddle. I’ve seen this happen to other campers (and then my daughter and I invited them to sleep in our tent and we ended up becoming very good friends).
Condensation Will Make the Inside of Your Tent Wet!
My current tent is a double-wall tent (you can see it in the picture above). The inner wall is the tent, and the outer wall is the rain fly. When setting up the outer layer, it is really important that you stake down ALL the sides, including the corners and in the centers. Otherwise, the rain fly will droop from the pressure of the rain and the fly and inner tent wall will touch. This will cause condensation to form and your tent will get wet! Any gear touching the walls of the tent will also get wet from condensation!!!
If Your Tent Isn’t Waterproof…
If for some reason your tent isn’t rainproof and you can’t afford one which is, then you can set up a rain tarp. There are a bunch of different ways to do this. The easiest rain tarp configuration is probably to make a ridgeline over your tent, drape the tarp over it, and then secure all four corners in place. See how it was done in this image. You can also set up a rain tarp outside of your tent so you have a dry place to watch the rain fall.
You will also need to account for the fact that the tent isn’t waterproof underneath. If your rain tarp doesn’t cover up a significant amount of ground around the tent, then the water will fall near the edges of the tent. It will saturate the ground and spread into your tent. You might not be in a puddle, but you will be on top of wet, cold ground! Also, you’ll need to put a tarp under your tent. Make sure the edges of the tarp are curled down or it will just funnel water into your tent.
Example of Bad Setup
Want an example of what NOT to do when camping in the rain? The guy in the picture below didn’t have a waterproof tent. Had he set up the rain tarp correctly, he would have been fine. Instead he:
- Didn’t stake out the corners and sides of the tarp. The tarp touched the sides of the tent, causing them to get wet through condensation.
- Did factor in the bottom of the tent. Since the tarp wasn’t staked out far from the tent, water just dripped to edges of the tent. Within minutes, the bottom of the tent was soaked.
- They also left gear outside of the tent, and I bet those sneakers are going to take days to dry!
Keep Gear Dry!
The moment you suspect that it is going to rain, you need to bring your gear to a safe, dry spot (you should be keeping your campsite tidy anyway). Bring in EVERYTHING, even the stuff that is waterproof. If you can’t bring the gear inside your tent, then you better have a tarp to cover it or make a tarp rain shelter.
I made the mistake of not bringing in the camp cookset once because I figured the aluminum plates were waterproof. After the rain stopped, I had to clean lots of dirt and pine needles off the cookset before using it. I learned my lesson and now keep all gear dry.
Games You Can Play in the Tent
Since it usually doesn’t rain for very long while camping in the mountains, my daughter and I usually just retreat to the tent when it starts raining. We always find ways to have fun while in the tent.
One time, we just watched the silhouettes of giant slugs crawling over the outside of the tent. It was actually really fun.
Another time, I found a piece of wire someone had left at the campground and we shaped it into a bunny.
Other times, we get out her notebook and markers (one of the only toys I let her bring camping) and draw, practice writing/reading, or tear up pieces of paper to play Memory.
Here are some other ideas for games you can play inside the tent:
- Bring a deck of cards and play any number of games
- Shadow puppets using your flashlights
- Tell stories
You Can Still Go Outdoors When It is Raining
Just because it is raining, it doesn’t mean that you can’t play outside. All you need is a rain jacket or poncho, and preferably some waterproof boots (you can walk outside in your camp sandals, but bear in mind that it gets slippery in the rain so boots are better).
We had some nice showers on our last camping trip in the mountains. Isabel didn’t feel like staying in the tent though, so I let go out and pick wild blueberries and strawberries. While she was doing that, I tested myself to see if I could get a fire going in the rain. Yes, I succeeded!
Making a Fire After the Rain
During my last backpacking trip in the mountains with Isabel, I was really proud of my fire-making abilities. There were 3 semi-prepared boys camping at the spot above us. When it started raining, they frantically scrambled to cover the firewood they had gathered with a tarp. When the rain cleared, they tried to light their fire. After 1 hour, they were still trying. I didn’t cover the firewood and got a fire going on the first try. I’m not trying to gloat. But it feels good when you succeed at survival skills.
I’m going to write more on this topic in a later post. For now, you need to know these core facts:
- Scrape away the wet ground so you have a dry base to make your fire on. Or you can lay down dense branches and make your fire on top of them.
- Use the wood from the bottle of your pile. If you stacked it nicely, it should still be semi-dry.
- If the wood is really wet, consider making an upside-down fire.
Cooking during the Rain when Camping
Campfire cooking might be difficult to do in the rain, but you can still use your camping stove in the rain. Just put on your waterproof gear and cook on the camp stove as you normally would. But…
NEVER COOK INSIDE YOUR TENT!
Aside from the obvious fire hazard, there is also a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning if you use gas or charcoal for fuel.
I admit to being lazy at times and sitting with my butt inside the tent and my cook stove right outside of the tent. This is fine because the stove is still outside. Otherwise, we just munch on our trail mix and wait until the rain is over to make meals.
I’ve also got a lot of dehydrated foods which can be prepared by just adding water. For example, I dehydrate hummus (yes, you can dehydrate lots of stuff!). If it rains, I can just add water to the hummus mix and we will munch on crackers and hummus for a protein-packed easy snack that requires no cooking.
Rain Is Beautiful!
Okay, maybe the rain itself isn’t always beautiful. But I love the moments after the rain stops. If you are high up in the mountains, you can literally see the clouds clearing away. It looks like steam floating across the ground. Sometimes it feels like you can touch it. And, if you are in a plain, you might even get a rainbow afterwards 🙂 So enjoy the rain! We wouldn’t have such beauty without it.