Let’s talk about tents and rain. As I can often work up a sizable drizzle by simply looking at a picture of a tent, I have practical experience.
Those of you who are safely ensconced within your aluminum condominium-on-wheels simply roll over and go back to sleep upon hearing the gentle patter of rain on the impervious roof. The more mischievous also have a quiet chuckle before returning to dreamland as they think about people like Yours Truly, who awoke to the patter of rain and began wondering how deep the water will have to get before the order to abandon ship is given.
More and more people are plunking down their life savings to purchase travel trailers or recreational vehicles and I think that’s great. I also owned a trailer for two years. However, as a curmudgeonly traditionalist, I finally realized that an outdoor trip isn’t successful unless having slept with only the sheerest of fabric between Mother Nature and myself.
That, and I’m cheap.
Even more bizarre, I still occasionally sleep in my old canvas umbrella tent. If you want to draw stares, show up in a modern Forest Service campground and pitch a canvas tent. I can assure you that many other campers seem to think you are some kind of deranged cultist. They’re only half-right since I don’t belong to a cult.
Anyway, I have spent nights under the stars all over the United States while weathering conditions ranging from a breathless malarial swamp in August to one night in the Cumberland Gap when the mercury dipped to 12 degrees. Along the way, I have also experienced enough rainfall to fill Lake Michigan; I believe the year was 1996.
One memorable Florida camping trip ended with six inches of rising water that brought fire ants and lizards flocking into our tent seeking shelter from the monsoon.
To stay dry outdoors, the most important piece of puzzle is to own a quality tent with a full rain fly. I cannot stress this enough because I have operated in both ends of the spectrum and there is no comparison. Unless you tent is one of the new single-wall high-tech models, you need a rain fly that covers the entire tent.
Unfortunately, most larger family models have either an inadequate or a non-existent fly. The rain fly found on most discount store tents is only there to lull you into a false sense of security. The moment the rain begins slopping down in biblical proportion, your tent will begin to resemble a nylon swimming pool.
Fortunately, there is a cheap, low-technology answer: the ubiquitous plastic tarp. Always take a tarp along that is a few sizes larger than your tent and use it to build a nice, big rain fly. My current rig involves salvaged aluminum tent poles to raise the fly near doors and windows. The poles, along with a healthy helping of rope and stakes, make the tarp look like original equipment. Don’t skimp on the tie downs unless you enjoy middle-of-the-night drama.
The groundsheet under your tent should be a heavyweight piece of plastic sheeting a few inches smaller than the floor. Tuck any exposed edges well under the tent to prevent funneling water underneath and inside.
Regardless, each person should have full-sized sleeping pad. No matter what precautions you take, the floor will eventually become damp if it rains long enough. Self-inflating or closed cell pads will keep bedding off the floor enough to stay dry and comfortable.
There is also another possibility that works but isn’t the most convenient: placing the groundsheet INSIDE the tent. This saved our bacon inside a small backpacking tent one night high in the Smoky mountains when 6 inches of rain fell in 8 hours. It is somewhat disconcerting to spend the night sliding around on plastic, but not nearly so annoying as a wet sleeping bag.
Keep all clothing, bedding and people away from the lower tent walls. The lower seam area will undoubtedly become wet regardless. A sleeping bag or clothing that is pushed up against the wall will quickly become saturated by water being wicked through the tent fabric.
When seeking a tent site, look for signs of previous high water or slight depressions that turn into rivers once the rain begins. Also look at the drainage potential of the ground itself. Both of these points were my undoing during the infamous Florida flood. After arrival we asked to move off of a nice gravel pad and onto a low-lying sandy area because I was concerned about damage to the tent floor. Later, as we slopped about in the calf-deep water while slapping fire ants, I noticed our initial campsite was completely dry.
Above all, plan on rain even if the weather is beautiful and make ready for a possible inbound hurricane. If operating in this mindset, you are far less likely to skimp on foul weather preparations. Someday, these precautions will prevent you from dancing around in the dark during a stinging downpour while trying to tie down a dangerously flapping tarp.
If you do find yourself engaged in such wild antics, stop by and say hello.
I’ll be asleep in the pond next door.