For more times than I care to remember the rain has come down on camping holidays. When you go for three weeks you are bound to have a few days of rain somewhere in that time.
Hiking in soft rain can be fun as the air is fresh, most people are hiding in their cabins or tents, so you have the trail more or less to yourself, and when the sun does come out you are rewarded with beautiful views and the sight of many woodland creatures coming out to forage for food.
A thunderstorm also isn’t too bad because the next day you can dry out, but when the rain sets in for three days you get tired of playing games, drinking and eating. If it is in a mountainous area, taking hikes in the rain and mist would be too dangerous and so you are confined to your tent to wait it out.
Whether the trip becomes one of those disastrous ones you prefer not to recall, or one that is remembered with fondness for the camaraderie, the hilarious games, and the delicious meals, depends on the planning put into the trip that takes the possibility of rain into account, and this starts right from when you go out to buy a tent!
Table of Contents
Choosing the right tent
- Choose a tent with the ground sheet fabric coming about 6 inches up the sides to help keep water out.
- Make sure the fabric is sturdy and waterproof.
- Look for a fly sheet that extends a decent distance over the tent itself and the door and window openings so that rain can’t blow in easily.
- Use sealant on all seams as this is where leaks can occur.
Choosing the campsite
Choose an elevated site that seems to have good drainage. As a rookie camper I made the mistake of moving a tent my husband had chosen to pitch on a slope to a nice flat area once he had gone off fishing – no ways was I going to cope with two toddlers on a sloping site where I felt off balance.
Ok, it rained – we had three inches of water under the ground sheet – it was like sleeping on a waterbed. Yes, I was wrong and he was right. The next day the tent was moved to a new site – not so flat, but not so steep either! Compromise.
Avoid camping under trees for a number of reasons – they are nice for shade BUT it “rains” for three days afterwards, as every time the wind blows raindrops fall off the leaves.
In a storm a branch may break and fall on your tent. Then the ground and tent under a tree take more time to dry out than if the tent was in direct sunlight.
Try to face your tent towards the morning sun so it can dry out quickly after the rain.
Put the back of the tent, where there are no windows, to the rain side to minimise rain blowing in as you enter and exit – you’ll find out from other campers, park rangers, or can check online which are the prevailing directions rain in the area you intend camping.
Prepping your campsite for rain
Make sure your items are not touching the tent sides – where the items touch the moisture will come through.
Use your folding shovel to dig a trench around the back and two sides of your tent to direct rainwater away so it doesn’t come running under the groundsheet.
I learned when setting up camp to make sure the flysheets are pulled out correctly, often using two guys ropes at a 45-degree angle, so the water doesn’t pool where the canvas sags – especially over a tent doorway, where you run the risk of it dumping water on you as you emerge.
Set up camp so you can get to various points without getting wet within the camp. Pull your trailer up and situate it so you can get stuff out of it from under a gazebo or a tarp instead of having to open the trailer and get stuff wet.
Make sure the tent is connected to a gazebo, so you have room to move around for food preparation and for people to gather out of the rain.
Take sides for gazebos that you can put up in case of rain. Have plenty of tent pegs and extra rope/paracord so you can fasten everything down in case of heavy rain accompanied by wind.
After my camping trips with mattresses and sleeping bags getting damp from the ground sheet I changed to camp cots.
It was wonderful to sleep elevated from the ground and dry. Ok this was for family camping, not backpacking trips trips where you carry in everything – we’ll cover that later.
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Instead of using backpacks to store clothing (somehow they always seemed to end up against the tent sides) I switched to a plastic crate for each person’s clothing, clearly labelled with the person’s name.
They come with clip down lids, and have small wheels so they can roll away under the camp cots.
There is no way stuff can get wet inside there, especially when each crate has its own pack of desiccant and a sachet to keep clothes smelling fresh. I hate that musty smell clothing gets on a camping trip when it rains!
The crates can be used as side tables too. Day backpacks for hiking and other sporting equipment go into a larger crate kept near the door of the tent which also clips shut.
Food like oatmeal, flour, rice, coffee and sugar all go into a plastic crate too, packed with a desiccant to keep them dry.
Then there is a crate for sensitive equipment like laptops, cell phones, cables, cameras etc, also packed with desiccant and soft padding so items don’t get scratched or damaged. Cords are kept in Ziploc bags so they don’t tangle and stay dry.
I learned instead of bringing dog blankets for our guard dog to use an elevated bed that assembles and disassembles easily. The screws and hex tool are included when it is delivered so doggo is off the ground when it rains.
Oh, and she gets a blanket too! I like patterned or camo blankets for dogs as they don’t show up a muddy paw print that easily.
Keeping spirits up when it rains
Bring along plenty of games. If you are hiking and have minimal space just a pack of cards can go a long way to alleviating boredom.
If someone in the group plays a musical instrument it can lighten the mood when the rain has set in for a while – have sing-alongs, competitions, and some creative song-writing fun.
Make sure you have some jokes loaded on your phone – laughter makes everyone feel better.
Lighting makes a difference – some small battery-operated outdoor lights create a festive atmosphere, and outside draped around the gazebo will lift spirits. These are in addition to your functional flashlights.
Food and drinks
Even if you don’t expect rain, pack for bad weather, so when the rain sets in and it’s cold you can break out the hot chocolate with some mini marshmallows for an added sweet treat, or have cappuccino in one serve sleeves to add some cheer.
Get people involved in bread-making in the Dutch oven, or creating delicious hot stews.
When people are active they tend to eat less because they are too busy having fun swimming, hiking or out on boats, to eat but when they are sitting around inside a tent they eat more – especially snacks – so make sure you bring along healthy snacks like nuts and dried fruit plus some naughty ones like chocolate biscuits to make people happy when it rains.
Bring along Ziploc bags, not just for food items you want to keep dry but for keeping electronic items, like cell phone chargers or extra batteries dry.
Protecting your fire
One Easter weekend, it rained solidly for four days on a camping trip. We had to use the beach umbrella to protect the campfire from the rain – we had no alternative gas equipment.
The umbrella never smelt the same again, also being a light color and blown over now and again by the wind. It had some brown muddy streaks on it that never quite washed out!
The toddler’s clothes were placed over the spokes of the umbrella to try and dry them in desperation as we ran out of clothes – they never smelt like baby clothes again – more like scorched campfire!
The wood hadn’t been kept in a dry spot so there was a lot of smoke – the men doing the BBQ had red eyes from the smoke…something of a nightmare although enough lubrication in the form of beers and spirits did serve to lighten the mood.
Watch this to see how to make a fire properly when its wet:
After that we had an alternative – a gas camp cooker.
We also took along a tarp to sling up above where we made the fire and made sure our firewood was in a covered plastic crate so it kept dry. Any extra wood was stored slung under the trailer in a net fastened to the undercarriage with rope so it wasn’t on the ground and couldn’t get wet.
Prepping for rain while hiking
Taking a light tarp in your backpack with paracord so you can fasten it between trees, will make life much more comfortable.
A sterno ring to heat water and MREs, are a lightweight way to heat and eat.
A hammock that you can sling up with a waterproof top will keep you off the ground and dry.
If you sling the hammock between trees, don’t worry because the next day you won’t need to wait for the ground to dry out, but will probably move on.
If you use a sleeping bag rather than a hammock, consider taking a bivy cover to keep your sleeping bag warm and dry.
Layers are necessary. In fact, layering is an art, and if done right, it will keep hypothermia away should an emergency arise, and not be able to get to a temporary shelter.
When you hike, you have a couple of items you can add, like a thermal vest if the temp plummets when it rains, plus a waterproof jacket that is lightweight.
Don’t forget to bring something to cover your head. Not only is some of the heat lost through the head, you risk getting a cold… or worse.
Also choose bright colors if heading out on a hike in the drizzle as if you get lost in the mist, or have a fall, people can see you easily rather than blending in with your military color or your camo gear.
Bright colors may also prevent you getting shot at by a hunter mistaking you for his quarry in misty conditions.
Pack your clothes for the next day, including socks, into the sleeping bag the night before, so when you wake you don’t have cold damp clothes to put on, but ones already warmed to your body temperature.
Pack rain pants and/or gaiters to save you from wet soggy pants.
Rain ponchos fold up to nothing but can make life a whole lot more pleasant, slipped into a backpack they can be very useful on a hike when you were not expecting rain and didn’t bring a proper breathable waterproof jacket.
Always dry your clothing immediately – even if you wash it and string it out on a paracord line under a tarp it’s better than leaving it in a heap to grow mildew – a very costly mistake that can ruin expensive hiking gear.
Of course, in order to do that, you need to pack at least a change of clothes that should be kept dry until you need it.
Take a compass so you know where you are. A lensatic compass is shockproof and waterproof, and has a glow in the dark lens so you can find your way home even in the dark
A cell phone in a waterproof plastic covering, if you have coverage in the area will enable you to call for help if someone slips on a trail and is injured.
Many people have spent a long time wandering needlessly in the mountains, cold and wet, disoriented by the mist, and unsure of where they are without a compass or GPS.
Of course, having a cell phone or a sat phone with good signal, or even a walkie-talkie will allow you to call for help as opposed to wander around.
What to do if rain catches you while hiking
It depends on the type of rain – if it’s a downpour get to higher ground if you are in a river valley as streams can come rushing down in flood quite suddenly.
Clamber slowly, as you don’t want to risk a sprained ankle or broken leg. Make sure you test the ground ahead with a stick for really sticky patches of mud that could have your feet splaying out like you’re an amateur on an ice rink.
Go prepared, even if it’s a beautiful sunny morning because rain can come down in the mountains quite unexpectedly. Use lightweight breathable gear.
Jackets should have a hood with a stiff brim to keep the rain from dripping down into your face, and the front of your neck; the hood should be adjustable so you can keep the rain out. Sleeve cuffs should be snug so rain doesn’t go up your arm on the inside of the jacket.
Boots should have good tread, for traction in the mud, and backpacks should be waterproof, or you should carry a backpack protector you can slip over your pack.
Always hike with a lightweight rain poncho that you can slip on when you need it.
Have a pack of trail mix and your water in case you have to stay put for a while before the visibility clears. Many people have fallen off the trail to injury and even death in poor visibility.
Try to find an overhang or cave to shelter from the rain, as long as reaching it doesn’t put you in danger of falling.
This is why you should have a map of the area, with all of the trails marked, and have discussed possible places for shelter with the rangers before heading out. It’s only 1% of the time you might need that knowledge but it can make a huge difference.
If the path is very steep, and water is coursing down stay put – the rain won’t last forever, and the risk of falling and breaking a limb is greater than the discomfort of being wet and cold.
Lastly, if you have a choice, don’t be afraid to call it quits. I traveled up to the mountains with a couple of family members to do some hiking for a three-day weekend. We had just set up camp when the mist rolled in – then it started to rain.
We were keen to hike the next day and hoping the sun would come out, but the rangers told us the rain was set in for the next couple of days and it would be too dangerous, so the trails would be closed.
After breakfast – it was so misty we couldn’t even see the mountains, so a breakfast without a view, we packed up in the rain and headed home. There would be other opportunities to hike in the future.
Do share your camping in the rain experiences below, so we can all learn from. Did something bad happen? how did you cope with it?
updated 11/04/2020 by Dan F. Sullivan
Jeanie is an avid camper and a cook. She likes to do pioneer recipe sin particular, and any other type of survival food that our great-grandfathers loved.