How to keep the dampness out when camping?
July 2, 2013 6:01 AM   Subscribe

How can we prevent gross, damp sleeping bags/pillows on longer car camping trips when there has been recent rain?

My partner, our dog and I hit up Killbear Provincial Park this past weekend for some super awesome car camping. However, after a 14 hour torrential downpour which began Thursday night and ended Friday afternoon, we found ourselves struggling to keep everything reasonably dry (especially since it continued to be very humid and overcast through the weekend).

Our current procedure is to lay one of those blue tarps under the tent, a foam mat on the floor of the tent, followed by a blanket, followed by the sleeping bags. We pick up the sleeping bags in the morning and put them in the car so they aren't on the damp ground all day. It was all still pretty damp and miserable by Sunday night, though.

Is there a magical product/mat/spray/something that will keep the dampness off the floor of the tent? We're going for a week of camping in Algonquin in August and it's shaping up to be a cool, wet summer, so some solution to this would be excellent.
posted by torisaur to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I think what you are looking for is an RV ;)

Seriously, if the humidity is 100% for the entire weekend everything exposed to it is going to be damp. One thing to check is to make sure that the blue tarp is positioned so that water can not get in between it and the tent floor. Also, does your tent have a full coverage rain fly that goes all the way to the ground? That will help some too.
posted by COD at 6:39 AM on July 2, 2013

Bring a supply of a chemical dehumidifier like DampRid and keep it in the car so you can keep at least some of your stuff dry. Double up on your supply of mats and blankets so you can have one set drying while the other is in use.

You can refill the dehumidifier more cheaply if you just buy big bags of calcium chloride meant for de-icing sidewalks.
posted by bcwinters at 6:43 AM on July 2, 2013

Response by poster: COD: Yes, the rain fly goes almost to the ground. It didn't seem like any water was coming in from the top/sides, just the floor.
posted by torisaur at 6:44 AM on July 2, 2013

You want to determine where the moisture is coming in: through the roof, the floor, or you and your pup's wet clothes/bodies?

If it is either of the first two, you want to start with seam sealer. This is usually a silicone based gluelike substance that you brush on to every part of the tent that has been stitched. Often the rain leaks in through the holes made by sewing. Glue up those holes and you will be dry (drier anyway). My tents are pretty well seam sealed, and I just spent three very rainy days and nights in the Adirondacks' and kept 100 percent dry in the tent. Note that you don't need a very expensive tent for this; we had a $100 Kmart job that worked perfectly.

The second thing: is your rain fly touching the tent proper, at all? if so, that's your problem. The fly can shed rain very well even when waterlogged, but anywhere it touches the tent, water will gradually transfer through the fly, through the tent, onto you. To ensure the fly isn't touching, make sure to stake it out tautly-- and you may have to readjust, restake it out as the wind and rain make it collapse inward a bit. Also, when you can, shake off the fly to prevent pools from forming. Nylon coated with DWR or silicone or polyurethane will shed rain fairly well indefinitely, but it is not so impermeable that it can prevent a puddle from gradually leaking through. Getting the fly set up properly cannot be overstated in terns of keeping dry-- I'd advise really examining it from the inside and see if you can spot only points where the two layers of fabric are touching. If you can't keep them separated by a cm or two, you're going to be fighting a losing battle all big, whatever else you do. Worth buying a new tent if you camp in wet places and your fly isnt working right, I'd say.

Finally: chances are that if you're wet (and you are; it's raining!) you are tracking in more moisture from your shores and clothes and pup than you realize. Remember if the tent is waterproof and you bring in a pint of liquid on your boots and jacket and dog fur, that water has nowhere to go and will seep onto your tent floor/sleeping bag overnight.

When I camp with my pup, I bring two chamois cloths. I keep one just outside the tent, under the rainfly, and use it for first level drying, getting the bulk of wetness off her and wringing it out, then repeating before she is allowed in. Then when she comes inside, I make her stand still and go at her with cloth number two. It isn't perfect but I get a lot of wet and dirt off her before she settles down into the sleeping bag nest. Also, if your fly forms a little vestibule outside the zipper, leave your shoes out there. They also track in a lot of slop that otherwise you would be sleeping in.

Last thought, you say you put a tarp beneath your tent. Are you certain you're setting this up correctly? If there is any tarp exposed to the falling rain, it will effectively catch it and then funnel it right underneath your tent floor (and eventually up into the tent proper). To avoid this ensure that your tarp or ground cloth is totally hidden from the falling rain: fold it so it it an inch or two smaller than the tent's footprint; this way it will just be a barrier between soggy ground and you, instead of a water catching device that directs liquid into your bed.

Hope these tips help. After many wet nights camping I have become somewhat of an expert in keeping dry in the woods. Let us know how you do next time out!
posted by andromache at 6:49 AM on July 2, 2013 [11 favorites]

A few ideas:
* Place the tarp/ground sheet so it doesn't stick out from under the tent. If it does, and water lands on it, it ends up channeling the water under the tent. Fold the edge of the tarp under.
* Do you see evidence of water collecting inside, on the roof of the tent? (It'll collect into drips and slide to a low point to drip off.) If so, your rain fly is probably touching your tent somewhere, allowing water to soak in. Make sure your rain fly is pulled very taut, and not touching the tent anywhere.
* Make sure the sides of the tent are also pulled out taut, and not directly touching anything inside.
* Always set up the tent in a place on a little rise, so water won't pool there. If it's going to rain, you'll be happier in a lumpy spot than in a flat spot with water pooling.
* I use a garbage bag to line the stuff sack that I stuff my sleeping bag in. If you're leaving the bag in the car, it doesn't matter so much, but if you have it out or backpack with it, this makes a big difference. You can also use the garbage bag at night: put the foot of your sleeping bag inside the garbage bag, so if you get drips on your feet (where you're less likely to notice it), the sleeping bag stays dry.
* I wouldn't put blankets over the sleeping pads. The sleeping pads probably block water from soaking into the sleeping bags. If water gets across the tent floor, the blankets will soak it up and conduct it to your sleeping bags.
* In general, I'd have as little extra stuff in the tent as possible. Think of the sleeping bags as dry islands in a pond, and keep the sleeping bags and pillows on top of them. Extra stuff gives you more places to absorb water from the floor.
posted by pompelmo at 6:50 AM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Reading your responses, I will again endorse seam sealer. You can get it online or REI or whatever. Just make sure to coat all the seams on your floor, let it dry completely, and maybe give all the stitching a second coat to be sure.

Another thing that works is re-applying the DWR waterproofing to the whole tent floor. Nikwax makes some for jackets and boots, and I'm fairly sure one of those will work for your tent. You can either spray it on or get the wash-in version. In the latter case, just toss the tent in the washer (on cold, or follow the directions on the bottle) and when done, all those surfaces will be much more water resistant than before. If its an old tent or it wasn't specifically coated with the stuff in the first place, a new coat of waterproof goop could solve all of these issues pretty easily.

Good luck!
posted by andromache at 6:53 AM on July 2, 2013

Pompelmo's advice about the garbage bag, siting your camp on a rise, and ensuring nothing in your tent is touching the walls are all spot on. The last particularly is something that's cause me problems: same principle as the fly and tent wall touching. When your bag or pack are touching the wall, the very slight dampness that would otherwise barely trickle into your tent now has a channel to soak through, and even if the tent is pretty well shedding water, anything touching the damp walls will become far wetter than you would expect. I often see this at the foot of my bag in the morning (I am tall and my sleeping bag touches the foot of the tent wall unless I am especially cautious).
posted by andromache at 6:59 AM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ooh, last thing! If your pads are open called foam, they may absorb water. If they are closed cell, they will not. A quick google will explain this better than I can, but basically one is like a sponge and one is like a bunch of little sealed bubbles that cannot ever absorb water by nature of their construction.
posted by andromache at 7:01 AM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

A not-very-good tent floor could also be the cause of your problems.

Also, if you are car camping the entire time, throwing your bags along the dashboard of your car and hanging the tent in the back of your car and cranking up the heat and the defroster can do wonders to dry gear out if you have no other options. Not very eco-friendly, but it can be the difference between a damp mungy night out and a good sleep.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:14 AM on July 2, 2013

In addition to andromache's excellent suggestions of seam sealing and re-waterproofing, depending on your space situation you might consider bringing camp cots or air mattresses, and if you're camping in well-developed campgrounds, occasionally availing yourself of the camp laundry facilities.
posted by drlith at 7:19 AM on July 2, 2013

You are also significant sources of dampness because your bodies give off moisture (through perspiration and breathing) during the night and this can be of the order of 1 - 2 lbs each by mass.

Example: earlier this year I spent a few nights camping in sub-zero, bone dry weather, inside a tent inner (modern, synthetic, sewn-in groundsheet), inside a stone barn. The inside of our tents (and the outsides of our sleeping bags) were absolutely soaking each morning purely due to moisture leaving our bodies overnight.

This will be more than enough to make your sleeping bags and pillows damp, partly because what moisture does escape will tend to remain within your tent unless the ventilation is good, and will re-soak back into them. And if you're keeping your tent closed during the day to keep the rain out, you'll add another 1 - 2lbs each the next night, and so on.

So my guess is that the problem might not only the issue of keeping rainwater out (if you're using a traditional style tent with a separate groundsheet), it's also that you're keeping bodily moisture in, no matter what the style of tent.

Some form of ventilation might therefore also help, if you can rig it up.
posted by dowcrag at 7:25 AM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is a tough battle.

I agree about a lot of the above, especially the part about seam sealing the tent as best as possible. I usually find the corners suck a bit of moisture up into the tent so the waterproofing products and keeping the rain fly set up properly are important.

Maybe it is too late but since I have camped in wet areas I got a small tent that has a big rain fly that forms a vestibule. This is a great way to keep out moisture since you can leave your wet boots, towels, etc. in the dry space outside your tent. It also helps to keep the ground dry around your tent.

To get rid of some extra moisture if the rain stops or from a situation like dowcrag's, I make a small vent hole in the rain fly near the top. I use a short stick, about 3-4 inches, wedged between the zipper at the top to get the air flow going.
posted by JayNolan at 7:39 AM on July 2, 2013

You could also get a camping cot so you're not sleeping on the ground.
posted by gnutron at 7:52 AM on July 2, 2013

I've never tried this, but somebody once told me that setting up a 2 man tent inside of a larger tent can be very effective for both temperature and moisture control.
posted by COD at 8:07 AM on July 2, 2013

You can refill the dehumidifier more cheaply if you just buy big bags of calcium chloride meant for de-icing sidewalks.
There is a common myth that chemicals like calcium chloride, or those paper bags of silica gel that come in electronics packages, actually do anything at all by the time you get to them.

The reality is their humidity-absorbing potential is quite low, relatively speaking, and only available immediately after being exposed to the air. They are prepared in ovens that bake the water out of them for many hours, and are shipped in airtight packages to the vendors that use them. Legitimate uses of the packs require the engineers to calculate how much air is trapped within the 100% airtight container of the equipment being shipped (unlike just about every instance you've ever seen them used in).

In short: 99% of the time, they're a hoax. And they certainly won't dry your linens.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:23 AM on July 2, 2013

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