Help us stay dry!
August 15, 2008 7:21 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to stay dry while camping?

So we're going (car) camping in Acadia National Park in little less than a month, and as I sit here and type, it is pouring outside.

I know about digging a trench around your tent and laying down a tarp, but often that just seems to end up with water pooled in the tarp.

Recommendations for the best camp setup to avoid waking up to floating in our sleeping bags, and general rainy weather gear (including things to look for in tents besides the obvious rain-cover) would be greatly appreciated!

(Especially because my wife is a city girl, and if we end up miserable on her first time out, we may never camp again!)

I've looked at the previous camping threads, but didn't find a lot specific to dealing with inclement whether - but boy did they have a lot of good ideas for updating my years old gear!
posted by canine epigram to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (32 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
My buddy at work has a few points:

1. Trenching around the tent is generally frowned upon because of the "leave no trace" camping ethic.

2. Just spend the money to get a nicer tent that keeps the water out.

3. He recommends the Eureka brand at

4. There are a lot of great resources at

I'll post back with any other suggestions he has. Back to work.
posted by shinynewnick at 7:40 PM on August 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Get an excellent tent. Read the directions. Practice setting it up a couple of times. Keeping dry is all about setting up a well-designed rain fly as described in the directions.

My cousin got married on a farm and most of the people camped out. It rained non-stop for three days. My tent was set up properly with the fly set according to directions. I was the only dry camper out of 10 or so tents.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:47 PM on August 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

In my experience, if it rains hard enough, water can get in the tent, no matter what you do. Someone will be along to give you some great waterproofing info, I'm sure.

But have you considered getting a couple of these? Mine was a lifesaver during a pounding downpour.

Also, anything in the tent was kept in plastic tubs.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 7:48 PM on August 15, 2008

I'm a big fan of inflatable air mattresses. Back in 1991 my wife and I went camping at Acadia (in late September). One day we went out hiking, came back to our vehicle in the rain, and had dinner at a chowder hut because we didn't want to face camp cooking in a downpour. We got back to our campsite to realize that our tent was about a hundred yards from the parking lot, it was pitch black, and we had left our flashlights in the tent. (We never did that again!) A good spatial memory and the fact that our rain fly was very light tan allowed us to get to the tent. The fly was not perfectly waterproof, the tent was damp, and there was a good half inch of standing water in the tent, but we had a 6" deep air mattress, so our sleeping bag was high and dry, and we were able to get a good night's sleep before packing up in the cold rain and heading home.

Sometimes, even the best tent can't keep the rain out, and water will pool, but six inches of air mattress makes a world of difference.

We stayed in the Seawall campground, by the way, which I would recommend over the Blackwoods campground. But things might have changed in the last 17 years!
posted by brianogilvie at 7:48 PM on August 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

On the tents, he says a "bathtub floor" will work well for keeping water out. It means a solid piece on the floor that extends up the wall about 12 inches. Here is a tent on special with such features, and my buddy says it looks like a good deal.
posted by shinynewnick at 7:48 PM on August 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Addendum: don't forget to stop at Ben & Bill's Chocolate Emporium in Bar Harbor for ice cream! On the other hand, don't expect anyone on the island to have the slightest idea who Marguerite Yourcenar was.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:50 PM on August 15, 2008

Really, the 'get a good tent' suggestion is the best; The first time I went camping with a good Eureka tent, it rained continually for 3 days. Everything in the tent was perfectly dry. You can also carry a tapaulin with some rope and use that as a second roof if you have trees around your tent. Then you'll have some space to sit and stand outside the tent as well.
posted by ddaavviidd at 7:57 PM on August 15, 2008

In addition to a good rain fly, and if at all possible, set up your tent where you are able to string up an extra tarp above it (like between two trees). Make sure the tarp is at an angle so the rain will pour off of it, not pool on it. My husband and I were camping in the rain once, and the tarp above kept us completely dry.

Also get seam sealer, and use it before you head out camping. This will help with a little extra protection as well.
posted by at 8:01 PM on August 15, 2008

Acadia recently re-did many of their campsites so the area you'll set up your tent is gravel. We camped at the group sites at Blackwoods 3 years ago. I'm not sure if they did this with the regular sites though. That means it will drain well in rain and be quite uncomfortable to sleep on so be sure to bring good pads.

The key to a tent that stays dry in rain is a good fly - don't get a tent with a fly that doesn't extend well past the entry. I like tents with a vestibule - keeps the interior dryer and gives you a place to leave wet shoes without getting soaked or tracking mud into the tent. We currently have a Marmot and a Sierra Designs tent - both backpacking tents for 3 seasons which have stayed dry in terrible downpours. Eureka tents are lower end and will cost less but wear less well so if you're going to camp a lot think about your needs. And NEVER buy a tent without having a chance to set it up in a store - pictures and catalogs don't tell you enough!

A tarp to go over your picnic table will also help a lot with coping with lousy weather. Have fun!
posted by leslies at 8:04 PM on August 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

As far as keeping yourself dry, I've always subscribed to the little and as light clothing as possible philosophy. It only applies in warm weather though.

Wear good sports sandals. No shoes or socks. Wet footwear is misery, though skin and sports sandals dry in minutes. Wear swim trunks. Lightweight, they dry in minutes also. A super lightweight synthetic shirt. Really open weave, one that won't cling to the skin (much) when wet. Avoid cotton, denim, socks, etc. They stick to you and take forever to dry. If you dress like this and cover yourself in a poncho during a downpour, you will dry within minutes of the rain stopping.
posted by sourwookie at 8:05 PM on August 15, 2008

It is Campmor (not Campmore, referenced above). Also, Sierra Trading Post has good deals. I nth getting a good tent. If you are going to use it for car camping you don't need to worry about weight so much...but if you get a crappy summer only car-camping tent you might end up with a fly (the waterproof outer layer) that only sits on the top of the tent like a hat. You want a fly that fully covers the tent all the way to the ground (or darned close) on all sides. Look for 3 season tents (not summer only tents). Also, I agree with others who say that if it is raining hard enough you are probably just going to get wet--which sucks. That isn't the best for a first time camping. If it sucks to high hell just suck it up and get a hotel room and save the weekend, okay? I've had to do this like once or twice in a decade of camping and each time it was well worth it and saved what could have turned out to be a miserable trip.
posted by fieldtrip at 8:08 PM on August 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Look for a campsite that is higher, like on the top of a hill.
Don't dig a trench. If you didn't listen to the first recommendation, the trench will keep the water IN your tent.
Before you set up your tent, set up a ground cloth (tarp). Make sure it's large enough to span the entire base of your tent. Set up your tent on top of it, and then tuck the exposed edges under the tent. Exposed ground cloth means pool of water underneath you.
When you set up in the tent, make sure none of your gear is touching the sides. Water will seep through.
Eurekas are pretty good tents, but you have to find one that fits your needs. If it's just you and the missus, a two-man tent is small, quick and easy. If she wants to stand to get dressed, you'll probably need a family tent, but I personally think that's a major unneeded luxury. You'll also want a family tent if you, oddly enough, have a family.
A dining fly is helpful if you'll be cooking and eating in the wilderness. Get one with walls to ward off the rain AND the wind.
Take lots of zip-top bags and trash bags. Store your clothes in some. They'll keep 'em dry and organized. Trash bags also make great impromptu ponchos.
Get yourself a good poncho or rain jacket. I like ponchos for camping because they're long enough to sit on if/when your seat gets wet. Hats are good too (not baseball caps! Something halfway water resistant)
I have to disagree on the footwear. Hiking in sandals should be a cardinal sin. A nice pair of boots is a good start, but the socks make a difference. Wear polypropelene 'thin' socks to wick away moisture (like sweat), and a pair of Smartwool socks over that, to keep the moisture away from your feet.
I'm an ol' Boy Scout. We once camped out a full week, and it rained every day. It was miserable, but it was also the best campout we ever had. Enjoy! Good luck
posted by photomusic86 at 8:11 PM on August 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I second the idea of a seam sealer. My husband and I went camping for part of our honeymoon and got the leftover rain from a hurricane. You know, after the hurricane dies down but is still producing a ton of rain. We were total newbies and completely unprepared. We had a nice tent with the bathtub floor as described, but we still got flooded from water seeping in at our totally unsealed seams. We were soaked from head to foot, running around in the rain and gathering all of our stuff up! If we had only had the seam sealer, I think we would have stayed much drier. We didn't learn about it until after our trip. It makes for a nice memory though!
posted by theantikitty at 8:21 PM on August 15, 2008

Get a hammock. Trust me, you'll never sleep better. Ground tents are lame. My husband and I switched a few months ago, and we'll never go back to sleeping on uneven, wet ground. I'm from Maine, so I know they have no shortage of trees to suspend it from. Plus, they are even lower impact on nature than ground tents.
posted by nursegracer at 8:47 PM on August 15, 2008

Make sure that your rain fly doesn't touch the tent walls when you have it setup. if it does, water will seep through.

I like having the custom ground cloth that's made specifically for your tent. People made due with tarps for a really long time, but it's easier to deal with the custom ground cloth. If you are going to use a tarp, fold the excess under, never over. If you fold over, water will run between the tarp and your tent.

Like mentioned above, a bathtub floor will have no seams in the corners and should keep you drier. If you can, try to practice setting up your tent in a way that it wouldn't get rained on. It's possible, but it's not easy.

A cheap tarp pitched between some trees is very effective as additional rain prevention.
posted by advicepig at 8:50 PM on August 15, 2008

Thirding the advice of tucking the ground tarp ALL the way underneath the tent so that there is NO exposed sides of the ground tarp. I didn't do this for my boyfriend's side of the tent and well... yeah. The rain seeped all the way to me on the other side of the tent.

Get a big enough tent so that you can sit up comfortably in it.
posted by collocation at 9:05 PM on August 15, 2008

I agree that I would never hike in sandals but the original poster didn't say they were hiking, just camping.
posted by sourwookie at 9:06 PM on August 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Do like I do in the rainy Pacific Northwest. Get yourself a BFT (Big F'n Tarp) 30'x20' should do it. Tie long lengths of mason's string to each grommet and tie a railroad tie or similar heavy object around the bitter ends. Heave the railroad tie up as high as you can into the upper branches of trees and let the weight of it drop down to the ground. Hoist the tarp from these points up until you have your whole campsite covered leaving one side lower, depending on the slope of the ground. Lowest edge of the raised tarp to the low side slope. You will not only have a dry tent, but the whole site will be cozy dry. We raise ours high enough so that we can still have the night-time campfire whithout worry that the tarp wont catch on fire. Remove the railroad tie, and tie the bitter ends to the tree trunks or lower branches for easy removal. Just cut the strings off (heads up!!) when you are packing up and remove. Leave no trace!
posted by Acacia at 9:07 PM on August 15, 2008

Everyone who is saying "get a good tent" is right. Get a good tent, practice putting it up in the backyard or in your local park (people will laugh, but that's better than people laughing because you are trying to put it up inside out in the rain), and seamseal it if it doesn't come from the factory that way.

For car camping (and assuming that you are never going to carry the tent further than from the car to the nearby campsite), there is no benefit to getting a tiny backpacking tent. Get something big enough to have a two-person bedspace on one side, and a pile of wet clothes on the other. (A good rule of thumb is that to have a tent that is "rated" for at least twice the number of people than will actually be sleeping in there — eg, the two of you will be far more comfortable in a four person tent than a two person one.) Obviously, this advice only applies to car camping, and not at all to backpacking.

An ideal car camping tent would have a vestibule area to leave your boots, a net above to keep small things out of the way, and a large floor space so you aren't sleeping on top of your dripping jacket. If it might be hot, get one with LOTS of mesh ventilation — some just have a tiny window and a door panel, and that's not nearly enough in the heat.

Bring (and again, know how to set up) a tarp to make a kitchen/hangout space that is sheltered from the rain. Bonus points if you can find a way to shelter the car trunk or passenger door, so you can get stuff in and out of the car without getting everything wet. A big square cheap tarp from Walmart is ok; a catenary-cut tarp is both easier to set up and less likely to dump six gallons of water down your neck. Bigger is better for this, within the limits of common sense, and a little extra rope can make all the difference.

Often a poncho works a lot better than the expensive Goretex raingear, but this depends a lot on how much wind there is, what other clothes you are wearing, the temperature, etc.

Don't forget bug repellent, because after the rain come the mosquitoes.

Finally, for newbie campers, good food (and if it is cold and wet, good hot food) can make all the difference between a good time and misery. Don't make her eat dehydrated mountaineering food or decades-old MREs all weekend — bring a cooler and some good eats.
posted by Forktine at 9:13 PM on August 15, 2008

What's the best way to stay dry while camping?

If you're serious about this:

my wife is a city girl, and if we end up miserable on her first time out, we may never camp again

and if you want to be able to enjoy camping together from here on, then my best advice to you is cancel the trip if serious rain is forecast. A light showers or two won't matter, but if she's never camped out before and all her gear gets wet and soggy and cold on your first trip, you may well never get the chance to convince her that it can actually be fun.

Best of luck to both of you!
posted by flabdablet at 9:54 PM on August 15, 2008

BTW, old Boyscout (Life, sacrificed Eagle to join the local symphony) and avid camper here, too.

Boy, that $5.00 poncho works better than about anything you could score for $50 from a boutique camping store when used in conjunction with the clothing advice I gave earlier.

If you can bring a "Living Room" tarp, do so. Just learn your Taught Line Hitches (for easy adjustability as the tarp gets heavy with water) and a Sheep Shank (so you don't have to cut up good rope).
posted by sourwookie at 12:09 AM on August 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I had the same thought as flabdablet.
posted by salvia at 1:08 AM on August 16, 2008

We went camping (two kids) over Easter 3 years ago with a tent bought from Kmart for about $600 (two roomed) and it rained so much you could see rivers under the floor. Luckily we got the doubled seamed (whatever those smart people up there talking about), so yeah, I think it's possible to get a water proof tent. The other thing is, the floor didn't end at the ground, it wrapped around by about a foot, so that the seam wasn't stressed by the running water.

But here's the thing - stuck in a tent for hours while it rains. Apart from the obvious, take a deck of cards or two. I taught the kids Canasta while we were stuck inside and it was one of our best trips ever.

If you have the room in your car for the clip together floor mats, that'd be good, because the dirt and sand just sinks to the bottom off them, instead of you trying to sweep it out every day. At the very least, a mat in front of the tent to wipe your feet so you don't track dirt inside.
posted by b33j at 1:22 AM on August 16, 2008

Omagosh! I meant to say railroad spikes, not railroad ties. I am so sorry. And I apologize profusely if it is too late and you are deep in the wilderness with your beloved, trying to chuck a 70 lb hunk of wood high into the branches of a Douglas Fir.
posted by Acacia at 1:32 AM on August 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

Nthing the big blue tarp - more than anything this will improve your camp-bound life if it's raining. Sitting in a tent, or a car, listening to the rain drum on the roof can be rather miserable, but if you have a tarp strung nice and tightly over your picnic table and kitchen area it's just like home.
I used to work summers for Outward Bound and the tarp was an essential piece of equipment - when you're taking a dozen teenagers on canoe trips for 10 days at a time you're pretty much guaranteed that a third of those days will bring rain.

We used Eureka Timberline tents - a pretty old-school A-frame type, but spacious, solid and weather-tight. Use a groundsheet (any type of waterproof material will do - at OB we used plastic builder's vapour barrier) under the tent, but make sure it's only as big as the footprint of the tent.
posted by Flashman at 2:57 AM on August 16, 2008

Nthing that you need to stay up off the ground in your tent either in cots or airmattresses.

Definitely bring something to do inside the tent.

I also agreed with flabdablet that if very serious rain is in the forecast you would want to reschedule. I speak from family experience: my dad took my mom camping before I was born (i.e. in the 1980's) and it was such a bad experience she never went camping again until this last year I convinced her to go camping.. in a cabin...
posted by aetg at 5:06 AM on August 16, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for all the excellent advice. It's going to take some time to digest!

We are going to be hiking, not just camping (so no, no sandals), and as a nod to our disparate experience, roughly half the trip will be camping, the other will be spent at local B&Bs. So worst case, if right before we leave, it looks like it's going to be miserable and awful, we'll adjust plans accordingly. I like roughing it, but there are limits!

Most of my gear is inherited from my parents (the tent is maybe a decade old, relatively modern, fairly easy set up) but I'm perfectly willing to spend some money beforehand if it will make the difference.
posted by canine epigram at 9:00 AM on August 16, 2008

Everyone's pretty much got the tent thing covered. One more thing: A poncho is good, but you're still going to have some wet clothes. So, don't wear cotton, or jeans. Invest in a nice hiking shirt, pair of pants, and pair of socks for each of you -- clothes that will dry quickly. Nothing's worse than weathering an overnight rainstorm and then having to put on wet clothes.

Here's some basics.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:35 AM on August 16, 2008

Having a good tarp is only half the battle. You also need to know how to tie it up. Get a bunch of parachute cord from the hardware store and tie a nice long length to each corner grommet of your tarp. Use a lighter or match to singe the cut ends so they don't unravel. When you're tying each corner of the tarp to the trees, use a taut line hitch. Here's a good video on how to tie the knot - it's really easy, but make sure you practice a couple times. This will allow you to tie your tarp up and get it nice and taut, so the rain doesn't pool on it. You should also tie it up with one side lower than the other, so the water can run off it rather than pooling on the tarp. If you're getting a lot of rain, re-tighten your ropes every once in a while in case they have stretched. The nice thing about the taut line hitch is that you don't have to re-tie the knot, you just have to slide it to get your tarp all nice and tight again.

I also will recommend a good tent above anything else. You'll pay more, but if you can get one with "factory sealed seams" you will stay a lot dryer. If not, definitely pitch your tent on a rain-free day in the back yard and seal all the seams. This will take longer and be messier than you expect. Wear old clothes, and have a bottle of naptha ready (and a friend to help open it) so you can get the goo off your hands when you're done. Don't be stingy with the seam sealer. A "bathtub" style tent bottom really is great, too.

When you're out camping, don't let anything inside touch the sides of the tent, or moisture will wick into your tent at that spot. Keep a "pack towl" or a chamois cloth in your tent to mop up drips and/or dry yourselves off with. This is also good for wiping off your poncho when you climb into the tent from a downpour, so you don't spray water everywhere when you take the poncho off.
posted by vytae at 8:17 AM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: An update for anyone who sees it, tagged resolved.

Hanna blew through on Saturday, dropping 7" of rain on the campground. The rangers came by, warning us of the projected rainfall and suggesting we all leave - if the winds had reached the expected 45mph, they would have closed the campgrounds.

Sadly, despite seam-sealing the rain-cover and bottom seams, water came right through the top of the tent (but not the bottom, oddly).

We decamped as soon as it was clear it was hopeless - just as the rangers drove us to tell us it'd only get worse. So we spent the remainder of our trip in motels and B&Bs, tossed the old tent, resolved to buy a new one, and had a fantastic rest of our vacation.

So we'll be going camping again, just with a modern tent.
posted by canine epigram at 9:54 AM on September 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow! I'm glad your wife is willing to give camping another go. Being stuck in a storm like that is really no way to experience the outdoors for the first time, and I bet that almost any tent on the market would leak with 7 inches of rain. I'm glad you two had fun on the rest of your vacation, though!
posted by vytae at 11:41 AM on September 15, 2008

Response by poster: We didn't get stuck in the storm - I realized I was unclear. We left as soon as it was clear the tent was leaking, literally minutes ahead of the skies opening up. Our night was spent warm and dry in a motel.
posted by canine epigram at 9:26 PM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

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