In Scotland, camping and rain are synonymous. To avoid the rain entirely, my advice is to sit at home and stay indoors. Anyone I have ever met who loves and enjoys adventures under canvas has their ‘rain’ story, usually involving lack of sleep, soggy toes and a long walk home. My advice for camping in the rain is based on my experiences across many nights in a tent both in Scotland and the infamously wet western fjord of Patagonia. On these adventures I have developed somewhat of a system to deal with long stretches of wet weather, and while I will go into some of these I thought I would also share a few of my own ‘rain stories’ with a critical analysis on how they could have been avoided and improved, we should after all learn from our mistakes.
Choose Your Spot Carefully
Picking a good campsite is essential to staying dry, even the best tents with an extra footprint will eventually sap some moisture from damp ground. On dry days it is important to always assume an unexpected storm may arise. Avoid camping in hollows or on the nice grassy islands between dry river beds and always be aware of the forecast. Particularly in springtime it is important to observe the temperature as well as the rainfall as snowmelt will dramatically swell rivers on thaw days.
Camping in the Rain: Story One
I will never forget cycling along Glen Etive in the rain only to look down to a couple camped near the banks of the river below the road. They were standing outside their tent watching in dismay as a small stream flowed through one tent door and out the other. They had camped on a lovely grassy peninsula directly in the middle of a dry river bed. Dry no more, their gear had floated downstream and their tent was merely a tunnel over the flow. Looking on it was admittedly pretty amusing but for them I imagine it was far from it.
Lessons: If somewhere is dry now don't always assume it will be later. Not observing the landscape features and how they may have formed, this couple simply saw flat grass and not the channel that caused it in the first place.
When looking to invest in a tent I highly recommend those where the outer flysheet pitches before the inner. This is a particularly useful feature in wet climates as no matter how quickly you can set up the tent, if it is inner first then moisture will start to build on rainy days. Both when pitching and decamping it is important to remove the inner tent and store it in a dry bag, this is your dry bubble of comfort to keep you warm, cherish it.
A lot of these points will be familiar from my recent winter camping article and they hold the same weight of importance for the same reasons. Once inside the tent make a rule that no wet gear passes the inner door, this includes walking boots, socks and cups of tea. If drinking or eating inside the tent make a rule of never putting cups or dishes down, if it is not in your hand it is assumed to be spilt. If taking wet gear inside it must be in a dry bag properly sealed before hand. Taking a small towel to remove any accidentally introduced moisture is a great idea also.
Protect your sleeping bag: In recent years I have taken to using a large silver lined thermal sheet to line my tent underneath my sleeping pad. Whilst weighing next to nothing this gives a small amount of extra insulation but more importantly a further barrier from any damp seeping through the tent floor and making contact with your sleeping bag.
Camping in the Rain: Story Two
Day thirty three, our final day of a month kayaking the western fjords of Patagonia. Until now my companion Seumas and I had stayed dry despite continual presence of moisture. Our last morning meant an extra coffee ration was deserved and, breaking my rule, I pulled it into the tent to enjoy in my sleeping bag. Sure enough I put the coffee down for a moment inside and in a few seconds it was toppled, soaking my sleeping bag and mat all the way through. Thankfully it was our final day because as it so happened the wet spot had frozen solid before we left camp that morning.
Lessons: Never leave mugs on the inner tent floor, always leave them outside if not in your hand. Carry a towel at hand just in case.
Ventilation and Tarpology
Even on the coldest of days it is valuable to always keep any ventilation patches in your tent fully open, only closing to adjust for high winds rather than temperature. This allows adequate ventilation to remove any moisture condensing from your breath or from moist ground beneath the tent.
Without a doubt, the single piece of gear that has changed my methods of camping most in the last few years has been a tarp. Although I managed my circumnavigation of Scotland and full winter round of the munros without it, now that I have used one I will never go back.
In places where it is appropriate to pitch a tarp over the tent it is a superb addition to any camp, adding extra shelter from the elements and a piece of outside shelter to stand, cook and spend time under. If in a sheltered spot hanging wet clothes under a tarp is a sure fire way to encourage them to dry over night.
Camping in the Rain: Making the Call
There is no shame in deciding to simply call it a day and come back another time. I cannot count the amount of days where I have decided to turn for a pub or head home to a warm bed knowing if I didn't I'd be spending a night wet and cold. I've found a line of tolerance I can manage during my munro round where the consistent collapsing and re-pitching in snow and thaw would soak my tent.
Every week I would give myself a night in a hostel simply to dry out and rekindle morale. After all it is important to remember that even on the longer trips, camping is supposed to be a way to rest, if you are not resting then change tack and change plan.
Lets make this a collective learning experience: Share your stories of your wettest camps and what lessons you took from them in the comments below.