Setting Up Camp In The Pouring Rain

Most campers agree that setting up camp in the rain is one of their least favorite things to do.

It is a universal truth that all campers hate setting up camp in the pouring rain. Everything, including the camper gets wet. There’s mud and wet debris all over the ground. The tent begins to get wet inside before you even get everything in. In view of that, some campers just turn around and go home if it starts to rain hard. They don’t care if the next two weeks are beautiful. It’s raining now.

Many, though, are willing to set up camp anyway, and they are rewarded with a great camping trip when the sun finally breaks through and everything dries out. These campers know that like any small problem in life, these things are generally temporary.

And they know how to set up camp even if it’s pouring rain.

How? Follow these guidelines:

1. Begin by preparing at home for the eventuality.

You’re reading this because you don’t want to get caught setting up camp in a crappy way in the pouring rain. There’s a huge chance you’re looking at it before your next camping trip. I really, really don’t see anyone checking their tablet in the pouring rain with tents half set up.

Before you pack the car, check to see you have the following rain-fighting items.

A low tarp is better than no tarp at all.

One for over your tent, one for under your tent, and a huge one for a walk around area atcamp. 30′ x 40′–you can get one here if you can’t find it elsewhere. Plus a couple more. You can never have too many tarps.

And ropes. You can never have too many ropes.

Keep your ropes and bungee cords in a bin separate from the rest of the gear. Label it in such a way that the label is waterproof. (We spent a couple of bucks and bought a laminator. I’m addicted to that thing. Signs and labels everywhere.) The ropes don’t have to be super heavy-duty–a budget-friendly 1/2″ polyester rope will do nicely.  Figure on a hundred feet or so in length, so you can stretch it from tree to tree and still have some to tie around the tree (more about that below in setting up camp).

Dedicated tend for your kitchen area.

This pop-up tent with weather-proof walls for your camp kitchen. (Canadian residents have to get the canopy and purchase the walls separately. That leaves you with an extra wall (which comes free with the tent)–you can use the extra panel to create an awning over the entryway.) Get one if you possibly can.  There is a huge difference when preparing meals in the pouring rain in this, I promise you. For info on setting up a seriously efficient and comfortable camp kitchen in one of these babies, click here.

Rain gear!

Waterproof pull-on pants and jacket. Pack them front and center so you can haul them on in

the vehicle before you get out. You can even throw these portable boots on over your sneakers; they’ll keep your shoes dry all day outside in the rain and mud. Canadian residents can get them here.

Several towels.

A beach towel, a standard towel, and a couple of hand towels. Crazy how much you’ll use them setting everything up.  Go to a thrift store and pick them up, and then you won’t care how badly they’re treated.

A couple of fireplace logs.

Even if you have this handy little item for starting fires, everything, including the air, will be wet. A fireplace log under the wood burns for a long time, so it gives the wood a chance to catch.

A whole bunch of garbage bags.

I recommend having these anyway. They’re so multi-purpose it’s not funny. With garbage bags you can transport stuff from your vehicle to your tent or covered area and keep it dry, cut a hole in the top and sides and use it for an emergency rain poncho, collect dry kindling and keep in one so it stays dry, and a zillion other ways.

2. Got everything on the list? Good. Here’s what you do when you get to the camp site.

  1.  Haul your rain gear on.
  2.  If you are with a group, make sure everyone has an assigned job to do.

    Even kids can pitch in by getting the stuff out of the car (or staying in the car, depending on the age and energy of the kid).

    Get the big tarp from the vehicle, and the ropes needed for tarping up.

    Our group generally uses a ridgeline to set the big tarp up with. To set up a ridgeline tarp, select two trees at opposite ends of the area you want to cover over. Lay the rope out, leaving plenty of rope on either side for tying off. On one side only, throw the rope up and over a tree branch about fifteen feet above the ground. You can do this by climbing up, but an easier way is just to tie the rope end around a heavy item like a chunk of wood or a small rock and throw it up. This is actually a kind of game for us–the one who successfully gets it over the branch and far enough down on the other side to grab gets the first beer of the trip, with much fanfare.

Once the rope is over and you can grab it, secure it to the tree. We wrap it around the trunk a couple of times and tie it off with two half hitches.

Lay your tarp over the rope.

Go to the other tree and throw the rope end up and over a branch about the same height from the ground, fifteen feet. If one end of the tarp is going to edge an area you won’t be spending much time in, such as a lot of bush, Make it slightly lower than the other side to allow rain to run off. More about that later.

Make sure your tarp is spread out. Attach ropes to each corner of the tarp and let them hang freely. These will be used to pull the tarp taut at each corner and tied off on other trees (or, as in the case of one trip for us, the corner of a friend’s RV), so make sure there is plenty of rope length to use. Now go to the end that is not yet tied off and raise the tarp by pulling on the rope. When the rope is taut and the tarp fully raised, wind the rope around the tree and securely tie it. Using the by-now dangling ropes at each corner of the tarp, pull it as taut as possible and tie off each corner, much lower than the center line, to create a pitch that water rolls off of.

In spite of your best efforts, water can still collect and pool on a tarp. Make sure you have an extendable tent pole or two, or a long branch you have trimmed, and keep it to one side to push up on the “ceiling” of the tarp where the water is gathering from time to time. Make sure the end of the pole or stick you are using is covered with something that will prevent it from poking through the poly material. A large plastic pop bottle cut off at the pouring spout end and upended over the stick does nicely.

Once the big tarp is up, decide on where the tents go.

Avoid slopes and dips in the ground. Tie a tarp up over the area your tent will go.  It doesn’t have to by high; just a few inches over the highest part of your tent is fine. Once the tarp is up, clear the ground of sharp sticks and rocks. Lay another tarp on the ground. Set up your tent, and make sure your ground tarp is folded under so it doesn’t stick out anywhere, or it may funnel rainwater down and under your tent.

Once the tent is up, pack your gear in.

Transfer your gear from your vehicle to your tent. If it’s in plastic garbage bags for the transfer everything will be much dryer once all is done. If you are using an air mattress, blow it up inside the tent using a portable air pump. Canadian residents can get one here. Keep in mind that these pumps are battery-powered. You can use it in a tent and not have to fill your air mattress outside by your car with a vehicle power-adaptor air pump. Having to do that just makes your mattress wet and muddy. Do it inside the tent.

Keep your gear and mattress away from the tent walls. Water has a weird way of finding places to run down a wall, so take no chances. Unroll your sleeping bag and lay it on your sleeping pad or mattress. Make sure you have a pad under your mattress and on top to maximize warmth. The one below should be a foam pad to insulate from the cold ground. The top one can be a standard mattress pad for home to reflect heat back. If you can, heat your tent up using a tent heater before bed. That will dry out the air and make things warm and cozy. Note: Don’t go to sleep with the heater still on. 

Set up the kitchen tent.

The Easy-up or Quik tent is the best option, because it means you can set it up on the edge of the big tarp overhead. That way you can do your cooking in a covered area and when you step outside, it’s directly under the big tarp. And because it’s at the edge, you’re not using up covered space with kitchen stuff. There’s minimal fuss setting it up, too. It says one person can do it and it’s true, but if you have two sets of hands the job goes much faster.

Have someone start the fire.

This can be done by the first person who has nothing to do during camp set-up. Make sure your camp fire is at the edge of the big tarp. Make sure a part of it a couple of inches under the tarp edge. This will help keep some rain off the fire. The tarp is pretty high in the air which prevents sparks from burning holes in it for the most part. Make sure the fire pit is on a rise and not a depression. That way, rainwater runs away from it and not into it. Gather your wood and your kindling. Make sure it is as dry as possible. Any wood gathered for the fire should be placed on a tarp, and underneath one.

Make sure rocks line the outside of your fire pit. They’re great for resting racks on, and help shield the flames somewhat. Place some flat rocks on the bottom of the pit for your wood to sit on. This keeps it off the wet ground. Put your fireplace log on the rocks and light it. Once the log is going well, put kindling on to catch, then larger pieces of wood. Be patient; lighting fires in wet weather can be maddening. Once the fire is lit, don’t let it go out. Keep dry wood to the side and plenty of it for that night and next day. Get as many people involved in gathering wood as possible. You’re going to have to make that regulation-sized fire as hot as possible if the rain continues. Here’s a great way to ensure a smaller, hotter fire.

Using these guidelines, you will have a drier, more comfortable camping trip, even if it rains a lot.

Want to know how to pack up in the rain? That’s next week’s subject!