Great hacks and tips for camping in the rain

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You’ve got camping reservations for the weekend and the weather is calling for rain, rain, and more rain… do you still go or do you cancel and stay home? Believe me, camping in the rain is not my favorite thing, but I’ve been learning tips and hacks over the years on how to stay dry when camping, and it’s not so bad anymore… in fact, I might even venture to say camping in rainy weather brings a different camping charm that I’m beginning to enjoy!

The tips, ideas, and suggestions below are most helpful for car campers, RVers, and campervan travelers than for backcountry hikers.

Tips and Hacks for camping in the rain

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Shelter – the most important factor in staying dry while camping

If you’re not getting rained on, you’ll be dry. So, the more skilled you are at hanging a tarp or building shelter, the dryer your camping trip will be!

If you’re sleeping in a hard-shelled unit then you won’t need to worry about extra shelter over top. However, if you’re tenting and you’re expecting a lot of rain, you may want to consider stringing up a tarp over your tent as well as an outdoor eating / hanging out area.

Whether or not you decide to tarp your entire tent or camper (which shouldn’t be necessary), you’ll want to have some shelter by the door area.

Our very old camper does not have an awning (and to buy one would cost more than the trailer is worth). So, we always bring along a tarp that we string up to provide rain shelter over the door area.

A family set up at the campground with a vintage trailer, some bikes, and toys
Our tarp awning, shoe tubs, and door mat area

This shelter over the door means we have a dry place to take off boots and wet coats instead of dragging that mud into the camper itself. It also keeps rain out when the door is open and gives us a mud-free area for storing gear and toys.

If you’re tenting, consider using a tent with a vestibule. Some car camping tents have huge vestibules big enough to store tubs, lay out a rug, store gear, and even put up a chair or two! Smaller hiking tents will have much smaller vestibules… which are still very handy for a dry spot to take off shoes, store your pack, and keep mud and rain out of the actual tent.

If your tent does not have a vestibule, and you’re expecting rain, then hang a tarp! Seriously, it will save you a lot of wetness and mess.

If you’re thinking, but wait, what about those quick pop-up shelters… can we use those? My answer to this is no. Don’t. Sure, they’re great for quick shelter over picnic tables at your family reunion or backyard bbq… but, I can’t tell you how many of these I’ve watched crumple during a wind or rain storm at the campground!

And, you really don’t want to return to your campsite to see your convenient pop-up shelter has collapsed ripping a giant tear through your tent on it’s way down! Bummer!

Here’s a picture of our rainy campsite set up…. notice the tent has a vestibule, we’ve got a screen shelter set up over the picnic table and a tarp hung over the tent and area between the tent and shelter. Then, from the truck’s tailgate we set up an umbrella so we could get our gear and food from the truck into the shelter without getting too wet.

Various shelters set up at a campsite to help stay dry from the rain
Our rainy day campsite setup – not pretty, but functional!

Let’s talk tarps

Around here, hanging a tarp is always a challenging job! Where are the trees? Can we get our rope high enough? Do we have a long rope? Is the tarp big enough? Did we bring extra tarps? And so on…

There are a few standard tarp hanging techniques, but a walk around a rainy campgroud is probably your best way to get some good ideas. Or, an hour of Youtube watching will not be time wasted!

Personally, I like the ‘rope diagonally through the middle’ technique. I find this is easiest, getting this diagonal rope the highest, then sloping the two other corners downward to drain water.

Also, consider the angle of the wind… you will be better off bringing the tarp closer to the ground against the wind. Nothing is worse than a loud flapping tarp!

Large tarps hung over the campsite to help the tent and eating area stay dry
Some well strung tarps protecting a campsite from rain

How to hang a tarp:

  1. Lay out your tarp, visually measure your space compared to your tarp and make sure your ropes are long enough.
  2. Find your two main trees to make your main high line across
  3. Lay your rope from those two trees and secure your tarp to this line. Or, if using just ropes from the corners, secure these to your tarp.
  4. Raise your ridge line rope (or highest corner rope) and secure it (usually as high as possible) on your two main trees.
  5. Make sure this ridge line is pulled tight and secured tightly.
  6. Now continue along securing other sides and corners.
  7. Use a support pole and guide wires if needed
  8. Slope the tarp down into the facing wind if possible
  9. Make sure water will drain from the tarp by sloping your sides or corners.
  10. Continue to tighten and re-secure your ropes daily

Ropes and knots

Does the quality of your rope matter?

Yes! If your rope tangles or kinks or refuses to hold a knot, again, you’re just setting yourself up for frustration and too much swearing.

For ropes, I’d recommend a variety of lengths and good quality (soft and pliable) rope. We love using climbing rope or paracord and we’ve actually added to our collection over the years from all the former campers that have forgotten their ropes at the campsite. I even have a forgotten dog leash and shoe string in my bucket of ropes and these work great too!

What’s the best knot?

Tough question! There are so many different ways to make knots. I admit, my knot-making skills are pretty awful, but I still manage. My dad taught me this basic slip knot and I probably use it the most.

And, I’ve also used this handy stick trick many many times (although, usually to the distain of my male camping on-lookers. I’ve also done a version with a toy shovel, and a rock… use what’s available, right?

Tarp tips I learned from single-mom tenting:

When I took my kids tenting for a month I quickly learned how challenging tarp-hanging really can be, especially when I’m the tallest person around .

Before the trip I went to Canadian Tire and bought myself a giant 25’x15′ standard blue tarp. Well, I probably should have splurged for the more expensive tarp! The first rain storm ripped all the grommets on one side (which left me with a tattered tarp to fight with for the whole rest of the trip)! Maybe I should have also purchased some grommet savers?

A rip in a blue camping tarp
Disappointing tears in our tarp at the grommet wholes

I also realized the value of bringing along a small step ladder for hanging your tarps. I climbed way too many risky stacks of tubs and buckets just trying to get the ropes high enough… or that day I tried standing on the bike seat that was leaning against the tree (what a stupid idea!)

Although, this being said, I just watched the above video which demonstrates a simple trick with a stick to get the rope up high into the tree. I’ll admit that I’ve tried versions of this without much success.

I also learned the importance of a well-secured tarp. I can still feel the rain dripping down my back as I’m reminded of the night I had to go out at 3 am, flashlight in my mouth, in the middle of a thunder storm, to re-fasten almost all the guidewires on one side of the tarp!

Oh, the noise from that flapping tarp! The rain and lightening… and how peacefully all three kids were still sleeping when I re-entered the tend soaked to the core! (Should I mention here that in the morning I packed us up and headed to a hotel to dry out for a few days?)

Other shelter options when camping

Yes, tarps are very important for camping in the rain, but you can also use natural shelter, quick pop-up canopies, and even umbrellas in a pinch!

Consider the environment

Are there large trees with overhanging branches? Is there a slope to the ground? Is there dirt that will turn to mud right away or an area of grasses or gravel that would dry quicker?

Where you place your tent is quite important. Some campgrounds will have designated tent pads and usually these have already been chosen with all these considerations in mind. Some will even be made with quick draining materials and even have water trenches dug around the perimeter.

However, if you get to choose the placement of your tent, you’ll want to take a few minutes to consider your options.

If it is already raining you can easily look around to avoid puddles… and you can easily see which ground looks dryer and more protected from the trees above. If it rained earlier in the day, look for lighter colored and dryer ground.

Big leaves will offer some rain shelter, large shrubs will shelter you from wind. Even your vehicle can be positioned to create a wind shelter.

No matter what you do, do not put your tent in a place that will collect water. If you have to suffer through sleeping at a slight angle, that’s far better than waking up in a pool!

Pop-up canopies can be handy to have

As long as you don’t expect these pop up tents to survive strong winds and you’re willing to take them down if needed, and stake and support them well, these shelters can be handy to have when car camping.

Many campers will use these over picnic tables, close to the campfire, or for temporary cooking areas. I do not recommend leaving these up and erected at an unoccupied campsite. I’ve seen way too many topple, bend, and fall during an unexpected storm.

Maybe if you have an expensive quality pop up shelter? Maybe these are more sturdy? But, I’ve seen way too many destroyed campsites to want to give these a try.

So, if you happen to have a brand of easy-up shelter that is strong and reliable in a storm, I’d love if you could share in the comments below!

Umbrellas

Yes, even the humble umbrella can be very handy at the campground. When we’re car camping I’ve starting bringing along a few large patio umbrellas and stands.

I’ve used these as easily re-positioned sun shelter. But, more frequently, I use them as easily re-positioned rain shelter.

For gentle rain showers I can sit under the giant umbrella at the campfire. Or, I can put it over the picnic table.

A patio umbrella being used at the campsite to keep rain off the picnic table
As long as it isn’t windy, patio umbrellas make great, easy-up, quick shelters

When I was solo-camping with the kids for a month, we even figured out how to stand it up at the tailgate of the truck so we had a rain-free cooking and eating area when we didn’t have the energy to set up a tarp.

Believe me, hauling around a patio umbrella was way easier than setting up our own personal tarp town at each campsite every night!

And, don’t forget the value of regular personal umbrellas too! Walking to the bathroom in the rain, fixing the ropes during a storm, sitting around the campfire, or dying from the sun’s heat… all times you can pull out your umbrella!

A woman sitting in a camping chair using an umbrella to stay dry at the campground
Umbrellas are handy for hanging out in a light rain

Rain gear to keep you dry and warm

If you’re lucky enough to live in a climate that might still be reasonably warm while it’s raining, then you might not be so concerned about having all this gear to keep you dry. But, if the temperature drops when it rains, staying dryer also means staying warmer.

Rain gear

The most important tip to staying dry is having good quality outer gear. Regular spring or winter jackets should be able to handle a light shower, but if you’re planning to survive a weekend of rain, you’ll want to consider having rain jackets, pants, hats with brims, waterproof boots on hand for the kids and probably yourself as well.

My kids refused to wear rain pants after about age 7. But, up until then, I’ll have them wear waterproof pants along with their rain jackets.

A baseball cap under the jacket’s hoot is handy for keeping water off the face and preventing rain from running down their neck and back.

Mom tip: Don’t tuck your kids rain pants into their rubber boots, pull the pants down over the boots instead. Also, rain water will run down your kids arms if they’re building and playing in the rain. Using an elastic around the cuff (or tightening this as much as safely possible) can help keep some water out of their arms, keeping them dryer and warmer longer.

We always bring gloves, toques, super warm socks, and winter jackets when camping. These can be layered under waterproof rain gear to keep little ones warmer in the cold rainy weather.

What’s the best rain gear for kids?

Eeek, tough question! I know some parents have some pretty strong opinions regarding gear brands. I do not. We tend to buy second hand when we can and some of our clothes have been great, some have not.

When choosing rain gear for the kids I look for zippers, not buttons. I want the jackets to have full hoods. I check the labels for words like waterproof and water-repellant and I look for brand names that I’m familiar with in Canada. Here I often choose MEC, Columbia, and North Face. But, to be honest, over the years, department store brands have fared just as well as some of the other well-reputed brands.

You can find one-piece rain suits for toddlers and little kids and these are probably very handy. I didn’t use the one-piece rain suit, but we did love our one-piece snow suits! This particular rain suit above is well-rated and super affordable too!

While waterproof plasticy clothes can be noisy and are sometimes awkward and inflexible, for the kids, for a few hours of rain play around the campground, that will get torn on branches, and covered in mud, these have been just fine. Even those cheap ponchos work and might be a novelty enough that your kids will want to throw them on to play out in the rain.

However, if you’re outside a lot in the rain and the kids will make good use of rain gear, and you’re not concerned about them getting ruined camping, then go ahead and purchase something of quality.

Just this year I purchased myself an expensive high-end rain jacket and I love it! Although, I admit, I am hesitant to use it camping for the very same reason I’m hesitant to have my kids at the campground in expensive stuff… I don’t want it to get ruined!

What to do when it rains

Have you ever spent the entire day in a tent with kids? It is not fun.

Have you ever spent the entire day in a camper with kids? It is not great, but bearable… depending on how big this camper happens to be.

Ideally, you will not find yourself stuck inside anything with kids because of the rain. Ideally, you were prepared for the weather and can at least enjoy some time outside playing and exploring even if it’s wet and muddy.

But, if it really is horrible weather or the rain is relentless it’s always good to have a few activity ideas in mind.

Rainy Day Camping Activities

If it’s warm weather, a bit of rain shouldn’t stop you too much. Throw on your rain jackets (or not) and head outside to do what you’d usually do while camping. Use the rain to your advantage… encourage the kids to get wet and dirty. Or, use the rain as a challenge for the older kids to learn and test skills.

With little kids, you can:

  • Play with buckets and tubs – let them splash and get dirty!
  • Head to the beach to make tunnels in the muddy sand or making mud cakes
  • Bring out various containers and experiment catching and measuring the rain
  • Let them have an umbrella – kids love umbrellas
  • Go biking or for a hike and look at how the world is different in the rain
  • Setting up a treasure hunt or scavenger hunt to keep them busy
2 kids playing outside in a large puddle in the rain
They’re wet from the rain anyway, might as well get their feet wet too!

Older kids might enjoy some of these activities too, but they might also like:

  • Building forts to test various designs and see which are most effective in the weather
  • Going for a bike ride to race through the puddles
  • Checking out the playground – they’ll probably have it to themselves
  • Getting geared up and going for a hike
  • Testing out various fire building techniques to build their skills with the added challenge of rain

But, not all rains are created equal and if you need a bit of dry time inside, here are a few suggestions:

  • Card games, board games, puzzle books, reading, coloring – low energy activities that you can do either in your tent/camper or under the shelter
  • If you’re a family that will have electronics on your trip, having a few movies on hand (or television shows downloaded to your phone) might be an appreciated diversion
  • Special crafts or small lego sets to surprise the kids with
  • Eating! – pull out the special treats and hot chocolate

If you’d like to read more about camping games and activities, read more here for specific camping toys and specific games that the whole family will enjoy.

Another great rainy day camping activity is jumping in the truck and going for a drive! Or, go explore! Pull out the tourist brochures or maps and go out for lunch, check out the local one-room museum, head to the bowling alley, catch a movie… go play tourist! (Just make sure your campsite is bundled up good and tight before you head off).

Tips specific to tent camping in the rain:

The best tents for rainy weather

Not all tents are created equal. The basic features I would recommend if you tend to camp in the rain a lot, make sure your tent has a vestibule, that the fly sits properly without fabric touching, and there is a good solid waterproof bottom.

This post on choosing the perfect family tent goes into more details about tent features which you might find helpful to read.

Should you put a tarp under your tent?

Many high-end tents will have an optional footprint for purchase. This footprint is a properly sized fabric which goes between the ground and your tent. Footprints are useful for protecting thin tent fabric from sharp rocks, providing a bit of insulation, and helping keep the tent dry from ground moisture.

We have tents which have specific footprints and we’ve also used tarps. Both worked just as well as the other. However, make sure that whatever you’re using, this bottom piece does not stick out past the shape of your tent. If rain falls onto that bottom footprint it will likely run and pool right under your tent and could possibly saturate your tent fabric meaning you and your sleeping gear will wake up wet.

To make sure this doesn’t happen we fold our ground tarp’s perimeter is a good foot or so smaller than the tent’s bottom perimeter.

Why is a vestibule so important?

The vestibule is the area outside your main tent’s door that is sheltered by the fly (the fabric that goes over the entire tent). Vestibules provide you with some shelter to take off your wet boots and jackets before getting into your tent. The vestibule area can also be used to store non food items and keep them dry in rainy weather… like your jackets and shoes and such.

When looking at family car camping tents, consider a tent with a vestibule large enough to store a few large tubs. Then, you can chuck everyone’s outer gear into these tubs at night or when not in use. It’ll keep the inside of the tent cleaner, the gear in one spot for easy access, and the tubs will mean you’re less likely to find critters have crawled into your gear at night.

Vestibule tip: bring a small outdoor rug or mat to put at the entrance of your main tent inside the vestibule as a dryer, cleaner spot to take off shoes in attempts to keep dirt out of the sleeping area.

There are even tents available that have giant windowed or screened vestibules that function as an outdoor room, keeping you dry (and possibly even bug free). Just, don’t eat or cook in this area as those food smells will attract animals.

Tips for setting up a tent in the rain

Biggest tip I can share from my personal experience… set up your tarp first!

If you arrive at the campsite and it’s raining and you plan to put up a tarp over the tent, do this first! Then, once the tarp is up you won’t get as much rain into the tent itself as you set it up.

This tip goes in reverse for taking down a tent in the rain – leave the tarp up until you’ve emptied and folded up your tent – again preventing rain from getting into the tent.

If you don’t plan on having a tarp over the tent, but still have a tarp shelter, would it be possible to set up the tent under the shelter and then move it to it’s spot? This probably wouldn’t work for a giant tent, but smaller tents should be easy enough to move.

A campsite with a tarp hung over the tent and picnic table
Keeping their tent protected with a large tarp, notice all the support ropes?

Keep the inside of your tent as dry as possible

This post has great advice on keeping condensation and moisture down inside your tent. The biggest advice I have here is when the rain stops, make sure to open your vents and any windows to let some air through to dry out anything which may be damp or wet.

When it’s time to pack up camp what do you do with a soggy wet tent?

If you’re done your camping trip and heading home, then just pack it into the vehicle however works… maybe into a garbage bag, wrapped up in a tarp, or folded properly in its bag. But, when you get home you must let that tent dry!

If you have space you can set it up in your yard to dry out or hang it over a railing… even hang it over the bathtub if you must. But, if that tent doesn’t have an opportunity to dry it will likely mold and get a horrible smell.

It is also a good idea to air out your sleeping bags and sleeping pads too. Chances are, even if your tent stayed dry, things still got a bit damp.

Here’s an article on cleaning your camping gear and one on proper care of sleeping bags if you want to read more.

Rainy day campfire tips

If you’re hoping to have a campfire to keep you warm and dry on a rainy camping trip then you definitely want to make sure you can get that campfire started!

A few tips to make sure you can get a fire going:

  • waterproof matches and an extra lighter
  • lots of newspaper
  • fire starters – Vaseline soaked cotton balls work well
  • an axe or hatchet for making kindling and chopping wood
  • if you’re camping close to home you can bring along some dry kindling, but do not bring firewood any distance to prevent the spread of disease and bugs
  • stash your firewood under the vehicle, under the picnic table, against a large tree trunk or under a tarp to keep it dryer

If you plan to hang out around the campfire or cook over top you may want to hang your tarps just to the edge of your campfire pit. This way one or two sides will be sheltered but the smoke will have somewhere to escape to. (Also, remember that sparks can burn holes in your taps so you might not want to use your super expensive lightweight backpacking tarp for over the fire!)

Another option instead of the campfire is to bring along a propane fire pit. These are handy because you can move them around to the best spot and you don’t have to worry about getting the fire started or getting smoked out under your tarp, but you still get to enjoy huddling around those warm cozy flames.

Here’s an article full of all sorts of fire-pit accessories to snazzy up your camping campfires.

Extra tips for surviving a camping trip in the rain:

  • Bring along coins and change to use the campsite’s dryer (if they have one)
  • Use large plastic tubs to store extra clothes, shoes, and coats (this will keep them dry even if you have to store them outside your tent or camper)
  • String up a hanging line under the tarp to dry items that become wet
  • Extra clothes, extra coats, extra socks, extra pjs
  • Rain boots or flip flops for footwear
  • Warm weather and rain? Enjoy! Play, splash, swim!
  • Cold weather and rain? Hunker down with a campfire to warm up and dry out when needed
  • A propane firepit can be used safely under a higher awning or tarp and is easier than starting a fire with wet wood
  • Good quality rain gear is worth it
  • Consider waterproofing your outer gear with a waterproofing spray before the trip
  • Bring towels to dry off with – quick dry towels work great for camping!

And remember, there’s nothing wrong with going out for milkshakes or catching a movie when the weather really won’t cooperate.

Hopefully these tips will help you plan your next rainy weather camping trip. If you have any other tips for staying dry while camping please add them below.

Happy camping!

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