How to Go Camping: Part Two — Staying Dry


In our camping utopia, it never rains. In the real world, it might. You can mitigate the risk of getting wet by using natural features (hiding under trees, rock ledges, etc.) or you can bring some sort of shelter. Everybody knows what a tent is. The other options are tarps and bivy sacks.

The first (and last) thing to do before heading out for a camping trip is to check the weather forecast. Weather forecasts are worthless more than 24 hours beforehand, so check it right before you get packed. If there is a slight chance of drizzle, you can probably get by with just a bivy. If there is a chance of some rain, you need a tarp. If it might pour cats and dogs, or there’s a chance of thunderstorms, you want either a big tarp, or a tent.

Picking your spot:

First things first, though. As long as you’re not staying in a campground, you have some flexibility in where to lay down. If it rains, you might get wet, so pick a good spot. Look around for a spot that’s flat and level (or nearly so). If you lay down on a slope, you might slide off your sleeping pad, and that sucks.

You also want a spot that’s a few inches higher than the surrounding area. If it rains hard, you don’t want to sleep in a spot where water is likely to pool up.

Where to sleep

Pine Trees:

If heavy rain is not in the forecast, and if you only brought a bivy, you can sleep under the lowest branches of a big pine tree. All the pine needles above you will catch the big drops if it starts to drizzle. You might not stay 100% dry, but a good pine tree will keep a lot of rain away. Pine trees also smell nice. Additionally, they usually drop tons of soft fluffy pine needles on the ground, which are nice to sleep on. Make sure to look up in the tree to make sure there are no big, dead branches that might fall on you in the middle of the night.

Here is a diagram depicting the correct place to sleep when using a big pine tree to lessen the rain.

Artistic impression of hiding under a pine tree

Bivy Sacks:
A bivy is basically a waterproof bag that you sleep in. Put your sleeping bag or quilt inside it, and crawl in. Over the years, I have carried a Cabela’s one, a Hilleberg one, and one that I made myself. A bivy will keep the rain off you, but the ventilation is bad, and you might get sweaty.

Here is a picture of a bunch of my jackass friends sleeping in bivy sacks.
A bunch of jackasses in bivy bags

A tarp is just a rectangle of waterproof fabric. You set it up with two (or more) sticks, some string, and at least 6 stakes. They can be a little tricky to setup, until you’ve done it a time or two. They keep you dry in everything but wind-driven sideways rain. You can set them up under a tree to filter out some of the heavier rain – like this.

Tarp + tree

When I don’t expect it to rain, I carry a 58″x 104″ tarp which doubles as a rain poncho. This particular model weighs 8oz, and is made in Williamsport, PA. It rocks, and you should get one. You’re going to want a rain jacket of some sort anyways. You might was well bring one that doubles as a shelter.

This is the poncho setup as a shelter.
Equinox Poncho

Here it is in super-hero cape mode:
Equinox Poncho / Super Hero cape

If there’s a reasonably good chance of rain, I carry an 8’x10′ tarp. Weighs 14 oz, still made in Williamsport.

One of the best things about a tarp is that you can see out all around the perimeter. In the middle of the night, you might hear woodland creatures scurrying about. In a tent, you will be convinced that there is a family of grizzly bears coming to eat you. In a tarp, you can quickly look around and see that it’s just a chipmunk, and go back to sleep.

When all hell is expected to break loose, a tent may be in order (although an 8×10 tarp is pretty weatherproof). Tents are expensive, heavy, and usually more trouble than they’re worth. They do keep the bugs out, though. Tents give you the feeling of “going inside” at the end of the day. I feel that this somewhat defeats the purpose of going camping in the first place, but some people get a sense of security sleeping “in” something. Tents are also nice in a crowded campground, because you can change your clothes without offending the sensibilities of the church ladies in the neighboring camp site.

Me setting up my tent in a State Park campground

Here’s a matrix of my thinking on the pros and cons of various shelter strategies:

Shelter Type Advantages Disadvantages
Pine Tree
  • free!
  • no weight to carry
  • Can be hard to find
  • only good for light rain
  • Sap / Pine cones might fall on you
  • lightweight
  • Easy to setup
  • Takes up no room in backpack
  • No room to storge extra gear
  • no ventilation
  • lightweight
  • good ventilation
  • nice views
  • bugs, snakes etc, might join you
  • doesn’t keep out wind driven rain
  • can be a pain to setup
  • Keeps out everything
    • rain
    • bugs
    • wind
  • Privacy in campgrounds
  • Good ones are expensive
  • can be a pain to setup
  • Very heavy
  • take up tons of room in your pack
  • ventiation is sometimes bad

So, there you have it. You now know how to sleep in the woods without getting wet. Up next, how to stay warm.

8 thoughts on “How to Go Camping: Part Two — Staying Dry

  1. I’ve had problems with bugs once. Bugs usually aren’t bad in the mountains, but this time I was staying by a lake, and I forgot to bring bug repellent. I usually don’t camp in the summertime, though. Bugs aren’t an issue in late fall / early spring.

    There’s a good book called Beyond Backpacking that goes into tarps in some detail.

  2. Daniel

    I’ve got to say this post was very entertaining, good job. I went camping last month and a friend of mine brought a hammock that had a net to keep bugs away and a tarp to keep rain out. It is very similar to a tarp, but in hammock mode. You also don’t have to worry about bringing a mattress or look for level ground. All you need are two trees and the hammock weighs close to nothing. You might look into that, seems it would suite you fine.

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