Marco Johnson, a National Outdoor Leadership School instructor of 34 years, has a weathered saying he tells his camping skills students. “Anyone can camp when the weather is nice,” he says. “But you understand who you are as a backcountry traveler if you can not only survive but thrive in inclement weather.” Johnson says that getting comfortable camping in the rain is part mindset and part practice—with a high potential for payoff. Namely, savoring normally busy areas by yourself after fair-weather campers bail. “If you have the right attitude and skills, you will have a great time while everyone else is headed to the car,” he says. Here are Johnson’s tips to help you enjoy camping in the rain.
Embrace the Wetness
“Once you have committed to it, realize, ‘I am going to get wet,’ regardless of how good your rain gear or equipment is,” Johnson says. “It’s just a matter of saying, ‘I am going to deal with this, this is fine.’” Rain shouldn’t stop you from making the same smart choices in the backcountry you would when skies are blue—like eating, hydrating, packing the right layers, and picking a safe campsite. Keeping a clear head to make those decisions comes down to perspective. “When all is said and done, it is going to end,” Johnson says. “It may end because the weather changes or because I am in my shelter and am warm and dry.”
Find Natural Shelter
The view from camp is less important in bad weather, so Johnson suggests looking for trees or other naturally occurring rain breaks to set up your camp instead. Use coniferous or big leafy trees to your benefit. “They can reduce or even take away the rain that will fall on you so you can put up your shelter and not be as exposed,” Johnson says. “Once my shelter is up, I pick a really excellent cook site underneath a tree to be more or less protected from the weather.” Also, be sure to maintain Leave No Trace practices in your carefully chosen campsite.
Bring an Extra Tarp
If Johnson anticipates inclement weather, he will bring a lightweight fly shelter to create a dry space for setting up his tent and kitchen. “I will find a really nice spot and set the fly up first, high enough that I can walk under it,” he says. Then he erects his tent underneath that to stay out of the weather. Once the tent is set up, he moves it out from under the canopy so the fly acts like a covered front porch for the tent. If he is not camping in bear country (where you should set up your kitchen far from camp) Johnson will then use that zone to cook.
Bring an Umbrella
A surprising item that Johnson uses regularly is a cheap golf umbrella. It gives him a personal movable shelter in poor weather. “Let’s say I’m in bear country, so my kitchen is not going to be close by my tent—that umbrella is going to be my personal shelter while I am cooking,” Johnson says. “I can sit on the ground and have the umbrella shaft on my shoulder, and the umbrella just sits over me.”
Line Everything with Trash Bags
You can never be too careful in foul weather. “In some ways, nothing is waterproof because it can get holes in it,” Johnson says, so he recommends doubling up your protection by lining your pack with heavy duty trash bags. It’s cheap insurance. If you don’t have nice waterproof gear to begin with, don’t sweat it. “You can use nylon zip bags and line them with good, thick garbage bags,” he says. Light colored trash bags are the way to go because they make it easier to see everything. “Going in to a black garbage bag is like going into a black hole,” Johnson says.
Quarantine Your Wet Gear
Whether it is under a tarp, rain fly, or umbrella, Johnson will take off his Gore-Tex, or whatever soaked outer layers he is wearing, and fold them all up and put them where they won’t impact his camp. “The vestibule is where everything wet or damp lives,” Johnson says. “Wet gear does not go inside.” If he doesn’t have a place out of the weather to stash those things, he’ll put them in a stuff sack or dry bag to quarantine them from spreading wetness.