Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head…When You Need A Better Tent

21 10 2009

It always rains on tents.  Rainstorms will travel thousands of miles, against prevailing winds, for the opportunity to rain on a tent.

— Dave Barry

While I don’t know if there is really some gravitational pull between tents and rainstorms (actually, I do know — there’s not), it does seem to rain at least sometimes on the very nights one chooses to pitch a tent.  Unless you enjoy getting dripped on while you sleep, or worse, sleeping on wet ground, it’s important to have a good tent that will keep you dry.

I have a little two-person tent that I got for free by collecting points in a promotion years ago.  I did no research on the brand (Wenzel); I was a poor student planning a lengthy road trip on the cheap and there was nothing cheaper than “free.”  Here is my tent:


That’s at Grant Village in Yellowstone National Park, by the way…but we’ll talk about that another time.  Since I had done no research on tents, I was a little apprehensive about how waterproof this free tent would be.  I found out the night that photo was taken.  It poured.  I mean, it rained cats and dogs and buffalo and small dinosaurs.  Inside my tent, however, I stayed completely dry.  When I crawled out of the tent the next morning, the guy who was cooking bacon outside of the RV across the way said, “Hey!  There’s a person in there!  We were wondering if you got washed away!”  I thanked him for his concern and ate a piece of his bacon.

But I digress.  Mooching yummy breakfast meats from fellow campers is not today’s topic.

So, Her Side, you may ask, how do I find the right tent?  Well, I’ll tell you.  You find the right tent by asking yourself the following questions:

What is the right size tent for me?  There are one-person tents on the market, and some solo camper/hikers prefer these ultralight, ultrasmall shelters:


It’s cool looking, right?  The major drawbacks of these teeny tents is that, while the descriptions may claim you can change your clothes inside, I think that would be a feat of contortionism.  Also, I’m a little claustrophobic, and so I would feel uncomfortable in such a tiny space.  So it’s not for me.

A standard two-person tent is nice because it’s a little roomier, but still small and lightweight.  For serious backpackers, the extra weight might be a dealbreaker, but for casual campers, this isn’t usually an issue.

What kind of footprint should I use?  (And what’s a “footprint?”)  A footprint is a separate piece of material that goes between the tent floor and the ground.  It’s important for a couple of reasons.  First, it will keep you drier and more comfortable.  You know how when you sit on the ground in the morning, your pants get wet?  The same thing will happen to the floor of your tent while you sleep.  Sleeping in a puddle is not fun.  The footprint adds an extra layer of protection between you and the wet ground.

Second, a footprint protects the wear and tear on your tent floor.  The footprint will take the abuse from the ground and keep the grit away from the tent floor, protecting it from punctures and the like.  Because a footprint is a separate item — and usually sold separately — it’s easier to replace than the tent floor (which you replace by throwing away your tent and buying a new one).

One important thing to remember is that the footprint should be slightly smaller than the tent.  Many tents have recommended footprints or companion footprints.  I use a tarp, and fold it to slightly smaller than the tent itself — it’s even more durable, and multipurpose, and since I’m not carrying it on a backpack, the extra weight isnt a problem.  Why slightly smaller?  Well, if it extends beyond the floor of the tent, and it rains, guess where that water is going to run?  If you guessed, “between the footprint and the tent floor and pooling under me while I sleep,” then you win.  There’s no prize, but feel free to gloat.

What features should I look for?  I’m assuming that, like me, you’re casual camping during the warmer months.  For winter camping and more extreme conditions, you should speak with your local camping supply store clerk.  For standard late spring/summer/early fall camping, the following should suffice:

  • Lightweight, alluminum collapsible tent poles that are easy to distinguish from one another (the ones connected by a bungee practically set themselves up)
  • Mesh areas for venthilation and allowing relief from summer heat
  • A rainfly that extends enough beyond the mesh areas to protect from the rain but allows for air flow
  • Reinforced, durable material where the tent poles attach (loops, corners, etc.)
  • The ability to stake your tent.  I like freestanding tents for ease of set up, but sometimes you have to stake it down.

Thanks, Her Side.  I found the perfect tent.  Now, how do I take care it? 

  • Before any camping trip, particularly if I haven’t used my tent in a while, I set it up at home.  This is important for three reasons: 1) to make sure it’s in good shape, no tears or issues to deal with; 2) to make sure I have all the pieces and nothing is missing; 3) to remind myself how to set it up and break it down with minimum fuss.
  • Use a footprint to protect the tent floor from wear and tear, as discussed above.
  • Clear the ground of rocks/sticks/debris before you set up the tent, to minimize risk of puncture.
  • Take off your shoes before getting into the tent.  This helps protect the tent floor from internal abuse, and it also keeps the grit and dirt outside (it’s a pain to clean the inside of the tent).
  • Be careful with sharp objects inside/around the tent, to avoid punctures.
  • Sweep/shake out the tent when breaking it down.
  • Don’t pack the tent while it’s wet.  Sometimes this is unavoidable, but if you must pack the tent wet, try to set it up again as soon as is practical to let it air out and dry.

That’s about it.  Now, I’m going to go look into this whole “tents attract rain” theory…

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.