So for the past couple of days, I’ve been reliving the trails a group of friends and I did in the Wichita Mountains. I also hinted at the rainy weather.
You all experienced it, most likely from inside your home, car, or on the way from one dry locale to the other.
Not us. We had no choice but to endure rains that started Friday evening and didn’t quit
until we were almost home Sunday night. A lot of people suffer when camping in these conditions. Most just bail and go home.
Now, a little disclaimer: The Doris Campgrounds in the Wichitas are like a lot of campsites in Oklahoma. There were restrooms, shelters and even a shower room. Some campsites had electrical hookups for people with RVs and such. So it’s not like we were out in the bush. Pretty cush by camping standards.
But I’ve had some experience in backcountry environments where rain became rather ever-present, just like it was last weekend. We humans are unlike most creatures in that we really don’t do well in wet environments, mostly because we’ve been conditioned to keep ourselves dry and warm, mostly through the conveniences of modern life.
If you’re camping, a lot of those niceties are absent.
In our group, most people slept in tents. Temperatures stayed in the upper 40s at night and the high 50s during the day. And the rain didn’t stop.
So there’s two different things that come into play when dealing with moisture: what you wear and where you sleep.
What to wear
What you wear is easy. Stay away from cotton. Synthetic fabrics shed moisture better, be it from sweat or rain. Breathable water-resistant jackets and pants are also very helpful. Wool socks or synthetic fiber socks will help keep your feet dry and, in the unfortunate scenario where you immerse your shoes in water, the socks dry out quicker than cotton. Finally, a water-proof boot. Leave the sneakers at home. And if you’re tempted to wear waterproof sandals, don’t bother. Your feet will stay wet, leaving your skin more prone to cuts.
Don’t get me wrong, cotton is a great fiber. It’s versatile, cool and comfortable. Except when it’s wet. It takes forever to dry out and leaves you clammy and cold. In colder temps, wet clothes become not just uncomfortable, but leave you at risk of hypothermia.
My wool cap kept my head surprisingly dry and warm, and the fact my jacket had a hood helped. Dressed right, I didn’t have any problems with cold or wetness. Others in our group weren’t as fortunate, having arrived in jeans, hoodies, T-shirts, athletic socks and running shoes. Fine for dry conditions, but all that cotton just made them soggy.
Where to sleep
This is a little more difficult, mostly because you can find good rain clothes for cheap. Not so much with shelter. When it comes to tents, you get what you pay for.
I brought three tents to help house the group. Two were used, one stayed in the car.
One tent was what you might find in the aisles at Walmart. It was large, roomy, easy to set up. When it bought it many years ago, it was inexpensive, like maybe $60. It can sleep as many as six. It had a rainfly that came down about a quarter way to the ground. This was a fine tent for easy, dry conditions many moons ago. But it would be severely tested by the rains that hit us last weekend.
My other tent was a relatively economical three-man backpacking tent made by Eureka. It cost me about $170 when I bought it four years ago. It’s light, close to the ground and comfortably sleeps two, three a little tighter. It has a rainfly that went down within 18 inches of the ground.
The rains came, the winds blew. The bigger, cheaper tent leaked on the side where the wind blew the rain into the tent wall. Two campers slept dry, but the other two closest to the leaking wall did not.
Two guys slept in my Eureka tent. When we broke camp on Sunday, I went to the tent to take it down. Peeking inside, I saw that it was bone dry.
Three other tents were used on this trip. Two were cheaper (one was an off-brand tent, the other a Bass Pro labeled tent), much like the big one I brought. They both leaked. The third, a four-season Sierra Designs model (retails at more than $500) was rock steady and dry.
You don’t have to spend $500 to stay dry. My two-man Kelty has kept my dry on numerous rainy camping trips, and it only set me back $110. But if you buy a cheap tent, it will have limitations. Especially in bad weather. It will wear out faster. Poles will fail earlier. Tears will occur quicker. If you’re serious about tent camping, don’t skimp here. I’m not knocking Walmart of Bass Pro, but the cheaper tents they sell simply aren’t made for inclement weather.
A couple other things: Be careful where you set up your shelter. A nice flat spot in an area where rainwater drains will assure you a damp evening and little sleep. If you’re worried about runoff, dig a small, U-shaped trench around your tent, with the closed end of the U on the uphill side. This will channel water around your tent, then let it drain downhill without getting underneath it.
Keeping warm outside
Despite the rain, we kept a fire going. We kept it dry by doing a couple of things. First, we kept it small. That allowed us to built a tarp covering that kept the rain out and sheltered those who gathered by the fire pit. We used dead wood gathered around the campsite for fuel, but it was all pretty wet. But with a fire going, we simply built a ring of wood around the fire (not in the flames, but close enough for the heat to dry the wet pieces out). Credit two campers in our group from Washington state, a place where wet conditions are common.
Having a camp fire does wonders for morale. It gives people a warm place to hang out and talk while warding off the damp chill of the night. Add some hot coffee or cocoa – it does wonders for the soul.
Some of these examples don’t translate too well into backpacking, but most do. In any case, it’s not impossible to camp in rainy conditions and still have a good time. In fact, it’s very possible. Heck, if you plan for it, the weather nature throws at you might actually add to the ambiance of being outdoors.