RAIN WAS in the forecast, but I didn’t put a lot of thought into preparing camp for it. After all, there were spring turkeys to hunt. Just hours later, I was carving the breast meat off a gobbler when the first raindrop splattered on my cap. After camp chores and a late dinner, I crawled into the sleeping bag, tired but happy, with plans for another turkey in my sights as a gentle shower tickled the tent’s rain fly.
Around midnight, I awoke to fat drops plopping on my forehead. I clicked on the headlamp. A small river ran across the tent floor. Everything—clothes, sleeping bag, boots, TP—was drenched. I was drenched, and I still don’t know how I’d slept through as much as I did. Wet, cold, and helpless to do anything about it in the rain and darkness, I splashed to the truck, hoping to catch a few more winks before assessing the damage in the morning light.
It was bad. I couldn’t even build a fire for a hot breakfast. Totally defeated, I broke camp and headed back home to recoup, losing two precious vacation days to travel and drying all my stuff.
I learned the hard way on that miserable night. Here’s what I should have done.
1. Go high.
In my haste to get after the birds, I failed to assess the lay of the land, and I pitched my tent in a low spot. Always look for elevation. This could be a life-or-death decision when camping near rivers and creeks. What you think is a passing shower could turn into a deluge, and a flash flood can wipe out your camp with little to no warning.
2. Choose high-quality waterproof equipment.
A low-quality tent was part of my undoing on that turkey-hunting trip. Don’t skimp. Read the reviews, and talk to serious campers about what they choose to use during inclement weather. The same goes for outerwear and footwear.
Those few extra bucks in your pocket won’t be much comfort when you’re soaked to the bone. Since most of my wet-weather excursions are in pursuit of a finned, feathered or furred quarry, my outwear is usually from Orvis or Cabela’s. After several briar-scarred years, Keen Kovens still keep my feet dry and comfortable. In the worst conditions, I pull on a pair of all-rubber LaCrosse boots at the campsite, but those are hunting boots and not designed for hiking.
3. Bring a tarp.
Use parachute cord to tie off to trees and create a “porch” for your tent; even cover the tent if you don’t trust your rain fly. Under the edge of the tarp, you can (if you’re careful) build a small fire (emphasis on “small”) to dry out clothes and yourself. Make sure the tarp is high enough to prevent melting or other damage. Proper height will vary according to the fire size, wind conditions and tarp material. Always—always—angle the tarp so smoke and hot gases can easily escape. It’s best to experiment with a cheap tarp in dry conditions before testing your plan in a downpour. If the ground is damp from previous rain, slip the folded tarp under your sleeping bag inside the tent to serve as a moisture barrier.
4. Wear wool underneath.
Even when wet, you’ll stay warm in wool. Wool dries quickly, doesn’t collect BO, and the list of attributes goes on and on. Wool socks are now a must-have when I’m doing anything outdoors in damp conditions. Wool base layers are on when it’s nippy. Avoid cotton. In the cold rain, cotton is the antithesis of wool.
5. Use a dry bag.
The sack that keeps your TP and other delicate items dry in the canoe will keep them dry in the rain as well.
6. Give vittles consideration.
Some folks say to prepare for the worst (too wet for a fire) and pack eats you can enjoy cold: sardines, fruit, sandwiches and such. But if I’ve got a relatively dry fire site, damp wood never stopped me from building a fire, which leads me to No. 7 on the list …
7. If at all possible, build a fire.
My desire for a fire is why I bring the tarp nowadays. Always bring a lighter, with water-proof matches as backup. Once you have a semi-dry fire site secured, start looking for tinder. Inner tree bark—particularly cedar—and dead grass are my favorites. Strips of denim or cotton balls smeared copiously with petroleum jelly are the best homemade options. Look for kindling material such as twigs and bark in sheltered places. Once the kindling is good and hot, even wet fuel wood should burn (as long as it’s small, fairly well seasoned and not green). Not only will the fire dry you out and provide a hot meal, but the psychological benefits of warm flames and sweet wood smoke are guaranteed to lighten the mood on even the dreariest of days.