How to Pitch a Tent in Rain and Keep It Dry

By Michael Lanza

It’s a situation all backpackers eventually encounter, no matter how hard you try to avoid it: You reach a backcountry campsite in a steady rain and must try to pitch your tent without soaking the interior. How successfully you accomplish that will greatly affect how warm and dry you remain that night—and probably how well-rested and good you feel the next morning. Follow these tips to keep your backpacking shelter and gear dry in that scenario.

I’ve had to pitch a tent in rain countless times, from the White Mountains to the North Cascades, Olympic National Park, and Alaska’s Glacier Bay, among other places over the past three-plus decades of backpacking all over the country—including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.

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A backpacker at Sahale Glacier Camp in North Cascades National Park.
David Ports at Sahale Glacier Camp in North Cascades National Park. Click on the photo to see my 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.

Here’s the problem with getting your tent’s interior wet when erecting it: If the rain—and high humidity—continues, the interior is unlikely to dry out much overnight. That means everything you bring into the tent, including your extra clothing and sleeping bag (which have hopefully stayed dry in your pack; see my picks for the best stuff sacks and other backpacking accessories), will get wet via contact with the interior’s wet floor and walls.

And that means it will likely all be damp or quite wet when you pack up in the morning—and compressing a damp bag into a stuff sack ensures the spread of that moisture throughout the bag. Then you’re really hoping for the sun to come out by the time you reach your next campsite so that you can lay your bag and other stuff out to dry.

To avoid that unpleasant circumstance, follow the tips below.

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Backpackers at a rainy camp along the High Divide Trail in Olympic National Park.
David Ports and Jeff Wilhelm at a rainy camp along the High Divide Trail in Olympic National Park.

When pitching a tent in a steady rain, if possible, assemble it under a thick canopy of tree branches, which often provides some shelter from the rain. Once it’s set up, you can move it to your preferred tentsite and stake it out.

Whether or not you have some protection under a tree, with any traditional double-wall tent—that is, a shelter consisting of an interior, mesh-walled tent and a separate rainfly—first spread the interior tent on the ground and have the rainfly ready to quickly spread over the tent, before inserting the poles.

Then crawl under the rainfly to erect the poles, keeping the interior tent largely protected from direct rainfall. It’s a little awkward but not very difficult and usually succeeds in keeping your interior tent dry.

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A rainbow over a backpacker hiking through a rainstorm in Wyoming's Wind River Range.
A rainbow over Todd Arndt while backpacking through a rainstorm in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Click photo to read about backpacking in the Winds.

Still raining the next morning? If you get a rain-free window, certainly take advantage of it to pack up. Otherwise, load most of your stuff into your pack inside the tent; then step outside, shield your pack from rain as well as possible (under a rain cover or even a tree); and just as when you pitched the tent, dismantle it with the rainfly protecting the interior tent, then stuff the latter inside your pack and the wet rainfly into an exterior stuff pocket.

If you frequently backpack in a wet climate and often find yourself setting up a tent in rain, consider that when buying your next tent—look for a model that pitches quickly and easily and perhaps has a rainfly integrated with the interior living space.

Got any questions or tips of your own? Please share them in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

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A backpacker hiking through rain showers on the Grand Canyon's Royal Arch Loop.
Jon Dorn backpacking through rain showers on the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop. Click photo to read about backpacking in the Grand Canyon.

See “7 Pro Tips for Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry,” “10 Expert Tips For Staying Warm and Dry Hiking in Rain,” “5 Smart Steps to Lighten Your Backpacking Gear,” all of my stories offering expert backpacking tips, plus “The 10 Best Backpacking Tents.”

See also my “5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent” and “How to Choose the Best Ultralight Tent for You.” (Both of those stories require a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full, which costs as little as six bucks, or just $5 per month for an entire year.)

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See The Big Outside’s Gear Reviews page for categorized menus of gear reviews and expert buying tips.

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Leave a Comment

2 thoughts on “How to Pitch a Tent in Rain and Keep It Dry”

  1. Just got back from several days in the Sawtooths (and that lightning storm two nights ago was impressive!) where we were lucky to never have to pitch or pack up in the rain. But it was close! And walking through all the wet brush was not so fun. I am feeling happy to be dry. But it was beautiful!