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How to Stay Dry in the Woods, Part Two: Plastic Bags 101

By Bill Greer

On a beginner backpack trip I lead a few years ago we had a good mix of beginner and experienced hikers. As luck would have it we arrived at our camp in a pouring rain. After an hour or so the rain quite and we all emerged from our tents. The contrast between the beginners and experts was pretty obvious. Most of the experts were dry and happy; most of the beginners were a bit damp around the edges. For this article I would like to look at how to stay in the “dry and happy” category. I’ve already looked at rain gear in Part One. This time we’ll look at most other things you need to have and do.

Staying happy in the rain starts before you leave home. How you pack for the trip is vital to staying dry once it starts raining. Everything that you want to stay dry must be in a plastic bag. Don’t trust stuff sacks or your pack to keep anything dry. Both of them will leak in a hard rain. Line all stuff sacks with a plastic bag before you start stuffing the stuff. Turkey roasting bags are great but even they are not indestructible. I’ve seen the end blow out leaving a tough but leaky tube. Carry spares. On a wet trip I promise you’ll find uses for them. Be careful stuffing stuff in your lined stuff sacks, it’s easy to poke a finger through the liner bag. Pay particular attention to your toilet paper. Wet tp is pretty useless. Some things you don’t need to worry about. What does it hurt if your cook pot gets a little wet?

Many people carry a pack cover which goes over their backpack when it rains. If you’ve got everything in the pack protected properly you really don’t need one but it certainly won’t hurt anything. Carry a large 35 to 50 gallon bag to store your pack in at night. It keeps rain and critters out of the pack. 

Wearing proper clothing makes a huge difference when it rains. Above all else leave the cotton at home! It’s cold and clammy when wet and takes forever to dry. Everything you’re wearing should be one of the synthetic fibers that dry quickly. I like to bring a good cotton wash cloth but otherwise leave the cotton at home. Have at least one extra set of underwear, socks, and tee shirt. Gaiters really help keep rain out of your boots. They should be under your rain pants. Don’t dress too warmly or you’ll sweat and get everything wet from the inside.

Once you reach camp you will no doubt want your tent up. Your tent has two tasks it must accomplish to keep you dry: keep outside water (rain) outside and get inside water (mostly your exhaled moisture and vapor from damp clothing) outside. Many of the things you need for both tasks involve the design and construction of your tent.

Some tents work much better than others when it rains. If you want to stay dry when it rains your tent must have a full coverage rain fly. The moisture you exhale will condense on the first impermeable surface it meets. If that’s your rain fly it gets wet but you stay dry. If any part of the body of your tent is impermeable that part will get wet and pretty soon thereafter so will you. Lots or room between the rain fly and body is a good thing. A big vestibule lets you leave some wet stuff outside. Extra room is nice when it’s rainy outside and gear starts to explode inside your tent. Be sure the tent is completely seam sealed. Of course most of these good features add weight that has to be carried rain or shine.

Getting your tent up in the rain is all about speed. You want to get the thing up before it gets too wet. Get the rain fly over your tent as soon as possible even if it’s not attached. Another way to do it is to have two friends hold your tent fly up while you erect your tent underneath it. Then, just lower the fly into position and attach it. Poles that attach with clips rather than sleeves help here. Use all points that are provided for attaching tent pegs. The loops high up on the side of your tent are vital to prevent a broken pole if the wind blows. Extra loops around the lower edge of the rain fly keep it away from the tent body and help hold it in place in the wind. If you see a loop on the outside of your tent it’s there for a reason. Use good tent pegs. The wire gizmos that come with most tents are pretty useless at best and worse when the ground is wet. The yellow plastic pegs are best and they’re cheap. There are some metal “Y” shaped pegs that are pretty good for smaller tents. A good tight pitch helps keep the rain fly and tent body separated. Be sure they don’t touch.

Once your tent is up keep the rain fly open as much as possible. It doesn’t do any good to keep all the rain out if you get wet from condensation. Put as much wet stuff as you can in your spare plastic bags. Don’t unpack your dry cloths until you’ve used your wash cloth to mop up any water you tracked in. Don’t unpack your sleeping bag until bed time.

On the Big Bend trip in 2007 we got an ice storm. This will cause problems with just about any tent because of the weight. You will have to knock the ice off any time it builds up or the weight will push the rain fly down onto your tent body. This will cause the inevitable condensation on the inside of your rain fly to drip on your nose in the middle of the night.

When the sun finally does come back out enjoy it! You will no doubt have a renewed appreciation of the joys of a sunny afternoon. Spread anything that got wet out in the sunshine to dry. Do the same thing with your own body.

I hope all this helps you out the next time it rains on your wilderness parade. A rainy day does have a special beauty. But I would have to confess that after all these years I still prefer the sunshine.

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