OCEAN SHORES - Apparently I can add my ability to light a fire in a Northwest downpour to the long list of skills my wife finds totally unimpressive.
As two friends and I hustled to set up camp on a rainy evening at Ocean City State Park I couldn’t help but think our wives must be in awe of our Bear Grylls-like survival skills.
But as we pitched tents, erected a rain shelter and moved gear I noticed my wife was nowhere to be seen. Then my cell phone rang.
It was Kristen, my wife, calling from inside the tent.
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“Water is coming inside the tent,” she said in a panic.
I peaked inside our colossal tent to see Kristen perched on an air mattress with several kids pointing at a tiny puddle that wasn’t deep enough to drown an ant.
“Don’t worry,” I said reassuringly. Then I went back to work.
Fifteen minutes later the phone rang again.
“It’s still leaking,” she said, this time sounding more distressed.
True, I’d made the mistake of assuming the house-size Costco-special tent would handle the elements as well as my backpacking gear, but I didn’t think the leaks warranted what came next.
As the rain continued and the last of our 22-person party arrived, Kristen and the other wives huddled and made a decision. They were going home.
Only nine of us – myself, a friend and seven boys ranging in age from a set of 1-year-old twins to a 17-year-old – gutted out the rain all weekend.
Yes, the cheap tent leaked so bad that I had to cover my son and myself with a poncho, but we managed to stay warm and relatively dry all weekend. And the rain couldn’t keep us from hiking, playing soccer on the beach, playing games, roasting s’mores and telling ghost stories around the fire.
As the weekend unfolded, I had a similar thought to what Hoh Rain Forest ranger Jon Preston likes to say. “It’s too bad so many people are intimidated by camping in the rain,” Preston said. “They are missing out.”
Camping doesn’t have to be a summer-only activity.
“A good friend of mine says ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear,’” said Kevin Bacher, a ranger at Mount Rainier National Park.
With that in mind, we asked three rain camping veterans – Preston, Bacher and Mountaineers trip leader Lawrence Landauer – for tips that increase the chances of making rain camping enjoyable for the entire family. Here’s what they told us.
1. BE SMART
Camping in the rain can be fun if you do it right, but check the forecast to make sure you aren’t putting yourself and your family in danger.
“Be realistic about the difference between a wet trip and an unsafe one,” Landauer said. “For example, camping on an exposed place in a lightning storm may be fun – until the lightning hits.”
2. BRING EXTRA CLOTHES
“Covet one set of clothes and don’t let them get wet,” said Preston, who has worked at Olympic National Park since 1992.
Keep these clothes in your car and use plastic bags to keep your wet clothes separate from your dry ones.
Bacher suggests keeping your next day’s clothes in the bottom of your sleeping bag so they are warm, dry and close when you wake up.
3. GET A GOOD RAIN FLY
Make sure you take a tent with a rain fly that protects most of the tent.
“Some tent flies don’t cover enough of the tent sides, and water soaks through,” Landauer said.
Bacher says it’s important to open your tent vents even if it’s cold.
“An unventilated tent collects condensation, which is almost as bad as the rain,” he said.
5. PICK HIGHER GROUND
Don’t pitch your tent in a site where water will pool.
Bacher still has memories of pitching a tent on a nice soft patch of ground at Crater Lake National Park on a family camping trip when he was a kid.
“Unfortunately, as we found out that night, it was so soft and sandy because it was the channel where all the water drained off the campsite,” Bacher said. “We woke up in an inch of water and spent the rest of the night in the car, and the next day at a laundromat.”
6. KNOW YOUR TENT
Pitch your tent a couple of times at home so you are familiar with it before your first camping trip. Pitching your tent for the first time in the rain is a good way to be miserable.
7. USE A TARP
Preston says tarps are vital for an enjoyable rain camping experience.
Hang a tarp over your tent and over your picnic table for places where you can stand out of the rain.
Make sure you hang your tarp in a manner that doesn’t damage trees or allow water to pool on the tarp.
8. USE A GROUND CLOTH
Putting a ground cloth under your tent will do wonders for keeping water out of your tent.
“It’s also good for your tent,” Preston said.
The ground cloth should be slightly smaller than the footprint of the tent. If it’s not, tuck the edges under the tent.
“If the ground cloth extends past the tent, rain will fall on top of the cloth and run under the tent,” Landauer said.
9. GO SYNTHETIC
“Shy away from cotton,” Preston said.
Cotton traps moisture and does not dry as quickly as synthetic materials. Synthetic clothes and undergarments can keep you warm even when they are wet.
This goes for sleeping bags too.
“Down sleeping bags are comfortable and warm, but no good if they get really wet,” Landauer said.
Landauer also recommends sleeping bag covers.
10. COOK OUTSIDE
No matter how rainy it gets, never cook in your tent.
This can be a fire and asphyxiation hazard.
“It’s much better to get a tarp or portable awning that’s large enough to put up well above so you can cook and eat outside the tent,” Landauer said.
11. EAT AND DRINK RIGHT
Good food and warm drinks will make rain camping more enjoyable.
“A good warm drink can be the difference between grouchy kids who are begging to go home and happy kids who are playing by the edge of the river,” Preston said.
Remember to keep food in the car at night to avoid attracting rodents and bears, Bacher said.
12. HAVE FUN
You still can have fun in the rain.
Landauer likes to sing songs, play cards, tell stories and watch how animals deal with the rain. Bacher suggest books and games.
“Snuggling in the sleeping bag with your sweetheart is also good,” Bacher said.
But don’t spend all your time in the tent.
Waterfalls, rivers and lakes “are especially interesting in the rain,” Landauer said.
“Bring good rain gear, boots and changes of clothes so you can go hiking,” Bacher said. “You won’t regret it and, once you get going, even the kids will love it. It’s far better than dealing with bored kids in the tent anyway.”
The rain also creates a good time to practice survival skills such as lighting a fire in the rain, Landauer said.
13. CLEAN UP
Bacher says pack your wet gear loosely in your vehicle for the return trip rather than trying to stuff it into its original sacks.
Clean and dry your gear promptly so it is not ruined by mold.
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497