What I Learned While Not Sleeping All Night in a Rainstorm

Lying wide awake listening to the sound of rain drops pounding on my tent, I was beginning to freak out. As an experienced car camper, I wanted to make a run for the car and get out of this fierce rainstorm. Unfortunately, I was ten days into a 14-day backpacking trip and many miles from any vehicle or shelter.

I had a small titanium tea cup on the floor of my tent resting just above my head, it caught my eye as it began bobbing up and down like a boat on the water. Shocked to see it floating inside my tent, I jumped up and touched the bottom of my tent. It was like a waterbed. Two inches of water was running underneath my tent but luckily no water was inside the tent.

I began talking to myself to stay calm.

“You’re still dry, you’re warm and it can’t rain all night.”

“You’re still dry, you’re warm and it can’t rain all night. It’ll stop soon.”

It didn’t stop soon. It didn’t stop for a long time. I laid there trying to figure out what I could do. I wondered what I was thinking going out on a two week backpacking trip and I wondered how it could possibly rain all night long.

I heard a bunch of commotion as Paul and Chris, my hiking buddies, yelled back and forth to each other. I could barely hear them but in the morning I realized that Chris’ tent had collapsed due to the storm and his tent was filled with water.

Mud on tent
A couple of inches of mud on the tent.

At some point I finally fell asleep. Our 5 a.m. alarm clock woke all of us up but we were in no shape to get any early morning hiking in, so we went back to sleep.

Eventually, we all had to get up and try to dry out our things so we could cover some miles and stay on track. We laid our sleeping bags, down jackets and backpacks in the sun. We talked to nearby campers who were also shocked at the intensity and length of this storm. Our neighbors had confirmed what I was thinking, it had literally rained all night long. In fact, it rained for 7.5 hours.

Dry out
The morning after. Drying everything out.

I’ve thought a lot about that night. I’ve reflected on the decisions I made before the trip that impacted my safety that night and I’ve thought about what I wish I’d done differently. Before you head out on your own backpacking adventure, I recommend you consider the things I learned that night in the pouring rain:

  •  A free-standing tent is worth a little bit more weight- One of my thru-hiking partners had a tarp tent that relied on being tightly staked out. When the ground became totally saturated with water the wind blew the trekking pole down and everything he had got soaked. Meanwhile, I stayed totally dry inside my free-standing tent that kept its shape throughout the night.
  • Carefully select the best spot to pitch your tent- We got lucky. We had set up camp at the top of a mound. The water ran away from us for the most part. If we had set up in a low area or a flat spot at the bottom of a hill we would have been in much worse shape.
  • Sometimes you’ve just got to let go- We live in a world where we can control everything. We walk from an air conditioned car into an air conditioned building then complain about the heat. Sometimes you just can’t stop the rain. And that is OK. Part of the fun of a long backpacking trip is to let go and take things as they come, good or bad.
  • Laughter makes everything better- After one of the worst nights sleep I’ve ever experienced, the first thing I said to the other two guys was a joke. We all cracked up and somehow I felt better about the situation.
  • You should always consider the safety of your electronics and fire starters- I left my backpack (with GPS and cell phone) under my vestibule for at least an hour of the rainstorm. Eventually, I realized it wasn’t just going to just blow over so I pulled my backpack inside my tent. Also, we had a lighter stored inside a pot on top of a bear canister. The wind blew the top off of the pot and the lighter was soaking in a pot full of water. This wasn’t our only lighter but if it was, we would have been in trouble.

We had no idea that this storm was going to amount to more than a sprinkle. You’ve got to be prepared for anything when you are backpacking for multiple days. After this experience, I will always be more careful picking my tent site, consider where my lighters and electronics are, carefully choose the outdoor gear I bring along and try to relax when things are out of my control.

That is what I learned while not sleeping all night in a rainstorm. What lessons have you learned through unpleasant experiences?

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Andy Hawbaker
Andy is a hiker, backpacker, snowboarder and outdoor fanatic. When he isn't exploring the Rocky Mountains, burning marshmallows or scratching his dog behind the ear, he shares his experiences here on the Sierra Trading Post Blog.

8 comments on “What I Learned While Not Sleeping All Night in a Rainstorm

  • Great article. There are many small things you don’t think of doing to keep things safe/dry/working until after you get into a situation like you were in.

    I haven’t been in a rainstorm that lasted that long, but I have been in a few that were a few hours long and it was not a pleasant evening. Nothing you can do about it, so you might as well enjoy it.

  • I have over 1k miles on foot or afloat and close to 365 days in backcountry abd camp sites. My last trip was 10 days in the boundary waters of MN on a solo canoe trip.

    One night there was a storm so extreme I had to use some extra paracord to secure my ultra light weight tent. Winds were up to 50 mph and some micro bursts snapped huge trees like toothpicks. Without that 20 feet of cord my tent would have lost its shape and possibly snap a pole. Keeping your guy lines taught and having an extra line handy is key for 60+ mph winds.

    Also using an ground cloth on a tent with a waterproof bottom is worth it. The extra layer will protect your investment and provide you with options should something happen to your original rain fly. Although duck tape can fix any hole not having a hole is even better.

    Lastly and most important like the author said look for the right spot to pitch your tent. Later during that same solo trip I witnessed camp site completely covered by a 100 foot deciduous tree that had blown over in the squal. Looking down for an optimal location is important however, looking up might be even more important. Dead limbs, rotten wood, or even shallow soil like many islands in boundry waters are things to consider. I would much rather get a few mosquito bites in a protected pad than under one lone oak. Pull dead limbs with a line or steer clear. Remember, aluminum poles and knylon are always < giant pieces of wood.

    Happy trails and don't forget to smell the flowers.


  • Matches dipped in paraffin to keep them dry until you need them. Yes, lighters are easy, and easy to run out of fuel on a 14 day trip. Never something I rely on. Go with the oldies :)

  • my brother and I were in Arkansas camping at a state park by the Buffalo River. The plan was get there set up tent, sleep and the next day sign up for a multiple day float trip. That night however, we got swamped. I had forgotten a ground tarp to put under the tent. We slept in water until we couldn’t sleep. The next morning we dried our gear and did a single day float. Mind you this was an old cheap tent.

  • I had a few experiences of camping in a bad weather. The worst is when I hiked with some friends not knowing that a storm will pass through our camp site. On the day of the climb, the sky was ok. But by 5pm, it started to rain so hard and so as the wind started to become violent, so much so that our pack of 3 (we were 25 and the group is divided by our individual or group speed), has to stop and cover ourselves in a tarp in the side of the trail for half an hour to let pass the strong wind. When we reached the campsite, we were surprised to find broken tents belonging to other climbers. For us who made it to the campsite, We pitched our tent in the middle of the storm while the othet group (those who were not fast enough to climb abd majority if the group, they decided to pitch tent in a clear area somewhere near the trail.
    It rained the whole night even the next day. We decided to turn around by 7am when we thought the storm might get worse, for safety reasons. The night was brutal as the wind would bend the tent almost near our faces (luckily I got aluminum poles). One of my buddies pitched his tent to where the water would collect, thus, his things got soaked with rain water and he has to sleep with other friends in their tent.

    While I enjoyed climbing in the rain (maybe because it saves me from the heat of the sun), lessons learned on my stormy experiences are: 1) always avoid pitching your tent in flat areas. Better to pitch in semi- rolling (or elevated) terrain so as the water would just pass on the tent.
    2) always waterproof your things with plastic bags like garbage bags or the like
    3) Unless you are like me who loves climbing in storms, postpone your camping when a storm is coming your way. Always heck the weather reports.
    4) If you are the kind of climber who likes his food always freshly cooked, consider bringing emergency foods (that requires no cooking).
    5) if you want to be a serious hiker, invest in aluminum poles rather than cheap fiber glass poles for stronger tent poles. Better to invest in aero- dynamic tents.
    6) Bring fresh dry clothes for the evening (and must be water proofed by a plastic bag or “dry bags”. After trekking under the brutal winds and heavy rains, it is always a relief to sleep in fresh dry clothes.
    7) If you must cook or boil water in the storm, bring a storm cooker (like trangia) or at least a wind screen for your stove. I boiled water for coffee and cooked noodles inside the tent (although it is dangerous, but with extreme caution).
    8) Whenever you go camping, always bring a water proofed jacket or a rain jacket. I did not bring a water proofed jacket on that climb but I had a wind breaker jacket which (although I was soaked in rain, it kept me from cold during the hike.

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