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Q&A: How to Stay Dry

We went to outdoor educators and gear retailers to uncover the most common questions asked about staying dry in the backcountry. Here are the top 6.

by: O'rya Hyde-Keller

Is this tent waterproof?

The waterproofness of tent fabric varies greatly from model to model but a common weak spot, says Gabe Miani, a store manager at Hudson Trail Outfitters in Springfield, VA, is the tiny pinholes in and around the seams. Some higher-end tents come with sealed seams direct from the factory, however most tents will need a seam tape or a liquid seam sealant applied to the seams. Miani recommends a urethane-based seam sealant because it's flexible in cold temperatures and, though messier than seam tape, creates a stronger bond with the tent fabric.

How can I stay dry while I sleep?

First rule: Keep your tent out of ditches or impressions in the land where water can pool. Trisha Haitz, a North Carolina Outward Bound instructor, often uses natural surroundings for rain protection. A stand of trees or a rocky outcropping can help weather the storm (though you should be extra cautious if lightning is present). Aaren Hatalsky, an EMS sales guide in Niskayuna, NY, who hiked the southern section of the Appalachian Trail during one of the rainiest seasons in history, says a dry change of clothes is crucial for a good night's sleep. She cautions hikers to keep this set of clothes dry at all costs--even if it means changing into wet clothes in the morning.

How do I keep the contents of my pack from getting wet?

Throw on a pack cover. A simple waterproof cover keeps the inside and outside of your pack dry, and minimizes the added weight of a wet pack. It's also a good idea to put your sleeping bag and clothes into a heavy duty, plastic garbage bag. Zipper storage bags also keep smaller items dry and organized. Finally, store your pack in the tent vestibule, or cover it with an extra-large garbage bag or pack cover at night.

How do I set up camp and cook dinner if it's raining?

"Quickly," says Christo Matthews, the store manager of Adventure 16 in San Diego. This means becoming comfortable with setting up camp--particularly your tent--before you even set foot on the trail. Matthews suggests packing your supplies in the order you're going to be pulling them out of your backpack. "Always pack as if you'll have to unpack when it's dark, rainy, windy, and you're exhausted," he says. A lightweight siliconized nylon tarp can also go a long way. Propped up by trekking poles, it can serve as a shelter while you cook dinner and assemble your tent. Lastly, Christos says pack an easy to prepare warm meal like a packet of instant soup. "This way, if it does get miserable, you can hunker down in your tent and have a quick, warm, filling meal."

How do I keep my body dry?

Wet conditions, like cold conditions, call for proper layering. It's best to start out with a synthetic, wicking base layer to pull the moisture off your skin. On top of that, you'll want a warm insulating layer. Matthews suggests a synthetic fabric that wicks sweat and dries quickly. Your top layer should be a waterproof, breathable jacket.

How do I take care of waterproof fabric?

Most waterproof fabric is treated with a durable water repellent (DWR) that allows for maximum waterproofing and breathability. Eventually, this DWR will wear away, particularly in places like sleeves, hoods, and armpits where the material can get especially dirty. In order to extend the life of the DWR, you'll want to clean your fabric with a specialty detergent, available at outdoor stores. Regular laundry detergents create a residue which can affect the waterproofing treatment. Running waterproof fabric through a dryer will also help reactivate the DWR.

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