How to Put Up a Dry Tent on the West Coast Trail

The weather on the West Coast Trail in British Columbia is nearly always wet. Even on clear, summer days, fog often develops and develops thick enough to have moisture literally falling out of the air. It is virtually impossible to stay completely dry on the West Coast Trail, but doing all you can to be dry and comfortable in your tent helps you get good rest, which in turn, helps prevent mistakes and injuries. With over a hundred evacuations a year from the trail, it is important to take care of as many details as possible to minimize the conditions that can lead to accidents.

The Systems Approach

Treating your tent as a system helps to manage the wetness and increases the efficiency of getting it up at camp. Think through what you do when you get to camp. It’s usually something like this:

Put on something over top to keep me warm,
Find the tent site and set up the tent,
Set up the kitchen and get it ready for a hot drink and for cooking dinner
Clean up, scout for food cache, change into completely dry clothes, relax, etc.

Each one of these tasks can be better handled through a system. Your warm over-clothes can be kept in a systematic way, in a separate bag, near an opening as it needs to be available at all stops. The tent and its system are kept together in a place appropriate for arriving at camp and using. The kitchen system may be more complex with parts being needed for lunch, and different elements for dinner, etc. Thinking through how and when to manage a task with appropriate gear is essential. It demands a systems approach.

The Tenting System

The main goals of the tenting system are to quickly and efficiently establish a covered, dry space for sleeping, changing clothes, and getting warm. Systems may work together. Your sleeping system may be a sub-system to your tenting system, as it goes into the tent. If you are travelling with others and sharing the carrying of parts of the tent system, you will undoubtedly need to coordinate your system with the others. The people then become part of the system. You don’t want to get to camp and send the person carrying the tent off to get firewood unless you have worked out beforehand where the tent is and what can and cannot be taken out of the pack. You don’t want to inadvertently pull out the person’s dry clothes in a rainstorm, getting them soaked. Know the system and work the system consistently.

The key elements of the tenting system are:

The tent
The tent fly
The poles and pegs
A lightweight tarp and ropes
A lightweight absorbent towel
Storage bags

The tent and fly are best packed separately in waterproof storage bags inside your pack. If you pack the whole tent into its own storage bag, the dry tent can get wet from the fly and it is a large single bundle, creating inefficient packing conditions. The goal is to keep the tent dry, so having its own waterproof bag is important for this. Poles and pegs need to be handy. Some tents need to be staked down in order to stand or maintain their frame. Keep the pegs close.

There are several methods of setting up a tent to be dry:

Setting Up a Dry Tent Without a Tarp

Set up the fly with the poles and then put up the tent inside the fly. This is a workable situation, but can be a bit cramped. If you are stiff and achy, it can be difficult. Practice this one at home a few times before committing to it. This is doable for a single person.
If you have a group of four or more, you can hold the fly over the tent as it goes up. A minimum of four people is required to do this unless you have figured out a good way to tie off sides of the fly, effectively making it a temporary tarp, which may be possible. When the tent is up, the fly is attached and the group moves on to the next tent.

Setting Up a Dry Tent With a Tarp

For a group, set up your tarp high enough to put a tent under without the tarp collecting water or anything else falling out of the sky and sagging onto the tent. Put up each tent under the tarp and then move it, assembled, to its location for staking. The tarp can be used afterward for cooking and eating under.
For individuals, set up the tarp over where the tent will be, put up the tent and leave the tarp for extra protection.
For a single tent or pair of tents, set up the tarp over where the doors will be to your tents. Put up each tent under the tarp, then move it out so that the door is under the tarp, but the tent is not. This provides a larger protected entry space, effectively extending the vestibule to the size of the tarp. This is really helpful in continuous rain.

Tarping requires practice and skill. Know your conditions and best methods to set up tarps for those conditions. Tarping in snow and sleet can be particularly problematic, so if you go out in shoulder seasons, figure this out first to help make your tarping easier and more effective.

Once your tent is up and located, go inside with your absorbent towel and wipe out any moisture that may have gotten in before putting in clothes, sleeping pads, and sleeping bags. The goal is to have a dry, protected space, so anything you can do to assist this can become part of your system.

The West Coast Trail is a coastal hike in a temperate rain zone. It is the most well known of the coastal hikes, but the advice in this article works for all coastal hiking. Coastal trails often have wet weather, either from rain or from fog drip, so having ways of dealing with moisture is critical. Choosing the best clothing, sleeping gear, and tenting system for wet conditions will help you manage your exposure. Knowing the equipment in your system, practicing the methods you have chosen, and being consistent with your practices will help you set up a dry tent time and again; and help you enjoy your hiking trips even more.

To learn more about hiking trips on the West Coast Trail and other coastal hikes, visit www.coastalbliss.ca where you will find article, videos, and more about BC hiking tours and coastal adventures.

Gary Ward has been leading trips and teaching in wilderness areas for 20 years. Having travelled from desert to sea, he spends most of his time now in coastal areas, exploring the boundary between land and sea, land and sky, and sea and sky.

Gary can be found on one of these boundaries, running Coastal Bliss Adventures with his partner, Georgia Newsome, and writing about Beautiful BC.

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