The Pitfalls of Tent Camping

rock bridge
Years ago this was a narrow one-lane concrete crossing. The water flowed over it anytime the creek was up.

I posted a photo of the Rock Bridge bridge that crosses Paint Creek in Fayette County. That photo prompted several people to start talking about camping along the creek and the times they got soaked by torrential downpours.

I’m pretty sure anybody who’s ever spent much time in a tent can recall waking up in a pool of rainwater and spent the rest of the night wishing they were anyplace else on earth. When we were kids we spent lots of summer nights camped somewhere along Paint Creek and its tributaries. The tents we used were surplus WWII Army tents. Each soldier was meant to carry half a tent, one pole, and a few wooden stakes. At night a couple of guys would buddy up and put their halves together to attain a little shelter from the elements.

These canvas tents had no flooring and keeping dry required digging a diversion trench around the perimeter of the tent to carry away run off. If it rained too hard the trench

wouldn’t work and the ground beneath your sleeping bag could become as just as wet as the ground outside the tent. If during a rainstorm you brushed up against the walls of these tents they would begin leaking water at that point. Being so small it was mostly impossible to avoid touching the walls.

Today’s tents are quite an improvement over what GIs and Boy Scouts had to rely on in the 40s and 50s. They are made of light-weight materials, water-tight seams, netting for doors and windows that both keep out the bugs and provide decent ventilation, exterior framing that prevents bumping into a tent pole in the night and having the whole thing collapse on you.

Even with all the improved technology today’s tents are not perfect. We were camping at Bahia Hondo in the Florida Keys and the winds were so strong the external framing couldn’t stand up to the wind’s force and the entire tent would bend nearly to the ground and then snap back when the gust past.

My son and grandson were camping in a tent at Fort Desoto, Florida. We had taken the boat out into the Gulf of Mexico for some fishing and in the distance we could see an afternoon storm approaching. I headed the boat back towards the launch ramp and arrived there just as the rain began. We had no time to trailer the boat and just left it tied up at the pier as we sought shelter from the rain and lightning in our nearby van.

This was one of those afternoon Florida frog drowners with buckets of rain and sea birds being blown horizontally across the parking lot. In the middle of the storm my son says, “Damn, we left the windows and doors open on the tent!” There was nothing to be done so we just waited out the storm, trailered the boat, and went back to the campsite to survey the damage. There was absolutely nothing inside the tent that escaped total saturation. To save the day we emptied it out, rung out as much water as possible, turned a couple of box fans on the inside of the tent to help dry it out, and went looking for a laundromat with industrial size dryers.

I’ve pretty much given up tent camping when traveling. The cost of campground space isn’t much cheaper than the average motel and I have a mostly self-contained full size van that I can live out of if traveling alone. I refer to it as living in a van down by the ocean.

PS: After finishing this piece I remembered some of the nights spent in an old 1960s era Apache tent camper we once owned. For many years our family, and others, used it for vacation trips and the annual stay at Pike Lake. The Apache was finally retired after a trip to Shelby, NC made by myself and a couple of ham radio friends. We went there for a weekend long hamfest and unfortunately arrived about the same time heavy rain bands associated with an offshore hurricane showed up. During the night the rain was beating so hard the old canvas just couldn’t hold it back. The mattresses were covered with plastic and the incoming water quickly pooled up in the recess caused by our body’s weight. Needless to say we all woke up soaked to the bone and suffering from advanced hypothermia of the maximus buttocks. We spent the remainder of the night sitting in the van with the engine and heater running.

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