Camping Skills: Pitch a Tent Right

Tents are the center of any camping experience. Whether you are hiking, biking, or just driving up to your site, if you plan to sleep in a tent, it pays to set it up right. Tents are great if done right, but if you set one up incorrectly, you will pay for it all night long. I’ve made almost every mistake imaginable, so hopefully I can help.

Select Your Site

You would be amazed what a difference it makes when you take 3 minutes to survey the campsite for where to pitch your tent. Don’t just pitch it next to the fire since it looks good or pitch your tent in an arrangement of other tents because it looks organized. That is great for pictures, but can be disastrous for sleeping.

When picking your tent site, look for places that are higher up. Elevation, even of a couple of inches, will mean that water underneath your tent will drain away from you. It should go without saying to pitch your tent high over water, since tides or river flows can easily rise up and ruin your night. Don’t set your tent up in a depression, since that could become a puddle with only a tiny bit of rain. Mud, wet sand, or soggy ground is a bad sign. Sure, you might not have a choice, but as a rule, the ground should be high, dry, and level. Finally, don’t set up a tall tent in a windy area. Trees break up the wind and can help you find a good place, but fields and are often very windy and I’ve seen tents in trees as a result of poor planning and foul weather.

Prep Your Site

You should scour the ground you are going to set your tent up on. Sticks and twigs might seem minor, but they are hard to sleep on and ruinous if they cut your tent floor. You would be amazed how many people accidentally sleep on rocks as well. Brush the whole area clear of any debris before you lay down a ground cloth.

Ground cloths, the tarps people lay down beneath their tents, are slightly controversial in my experience. Some claim you shouldn’t use them. True, if you set one up incorrectly (sticking out from the footprint of your tent) it will become a swimming pool in the rain. Also, they can be more junk to carry with you when camping, and your tent should be waterproof enough as it is. On the other hand, they protect your tent bottom from tears, and can greatly increase comfort if you are setting your tent up on wet grass. I recommend using common sense, and if you do decide to use one, don’t set it up to collect rain by letting it stick out from under your tent by any large margin.

Set Your Tent Up

You should know how to set your tent up. If you never have done it before, practice at home. You should be able to do it blindfolded if you are going camping alone, since you may arrive after dark and don’t want to be fumbling for unfamiliar pieces.

Most people set it up with the front door facing a social area (if applicable) like a meal area or campfire, and they sleep with their heads towards the back. That is a fine way to sleep, and it means you crawl straight in.. On the other hand, it makes it harder to get out. If you sleep with your head facing the door, it is easier to slip out without disturbing any tent mates.

If you are confident in the weather, I would recommend against using a rain fly, since less tent will help your tent breathe at night. It sucks to awake with condensation all over yourself, and the better your tent breathes, the better off you will be. On the other hand, if you are at all unsure of the weather, then set up the rain fly. Setting it up when it is already raining is too late, and your stuff will be saturated. Tents, designed to keep moisture out, often keep moisture in if you weren’t careful.

Final Advice

Tents are the cornerstone of a good camping experience. Picking the right site, prepping it, and setting the tent up correctly will probably take you only 5-10 minutes more than the people who just threw their tent up anywhere, and the payoff is big when done right. Take some time on your camping trip to make sure you do it right!