Today you’ll learn how tent waterproofing works, what are the best methods that you can use to improve on the standard protection rating, and which products to choose to get this done for cheap.
You’ll also learn to differentiate products and find out how to choose a tent that’s really waterproof.
But first things first…
Nothing ruins a camping trip like waking up in a pool of water inside your tent. You may think that if you buy a new tent, you are covered – literally. This isn’t necessarily the case. All kinds of things can contribute to water leakage inside your tent, even in a brand new tent. As is the common rule with camping, proper planning will ensure that you have a great time and that you wake up completely dry.
Are All Tents Waterproof? How do we spot the fake ones?
You might think that all tents these days are waterproof.
You wouldn’t be wrong to assume that, you just aren’t seeing the bigger picture.
There are more things to consider than the “waterproof” label that you see.
For instance, do you know the difference between waterproof, water resistant, and water repellent? Or the purpose of a rainfly? Or what a hydrostatic head (HH) is? These are all things you must understand when choosing the best tent to keep out the elements.
I know what you are thinking; Which one should you choose?
Water Resistant vs. Water Repellent vs. Waterproof
Tent waterproofing nowadays feels like it’s becoming a game of tags. Product tags can be misleading, so here are some different words that you may see.
- It is best to think of these three labels as levels. Water resistant tent fabrics provide level one protection. The fabric is tightly knit which creates a barrier as water has a harder time seeping through tight-knit fabrics than loose-knit fabrics. Most tents are now made with synthetic plastics, which eliminates the use of fabric entirely. However, if you prefer a canvas or polycotton tent, they begin as a water-resistant tent fabric and it will take some “seasoning” to move them beyond this level.
- Water Repellent tents provide level two protection. You may see the label DWR, which stands for durable water repellent. This means that in addition to the natural water resistance of the tent, a layer of water repellent has been applied to the exterior surface. Consider water repellent to be your “duck feathers.” You know that old saying, “like water off a duck’s back?” That’s exactly what water repellent does. The water beads up on the exterior and rolls right off.
- Finally, waterproof tents provide level three protection, although the label can be misleading. Nothing can ever be 100% waterproof, but with good preparation, you will find that it is easy to stay dry. Waterproof tents usually offer a sturdier fabric, a well-developed rain fly, a bathtub groundsheet, and a good layer of DWR. They are meant to withstand heavy pressure or continuous rain for longer than a water repellent or water resistant tent would.
What is a Rainfly and Why Do You Need It?
A rainfly is the outer portion of a double wall tent. This means that your interior wall is meshy and ventilated, while your exterior wall acts as a barrier of protection against the elements. Most rainflys cover the entirety of the tent, however, there are partial coverage rainflys.
If you really need to protect against a storm, you want a full coverage rainfly with a small section of ventilation to allow condensation (get rid of tent condensation ideas) to collect on the rainfly and not on the interior of your tent.
Your rainfly should also extend a bit over your door unless you have a patio area of your tent. This will prevent rain from pouring into your tent the second you open the door.
Hydrostatic Head (HH) and Polyurethane (PU) Ratings
Hydrostatic head or HH is essentially a waterproof rating system.
It tells you exactly how resistant your tent material is, by telling you how much water pressure the tent could hold overhead before it began to seep through the fabric. A higher hydrostatic head means that the tent can withstand heavier rains and water pressure.
If you are choosing a tent by the hydrostatic head, you would obviously opt for the highest number you can afford. However, if you don’t plan appropriately, even a tent with 15,000mm HH could leak on you. The minimum level to classify a tent as waterproof is 1,500mm HH.
You may also see this rating listed as PU or polyurethane (for example: 1,500mm PU). This just means that the substance used to waterproof your tent is a polyurethane coating.
You should definitely choose a tent with its own, sewn in groundsheet, but if you can find one with a good, sewn in, bathtub groundsheet, you may have a hit a goldmine.
The bathtub-style ground sheet extends up the interior sides of the walls. It will create a seamless layer from the tent wall to the ground, ensuring that you don’t wake up in a literal bathtub should waters begin to rise around your tent.
Polycotton and Canvas Tents
Polycotton and canvas tents are not naturally waterproof as soon as you buy them. They have undergone quite a bit of needlework and stitching, which makes them particularly vulnerable to wet conditions.
If you want your canvas tents to withstand the rain, then you will need to make sure that you season them. No, you don’t need to reach for the Lawry’s Season Salt. Instead, follow these directions to reduce the size of the “needle holes.” You are essentially forcing your fabric to tighten up, making it water repellent.
First, you’ll need to pitch the tent in a place that you can access it and a water source easily. A backyard is best for this, as you’re going to be using lots of water and you don’t want to flood out your basement or garage. This will also take several days, so make sure you have a good forecast for a few days to complete the project.
Next, you need to completely soak the tent with a water hose. You want the thing literally dripping, particularly in the seams, which are a major point of leakage. The more water pressure you can apply, the better. I recommend hosing it for at least five to ten minutes continuously.
After you have finished hosing it, leave it in the sun to dry completely. This is important, as it allows time for the fabric to constrict. You know that the tent is fully dry when it returns to its original color, and the seams feel completely dry as well. I would allow a full 24 to 48 hours. Then, you will need to repeat this process two or three more times.
Finally, you should test run your tent. Leave it in place for a storm and see if you have any areas that leak. If there isn’t a storm coming for a while, you will have to “create” a storm with heavy and continuous water pressure for at least thirty minutes. It’s easier just to wait for a storm unless there is a drought.
Your tent really shouldn’t leak at this point, but if it does, or if you want added security, you can add seam sealant. You do need to be sure that you buy the correct seam sealant for canvas tents, as there are different sealants for nylon and polyester tents.
Pitching Your Tent to help with waterproofing
Perhaps one of the most important aspects to consider. If you’re an experienced camper, I’m sure that you already know all these tricks. But, if you’re a beginner, you may want to spend a couple of minutes to learn how to properly install a tent to help with that waterproofing factor.
1. Pitch the Tent on Dry, High Ground
First things first, explore your campgrounds. Find the driest and highest place. If you set up your tent on dry ground, you are already ahead of the game. Pitching on high ground also ensures that rain will run off around your tent and to the lower ground, instead of pooling just beneath your tent. You also want to find the smoothest surface possible to prevent abrasions that may cause holes and leaks later in your tent’s lifespan.
2. Use Tarps and Footprints to Protect your Ground Sheet
In case you are unclear, the groundsheet or ground cloth (also called tent footprints) is the portion of the tent that attaches to your tent walls and covers the ground. Depending on your tent, these may be sewn in, seamless, detachable, or nonexistent (really). Regardless of how your groundsheet functions, it is a good idea to use a tarp or a footprint to protect it from abrasions, dew, and other potential problems.
A footprint is specifically designed to add additional protection to the bottom of your tent. Some tents will even come with their footprints, while others will require you to purchase your own. It is generally made from the same materials as your tent, and if you purchase the right size (or use the one that came with your tent), it can be pegged down beneath your tent with no excess sticking out from underneath your tent.
A tarp is a multi-functional item which is generally made from polyester and contains a urethane coating to make them highly waterproof and UV resistant. Tarps are relatively cheap and can be used both over and under the tent for added protection.
No matter what you choose, you need to make sure you know how to use them properly to maximize their benefits.
Under the Tent
Tarps and footprints are both great to have under your tent. The key is to make sure that you tuck them completely under. You do not want any loose tarp or footprint sticking out from under your tent, otherwise, water will collect between your groundsheet and your footprint/tarp.
Over the Tent
If you are going to be experiencing extremely heavy rains or thunderstorms, you might consider hanging a tarp over your tent. This will provide an extreme amount of overhead protection. You can do this using extra tent poles and guy lines or bungee cords to pull the tarp taught over the tent.
You can also hang it overhead in the trees if you are near them. If the rain is coming in with strong winds and is hitting a side of your tent harder than the rest, you might consider building a tarp wall to block some of the rain. You can even just throw the tarp over weaker parts of your tent, such as a leaky seam or your door if you are already in the storm and experiencing leaks. This will help still the leak until you can get around to fixing it.
Sewn In to Reinforce Old Ground Cloth
If your tent is older and your ground cloth is frail, you might consider permanently sewing a footprint into your tent. If you do this, you will need to make sure that you seal the seams well, otherwise, you run the risk of water collecting between the sheets and producing mold and mildew. You could also have this professionally done, but it may cost you almost the price of a new tent. If it’s your favorite tent, though, it might be worth it just to have it repaired.
3. Keep It Ventilated When Possible
Ventilation is key to preventing condensation from the moisture in your breath. Unless the rain is pouring through your ventilation portals, you want to keep them open. If it is pouring down rain, you can close them, but as soon as the storm passes you want to open them back up again. In addition to minimizing condensation, this will also help to keep you cool so that you aren’t sweating all over the interior of your tent.
4. Make Sure Your Rainfly is Tied Tight
Your rainfly is only as good as you prepare it to be. You absolutely must make sure that it is taut. You know your rainfly is pitched properly when you can bounce a coin off of it and the rainfly doesn’t touch the interior wall at all. You can also give it a pressure test. It should bounce back against a hard blow from the palm of your hand.
The Guide to Adding Extra Protection
Even if you already have a fairly weather resistant tent, you should still add extra protection when you need it.
Waterproofing a new tent
If your tent is new, the first thing you want to do is pitch it and give it a full inspection, paying special attention to the seams, zippers, mesh, groundsheet, and rainflys. You want to identify any areas that may be inherently weak and immediately apply protective layers. Then, you should test your tent. If you hose it down, water should bead on the outside and roll right off. You shouldn’t find any leaky seams or zips at this point.
Waterproofing an old tent
For an older tent, you will need new protective layers if you notice that water no longer beads on the surface, any layers start to show signs of peeling, you have experienced leakage while camping, or had to patch an area of the tent. You could waterproof your tent every time you camp, but it probably isn’t necessary and you could be wasting money on expensive waterproofing products. Most experienced campers find that their tents only need a refresh after fifteen or so heavy uses.
Where to Add Protection
Because you will be applying coats of strong chemicals, it is best to add the protective layers with your tent pitched outside on a warm and dry day. Avoid doing this in a garage or a basement so that you don’t inhale an excessive amount of fumes. Some people even reproof their tents right on the campsite. If you aren’t backpacking and have the space to bring your supplies along, then this might be a good option for you if you don’t have enough yard space to pitch a tent at home.
Tent Problem Zones when it comes to waterproofing
Before proofing your tent, inspect your problem areas. These include the seams, rainfly, ground sheet, and zippers.
You don’t have to seal every seam. Most of these are factory stitched and really shouldn’t leak. Some are more prone to leakage, however, particularly those seams that hold your groundsheet in place and any seams on your rainfly. You should determine which side the previous seam sealant was applied to.
If you pour water on the seam and it beads away, the sealant was probably applied to that side. If you pour water on the seam and it forms a small puddle or attempts to seep through, then the sealant is on the other side. Then check to see if the interior of your seams feels smooth and glossy. If they do, then they are factory taped or previously sealed and nothing further needs to be done. On the other hand, if the seams are rough or exposed, you will need to apply a seam sealant.
Check your rainfly for any seams, chipping or peeling, and abrasions. Also, be sure that water beads on the surface. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, determine what steps need to be taken to reinforce the material. For example, chipping or peeling means you need more DWR or urethane coating (or both!), while abrasions mean you will need to patch the area and then apply a new urethane coat.
Groundsheets should also be checked for seams, chipping or peeling, and abrasions and similar steps should be taken should you find any issues with your groundsheet. As mentioned earlier, a really beaten up ground sheet might benefit from sewing a footprint beneath it and sealing the new stitch work.
First, check to see if the seams around your zipper need to be sealed. Then, check to make sure that your zipper withstands water flow. It isn’t a good idea to apply any sort of coating to a zipper, as it will just cause it to get jammed and eventually break. If you have a zipper that leaks water, instead consider covering it with fabric or tarp.
Clean Your Tent First
If you are retouching an old tent, it is very important to thoroughly clean your tent. If you will be sealing open seams, take a toothbrush to remove any leftover sealant, dust, dirt, and debris from inside of the seam. If you will be applying a coat to the outside, use a water hose and wet rag to remove any dust collected on the exterior of your tent. Check out our full tent cleaning guide for more information on how to clean your tent.
What waterproofing products to use on your tent
So now that your tent is all clean and you know where and when to apply protection, you must be wondering just what products to use.
After cleaning your seams and before applying your sealant, you should apply a layer of isopropyl alcohol. This will ensure the smoothest application of any sealant on the market. Here are a few that we like.
- Gear Aid Seam Grip – Reliable and cheap, Gear Aid Seam Grip provides waterproofing that really works. It is also small and lightweight, so you can carry it with you on your camping trip in case of emergencies. While this was originally intended to be a seam sealant, it also works to repair holes in your tent walls, tarps, awnings, and even sleeping bags.
- Coleman Seam Sealer – Widely available and convenient, Coleman Seam Sealer does the trick. Many camping enthusiasts complain that the sponge tip isn’t quite right for application, but the fact that you can pick up this seam sealant at any old Walmart or Target lands it on this list.
Durable Water Repellent – tent waterproofing spray
Most tents come with a layer of durable water repellent or DWR. However, if you need to retouch your layer, or if you have a tent that didn’t have this layer, here are a few brands to consider.
- Nikwax TX.Direct Spray-On Waterproofing – This DWR is made for clothing, sleeping bags, and ski jackets, but is also widely used on tents.
- Gear Aid ReviveX Water Repellent Spray – This repellent spray is easy to use and air dries quickly.
How Many Coats?
You probably don’t need more than one good coat, but if you want to be safe and make sure you didn’t miss a spot, go for two coats. However, do not apply your second coat until the first coat is fully dried.
Maintaining Your Waterproof
1. Store correctly and out of sunlight
Make sure that you don’t leave your tent in a very hot area or in direct sunlight when you stow it away. Always store your tent (find out how long can you store it if it’s wet) completely dried in a cool, dry place.
2. Don’t machine wash
This strips your tent fabrics of all protective elements. Instead, keep your tent cleaning by practicing good routine tent care.
3. Don’t scrub
If you do need to give your tent a deeper cleaning, be careful not to scrub, or else you could lose those protective layers. If you absolutely must scrub, be prepared to reproof your tent.
4. Fix damage
This should go without saying, but fix the the damage immediately, while it’s fresh on your mind and always reproof if you have to patch your tent.
Some Tent Recommendations
If you are looking for a tent that is already highly waterproof, here are a few of our favorites.
Naturehike Cloud-Up 3 Person 4 Season Backpacking Tent with Footprint
This waterproof tent (link to check owners reviews on Amazon) has a HH of 4000mm plus UV resistance, which prevents the sun from damaging the silicone protective layer on this rainfly. It sheds snow and rain quickly and comes with a footprint. It is extremely lightweight for a three-person tent. Plus, it comes with the footprint.
ALPS Mountaineering Meramac 2-Person Tent
This tent (check price and reviews on Amazon) has a rainfly that forms into an awning over the door, preventing leakage into the tent if you need to come and go during the storm. It is officially waterproof with a Rainfly HH of 1500mm and a tent floor HH of 1500mm.
If you aren’t familiar with Coleman, it is a family and budget-friendly line of tents that are readily available at places like Walmart and Target. This means that you aren’t getting a mountaineering quality. Nevertheless, this tent (find out more about it) stands up to the rain test. It has even been rumored to stay dry in a hurricane and flash flood area.
We hope this guide has been helpful on your journey! Let us know if these tips worked for you!