Are Tents Waterproof? Full Answer From A Real Expert (2021)
I’ve been sleeping in tents for over 30 years and I’ve experienced both good and bad tents as far as waterproofing goes. Nothing is worse than waking up in the middle of the night with a steady stream of water soaking your sleeping bag.
When camping, your tent is your home away from home. It protects you from the elements and gives you privacy if you are around other people.
One of the main things you need protection from is rain, so it’s important to know if tents are waterproof. So, are tents waterproof? The short answer is that many tents are waterproof but to differing degrees depending on design and the intended use.
How waterproof of a tent you need will depend on where you camp and the weather conditions. Not all camping trips are the same, so not all tents are the same.
When you go to an outdoor store or look online, the number of options in tents is overwhelming. We aim to cut through the noise and make it easier for you to make a smart decision when it comes to choosing a tent to keep you dry.
In this guide you will also learn how to waterproof your tent. In the end, you will have a true answer to the question “is my tent waterproof”.
But first things first.
Why are not all tents waterproof?
A tent may not be waterproof for a few different reasons. It is more expensive to fully waterproof a tent so you will tend to find lower price tents are water resistant rather than fully waterproof. This depends on the hh rating (hydrostatic head). More on that later.
Finally, the tent may be designed for conditions such as snow or wind and doesn't need to withstand torrential downpours. So it's not waterproof.
Here’s what you need to know straight away.
All tents are a compromise. If you get the best weather protection, you will usually be paying a higher price.
Since most people aren't camping in monsoon season, it is still possible to get a tent at a reasonable price that will keep you dry during the conditions you are likely to encounter. in other scenarios, you need to waterproof your tent.
What makes a good waterproof tent?
A combination of good design and materials are necessary to make a quality tent as waterproof as possible. Think of an umbrella with a hole in it. The materials would block water, but you will still get wet through the opening.
The fabric of the tent needs to be sealed well to withstand both rain and standing water (be waterroof). The tighter the weave and the thicker the fabric, the more waterproof it has the potential to be.
The downside is that thicker fabric adds weight, which isn't a problem when car camping but is a major negative when hiking or backpacking in the wilderness.
All seams need to be sealed after it is stitched, as holes have been put through the fabric which will allow water through if not addressed. Even better would be if the seams are taped, but this adds weight so many companies just use a polyurethane coating to plug the hole made by the thread. When it comes to design, the shape of the tent will play a big role in how waterproof it is. The steeper the sides, the easier water will flow off of it, thus making your tent less waterproof. Shallower angles can let water pool which increases the odds of a leak developing.
The shape of the waterproof fly affects the waterproofing low down on the tent. If the fly doesn't go low enough, you can get leaks from rain that is blown in or slashing.
A fly with vestibules that cover the doors of the tent will increase the weather resistance and give you extra storage space for gear.
Placement of the zippers and vents will have an effect on how waterproof the tent is as well. We suggest looking for tents with a storm flap that covers the zipper to keep it from leaking.
A waterproof top does little if the floor of the tent leaks so most tents are made with a floor that is impervious for water that wraps up the sides. The higher this bathtub construction goes, the more waterproof the tent will be.
Last but not least, and as mentioned before it's the hh rating, also known as the hydrostatic head rating that defines whether a tent is waterproof or just water-resistant.
What are waterproof tents made of?
The surface of the fabrics will also be coated with a durable water-repellent treatment (DWR) that causes water to bead and run off from the tent floor. This is the same treatment that waterproof breathable jackets are treated with.
Then the seams are sealed with polyurethane. This can be as a tape that is applied with heat or a liquid sealant. Of course you can also waterproof your tent based on the type of materials it is made of. More on that later.
How to check if a tent is waterproof
Reputable companies will often give a rating of the waterproofness of their tents. This will be for the tent floor and rain fly. You want to verify that they have treated it with a DWR coating to improve the beading and run off of rain water.
Additionally, if you can check a tent out in the store, inspect the seams to see how they are sealed. Look at the zippers and see how they are covered to resist leaking.
And finally, it doesn't hurt to read reviews about how users have found them to stay dry in the real world.
Usually the manufacturer specifies the hh rating (hydrostatic head). This is a defining factor showing how waterproof a tent is.
Waterproofing ratings explained
Companies use the Hydrostatic Head test (hh rating) to rate the waterproofness of a fabric of their tents. The hydrostatic head rating is in millimeters of water the fabric can take before 3 drops of water are forced through.
Generally speaking, for tents, a hydrostatic head rating of 1000 mm is considered waterproof. For things like rain flies this is usually more than adequate but the floor of the tent will often be much higher. Anything else is just water repellent.
The reason for this is that the floor is subject to much more abrasion and wear, so they treat it with more sealant to have it last longer.
If you are looking for light weight then the lower resistance rating under 2000 mm will do for the fly but be aware that you will have to treat it more gently.
This tends to be the case with most very light tents as you trade durability for a less load on your back.
Plus, the lower hh rating rating the tent has the more frequently you will have to retreat the waterproofing and seam sealing. For the latter, you can apply seam sealer.
Difference between waterproof and water-resistant
The main difference is based on waterproof ratings. Waterproof tents will withstand long duration heavy rain. Whereas water resistant (or water repellent) ones will protect you from light sprinkles but not full on rainstorms .
To know the difference, check the waterproof rating (hh rating) and the materials. If a company has waterproofed their tent, they will make it clear as this is a strong marketing point.
Look at the construction and see if the vestibule will block blowing rain. In addition, check the seams to see if they are sealed. Also, the easiest way is to check the waterproof ratings.
When you need a waterproof tent
In the desert or other area with little risk of heavy rain, you can get away with a tent that isn't waterproof. Check the waterproof ratings to know that for sure. The same goes in winter where you are going to experience snow rather than rain.
We recommend to have a durable water repellent coating for any moisture you encounter, but complete waterproofing is less of a concern. In any conditions where you can reasonably expect rain, especially thunderstorms which can be quite heavy, then a waterproof tent is a must.
On longer trips (thru-hikes, for example) that may see varying weather conditions, you have the option of not putting your tent fly on if you have a night with little chance of rain.
In my many years in the outdoor business, one of the most common complaints I hear from people is that they got wet in their tent. Sometimes it happens even when it doesn't rain.
This is from condensation. Our bodies are constantly emitting moisture both in our breath and from our skin. Especially when you’re camping with your date. Agree? When it is cold enough, this vapor condenses into liquid when it hits the inside wall of the tent.
Usually, it will run down the inside of the rain fly, but if the angle isn't steep enough or there is a lot of it, it can drip down on you.
Moreover, it isn't unusual to brush against the side of the tent which can send a stream of water down onto the floor of the tent or on your sleeping bag.
This condensation build up can be especially bad when you have to have your tent all zipped up during stormy weather. The combination of lack of ventilation combined with increased humidity in the air will make condensation almost a certainty.
If you don't want to get wet from the inside, you can do some things to minimize condensation. Here are 4 actionable tips that work well.
- Choose a tent that has vents located high on the rain fly. Since the moisture coming off our bodies is warmer than the surrounding air, having the vents up high will allow a lot of that moisture to vent.
- Stake out the base of the rain fly to increase airflow. The cooler air coming in from ground level will create a convective current and help take the warm damp air out the vents.
- Unless you are expecting heavy rain, keep the door to the vestibule partially unzipped. If your tent has two doors, do this on both sides to create a cross current.
- Use a hanging candle lantern. A UCO Candle Lantern does wonders to dry out your tent. Burn the candle for 30 minutes before bed and upon waking in the morning to dry out your tent dramatically. Since you are burning a candle, even you contain it in a glass lantern, make sure you are careful lighting it and there is adequate ventilation.
Are canvas tents waterproof?
Canvas is thick, tightly woven cotton that has been used in tent construction for a long time. On its own it is at best water resistant, but canvas can be treated to make it pretty waterproof (by applying seam sealer on the seals among other things).
Whether with wax, linseed oil or modern synthetic treatment, the fabric will need to be thoroughly coated and touched up regularly to maintain its waterproofing.
Are Coleman Tents Waterproof?
The answer here is an ambiguous yes and no. While that alone isn’t that helpful, it comes back to what we talked earlier about what makes a tent waterproof. It’s a combination of materials and design that work together to keep the water out.
The fabric is waterproof and the seams are sealed on all of their camping tents. However, they aren’t focused on making the lightest tents, so they can use a heavier duty fabric, which can maintain its waterproof properties longer than lighter weight options.
But many of the tents don’t have full vestibules covering the doors, which means the doors are exposed. It won’t take much wind or rain to blow on to the zippers, which aren’t waterproof. And if you have the windows open for ventilation, rain can blown onto the bug netting.
This combination of features makes them suited for light showers but not torrential rainstorms with high winds.
Are Ozark Tents Waterproof?
For campers and hikers on a budget, Walmart’s line of Ozark Trail tents is attractive. They are reasonably well made at a very low price, but are they waterproof?
The short answer for most of them is “no”. But in our experience and that of many users, it is easily fixed by sealing the seams and spraying them down with a waterproofing spray or a seam sealer.
It may seem to be a pain to do that to a brand-new tent, but even when you factor in the price of the waterproofing, they still are only a fraction of the price of tents from Marmot or MSR.
Best popular waterproof tents
In this section, I will show you some of the most popular tents on the market that are waterproof.
Best Group Tent
Here's a very good choice.
The North Face Wawona 6
Rooms with a porch-style vestibule, the North Face Wawona 6 is a car campers delight. It is a single walled construction making it easy to set up even if by yourself. It is both well protected from the elements and well ventilated.
At 21 lbs, it is too heavy to take backpacking, but if you want a place to hang out during all day rainstorms with enough space to cook in the vestibule, then look no further. It's perfect for hiking and camping with your kids.
Best Affordable Tent
Undoubtedly, that is...
Whether for car camping or short overnight hiking trips, the MSR Elixir is a tent that will keep you dry and stand up to pretty heavy winds for a three-season tent.
With a simple pole system and color-coded clips, the setup is easy. It can set up the rain fly before you setup the inner tent body, which can be useful if you have to set up in the rain.
This tent is a bit on the heavy side for its size, but that contributes to its durability. It is available in 4 sizes from 1-4 person.
Best Lightweight Backpacking Tent
If you are concerned about weight, then this one is among the most popular ones.
Nemo Dragon Fly 2
Looking to cover a lot of miles but still want to stay dry? This is where you need to move up in price to get light and waterproof.
The Nemo Dragon Fly 2 is just over 3 lbs., while offering great waterproofing and ventilation to help combat moisture both in and out of the tent. The packed size is small, making it great for long treks where every ounce counts.
How to Waterproof your tent
If you are not sure if your current tent is waterproof, you can test this by setting it up in the backyard and create a steady rain shower with the garden hose or sprinkler. Plus you can easily waterproof your tent as we're about to explain. If it leaks inside from an extended spray, then you know you need to give it a waterproof treatment.
Here’s a fantastic video courtesy of REI:
Make note of where the leaks are to make sure you get those spots. It is best to do this before you go out rather than experience getting wet on the trail.
The seams are the most common place for your tent to leak since the stitching process pokes holes in the fabric. The factory sealing is added after it is stitched and can peel off, so it needs to be refreshed on a semi-regular basis.
It's a good idea to redo the seam seal ever few years or whenever you notice a leak. “Gear Aid Seam Grip” is the best option for the typical nylon bodied tent. You just paint on the sealant on the inside of the rainfly with the supplied applicator. Another handy tip is to renew the DWR coating on your tent every few years. This helps water bead and run off, keeping the fabric from wetting out and potentially leaking. Grangers Tent plus Gear Repel spray will work well to waterproof the main body of your tent rainfly. Also, regularly apply seam sealer spray.
4 Proven Tips To Keep Your Tent Waterproof
Here’s some tried-and-true advice that I’ve found work really well based on years of experience. They will help you waterproof your quality tent.
Now you have an answer to the question "are tents waterproof" or at leat maybe "is my tent waterproof". Since your tent is your home away from home, it is nice to know if it is waterproof. As we've seen, tents can be waterproof when made from the right materials and well designed.
With your new knowledge, it should be easier for you to sort through the different tents available and get the one that will keep you dry while out in the wild. And you will be able to look after your tent to keep it waterproof for years to come.
Having worked in the outdoor, fitness, and cycling industry his whole life, Winston brings a wealth of real world knowledge on the topics. Rock climbing, backpacking, cycling and wilderness survival are his life. As both an athlete, coach and outdoor educator, his practical experience translates into his writing to help people better pursue their outdoor passions. Read more about Winston here.