Camping in a storm – what we have learned so far.

Cyclone Owen

December 2018 – Cyclone Owen formed off the coast of northern Queensland and started heading towards land. He brought with him 200 kph winds and torrential rainfall. At the same time, just off the coast of Antarctica, a huge low pressure system formed and started to move north. Over the next few  days these systems became joined and a ridge of extreme weather conditions, 1000 kms wide and 5000 kms long formed from the northern tip of Queensland to the north western tip of Tasmania . The winds, driven from the north to the south by the pressure systems, curled around the bottom left hand side of the big island and whipped through the gap between it and Tasmania. They missed most of Tasmania but caressed  the most north westerly tip bringing fierce winds a lot of water with them. 

Jenni and I set up camp in Stanley on the most north westerly tip of Tasmania on a beautiful, calm, sunny day. The day before the weather system arrived.

Cyclone Owen forms

In the camp site kitchen at breakfast we watched reports of floods on the Hume Highway in Victoria, 6 months of rain falling in one afternoon in Sydney and as Cyclone Owen crossed the Gulf of Carpentaria and turned into a category 4 “zombie hurricane”, creating an 1800km-long trail of havoc from Cairns to Coolangatta we saw a few spots of rain form on the kitchen window. The Tasmanian weather forecasters didn’t hold back and, reading between the lines, told us the end of the world was nigh. It wasn’t long before the camp was empty of tourists, apart from one lonely Huon Spinifex tent and a Mazda 3.

We made our way back to the only tent still standing in the camp site and curled up at night with a good book or a movie to wait out the storm. We were prepared, our tent set up had been tested and tweaked and honed over the last 18 months to cope with conditions like this. For the next 5 days we were hammered by hurricane force winds and driving rain. We don’t ever set out to camp in a storm but this is Australia and the weather can be unpredictable. Or actually quite predictable for us as every time we set up camp, a storm manages to find us. 

To avoid any unnecessary stress I can tell you all now we survived very well. This is what we learned on our journey so far that enabled that.

Coolum Beach

We don’t camp a lot, but we have camped in some atrocious weather. Every time we set up the tent after a bad weather experience we apply the learnings. This is a list of those learnings so far.  We started as complete novices in Coolum Beach in  June 2017 and have had a steep learning curve since then

Early camping set up June 2017

This was our first camping set up. Just the tent and a couple of chairs. Coolum beach in Queensland is idyllic, behind those trees is the beach. We fell asleep and woke up every day listening to the waves on the shore. Then, as it does in Queensland, there was a massive thunderstorm. The tent had no protection, totally exposed to the elements, as I mistakenly expected, the manufacturer had intended.

And it leaked, like a hat made out of a tea strainer.

Every seam with a loop for the doors and windows in it leaked and the “climate controll” windows you can open if it’s too hot to let some air flow through ran like a river. We had towels on the floor on 5 or 6 places and by the morning they were soaked. 

On the plus side it was more of a drip, drip, drip than a deluge and the tent held up well in the wind. We stayed dry in the bed so all in all it was a good first result. So what did we learn?

1: Seams Leaks – I contacted the manufacturer to complain. They pointed me to the manual that, of course I hadn’t read, which said. The tent will probably leak in the rain. This is the exact reply. We have passed your feedback regarding your experience with this tent on to our buying team and they have advised that as stated in the Spinifex Huon Tent user manual on page 2 & 3“Spinifex tents use waterproof and water repellent fabrics. However, with the addition of seams,zips and other desirable features” “All seams are factory tape sealed but could leak at the webbing and the guy line entry points and where there are multiple layers of fabric.” “However, seepage may occur in the seams through the needle holes created in the sewing process. This is normal and can be corrected by applying a generous amount of seam sealer or wax on the inside of the seams”I bought seam sealer and sealed the seams. After some Googling I found that you should do this with most new tents. 

2: The bottom layer of the tent was wet, muddy and a mess to fold up back into the bag – this was easily solved by setting up the tent on a tarp, base layer. A base layer for this tent was a fortune, about $100 but Anaconda sold a tarp that was just slightly larger for $30 so we got one of those.

2a  I learned the hard way that ALL the ground sheet tarp should be under the tent. Initially I thought laying the larger groundsheet down and setting the tent on top would be best. During the next downpour I learned that leaving even a little tiny corner left poking out collects all the rain that runs down the sides of the tent and you end up floating in a water bath, worse than having no ground sheet. So folding all the corners under the tent is the trick there.

Woodford, December 2017

Woodford

Woodford, nearly 40c and the tent was unbearably hot. This picture is after after we bought our new big tarp. We saw other, more experienced campers using silver tarps as shades to shield their tents from the heat of the sun. So that’s what we did too.

3: Tents heat up quickly – we bought a very large silver tarp to go over the tent and 6 extendable poles with guy ropes. We also bought a few miserably inadequate tent pegs to secure these guy ropes with. The sun shield worked a treat. This was my original design. It was good but flawed in so many ways. It might have protected the tent from the sun a bit but it was still getting hit on the sides of the tent so it heated up anyway. I needed a better set up.

Woodford Tarp attempt number 2

Just look at this pitiful attempt at shading a tent. The shaded area was tiny and cramped and no use for anything. Worked for a bit, then a thunderstorm came through. Did I mention Woodford is in Queensland? Rain ran down the inside of the secondary tarp onto the chairs. The wind wasn’t too bad though so the tarp stayed on. It’s a different story later on in this blog. I couldn’t get the angles right and the rain pooled in some part of the tarp I never found then when it got full poured over the side into a bucket we placed to catch it.

4: You need to create not just protection from the sun for the tent but also an outdoor space and from the rain and as well.

Wilpena Pound

I was still working out how to do this when we stopped next at Wilpena Pound. Wilpena Pound is in the Flinders Ranges and is beautiful. The couple of days we stayed they hadn’t had rain for 18 months. Some of the locals said a rainstorm was due, the others laughed and said they’d heard all of this before. As a precaution I set up the tarp in preparation for the rain storm.

Wilpena Camping Setup – June 2018

I was so very, very proud of this set up. Total sun shade and rain cover plus an outside area. Comfortable in the knowledge our tent was safe we went to climb the nearby mountain range. At the top of the mountain we saw the storm front approaching, rain was definitely on its way. But our tent would be ok surely? As a book I was forced to read when I was a child says, pride comes before a fall, and the tarp fell spectacularly in this case. 6 months worth of rain fell in 8 hours. We were almost washed away.

So what went wrong? I’d made a half arsed attempt at tying up the tarp. So when the storm hit the knots fell out of a couple of corners and the tarp collapsed. The extra strain put on the other tie downs by the roaring wind on the now, unstable, tarp was too much and it nearly blew away. Thankfully one corner held or we’d have lost it completely. All this happened while we were still descending the mountain and an hour away. Also thankfully another camper put our stuff away before it got washed away.

When  I got back and saw the devastation I was gutted, as I was so convinced my set up was perfect. I retied the tarp up, in the rain, properly this time. Then I noticed the rain was forming a river right under our tent. I used a stick and gouged a canal around our tent to let the rain run around it and away from it. I did this also in the rain. In the end, thanks to the neighbours and some good luck we were ok. The tarp was set up wrong though. There wasn’t sufficient run off. The rain gathered in a big pool in it. Luckily the wind gusted and intermittently blew the tarp inside out and the pool of water ran off. So the learnings from this?

5: Fasten the tarp tightly, like your life depends on it.
6: Set it up at an angle so the rain will run off downhill from the tent.
7: If you are down a slope dig a trench around your tent to let the rain run around it.
8: If you are going away and a storm is forecast put your shit away

Huon Valley

I’m going to call it, Huon Valley camp ground is one of the best in Australia, if not the world. If you ever get a chance stay there. It has flat, manicured, grassy plot and concrete blocks. The camp kitchen has a pizza oven and a Webber bbq and there are Webber bbq’s and fire pits all around the camp site. If that’s not enough it is set on the banks of a winding river that has 5 platypus in it. Nearly bloody perfect.  Except…the weather again had its own idea of fun.

Huon Valley, November 2018

We were there 3 weeks, the first 10 days was idyllic weather, this was our tent set up. You might notice the outer skin is pegged to the ground away from the inner shell. This is a new idea to stop the rain running in through the water collectors known as Climate Control panels. No need for a tarp at all during this time. Then the forecast said rain and wind.  This set up works ok for short periods of light to mid strength rain, but this was another storm which was set to last a few days. So I put up the tarp in my new configuration. 

Tent protection

Rather than go length ways along the tent I now set it up across the tent. I figured, as the tent is waterproof enough at the ends it can stand being exposed there. It was tested in Coolum. This also had the advantage of creating a large, covered outdoor space. It seemed perfect. It was stable, it had rain run off, it gave us shade. All the pegs were hammered well in, the tie downs all secure. I checked them 10 times to be sure. Then the wind came and laughed at me. Like Thanos snapping his fingers the first massive gust easily ripped the tarp, pegs, pins and all, out of the ground. 

You can’t really see it from the previous picture but there was a post on the other side of the tent. I had tied a loop of the tarp to the post. This was the only connection that held. After some forensic examination I worked out what had happened. There was one corner that was under tremendous strain due to the wind getting under the tarp and trying to lift it off the ground. I was using the tiny tent pegs that came with the tent to secure that corner, they ripped out easily when it gusted just a bit. With that loose the rest of the connections were now under more strain and they all gave right away.

9: Use proper tent pegs, the longer, the thicker, the better.
10. Don’t tie the ropes too tight, they need some give. Use elastic or springs on every cord to give it some flexibility.

I went to the local hardware store and bought a load of massive, industrial strength tent pegs. This was to prove to be a game changer. I secured the tent, the same configuration, with these massive tent pegs. The wind and rain hit us like a hammer and the tarp held. Held strong, without a hitch. For two days we were bashed and pummelled by some serious gusts of wind and pouring rain and we stayed standing and dry. It was all coming together.  It wasn’t all good though. I didn’t sleep at all during the storm. The new tent pegs were still untested and the tarp could have blown away at any minute. Also the noise was tremendous, not the wind but the noise of the tent fabric and the tarp flapping and slapping on the wind.

11. Make sure the fabric is taut.
12: Use ear plugs, it’ll help you sleep.

I had a spare tent pole. I jammed it up in the middle of the tarp to give it some height and to stop it flapping. It worked a treat till it fell down. I tied some ropes to it and it stayed up. Another camper saw my shenanigans and came over. He told me he had just sold his trailer tent set up and had a shit load of poles, ropes and a big bar you can put between poles to run the tarp over going spare if I wanted them. So I ended up with a load of useful stuff. I put them to good use but as the weather, obligingly, turned beautiful, I didn’t get a chance to test it. That was until Stanley.

Stanley

Wind from a high pressure system far north is working its way along the coast to a low pressure system just to the left and down a bit from Stanley. It’s picking up pace, and a lot of water, as it travels and is just loving letting Stanley know is cares and gives it a bit of its love as it passes overhead.

The wind, according to all my weather apps, is supposed to come directly from the shore, from the north. Straight, always from the same direction. So I set up our tarp so it dipped at the front in the direction of the wind and drew it up over the tent. Very happy. Then the wind came from the west, through the side of the opening and tried with all its energy to lift the tarp off planet earth and put it in orbit, or at least take it to Antarctica. Our foot long tent pegs held. Our springs and elastics flexed and held and the tarp stayed on. Gusts of nearly 90 kph were recorded and we felt a few of those. There’s a magicians trick where they pull a tablecloth from under a table full of dishes and the dishes stay on top. One of the gusts made us feel like the tablecloth. The tent held and the tarps held.

Like Huon Valley I didn’t sleep on the first night of this storm either. At every gust my ears pricked up waiting for the tell tale flap of loose corner. It never happened in Stanley. In the morning I checked and all poles and pegs were sound. The same storm battered us for the next couple of days, same result. no impact to the set up. For the last 3 nights we’ve both slept very well. 

What’s next

After Stanley we have no camping planned. It takes quite a while to put up and take down the tent set up so we are considering a different canvas tent that’s quicker to set up and doesn’t need a tarp. We’re also looking at a 4wd with a tent on the back that folds down. But for the next while we’ll be happy with our simple set up of the Huon Spinifex and a big tarp. And 20 poles. And 50 tent pegs. And two additional tarps to cover the ends of the tent I forgot to mention. And a mile of rope and 50 bungy cords and tie down cords. And having a cracking good time exploring this wonderful land.

Camping lessons, Post Script.

We have been able to cope with camping in all weathers but when we got a perfect spot in one beautiful camp site in Wye River and the next night a couple of bogans turned up and pitched right beside us and played country and western music and ye ha’d and blew cigarette smoke at us from dusk to dawn then slept all day and did it again the next night while we were trying to sleep we had no alternative but to literally, pick up the tent and move it to another part of the site. I’d rather have a hurricane any day.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Jim,
    lot’s of LOL reading your tenting experiences (cruel I know, but couldn’t help it). One thing you might want to consider is a trailer tent. The added advantages are that you can set up very quickly (with any tenting you will still need a sun cover) so a late arrival at night isn’t such a big deal, it can contain a simple kitchen and you carry equipment in the trailer rather than the car. Then after you have set up you can still go places with the car and not have to decamp every time. You can get quite light ones that can be towed with your current vehicle. I’m assuming you aren’t planning to do any offroading. I had one of those and used it pretty extensively with the family around Australia, including some remote locations.

    Like

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