How To Waterproof a Tent

When camping, a last-minute change in the weather forecast can be cause for concern, especially if you’re not prepared. Suddenly, the elements have turned against you and now you have to worry amount damp shoes, soggy sleeping bags, and deflated spirits. 

Most of us have been there at some point, waking up one morning on our camping trips to find we’ve been sleeping in a puddle all along.

A brief overview of the basics

Having a waterproof tent is something that can be easily taken for granted and it’s essential not to forget how important proper equipment maintenance is. Leaks in tents, after all, can develop over time and surprise us at the worst possible moments, so it’s always better to be prepared and check your equipment before each use. Checking your tent, and in fact, all your equipment before a camping trip is an excellent habit to acquire. This precaution alone could save campers from any number of disastrous trips. 

If you’re backpacking, checking if your tent is adequately waterproofed is even more vital because once you’re on the road discovering a leak will be nothing but an endless headache. New tents should be waterproofed already but older ones might need to be checked and repaired and it’s always worth checking new tents anyway to see if they’re up to the job.

There are also some things you can keep in mind to help prevent leakages in the first place:

 

  • Avoiding sunlight is always beneficial to promote the longevity of your tent. UV rays can cause the fabric of the tent to decay, and this can cause leaks later on.
  • When storing your tent between trips, you should always keep it in a cool, dry place. It’s also recommended to pack your tent loosely in a larger breathable bag for longer-term storage, this way the fabric will last much longer.
  • Keeping your tent tightly rolled up for long periods of time can turn any dampness into mold.
  • You should never machine wash your tent either, as this can stretch and tear the material, as well as causing heat damage. If you need to wash your tent at any point, cold water, non-detergent soap, and a sponge will work just fine.

 

All in all, there are lots of other ways to make your camping equipment last longer and taking advantage of these tips will help you later down the trail when you need them the most. Possible tent leakage can occur throughout the seams, main body fabric, or rainfly of your tent. Checking on these things before you go on your camping trip can relieve pressure and give you peace of mind. The wear of your tent depends on how much it’s been used, and the amount of exposure to harsh conditions such as bad weather.  

 

A pair of camping backpacks in the rain.

A pair of camping backpacks in the rain.

 

Before starting your waterproofing mission, do some research into what fabrics your tent uses. Different waterproofing products are made for different materials, and tents made of natural fibers would need a different approach altogether. Please note that this article is based around tents made with synthetic materials, so if you have a canvas tent or any part is made with natural fibers, make sure to use the correct products for your gear. There’s a lot of discussion about the differences between tents made of synthetic and natural materials, so if you want to know more, it’s worth reading into it. Remember if you’re struggling to figure out the right thing to do for your tent, the label should have plenty of useful information and care instructions.

There are several different ways to waterproof a tent, using different chemicals and materials. For the seams, a sealant is applied along the length to keep the moisture from seeping through. Refreshing the urethane coating on the floor of the tent and the inside of the rainfly is the main barrier against water. Ideally, water should bead and roll off your rainfly straight away, and for this refreshing the DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating will help your tent shed the water with ease.

Checking for leaks

The first step in waterproofing your tent is to check for leaks. Set up your tent in your backyard on a sunny day. Then, spray a mist of water over the whole of the structure with your garden hose, and check inside the tent for any water weeping through the walls or the seams. Watch out for condensation- this is moisture that collects on the inside of the tent produced by your breath or body heat. This is why it helps to check for leaks before going camping, so there’s not yet someone inside producing condensation. This can be incorrectly interpreted as leaking water, but all tents get condensation on the inside. On the outside, what you’re looking for is the water beading and running off the fabric. This means that your waterproofing is adequate and your tent is ready to go!

If you have a separate rainfly, then this can be checked as well. The rainfly is the floorless, waterproof outer layer of your tent. The inner part of your tent with the floor and the mesh to keep bugs out is known as the main body. If your tent is waterproof without the rainfly, you can check both elements for leaks separately, and then waterproof as needed. This way you’ll have double the protection against the weather. If the main body of the tent is only mesh, then you’ll need to test it with the rainfly on, how you would normally set it up.

Preparing to waterproof your tent

Now you’ve located the problem areas in your tent, the next step is to clean it. This is important as sealants or waterproofing agents are much more effective when applied to a clean surface. For this, you can usually just use clean water and a sponge. If you see flaking anywhere, this is a sign that the waterproofing agent already applied to your tent is deteriorating. We suggest using a little rubbing alcohol on these areas and gently rubbing off what’s loose. If in doubt, you can always check the tent label for care instructions.


If your tent is new, then it’s unlikely you need to clean it, so you can skip this step. However, you may still want to waterproof it. Some tents when bought new only come with waterproofing on the key areas like the floor or the rainfly, so you might still want to add a bit of extra protection.


Waterproofing your tent

Now you’ve done your research into the best products for your tent, found the leaks, and done all the preparation necessary, its time to start waterproofing your tent! Each different type of waterproofing requires a slightly different approach, so the instructions are broken down by area and type.

The seams

You can find seams all over your tent, covering the doors, corners, and where the walls meet the floor. Make sure to check the entire length of the seam for leaks, you don’t want to go through the whole process only to be on your trip and realize you missed a spot. It’s worth putting in the time to be meticulous. It’s also worth noting that if you spot one seam that needs waterproofing, it’s worth just resealing them all. For waterproofing seams, there’s also the option to use seam tape instead of a sealant, so if you think this might be a better option, have a look at the differences first.

Before you get started, there are a few things you need to be ready. Firstly you need a clean and dry workspace. Ideally, this would be somewhere with lots of room to spread out the tent fully, and then leave it to dry undisturbed afterward. If you have the space to work inside then it’s much better to do it there, just lay down a tarp to protect your floor. It’s a good idea to set up somewhere with good light, so you can examine the seams easily. 

You’ll need a small or medium-sized paintbrush to apply the product unless it comes with its own application tool, and of course, you’ll need your seam sealant of choice. You may also want to use gloves for safety purposes, check the recommendations on your sealant if you’re unsure.

 

How to waterproof your tent seams:

 

  • After you’ve checked for leaks, spread out your tent in your workspace
  • If the seams look dirty at all, gently clean them with a damp cloth or rubbing alcohol if necessary. You should let the seams fully dry before continuing to the next step. If you notice a lot of seam tape peeling off, remove it, but leave the parts that are still intact
  • Apply the seam sealer, according to the package instructions
  • Then let it dry for 8-12 hours


 

The floor

The floor of a tent, resembling a tarp, is often referred to as the bathtub or the tub floor, as it runs up the walls a few inches off the ground. This keeps the seams away from the surface of your campsite and adds protection against water on the ground outside. This is important as it protects all your belongings from getting wet!

In the factory where your tent was made, the floor will have had a waterproof coating applied already, but this is not necessarily the optimal waterproofing agent. It may work well in the beginning, but soon enough, the coating will wear and you may start to get leakage through the floor. This means it’s time to reapply the waterproofing agent yourself. If you’ve seen flaking on the floor of your tent, this probably means you need a new urethane coating. Using an abrasive sponge to carefully clean off the old product is recommended, and make sure to let your new protective layer dry for a full 24 hours after application before packing away.

For this part of the task, you will need a clean and dry workplace as described before. You might also need gloves and a mask to protect you from any harmful chemicals. If necessary have a sponge and water for any cleaning, and of course, you will need some waterproof spray or sealant. If any part of the floor is sticky or peeling, this is a sign that the old waterproofing is decaying. You can use rubbing alcohol to gently clean off the existing product before you get started.

 

How to waterproof your tent floor:

  • Set up the tent in your work area
  • Clean the floor of any dirt or debris, and wipe away the old waterproofing product as described
  • Seal the seams connecting the main body to the floor before doing the actual floor
  • Then seal the remaining tent floor according to the product instructions
  • Let your tent dry completely before packing away or moving on to your next step

Protect the Fabric of the Tent at All Costs

 

Waterproofing a tent

 

The “fabric” refers to the main part of your tent, the bit you sleep inside. There can be a number of different materials making up this part of the tent, and they each may require different attention.

When waterproofing before a trip, you might think its okay to just do the rainfly. Because of the wind, and how the water drips off the rainfly, water can still hit the tent and leak through. It’s best to waterproof the tent fabric as well as the fly, for improved protection. 

To waterproof the main body of a tent, you will need an adequate working space, the guidelines for waterproofing other parts of the tent also apply here. You will also still need cleaning materials, safety gear such as gloves and a mask, and of course your sealant or waterproofing spray. Make sure you’ve checked the best type of sealant for the materials your tent is made out of, as different chemicals work best for different fabrics. Doing this job is easy enough, and doesn’t take that long. We promise it will be well worth your time, and you’ll be thankful next time you get caught in a rainstorm.

How to waterproof the main body of your tent:

  • These instructions vary for different products, so always check the packaging, but the general steps are as follows;
  • Set up the tent in your garden, on a sunny day
  • Use a hosepipe to spray the outside of the tent and make it wet
  • Apply the sealant in a thin layer, avoiding the mesh, and paying extra attention to the seams
  • 
After waiting a few minutes, remove the excess product with a sponge
  • Let everything dry completely before packing away

The Rainfly

The rainfly stretches over the top of the body of the tent. It takes the largest amount of pressure from outside elements, so this means it needs the most attention. The rainfly should be recoated in waterproofing agents most regularly, to make sure you’re always prepared for the weather.

A rainfly has seams just like the rest of the tent, so you should seam seal it first before moving on to the fabric. One tip here is to put the rainfly on the tent inside out, so the seams are exposed and easily accessible. For this stage of the process, you’ll need the same preparation; a suitable workspace, safety equipment, and your chosen waterproofing product. You should check how the waterproofing is already before starting, just set up and spray with your garden hose. It will be easy to see if the water saturates the fabric or beads and runs off.

How to waterproof the rainfly of your tent:

  • The process here is similar to waterproofing the main body of your tent:
  • Set up the rainfly over the tent (at this point the main body of your tent should be waterproofed and completely dry itself)
  • If necessary, clean it with a sponge and water
  • Spray the rainfly with the hose to make it wet
  • Spray the entire area evenly with sealant or waterproofing spray (DWR), then take a sponge and wipe away the excess so the product can dry in an even layer (check closely the product instructions here as it may vary)
  • Leave your tent to dry for a few hours in the sun, and never pack away until it’s completely set

Final Verdict:

So now you’ve learned how to waterproof a tent, you’re ready for the next step in planning your camping trip. With seams sealed and eyes wide, you can venture into the great unknown with a spring in your step. Now there’s no need to worry about puddles or thunderstorms, so well prepared campers can embrace a new challenge. Although daunting, many outdoor enthusiasts are now trying camping alone, and a great first step is having an adequately waterproofed tent. Have a read about camping alone and see if its right for you. There’s nothing stopping you now, so seize the opportunity and go make some memories. 

 

 

Riley Draper

Riley Draper

Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.