Use in the field

Checking and packing your tent or tarp

“I was born by the river, in a little tent, and just like the river I've been running ever since.” Sam Cooke

Practice pitching your tent or tarp at home first. This allows you to become familiar with all the material and how everything fits together. Remember you’ll be tired after a day of walking and it’s nice to be able to just pop up the tent or tarp rather than having to figure it out for the first time in the field!

If you haven’t used your tent or tarp for a while, you can test if it is still waterproof by pitching it in the backyard and using a hose to spray the tent with water. This is an easy way to determine if there are any leaks (again, much nicer than finding out at 3am in the field!).

Pitching (in standard conditions) How to pitch a tent/tarp in standard conditions

Pitching a tent or tarp in standard conditions is primarily about site choice. Usually, you will have a few sites to choose from, so it’s worth thinking through the following points to find the most appropriate one.

Choosing a great location

  1. Find a sheltered flat location
    Select an area sheltered from the wind with reasonable flat open ground. If a pre-existing camping area already exists, use this rather than create another one of our own. Select a flat surface, or surface with the least amount of slope: a slight slope is okay, as long as your lay with your head higher than your feet.
  2. Check it’s safe
    • Look up, check for loose branches or dangerous branches. Avoid pitching directly beneath anything that appears unsafe. Be mindful of potential Sudden Limb Drops from trees, particularly in Eucalyptus trees. This is when an otherwise healthy looking branch will fall from the tree with no warning, usually on a hot day. A good rule of thumb is to avoid pitching your tent or tarp below anything that you do not want falling on you.
    • Check the ground for stinging nettles, sharp object such as rocks, sticks or bindis. Lumpy or sharp objects make for uncomfortable sleeping and can quickly damage the underside of your tent and groundsheet. While you certainly can clear away the odd sharp object or rock, it’s best to find a starting point with as few of these as possible.
    • Scan the immediate vicinity for signs of ants or ant nests. Bull ants and Jumper ants are a few of those creepy crawlies that you want to avoid camping near.
  3. Check for flood risk
    In dry conditions, a site can seem great … that is, until it starts raining and suddenly your tent is a foot underwater. Check that your tent/tarp site is well of typical flood risk zones. Avoid pitching your tent/tarp nearby waterways that are likely to rise after rainfall. Avoid gullies or depressions where water will typically pool during rainfall (e.g. low lying terrain, marshes). Avoid soft ground that will absorb water and turn to mud.

    One way to tell if an area typically collects water is to examine the nearby vegetation. If the vegetation is typical of a marshy area such as rushes, sedges and reeds. Remember that an area may flood even when it is not raining there as water flows from upstream catchments.

  4. Extra things to consider
    Once you’ve found a spot that’s flat, safe and you’re confident that it’s not going to flood, you may also want to consider some of these nice-to-have factors:

    • In summer, opt for a shady spot if you get the choice so that it is cooler during the day and at night. In winter, select a sunny spot to speed up drying the tent/tarp out in the morning.
    • If camping on a hillside, and you have the choice, then think about where you pitch your tent in terms of the direction of the sun: in cooler months, it’s lovely to wake up with the sun directly on the tent; in hotter months, stay as shady as possible.
  5. Then just pitch your tent!
    In nice conditions, pitching a tent/tarp is a fun relaxing process. Although most tents and tarps follow similar principles, follow the manufacturer’s instructions to make sure that you correctly piece everything together and do not damage the materials.

    Some video examples of pitching different styles of tents:

Key points to remember:

  • Tent users, make sure the inner isn’t touching outer fly. Tents stay waterproof by having these two layers separated. Check by running your hands over the inner and outer and tighten pegs/guys to even out tension.
  • Take care when putting tent/tarp pegs in that they go in as far as possible to keep the tent most secure. Put pegs in at an angle (about 90 degrees to the pull on the rope), place the hook on the outside, not facing out. For soft ground you can push it in with your fingers, if it’s harder ground use a rock or hammer if it’s really too hard (do small hits so you don’t hit tent and damage it by accident, and hit directly inline with the shaft to avoid bending).
  • Keep any zippers done up tight to prevent creepy crawlies from getting in during the pitching process.
  • Create even tension across the tent/tarp to protect it from wind and rain. Do this by making sure the pegs and guys are held securely into the ground.
  • When folding and unfolding tent poles, start from the centre of the pole structure and work outwards so that the elastic inside stays even.
  • Keep organised, place extra poles and pegs (and other leftover gear) into the tent bag. Close the bag and place it in a tent pocket. Don’t let the wind blow it away while pitching your tarp or tent!

Pitching (in non-standard conditions) How to pitch a tent/tarp in non-standard conditions

The reality of bushwalking and camping is that you will probably not end up with a perfect campsite location, and you’ll very likely have to pitch your tent or tarp in challenging conditions (at least some of the time).

Rain and wind are the main conditions that make things hard, but gear failure such as a broken pole is another example of a challenging condition that requires a bit of ingenuity and patience to solve. Here we problem solve a few challenging scenarios.

Most tents and tarps are longer on one side (i.e. not symmetrical), and so have one side that has a larger surface area compared to the other. Usually the foot/head direction is the narrow one, and the body length is the long one.

If the long side of the tarp or tent is pitched directly facing the wind, a large surface area of the tent will get hit by wind and the whole structure will be more significantly affected than if a smaller side of the tent or tarp is facing directly into the wind. Think of your tent/tarp like a sailing boat: if the sail catches the wind it’ll take off. Similarly, your tent can get caught by the wind, so pitch your tent/tarp in a way that lets the wind flow past in the easiest way.

Another reason to consider wind direction in how you orientate your tent or tarp is to avoid smoke blowing from the fire into the tent/tarp. If you are camping downwind from the fire, try to have your tent/tarp opening away from the fire to minimise the amount of smoke blowing in. Ideally, you want the door of your tent to be downwind to making getting in and out easier and to protect the gear inside.

Rainy trips can still be a lot of fun. Here are a few tips to stay happy in the rain. If you are carrying a tarp, set this up first to create a dry working area and place for the group to shelter. Simply having a nice dry place to hang out when you come into camp can make all the difference. Pitch the tarp so that it creates a high ‘roof’.

Most importantly when pitching a tent in rain, avoid getting the inner wet! Some tent designs have the inner and outer attached (e.g. dome tents) so the outer automatically keeps the inner dry for a short time whilst pitching. Other tent designs have a separate inner and outer. Often, it’s possible to pitch the outer tent as a skin first, and then crawl inside and attach the inner. It’s not a bad idea in heavy rain to simply pitch the outer part of the tent and use the inside as temporary shelter, wait for the rain to ease, then pitch the inner later on.

Try to keep the inside of your tent as dry as possible by removing all boots and wet clothing before getting inside the tent (tents with vestibules make this far easier to do). Use a small tea towel or t-shirt to dry of wet things before putting them down in your tent.

Gear failure or forgotten items
Rips and tears to tent and tarps happens. That’s why it’s handy to carry a repair kit and know some tips and tricks for minor repairs in the field. See our Tent maintenance post.

Forgotten equipment is another thing that probably will happen to you at some point in your bushwalking career. If you can’t pitch your tent/tarp during dry summer weather, it’s probably not an issue as you’ll likely stay warm and dry enough in the open. However, in cooler weather, wet conditions and alpine areas, then not having a shelter can be extremely risky as you increase your risk of exposure and hypothermia. Here are some options to improvise replacements for forgotten tent items:

Forgotten itemReplacement options
PolesDepending on your tent design, you may be able to find a suitable stick to hold up part of your tent. Or a walking pole may also act as a tent pole replacement. Failing this, consider pitching your tent differently, making use of trees or rocks around: perhaps you can turn your tent into a tarp for the night?
PegsSticks, cutlery or rocks can replace missing or damaged pegs (see section below on using rocks instead of pegs).
InnerDepending on your tent design, you may be able to still pitch the outer part of your tent and use that as a protective shell. This still leaves you exposed to insects (no mozzie net) so consider applying insect repellent, and using a neck scarf and hat to protect your skin.
OuterForgetting your outer is a problem in rainy conditions and high wind. Select the most sheltered spot you can - perhaps a cave or overhang, or area with lots of vegetation overhead. Consider pitching a groundsheet, foil blanket, raincoats or taped together garbage bag to for a roof.
Ground sheetYour groundsheet is there to protect your tent from damage by providing an additional layer. Depending on the size of your tent, you may be able to use a rain jacket or poncho instead, or large garbage bag to provide some protection. Take extra care to not pitch on any sharp objects.

ideally your campsite is flat, but sometimes you just have to pitch where you can and if that means halfway across a slope, then so be it. There are a few things you can do to ease the scenario. Firstly, pitch the tent such that it minimise the slope that you will be sleeping on. This may mean pitching across the slope at an angle. Have your feet lower than your head and use your pack at your feet to prop up your body and reduce the amount you slip downhill overnight.

Pitching on a slope in rain means that you are likely to get reasonable flow of water under the tent, consider where the water will flow to minimise the amount under (and through) the tent/tarp.

Pegs not going in
Some surfaces are really hard to drive pegs into (e.g. hard soil or rocks). If the ground it really hard then avoid destroying all your pegs. When driving a peg in apply any force at the end of the peg directly along the saft. Any sideways force once the peg is partly in the ground is likely to bend the peg. Gently hammering with a rock allows you to keep this force in line, but will make the end of the peg rough. Using your foot to drive in a peg can work, but it is harder to keep the force in line and more likely to lead to bending.

If the ground is impossible to get the peg into, consider tying the guylines to vegetation or rocks. If using vegetation, avoid ringbarking and damaging the plant by using padding, and not strangling the plant with the rope. If using rocks (or logs), return them to where you found them when you leave. If pitching several tents/tarps, you may also be able to use the tents/tarps to anchor each other.

Pitching tent in the dark
You’ll probably have to pitch your tent/tarp in the dark at some stage – hopefully not the first time you use it! It pays to know exactly how your tent/tarp goes up, so make sure you practice first at home to avoid getting caught out.

Still do all your safety and sites checks even though it’s dark (check the area is safe, there are no sharp objects, ants nests or nettles on the ground, and that the area you are pitching is low flood risk).

Use a head torch to help see what you’re doing, and stay organised with where all your gear is (e.g. try not to misplace items such as pegs as they can be challenging to find at night).

Snow conditions require different tents and techniques to non-snow conditions. There are additional risks and safety checks that you must do to stay safe.

  • Check site for avalanche risk – do not pitch in an avalanche zone.
  • Find a sheltered spot and use a walking pole (or ski pole) to check that the ground is solid (no risk of snow collapsing).
  • Level out the surface by stamping on it or using a snow shovel to create a low platform. Allow the platform to harden for about 30 minutes before pitching your tent.
  • Pitch tent and use snow pegs to secure it.
  • In windy conditions build a small wall up wind to direct the airflow over the tent.
  • Dig a ditch in the snow around the base of the tent walls and keep fresh snow from building up against the tent.
  • Avoid wind blowing between the inner and outer of the tent, but do maintain gentel air flow to reduce condensation in the tent.
  • Increase visibility of your campsite by standing ski’s (or other objects) in a cross uphill, to reduce the risk of others skiing into you.

In-field repairs Simple repairs in the field

Inner and outer tent
Small rips and tears to the inner or outer tent (or tarp) can generally be fixed using a tent repair kit with patches and adhesive glue.

Broken or bent pegs are a little more challenging to repair in the field. You can try straightening the peg with a rock, although once a peg is bent it is significantly weakened. Use spare peg or improvise with other items.

For snapped poles in the field, use a ferrule to make a temporary repair:

Tent repair kits usually come with ferrules that are adaptable enough to fit most tent designs.
Failing this, tape can be great for making a temporary repair:

Neither tape nor a ferrule will last forever, but they are great ways of making temporary fixes in the field. If you do not have a ferrule, you may be able to improvise with a tent peg, cutlery or stick.