What is A Rainfly, and How Effective Is It? 3 Things You Need to Know

By Emma
what is a rainfly?

What is a rainfly? I knew I asked this when I first started camping.

Perhaps you’ve just bought your first tent and are assembling it when you come across a piece of fabric that is unattached. What is it, and what do you do with it?

Maybe you’re an experienced camper looking to buy a new tent, but you can’t decide whether to buy a tent with a full coverage or partial coverage rainfly.

No matter where you’re at in your camping journey, we’re here to help demystify the rainfly!

A rainfly is a multipurpose component of a tent that is typically (but not always) a separate piece that goes over the mesh top. The rainfly is water-resistant and intended to keep rain, snow, and other natural elements out of the tent. Additionally, a rainfly can be helpful in cold weather by helping to keep the warm air in the tent. 

When camping this summer during the Brood X Cicada boom, I expected nothing more than the deafening sound of the cicadas song. Imagine my surprise when my tent appeared to have sticky raindrops falling on it from an otherwise clear sky. 

It turned out the cicadas were urinating on my tent. I was exceptionally grateful my rainfly was on for the trip!

The Purpose of a Rainfly – How it Works and When to Use it

As we’ve discussed, a rainfly is a multipurpose component of a tent. It’s typically a separate piece that goes over the top of a tent, covering the mesh. 

Occasionally it is connected to the tent, which we discuss more in-depth below.

In most 3 season, double-walled tents, the ceiling is made of mesh. This mesh serves a few important purposes. 

The mesh in the ceiling helps to circulate air into and out of the tent. This circulation can help maintain more moderate temperatures.

The mesh also serves as a way to stargaze at night while keeping the bugs out.

This breathable ceiling becomes a problem when outside elements get into your tent.

When rain is expected, or your tent is under trees, in a sandy environment, or in a location with a large insect or bird population, you will need protection above the mesh.

Rainflies prevent most of these undesirable elements from entering your tent.

When to Use a Rainfly 

Rainflies can be extremely useful in various situations, so it’s essential to assess the area you’re camping in to decide whether or not keeping your rainfly on will enrich your experience.

  • If you’re camping in an area known for frequent rainfall or are expecting rain at any time, a rainfly will keep your tent and belongings dry.
  • If you’re camping and any inclement weather is even a possibility, err on the side of caution and throw up your rainfly.
  • If you’re camping under a lot of trees, a rainfly can help prevent things like sap, animal droppings, and tree debris from entering your tent.
  • If you’re camping in an area of sand or loose dirt and gravel, a rainfly can help protect you from these elements.

While it’s always important to take your rainfly in the spirit of preparedness, there are times they may not be worth unpacking.

When to Consider Abandoning Your Rainfly

Despite their usefulness, sometimes rainflies can hinder your experience.

  • If you are in sunny weather and are hanging out in your tent, you may want to keep the rainfly off to soak up the rays.
  • If you’re in an extremely hot, stuffy, or humid environment without inclement weather, keeping your rain fly off can allow for better air circulation in your tent.
  • If you’re in an area of astronomical significance or simply a site with dark open skies as far as the eye can see, omitting a rainfly can give you access to the best stargazing of your life.

While all rainflies serve the same purpose of creating a protective layer against natural elements outside, not all do this in the same way or with the same efficacy.

The Different Types of rainflies 

There is as wide a variety of rainflies as there are tents. Rainflies differ in water resistance, material, coverage, and whether they are attached or not. Often it’s most important to know how and where you’ll be using your tent before buying one.

Will you be camping in relatively mild climates or ones with more heavy rain and winds? 

Will you be backpacking or simply driving up to a site?

Full vs. Partial Coverage – Pros and Cons of Each Style

Rainflies come with your tent and will be either partial or full coverage, depending upon its intended use.   

As the name implies, full coverage rainflies completely cover the outside of your tent from top to bottom. 

Full coverage rain flys are advantageous if camping in an area of heavy rain or winds. They protect your tent completely to prevent water from coming in.

But the downside is that they significantly reduce the amount of air circulating in the tent and make it feel hot or stuffy. Of course, making the tent warm can be considered advantageous if camping in colder weather.

Full coverage can add more weight to your carrying load as they tend to be heavier. 

Partial coverage rainflies only partially cover your tent, making them advantageous when camping in mild weather.

Partial coverage keeps rain from coming into your tent while still allowing optimal circulation. This design is great for camping in warmer weather or more humid climates.

This style of rainfly is not ideal when you’re camping in windy conditions and heavy rainfall. Rain can still get into side venting/mesh areas depending on how much coverage your rainfly offers.

Single-Walled vs. Double-Walled Tents

Double-walled tents are tents that have two layers or walls. One of these walls is the body of the tent made of various materials, including mesh. The outer wall is the rainfly and is intended to offer protection to the inner wall of the tent.

Rainflies are typically included with all double-walled tents. These tents are valuable as they give the camper the option to set up their tent as they see fit. 

Double-walled tents can be heavier than their single-walled counterparts. They tend to have a longer setup, which isn’t ideal if you’re backpacking and need to set up quickly.

Single-walled tents are made of one layer or wall. This layer is composed of one water-resistant material that serves as both the tent’s body and rainfly. These aren’t the tents most people think of when they imagine camping at a drive-in site for a weekend getaway.

Single-walled tents are lightweight and set up quickly, making them ideal for backpacking or hike-in camping.

Do Rainflies Make Your Tent Waterproof?

While rainflies are intended to serve as a protective layer against the elements, do they actually make your tent waterproof?

As we share in “Are Tents Waterproof? 4 Things To Look For And 3 Ways To Waterproof Your Tent“:

“Tents are not waterproof but rather highly water-resistant. They significantly slow down the penetration of rainwater but do not prevent it. 

Rainflies are water-resistant and are an essential tool in keeping your tent as dry as possible.

How water-resistant your rainfly is depends upon various factors such as fabric, coating on the material, waterproof rating, whether the seams are sealed, and how old your tent is.

Your care and maintenance also directly impact your rainfly’s water resistance.

Always store your rainfly dry and regularly checking the seams and fabric are crucial to ensure your rainfly is in good shape.

Additionally, regular seam sealing and coating of the fabric can give longevity to your rainfly.

How to Pitch a Rainfly

The key to an effective rainfly is attaching it correctly to your tent.

When setting up your rainfly, be sure to line it up over the outer poles. 

If your rainfly has velcro straps, make sure to use these to attach them to the pole.

The most important part of pitching the rainfly is making sure it’s pulled taut. You want water and all other natural elements to roll off your rainfly, not to collect atop a slack one.

Rainfly Cleaning and Care – Tips and Tricks to Keep it in Tip Top Condition 

As you can see, a rainfly is an essential part of a tent, so keeping it in top shape is essential.

Your rainfly needs regular inspection and care to make sure it’s in good condition. Harsh rain, tree sap, and animal droppings can create weakness in your rainfly or cause mold issues if not addressed.

You should inspect your rainfly after every camping trip. Your rainfly should always be packed away dry and clean.

Handwashing it in a bucket with your hands and a mild soap is the best choice to clean your rainfly. 

Do not scrub your rainfly with anything abrasive, and be extremely gentle when handling it. You want to remove stains and soiling without weakening your rainfly.

Once you’ve washed your rainfly, hanging it up to dry over a clothesline or shower rod is the best choice.

Finally, it is wise to address the water-resistance of your rainfly after use and washing. In our article “Are Tents Waterproof? 4 Things To Look For And 3 Ways To Waterproof Your Tent” we discuss both seam sealing and durable water repellent as options to ensure your rainfly remains water-resistant.

As we’ve discussed, rainflies serve as water-resistant protection to keep you and your belongings dry while also ensuring your tent is sheltered from undesirable outside elements. 

Awareness of your surroundings and expected weather can help you determine when it’s most appropriate to attach your rainfly. Regular attention and care will keep your rainfly in great shape to last through many seasons.

AUTHOR

My name is Emma, and I’m a city dweller who jumps on every opportunity to get out and enjoy nature! I’ve gone on a number of car camping and backpacking trips over the past few years. I created this site to inspire others to get outside and to make the process easier for you.