To people new to camping, it can be startling to discover that tents are sold with a second tent lacking a floor. However, this minimalist design isn’t for creating a separate covered area for dancing and picnics but is still for your tent. It is called a rain fly and will help make your camping trip successful.
A rain fly is a fabric hood or cover stretched above a tent. It keeps the tent dry from rain and dew while providing extra protection against the wind and chill. Some rain flies also provide shade around the sides of the tent or an added “room” to stash gear such as backpacks or bicycles.
At first glance, it doesn’t make sense that you need to put a tent over your tent. After all, people don’t put a tarp over their homes. It seems like another unnecessary accessory to make outdoor equipment more expensive and consume precious packing space. So why don’t they just make better tents?
If you’re wondering what is a rain fly and whether you really need one, read on!
What Is A Rain Fly?
A rain fly is similar to a tarp and used to cover a tent, secured with poles, pegs, and guidelines. The rain fly’s purpose is:
- Rain coverage
- Extra insulation (warmth)
- Wind protection
- Keeps dew off the tent
- UV protection
- Dirt, tree sap, bird poop, and grit protection
- Provides privacy (for some models)
Most modern tents are not made to withstand the elements on their own. There is a practical reason for this that is not capitalism. The rain fly allows tents to be airy, increasing air circulation inside the tent and thereby reducing condensation.
If a tent were sealed up enough not to require a rain fly, then it would be a terrarium by morning. Terrariums are an excellent gardening craft for those that want low-maintenance house plants. However, being physically stuck in one is a humid, hot, and sweaty experience.
In short: if a tent doesn’t have enough ventilation, you and everything else inside it becomes damp and clammy. (Ick.)
Do You Need A Rain Fly?
You need a rain fly for most camping adventures. Even the best-weatherproofed tents depend on the rain fly for the system to work.
Also, even when it isn’t raining, there is still dew, bird poop, UV protection, and other outdoor grime to consider. Take it from experienced campers: washing a rain fly is much less work than cleaning an entire tent, especially if mold and mildew are involved. (No, you can’t just shove it in a washing machine.)
Lastly, a rain fly is substantially cheaper to replace than buying an entirely new tent. Far better to let the rain fly, be battered by flying debris, bleached by the sun, and hammered by the rain than your expensive tent.
However, some people like to go without a rain fly on hot air nights. They enjoy looking up at the stars and only use the tent to keep from being eaten by mosquitos.
Also, some think in certain high-temperature situations, getting rid of the rain fly at night is cooler because there will be more air.
However, not having the rain fly during the day in high heat is heavily debated. One side believes that the extra layer traps heat as the sun’s rays barrel into the tent. Others say the rain fly provides shade, so it is cooler, provided you have all the flaps and windows open.
But you might not need the extra shade if the tent is pitched in the shade. Then again, trying to get tree sap and bird poo off your gear and tent is a pain.
Do I Need A Tarp If I Have A Rain Fly?
A spare tarp is always helpful to have around. Many people keep a spare in their car, even when not camping, because they are such a versatile and valuable tool. Thus, if you have the packing space and don’t care about the extra weight, take a tarp even if you have a rain fly.
However, you do not need a tarp hung above your tent if you have a decent rain fly that doesn’t have holes or leaky seams. If your rain fly is damaged, it is best not to use it, then hang a tarp over your tent.
Two rain flies over each other or a tarp over a rain fly creates a nasty enjoyment between the two layers. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough air circulation, so it traps moisture, making it a breeding ground for mold and mildew.
You’d only want a double layer if you hear a major storm is on its way. Then you’d hang the tarp to help you get through the storm, but remove it once it is over.
Also, some people hang a tarp next to the tent to create additional shade, much like having a covered front porch for a house. It’s not only nice for humans, but pets appreciate the extra shade too.
But rain flies are pretty sturdy and can handle a lot of weather. Sure, there is always somebody with a spectacular story, and some of them are even true. Which is why bringing a spare tarp is a good idea, should your rain fly become damaged during your trip. However, no need to hang it up prematurely.
Tarp Vs. Rain Fly
A rain fly typically makes a terrible tarp: however, some tarps make excellent rain flies. But rain flies do have some advantages:
- Made of lighter material, which matters when backpacking
- Usually pack smaller, which is also crucial when backpacking
- Custom fitted for your tent
- Comes with loops and attachments that work with your tent’s poles, stakes, and guidelines
Both a tarp and a rain fly can be used for minimalist camping, when people forgo the tent and just use a ground sheet or footprint, sleeping bag, and an overhead covering. Tarps offer greater durability and (usually) superior insulation, while the rain fly is lighter and takes up less space.
When camping with a hammock, many rain flies are sold with special cuts and angles to provide better shelter than a tarp. These rain flies also have the necessary holes for the straps and carabiners. Tarps typically have fewer holes, made for pegs and guidelines.
But there are kits that help people modify tarps. Customizing a tarp is typically cheaper than a hammock rain fly, and you’ll end up with something that suits your specific needs. The only cons are that the tarp will probably weigh more and be bulkier.
Are There Reasons To Use A Rain Fly Even With No Rain?
There are reasons to use a rain fly even when it isn’t raining. As mentioned earlier, a rain fly also:
- Protects from morning dew
- Shields the tent from UV rays
- Creates shade
- Protects the tent from dirt, debris, bird poo, tree sap, and other abuse
- Blocks wind
- Provides privacy
Should You Use A Rain Fly When It is Hot?
As mentioned earlier, it is debatable if you should use a rain fly when it is hot. If your tent is mostly mesh, lying in it and looking up at the stars is all kinds of wonderful. Nor will a mostly mesh tent retain much heat during the day if the rain fly is off. However, you do lose privacy.
If your tent only has mesh windows and a door, keeping the rain fly up can help shield it from extra heat. However, if your site is in the shade, you might not need it. But you will also lose additional protection around your tent from debris and UV rays.
But the best way to keep a tent from overheating during the day is to collapse it. Then it can’t trap and heat air throughout the day. Those worried about the loss of privacy and shade could pitch the rain fly on its own or have a tarp set up, and people sit under the shade.
Can You Camp With Just A Rain Fly And No Tent?
You can camp with just a rain fly and not a tent. Going minimalist saves space when packing is tight, such as traveling two-up on a motorcycle or bicycle camping. People trying to break speed records on long-distance hikes also might ditch the tent to save weight, thus traveling faster.
Camping with only the rain fly provides privacy and protection from the elements. However, it is not as warm as camping in a tent, and there is a higher likelihood of rain or dew finding a way in. Insects will most certainly be able to pay you a visit, and possibly other small critters.
When camping with only the rain fly, you ideally want something to slip under your sleeping bag. Some people only use the sleeping pad. Others use a footprint or tarp on the ground, which provides you additional insulation and helps keep gear dry. But there is also the option of using a bivy bag.
A bivy bag can add warmth and provide rain protection. Or, if you are worried about mosquitos, you can use a bug bivy that’s essentially netting. Of course, you could always use the bivy bag without the rain fly, as they are made for it. But you will lose privacy and protection for your gear.