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Hail, Puddles, & Lessons in Backcountry Tenting

What would you do if hail started pelting your head when your miles from civilization with only a tent for shelter? Keep reading for a humorous account of how a fellow adventurer handled this situation and to hear what she learned about handling weather in the backcountry. – Adventure Medical Kits

You Should Visit Middle Velma Lake in Desolation Wilderness

sunset view at lake
Middle Velma Lake (after the hailstorm)

The surroundings are absolutely stunning. On a recent trip to the lake with friends, we were lucky enough to get this amazing sunset on our last night. It was a beautiful and peaceful moment following a less than enjoyable hailstorm that had taught the three of us a few things about outdoor preparedness.
I would like to think I am the type of person who reacts very calmly when things don’t go as planned in the backcountry. Looking back on that last day of our trip, I wouldn’t say I was freaking out; however, I also definitely wouldn’t say I was making decisions that were helping our situation. I certainly wasn’t prepared.

Earlier That Day

“Let’s swim to the island one more time!”
It was a gorgeous day and we had already swam out to the island earlier, but Ashley was very excited to do it again. Audrey and I agreed to go with her, but once we got knee deep in the water we both chickened out. There were dark grey clouds rolling in, and I was worried it might lightning and thunder again as it had the day before. What I should have been worried about was that our tent fly was off, a hailstorm was about to hit, and we had ingeniously pitched both our tents in what was soon to become a massive puddle… But I didn’t know any of that yet.
After we decided not to swim to the island, it started to lightly sprinkle. We briskly made our way up to our campsite to put our rain flies on.

The Next Hour

At first, we were really excited.
“It’s really raining – this is so fun! We should rig a little shelter up so we can cook dinner underneath it!”
“Great idea! I have this blanket, and we can unravel this survival bracelet to use as string and tie it up to these trees.”

two people in rain coats camping
Our initial excitement at the rain

I am sure there is a really easy way to unravel a survival bracelet, but it took us forever. When we finally got the string loose, it became apparent that I had no idea how to “rig a shelter,” and the two strings were so short that we finally abandoned the shelter and dinner idea all together. At this point, the rain was being accompanied by marble-size hail balls that caused us pain by landing on our heads, so we decided to get in our tents.
Once we got into our tents, there was a sense of relief. However, although we were no longer getting pelted with hail, we were soon all a little worried. Would the hail continue to get bigger and bigger? I cannot speak for Ashely and Audrey, but for me that was when the fear set in a little. Can Tahoe get golf ball size hail? Ashley and I started laughing nervously about the time her car was totaled in Omaha from a hailstorm.
The hail thankfully didn’t get any bigger, but we quickly ran into our next problem: We had strategically placed our tents in very soft dirt. The spots looked so soft and nice to sleep on because they were dried up puddles. By the time we realized what was going on, it was too late. I unzipped the tent to see how high the water was and was shocked to find that under the rainfly our backpacks were sitting in a 6” puddle, and my shoes were floating.

tents next to puddle in woods
The puddle where our tent originally was

We needed to move our tent as soon as possible. The bottom of the tent zipper had turned into a very floppy dam that, if it broke, would flood our tent immediately. Thankfully, we managed to get the tent moved without breaking the zipper dam. We ended up relocating it to the most uncomfortable location ever, but at least we knew it wouldn’t flood again if the hail and rain came back.

What I Learned…

From the Rain

Take precautions to keep your gear dry. Always have your rainfly on, no matter how sunny it is, and don’t unpack your sleeping bag/pad until you go to bed. If we had been on a walk (or swimming to the island again!) when the hail hit, our tent and sleeping bags would have been soaked. Line your backpack with a garbage bag or have your clothing in a waterproof dry bag. We had garbage bags over our backpacks, but that didn’t protect our clothes inside the bags from the puddle. Just in case your sleeping bag does get wet, bring an extra lightweight bivvy or survival blanket. Oh – and choose high ground over sleeping comfort when you’re pitching your tent!
We were really lucky. Not all our clothing got soaked and we had enough dry items to go around for the three of us. The temperature that night only dropped to maybe 50°. We had an uncomfortable last night sleep and a lot of gear to dry out, but it could have been much worse. What if everything got wet and it dropped to below freezing? If that had happened, would we have considered hiking out 5 miles down 3,500 ft. to Emerald Bay in the dark? No thanks.

gear drying out on rocks
Our gear drying out from the storm

From the Hail

Pack supplies for a sturdy shelter (and know how to rig one!). Before heading out on a trip, you should always keep an eye on the weather for the area you’re heading to so you know if you need to change plans due to approaching hail or thunderstorms. However, severe weather can occur unexpectedly and come on quickly, as we experienced, leaving you little time if you’re miles from civilization and underprepared. The first thing you should do in a hailstorm is seek shelter.
We were too far out to take cover in a car or any sort of building, but we certainly could have prepared more by covering our tents with a shelter rigged from a heavy duty blanket or tarp and some paracord. Set at an angle, this would have provided our tent with more protection from the rain and hail. As we discovered, it’s probably best to rig shelter before it starts actually raining and hailing.

A Couple Other Very Important Tips

  1. Don’t bring multi-colored quinoa backpacking; it takes forever to cook and tastes terrible if undercooked.
  2. Do eat Mac n’ Cheese after a hailstorm with your friends!
three women posing in front of lake
The three of us ready to head home!