To understand the role of hydrated clay minerals in active fault systems, a humidity chamber connected to an X-ray diffractometer was used to determine the adsorption of water onto and/or into the crystal structure of smectite. This new type of analysis was carried out under specific temperature and humidity conditions, using powdered clay size fractions (< 2 µm) of rock samples from the San Andreas Fault (USA) and the Nankai Trough (Japan). Pressure cannot be controlled, but does not significantly affect clay swelling at shallow conditions. Air-dried samples show a discrete smectite phase that swells after traditional ethylene glycolation to an interlayer distance of 1.5 and 1.7 nm. Using the humidity chamber, however, the samples show a shorter interlayer distance, between 1.09 and 1.54 nm. Based on our analysis, we show that (i) ethylene glycol overestimates the size of the interlayer space, and therefore water content, so is a crude maximum only; (ii) interlayer swelling occurs in smectite clay minerals at all temperatures between 25 and 95°C; and (iii) particle orientation increases with increasing humidity, indicating a higher mobility of smectite from interlayer hydration. Detailed characterization of the hydration state of smectite under original conditions is critical for understanding of clay-fluid interaction, the mechanical behavior during fault displacements, and fluid budgets at depth. We propose that humidity chamber experiments should be the new standard procedure to constrain swelling characteristics of natural and synthetic clay minerals.