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9 Campsite Selection Tips

If a campsite reservation is require, make it in advance.
If a campsite reservation is required, make it in advance.

Good campsite selection is an important backpacking skill. Here are some tips to pick a safe and comfortable campsite that will enhance your enjoyment of the backcountry.

1. Plan campsites in advance

If backcountry regulations require that you camp at designated campsites, reserve one in advance or make sure ones are available before you arrive. Otherwise, review a topographic map beforehand to identify good camping locations on level ground with easy access to a water source.

Widow makers - falling trees and branches are a real danger. Make sure you camp in an area free of dead trees and overhead branches
Widow makers – falling trees and branches are a real danger. Make sure you camp in an area free of dead trees and that all overhead branches are alive.

2. Watch out for widow-makers

People get killed or injured every year when trees or branches fall on them in their tents. When you set up camp look up and around to make sure you’re not camping near dead trees or trees with suspended dead branches that can fall if their dislodged by the wind. Be extra careful in the spring since heavy winter snow breaks a lot of tree branches.

Avoid camping in a low spot that can fill with water when it rains (like the author did here)
Avoid camping in a low spot that can fill with water when it rains (like the author did here)

3. Avoid camping in low spots

Avoid camping in a low spot that can fill with water when it rains (like the author did here.) You’ll also sleep better if you camp on flat ground instead of a slope.

Camping 200 feet away from ponds to makes it easier for wildlife to reach water and helps prevent unwanted animal encounters at night
Camping 200 feet away from ponds to makes it easier for wildlife to reach water and helps prevent unwanted animal encounters at night.

4. Don’t camp next to water

Try to avoid camping within 200 feet of a pond or stream because you’ll experience significantly more internal condensation in your tent. Camping 200 feet away also makes it easier for wildlife to reach water and helps prevent unwanted large animal encounters at night. You’ll also experience far fewer mosquitos.

You may be forced to eat in the dark if you get into camp after sunset
You may be forced to eat in the dark if you get into camp after sunset

5. Set up camp before it gets dark

Try to set up your campsite 1-2 hours before sunset. Pitching a tent, fetching water, hanging a bear bag, cooking dinner, and washing dishes in the dark isn’t as much fun as you’d think.

Avoid setting up your tent on fragile plans or flowers.
Avoid setting up your tent on fragile plants or flowers like this guy.

6. Don’t camp on fragile vegetation or flowers

Try not to camp on fragile mosses, rare alpine plants, or flowers in ecologically sensitive areas, especially areas with very short growing seasons. If these plants are damaged, they may not survive the winter.

You can't really pee out the front door of your tent at a crowded campsite
You can’t really pee out the front door of your tent at a crowded campsite and all the snoring is unpleasant.

7. Don’t crowd other campers

Many campers like peace and quiet and a little privacy when they head out camping. Spread out and try not to crowd other campers if possible. Keep your noise level down after dark and try to be extra considerate of others.

Two tents protected from the wind by a small embankment
Two tents protected from the wind by a small embankment.

8. Avoid windy and exposed campsites

Windy and exposed campsites are cooler than ones protected by a wind break like trees, behind a hill, or a rocky wall. High winds can be quite noisy at night and can damage your tent or shelter.

Sawyer Pond Camping Regulations
Sawyer Pond Camping Regulations

9. Follow backcountry camping regulations

Read up on the local camping regulations before you go on a trip. These are usually posted online and at trailhead kiosks. Different regions have different rules to protect fragile vegetation and wildlife. Everyone benefits if we all follow the rules and preserve the backcountry.

19 comments

  1. If I may add a 10th tip: avoid camping near road crossings. My hiking partner and I set up within a few hundred feet of a logging road. Throughout the night the trucks roared through the wilderness. And the headlights lit up the forest. To top it off, minutes after exiting his tent the next morning, a sizable chunk of a large branch hit his tent.

    • One night a few decades ago, I set up camp in the dark and a few hours later was awakened by a horrible noise. I’d set up about twenty feet from a railroad track.

      • Did the same thing, although it wasn’t a train. It was my wife snoring!

      • Ohhhh boy… you really put your foot in it now…

      • Phil, that’s definitely your funniest line of 2016!!! Escargot

      • Grandpa, that happened to me once but fortunately we were car camping and were warned ahead of time. Still, it sounded like the train was going to run us over.

      • My first thought was that we were going to get run over but then my lone functioning neuron woke up and informed me that I’d have noticed pitching my tent across a couple steel rails. I thanked it and went back to bed.

  2. … if THEY’RE dislodged by the wind. :)

    good tips, nice pictures!

  3. 1A. Plan campsites in advance… and learn to read between the lines!

    When I took my four year old grandson on his first backpacking trip in Big Bend National Park, I got the permit for a site about a mile up the trail and only about a 500′ climb so that his first trip would be relatively easy. The site’s description said “well shaded”, which I took to mean “plenty of trees”. Although that was probably the first definition, “well shaded” in our case also meant “the sun won’t rise on your side of the mountain until 11 AM”. It was 17º and the inside of our tent was covered with frozen condensation. I talked to my wife on the two way radio and she was basking in 55º sunlight at the main campground a mile and a half distant while we whiled away our time reaching out of our down bags to whack the walls of the tent and make it “snow” on each other.

    3. Avoid camping in low spots.

    In 1972, my brother and I set up camp in a nice spot completely devoid of leaves and twigs at the base of Mt. Magazine in Arkansas. During a rainstorm that night we learned why our “ideal” campsite was so clear–everything in it got scrubbed away whenever there was a cloudburst. Our air mattresses did float in the several inches of water in the tent.

    10. Play Motel 6 and leave the light on when leaving your tent on a foggy night.

    A few years ago, my grandsons and I were camped in pea soup fog on the large flat top of an Arkansas mountain. During the night, I had to find a lonely tree. Being a responsible outdoorsman, I proceeded an estimated 200′ from camp, took care of business, and then couldn’t find my way back. I wandered around about 30 minutes and figured I’d be spending the night outside when I noticed a very faint glow quite a distance away. The grandkids were afraid of bears, wolves, mountain lions, Sasquatch, the Loch Ness monster, Yeti, and anything else their fertile minds could come up with. They’d come up with the rock solid defense against all such creatures of the dark–a nightlight fashioned from an LED headlamp, which light became my beacon to guide me back to camp. I guess I could have hollered until I woke them up but my neuron hadn’t yet explored that possibility.

  4. This post came just in time! Great reminder after long winter of sleeping under roof. I will keep all those tips in mind during my next weekly trip (starting this Thursday woohoo!)

    Thank you for this post :)

  5. I suppose this relates to both 5. Set up camp before it gets dark, and 6. Don’t camp on fragile vegetation or flowers. The morning after setting up in the dark, I awoke in the middle of a field of poison ivy. Lesson learned.

    • Scout: “So, how can I tell the poison oak from the other plants?”
      Me: “Easy, all the other plants are smart enough to grow somewhere else, this is all poison oak.”

  6. Check for small pointy or sharp objects on the ground where you setup your tent. Even in established campsites. You never know what small rock, or sharp twig has made a home in the ground since the last camper left.

  7. Re. #8. Avoiding “windy and exposed sites” is a relative thing. I often prefer a more open site with some breeze because it keeps the insects moving. Really good tips though.

  8. Avoid setting up in the dark near a fence. Did this once and woke up by something licking the side of the tent. The fence was part of a cow pasture. I thought it was a bear!

  9. I have to wonder, does it really matter where you set up a camp? It seems like the most important thing is that the ground is flat. And following regulations? What harm could setting up a tent really do anyway? I have always camped wherever is most convenient and have never experienced any problems.

  10. Great tips! We are getting ready to go backcountry camping this summer.

  11. I routinely break several of these rules on purpose for various reasons. Many established campsites are in fact “lower” spots but maybe not the lowest spots and so I find it helps to have a high quality tent with an excellent floor to allow me to stay dry in the occasional gully washer-deluge whereby I’m sitting in a temporary pool of water. No problem as my tent doesn’t leak.

    Don’t camp next to water? Many of my campsites are, again, along mountain creeks in established campsites close to water. To avoid such camps I’d have to carve out new campsites repeatedly. Name any creek valley and you’ll find hundreds of creekside camps—Slickrock Creek, Upper Creek, Harper/North Harper Creek, Jacks River, Conasauga Creek, and a hundred more.

    Avoid windy and exposed campsites? No way. One big reason I go backpacking is to seek out the high and exposed places like NC and TN mountain balds and meadows. I have a tent that can take the wind. The higher we camp the more exposed we are to everything—cold, snow and wind. These 3 things are what makes being out in nature worthwhile.

    Here are some tips I follow: Place dead leaves on a muddy tent site to protect tent floor. #2: Take first dibs on a campsite and set up by firepit. This will keep interlopers and hikers wanting to horn in on your campsite away and stop them from building big bonfires and pinholing your tent with fire embers.

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