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How to Select a Good Campsite

Andrew Skurka explains how to pick a good campsite
Andrew Skurka explains how to pick a good campsite

Selecting a comfortable tent site is a useful skill for all backpackers, regardless of whether you set up camp in a designated camping area or if you stealth camp in a natural, unprepared site.

Here are some of the things that I look for when I’m evaluating different camping locations:

1. Is the site close to a water source?

Being close to water is important so you don’t have to lug around the water you need for cooking dinner, breakfast and to carry you over to the next water source. However, sometimes it’s ok to fill up your water bladders and camp at a dry site in a special location or if you seek solitude away from noisy neighbors.

2. Is your campsite safe  from hazards such as rock falls, flash floods, high tide or avalanches?

You need to be aware of the local environment and not camp someplace where you can be hurt or worse.

3. Is the surface free of stones, broken branches, and roots?

This is for your comfort, more than anything else. Clear the area of small debris before you set up your shelter or move to a different location. Inflatable sleeping pads can ameliorate this issue if there aren’t any perfect sites around.

4. Is your campsite situated on compacted ground?

When people camp on the same site over and over, the ground underneath them gets compacted. This can be bad news if you set up your shelter on the same spot and it rains heavily. You can find yourself suddenly swamped when the compacted area fills up with water. It’s happened to me and it is very unpleasant. Don’t pitch your shelter in one of these overused indentations.

5. Is the campsite fairly level?

You’ll be more comfortable if you can find a level site to sleep on. If you can’t find a perfectly level site, try to find one with a very gentle grade and sleep with your head at the high point.

6. Is the campsite set off from hiking trails and game trails?

You don’t want to camp too close to a human trail for privacy sake, or a game trail, where animals will disturb you at night. Animals often use human trails this way, so it’s just best to avoid both.

7. Is the campsite private and quiet?

The last thing I want is to be near when I’m camping is a loud party or someone who is sawing away (snoring) so loudly that it keeps me up at night. I also hate sleeping in designated spots, particularly on wooden platforms, when an area is crowded with other campers. It’s not unusual for me to keep walking until I find a good stealth site or to camp on the platform that is the farthest away from other people.

8. Is your campsite 200 ft away from a water source?

Leave no trace principles suggest that you camp 200 ft away from a water source. But there’s another good reason, which is that it can help reduce the internal condensation you experience in your shelter.

9. How hard is the wind blowing?

Is your campsite heavily exposed to the wind? A certain amount of wind is good to help eliminate shelter condensation, but you want to avoid high winds that could blow your shelter away or cause it to collapse. Camping in a very windy spot can also be colder.

10. What’s on the ground?

You want to make sure that your campsite does not disturb sensitive or rare alpine vegetation. In New England, I try to find leaf covered spots, below treeline for the most part, but this will depend on where you hike.

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  1. Camping near water sources insures a higher contact probability with nuisance animals. People often times camp near water source so animals tend to think of the water as not only a water source, but a food source.

    And in addition to it being more humid, mosquitoes tend to be more prevalent near a water source.

    I find that in the colder months I like to be at a slightly higher elevation than the water source to avoid the cold.

    On the subject of wind. Pitching camp in a breezy exposed area reduces flying insects significantly.

  2. Excellent points. I'll also add that camping under a tree can reduce tent condensation and that in colder months you want to avoid camping at low points because colder air will pool there.

    • In the coastal redwoods, camping under a tree means you’ll never know when the drizzle stopped. Half of the precipitation there is fog drip from trees.

      I’ve done that, staying in the tent, sure that it was raining. I got out, walked away from the redwood tree and it was a lovely day.

  3. Great discussion and great things to remember.

    We sometimes forget and have to relearn from experiencing another less than optimum campsite:-)

  4. Don't forget to look overhead as well, especially in Colorado where lots of trees are dead from Pine Beetle, if a strong wind picks up the tree and/or branches could blow over on you.

    • Looking up is very important. New England has had a lot of storms the last couple of years. Broken rotting trees are scattered all over the place. I also do this while I’m hiking.

  5. You need to check for prior signs of flooding – washouts, debris and check any river markers that may be near by. I always try to pitch my tent above the level of any streams/rivers – been flooded before, don't want it to happen again!

  6. Good points. Especially number 5–I never sleep well if my head is lower than the rest of my body.

  7. I am with DK on the whole widow maker thing. Look up. I have many a time heard large limbs crashing down in the area(especially in winter) when hunkered down for the night. It can be nerve racking to say the least.

    Years back I actually had a tent crushed while I was hiking around my camp. This is very serious thing and I cannot stress how important it is to not only look down but look up. Being uncomfortable is one thing. Having a 100lb+ branch fall in your lap from 25+ft above in the middle of the night is a whole different animal.

    Funny story about noise.

    On the LHHT you are required to camp at designated areas along the trail.

    While on my last week long trek I made my way to the Grindle Ridge site, setup camp for the evening, grabbed some grub, and called it a night.

    Not a great distance away there just so happens to be a sporting range(trap shooting, etc.)

    Normally there is quite a bit of gunfire throughout the day but it tends to taper off after around 5pm so it really isn’t a big deal…

    Well, the last time I was up there I was blessed with the fact that some kind of party was going on at the range.

    I got to listen to a Hootie and the Blowfish coverband well into the evening(2am.) Needless to say they were horrible.

    To make it even worse I found myself singing Hootie the whole next day as I was hiking to my next camp for the night.

    Fun times on the LHHT.

  8. All excellent points. I also try to find a higher location with an east/southeast exposure to catch early morning sunlight and warmth.

  9. campingstovecookout

    I am a big fan of privacy and like to camp away from the trail but there is a balance there with impacting natural habitat if there isn’t already a campsite there. Look for a spot that has been used first to minimize these impacts and practice no trace camping.

    Thanks for the summary and reminder about this key part of any trip.

    • I have one question about campsites and campfires. How far away should your tent (shelter) be from your fire? Obviously it shouldn’t be so close that it catches fire, but what is say the maximum distance away? New camper/hiker is why I’m asking but this site has plenty of useful information from you experienced folks. Keep it coming!

      • You need to be able to monitor a campfire at all times for safety so the sparks don’t start a forest or brush fire. You can’t just walk away some place while it’s burning. That close.

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