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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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