Most backpackers like to camp close to water sources out of convenience, but there are real benefits to dry camping in places that are not close to them. If you’re willing to haul the water you’ll need for the night and the next morning, you can camp out at a more scenic location while enjoying the extra privacy and in many cases, the extra security that comes from camping apart from other people.
The most important skills required for dry camping are navigation, hydration, and campsite selection.
Navigation comes into play because you’ll want to pick an area to look for a good campsite, particularly if you’ve never been there before. If you have a tent, you’ll want to find an area that has enough level ground to sleep on, or if you have a hammock, a forested area that has the requisite tree cover. There are plenty of GPS Apps, including Gaia GPS, that have topographic maps and satellite imagery to help you make an educated guess about what the conditions will be like at your intended destination. And if things don’t pan out, where you’ll want to go next to find a good campsite.
Finally, if you do venture off-trail to dry camp, you also need to be able to resume your intended route and not get hopelessly lost. That means you need to be on top of your navigation game.
Hydration (Water Management)
You’ll need to figure out the distance you need to travel from your last water source, how much water you’ll need for the night the next morning, and until you can acquire water the next day. This is reasonably easy in a temperate climate that has numerous water sources, but it can get trickier in arid terrain, where there are fewer water sources and some of them may be dry. Part of your planning process will need to consider the risk of running out of water and whether you need to carry extra to offset it.
The best way to carry extra water for dry camping is to use a multi-liter soft bottle that is very lightweight and rolls up compactly when it’s not needed. These are available in 2L, 3L, and 4L sizes, including:
- 2L Platypus Soft Bottle
- 3L CNOC Vecto or 3L HydraPak Seeker Bottle
- 4L Platypus Water Tank or 4L HydraPak Seeker Bottle
- 4L MSR Dromedary Bottle or 4L MSR Dromlite Bottle
For example, I usually dry camp with 4L or 5L of water: 2L for dinner and the night, 2L for tea and breakfast the next morning, and 1L to get me to the next water source.
The other reason that backpackers like to camp near water sources is that there are usually pre-existing campsites that they can use to camp. They’re not necessarily good campsites, but most backpackers feel “safer” knowing they’re camping where someone has camped before. That’s a fallacy of course, particularly if you’re camping someplace with a bear problem or your campsite is en route to the local water source that the local animal population frequents.
When dry camping, you’re probably going to camp in a spot where no one has camped before. Since it’s not near a water source, you’re less likely to have animals tromping through at night unless you make the mistake of setting up on a game trail and next to a bear cave.
You want to avoid widow-makers – trees that can fall on you and injure you at night or when the wind gets up and to pick a site that won’t get flooded out if it rains.
My preference when dry camping is to camp out of sight of the nearest trail if one is close and to exert the lowest possible impact on the site I choose. This means I’m not going to build a fire ring or have a fire at night or dig a trench around my tent, I’m not going to move rocks or chop down trees, and I’m going to pitch my tent or hammock directly above fragile plant life. While my presence will leave some impact, my goal is to leave things as little changed as possible.
Dry camping is nice when it all comes together, but it takes some upfront planning and adaptability if things don’t work out to pull it off. It’s also something you don’t want to do in the dark, so build some extra time into your schedule to find a good campsite before the lights go out.