How to Find a Good Backpacking Campsite

How to find 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 campsite 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. Of course, being too close to water can also be bad. Check your map and avoid marshy areas where it can be hard to find a dry spot and where insect activity can make your life miserable.

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

You need to be aware of the local environment and not camp someplace where you can be hurt or worse. One of the biggest dangers are widowmakers, which are dead trees or crowns that can fall on you and your shelter if the wind blows the wrong way. When inspecting a potential campsite, look up into the trees above you to make sure it is clear of objects that might come crashing down.

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. I’ve camped on some terrible campsites riddled with roots, but they can be masked with an inflatable sleeping pad so you can get a good night’s sleep. That’s not the case with a foam pad, though.

4. Is the campsite situated on compacted or dished-out ground?

When people camp on the same site over and over, the ground underneath them gets compacted and dished-out. 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. If you can’t decide if a site is level enough to sleep on, lie down on it first before you set up camp. You’ll quickly be able to decide if it’s flat enough for you to sleep comfortably. Your eyes can be deceiving.

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. If camping near streams or ponds, look to see if there are herd paths leading to the water. You’ll want to steer clear of them of there are. Having a bear, elk, or moose tramp through your campsite at night can be scary. I once heard a cheetah kill an antelope just outside my tent in Africa. You don’t want to hear anything like that ever.

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 encourages you to camp 200 ft away from a pond or lake. But there’s another good reason, which is that it can help reduce the internal condensation you experience in your shelter at night. The humidity is much higher near a body of water

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. Avoid disturbing fragile plants

You want to make sure that your campsite does not disturb sensitive or rare alpine vegetation when camping above treeline. Small alpine plants and shrubs are covered with snow much of the year and have very little time to grow or reproduce. If you injure them by lying on top of them, they don’t have time to recover and may well perish when winter begins.

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About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its detailed gear reviews and educational content. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He also volunteers as a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont's Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He lives in New Hampshire.

16 comments

  1. One of the best skills a young or beginning hiker can learn and one that will benefit both their campsite prospects and the sustainability of the land is to learn to dry camp or camp away from water sources. Camping near water is an outdated guidance and contributes to polluted water, compacted sites and concentrated use areas. Learning to camp away from water (which is not hard to learn and very easy to do) allows for better campsites with fewer bugs, better views and more solitude from other campers.

    • Great suggestion.

    • Great idea – any web resources you can point to?

      • You bring a reservoir to carry more water to wherever you decide to camp. You also have to find some sites on your map that might be good campsites, preferably flat (where it is legal to camp and won’t harm alpine vegetation) and go evaluate them. I think I’m going to do this my next few trips. Pretty much guarantees a quiet peaceful campsite.

  2. Jenny is spot on. I almost always carry my water and camp away from water sources. As stated the sites are usually nicer, quieter, and I have far less 4 legged visitors. The animals know where the humans and food are located.

  3. One trick I’ve learned over the years is is if you carry a water bottle you are also carrying a level. Just lay it down and the closer the air is to the top the more level your campsite is. Can make eye balling the ground a little easier.

  4. Great article! I plan to share this with my Scout Troop.

  5. When setting up your camp site it is important to separate three distinct areas in a triangular orientation. first your tent should be at the top of the triangle facing into any breeze that it detected. Second your cooking area should be separated from where you sleep at one corner of the base of the triangle and your food storage should be at the third corner of the triangle. Store any food well up a tree. Grizzly Bears can reach 14′ off the ground. Finally never take any food into your tent and make sure you have washed up after eating. The smell of foo attracts the animal who will investigate. If possible keeps these areas separated by at least 10M.

    • That might work well out west, but it just doesn’t play in the northeast when the terrain is choked with trees and steep slopes. You adapt.

  6. Admittedly as my trips in the east have always been canoe trips into he back country while out west it is treking up into the Rockies.

  7. The other thing I look for is a site with a good rock or fallen tree to sit on. Failing that a good dip or slope, as it is easier to sit on that flat *ground.

  8. In your notes above, column #10, you mention “ when camping above tree line” I learned many years ago, early 70s, when doing just that, waking to have frozen water bottles, and the worst sleep, with howling winds and temperatures in the 20s, in July! That it is ALWAYS a bad idea to camp above treeline,

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