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.
- How to Find Dispersed Campsites for Backpacking
- 9 Campsite Selection Tips
- Stealth Camping and Pre-existing Campsites