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How to Find a Level Campsite: A Neat Little Trick

How to Find a Level Campsite

If you camp in a tent, it’s much easier to get a good night’s rest on a level campsite than one that’s on a slope. There’s nothing worse than sliding off your sleeping pad all night long because you picked a crappy place to set up your tent, you’re too tired to find a better tent site, or you’ve run out of daylight because you didn’t start looking for a good tent site soon enough. The reason this happens is that people are notoriously bad at determining whether a campsite is flat by eye and once they set up their tent it’s often too late to move it again.

I’m not talking about designated campsites in campgrounds that have their own issues, but wilderness sites where no one has camped before, or not often, or those bald patches where people have camped before near lean-tos, trail shelters, and privies.

There are two simple ways to determine if a spot is level and suitable for sleeping on. I prefer the Bottle-Level Method which uses a water bottle, but the Snow Angel Technique can work if you don’t use water bottles.

  1. The Snow Angel Technique
  2. The Bottle Level Method

The Snow Angel Technique

The Snow Angel Technique is pretty simple. Lie down on the piece of ground that you think might make a good tent site…right in the dirt. Flap your arms and scissor your legs. If the ground “FEELS” level, then you’re in business. It’s that simple. You’re body and vestibular system are very reliable when it comes to feeling sloping ground, not to mention nasty roots and rocks. It’s called the snow angel technique because it’s like creating a snow angel in winter.

Flap your arms and scissor your legs
Flap your arms and scissor your legs

The problem with the snow angel technique is nasty insects. If you pick a spot to test that has organic matter on top, there’s a very real chance that you’re going to pick up ticks or chiggers in your clothes, hair, or attached to your skin. You really don’t want that to happen for health and comfort reasons, so it’s kind of a last-resort technique in my book.

The Bottle Level Method

If you’ve ever used a carpentry level, it uses a water bubble to determine whether a surface is level or not. If you carry your drinking water in a clear plastic bottle, you have a level that you can use to test whether a tent site is level or not. Neat, huh?

A carpentry level
A carpentry level

Simply tip a mostly filled plastic bottle onto its side and position it on the ground that you want to evaluate. If the horizontal bubble is in the middle of the bottle, then the ground is flat. If you move the bottle around to different contiguous spots, you can quickly determine if they are level too or sloped. Remember, you just need to find a flat space large enough to hold your sleeping pad, or two if you’re camping with a partner.


If the bubble is in the middle the surface is flat
If the bubble is in the middle, the surface is flat.
If the bubble is at one of the ends, the surface is sloped.
If the bubble is at one of the ends, the surface is sloped.

The bottle technique was suggested to me years ago by a reader and I think it’s just plain brilliant. It’s one of the reasons why we invite comments and lively community discussions on Everybody has something to share when it comes to hiking and backpacking and we can all benefit as a community, no matter what kind of trips and adventures we take.

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  1. We lay out our tent and lay on top of it to check incline or uneven ground. If it feels good, the tent is directly in place to pitch. Never got a thick from testing this way.

    • Frank Charles Sladek Jr.

      Don’t forget if camping where there trees overhead: Any dead limbs over your sleeping, cooking, fire area? We were up in the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe area on a ten day trek; had a windy & rainy night. In the morning we found several two-three-inch thick limbs had fallen. One went trough a rain fly vertically. That rain-fly was partly over a tent, but not where some of the guys, including my son, were sleeping. PTL nobody got hurt. We sewed up the “gash” in the fly. (Always have a good sewing kit with you…not a toy/junk kit. Small roll of “duct-tape” too {the good stuff is spelled DUCT.}) Only time I had to sew a rain fly in 30 years of camping. The rest of our trek was GREAT!

      • Ditto. I grew up setting everything from no tents to cheap plastic “tube tents” to canvas “circus tents” as a kid in the ’60s. I learned to keep my head uphill. My best friend in H.S. was 6′-7″ and in cold weather had to keep boots on at night (sticking out of the tent).

        I’m a desert rat, scorpions and centipedes are most common unwelcome nighttime visitors.

  2. Hammock don’t care bout no slopes!!

  3. I’ve used the water bottle method. The only problem is that you only get an accurate reading of a 12″ area. The ground isnt the same as a counter top for example

    • Use a trekking pole or tent pole for a straight edge and put the bottle against that.

      • Then place an m&m on each end ot the trekking pole If the pole balances on that water bottle, you’re good to go!


          What makes you think the M&Ms will last long enough to get a reading? (It wouldn’t in the group I hike with.)

          As it happens, I read this article about an hour before leaving on an overnight trip. When I got to the campsite, I tried it, got a level reading and pitched my tent lengthwise, parallel to the water bottle. I got in and laid down to check it, and it was definitely flat lengthwise. Unfortunately, it was downhill side-to-side. When I tried the next spot, I made sure to take the lengthwise reading, then rotated the bottle to verify it was flat in both directions. Worked like a charm.

        • I forego lying down and use the eye and move leaves or earth around to form a sleeping spot.

      • You’ve never seen my trekking poles :)

    • You simply take a few samplings along the line where it is flat and then perpendicular to it. It’s very quick. It just has to be level for your sleeping pad (at a minimum)

      • If you get stuck with a slightly downhill spot, you can put you empty pack under the foot of your pad to level it (or at least reduce the slope to a manageable grade.) Also solves the problem of where to store the pack.

  4. I use a surveyor’s transit, tripod and leveling rod. It works well and is an ultralight solution, so long as I can can pull off sneaking the system into Larry’s pack while we’re hiking.

  5. i just spread my feet wide and can easily tell if the ground slopes.

  6. this is when obsessive compulsive engineer goes hiking

  7. Obviously, the best method is to eyeball a probably flat location, set your tent up without staking it in, then do the snow angel inside your tent free from bugs or rain. you can then usually rotate your tent so that any slope is down towards your feet.

  8. Great tip using the water bottle to assist finding level ground. Remember, when determining the slope of the campsite a tent must be oriented north/south along Earth’s magnetic field lines. Failure to do so will result in holes in the bottom of the tent from the magnetic field forcing the tent’s alignment. Likewise, greater slope East to West will place undue strain onto the tent pole system and can result in the tent’s erection system failure.

  9. A sheet of Tyvek that I use for a tent footprint is a big help for the snow angel method. Plus you can picture how the tent will fit on the site.

  10. just go to the Google Play store and download any of the numerous bubble level apps which are all free and you’re all set!

  11. i use the level app in my phone.
    It is also good to measure the incline
    of the hiking slopes.

  12. i just embrace the suck. Your not going to find a flat site every time. Yes true you can try. I just keep an eye on the time of day such as sunset and well before this as you hike you look for a good place to pitch. As we are all out for the same reason I am sure to soak up the scenery and while you are looking… Look for a good spot to pitch no matter what time of day it might be and you will soon get used to it and you can almost always find a pretty level spot. I have been hiking for over 40+ years and I have pretty much always found something pretty close to if not perfectly level.

  13. It’s so much easier to pitch a fit than a tent, plus they’re lighter.

  14. Somehow you guys haven’t convinced me to sleep outdoors overnight. But if I ever take the plunge, I’ll make sure my location is near a hotel – that way I won’t have to carry any bottles of water, etc. Besides, the slope of the location would be the least of my worries. I’d be thinking about the ants, spiders, and other creepy crawlers getting into my sleeping bag.

  15. Am I the only reader wondering what the fuss is all about?

    I grew up setting up tents in scouts in the ‘80s. After selecting a few poor sites, I learned quickly. I never worry about finding a flat site — just look for something flattish, and then put my head on the uphill side.

    • No kidding! Do we even need a post with the question of how to find flat? I always just look at the ground. That does it for me. If folks need a ‘method’, then they should stay out in the wilderness until they find one. Makes for better people!

  16. I kind of like a slightly unlevel site… Makes me believe the water won’t pool up under my tent! I had an Army field exercise years ago where my battle buddy and I, legit, located the best level site. We woke to an inch of water soaking our gear and selves! Anyway, great tip with the water bottle! Too bad canteens are opaque… ;)

  17. iphone has a level function on the measure utility. Could use that and test a couple of spots. Especially if you knew how many degrees of slope you could tolerate, and which end was really a bit higher for the head.

  18. I’ll have to try the water bottle method, briliant. I typically lay out my tyvek ground sheet and lay on it to determine if site is level, and if there are roots or rocks.

  19. Afterthought: Snakes? On a Plain? See what I did there?

  20. Sometimes the hardest part is finding an “acceptably level” site that will allow staking out a good orientation of a non-freestanding tent amongst rocks that isn’t under widow-makers.

  21. Or, forget all of that nonsense and get a hammock. Even animals don’t sleep on the ground if they can avoid it…

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