If you’re new to backpacking, you may feel a little overwhelmed when it comes time to make camp for the night. With so many options available to you, how do you know what would be best?
Knowing how to choose a campsite is a skill that comes with time and experience, but there are a few quick tricks that you can learn right off the bat. At the end of the day, though, remember that one of the most important things you can do is blend in to your surroundings and leave a minimal impact on the environment.
In case you’re not familiar with the terminology, frontcountry camping is essentially interchangeable with car camping. It refers to any location found within a full-service campground, often giving you access to bathrooms, running water, and sometimes showers.
Because these places have designated sites for you to pitch your tent, it doesn’t really fall within the scope of this article – after all, you don’t really have to “choose” you campsite, aside from picking out the particular area you want to stay. All you have to do is make a reservation, show up, and put together your equipment on the land that’s been prepared for you.
So with that in mind, we’ll be focusing more on how to choose a campsite in the backcountry, where you have more options to pick from.
1. Check for Drainage
On flat plains or deserts, this won’t be as big of an issue, but you’ll want to be mindful of drainage in hillier environments when choosing a campsite. Water follows the path of least resistance, which means if you made camp at the bottom of a hill, any rain that falls is going to come right at you. At best, you’ll wake up a little damp from the standing water in your tent. At worst, you’ll get caught up in a flash flood or mudslide and be swept away or buried.
Always camp on higher ground when possible, even if you don’t think it’s going to rain. Sudden storms can come when you least expect, especially when you’re in the mountains, so it’s good to be prepared for any possibility. And remember that, even when you’re at a high point, it’s smart to stay out of any landform that resembles a basin, unless it has an exit that would allow water to escape.
It’s worth noting that you’ll generally want to do the opposite of this when you’re camping in sand dunes. Because sand will absorb the water much faster, your risk of getting caught up in a river is greatly reduced. Also, dunes often have steep slopes and narrow ridges that don’t give you the space you’ll need to pitch your tent properly. Set up in between the mountains of sand, and don’t forget to grab some tent stakes designed for that ground type.
2. Choose Flat Ground
Finding a level stretch of land that you can sleep on is important for your overall comfort and the security of your tent. After all, it’s no fun feeling the pull of gravity as it tries to make you slide or roll over as you sleep!
Many times, it’s not possible to find a location that’s perfectly level, though. If you find yourself in that situation, think about how you’d like to sleep, and what would be best for your health. Sleeping with your feet raised can help reduce swelling after a long day of hiking, while keeping your head lifted can relieve congestion and help stave off nausea, if you aren’t feeling good.
3. Stick to Well-Trodden Locations
Despite choosing to camp in the backcountry, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be playing the role of a trailblazer (and if you are, you may want to reconsider your plans). When it comes to dispersed camping like this, you’ll probably be camping somewhere off of an established hiking trail, where many people have passed through before. Picking a spot to camp that’s already been impacted will help prevent any additional damage to the landscape. Not to mention, if plenty of other people have already camped there, it’s probably one of the best places to stay anyway!
I’ve known some hunters who camp in the backcountry and make their own trails out of necessity. However, even if that’s you, try to do your best to limit the impact you have on nature. Following the principles of Leave No Trace will keep the wilderness looking pristine and unblemished for those who pass through after you.
4. Stay Close to Water
We all like having that majestic view in the morning, but having a water source close by is much more important. You’ll be using it for all sorts of tasks, like cleaning dishes and bathing, as well as refilling your drinking supply once you’ve purified the water.
Rivers and streams are most ideal, because the moving water works to clear out impurities while keeping it from becoming tepid. You’re also less likely to have as many issues with bugs, since they tend to congregate closer to stagnant water sources. However, you won’t always be fortunate enough to find a clear, fast moving river, so you’ll often just have to make do with what’s in front of you.
Remember to avoid the water’s edge when choosing a campsite as well. It’s important to stay at least 200 feet away from it (as well as any trails in the vicinity, for that matter) for a number of reasons. Other hikers will appreciate you staying out of their way, so that they can more fully enjoy nature without their view being obstructed. But aside from that, any nearby animals will feel more comfortable getting a drink of water if you aren’t blocking their way.
5. Camp Near a Windbreak
Gusting wind is the bane of all campers. Not only is it unpleasant to deal with in general, some shelters may break under the force of the air, leaving you without a solid shelter.
Setting up next to a windbreak is something I would recommend doing no matter what the weather is currently like. Find some trees or a large boulder that can take the brunt of the wind, and pitch your tent a few feet away from it. Naturally, if you decide to go with some trees, make sure that none of them are dead. If a strong enough gust hits them, they may just end up falling on you instead! I don’t think I need to get into detail about how dangerous this can be, so make sure you’re picky with what you decide to use as a windbreak.
6. Arrive Early
As someone who has made camp late at night, after a long day of trekking, I can tell you that it’s not the most ideal situation. You’ll be tired, probably hungry, and you’ll feel like doing anything but making camp and doing some final chores. Not to mention, you won’t be able to see what you’re doing as well, and you won’t be able to explore the area to check for a water source or an adequate windbreak (unless it’s obvious).
It’s good practice to arrive at your campsite at least 2 hours before dark, in order to give yourself enough time to take care of required tasks. If you’re still relatively new to camping, you may want to give yourself even more time than that.
7. Find a Place with a Breeze
Mosquitoes, flies, and other biting bugs can easily ruin a perfectly good camping trip, especially if they happen to make their way into your tent! Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to minimize your risk of being eaten alive.
First, avoid stagnant water sources when choosing your campsite, as they’re often used as mosquito breeding grounds. These areas tend to smell a little less pleasant as well, so you’ll probably want to steer clear of them anyway. Aside from that, it also helps to pick a spot that has a breeze to stir the air and blow some of the bugs away.
8. Avoid Bad Smells
Specifically, avoid places that smell like something died nearby. In fact, if it smells like an animal was killed close to your campsite (or if you can see the carcass), I would strongly consider moving on to a different location altogether. A predatory creature might still be in the area, and it would be best for both parties if you didn’t cross paths with each other. When you do find a good place to settle down at for the night, remember to follow proper procedures to keep bears and other animals from raiding your space.
For more developed campsites, though, it’s always a good idea to stay away from any outhouses or dumpsters. The last thing that you want to be smelling all night is the lingering scent of human waste wafting from these structures!
9. Anticipate the Sun
I’m very much a night owl who doesn’t like to be woken up early, and I’m sure many of you are the same way. So when the sun comes up at 7am and illuminates my tent, let’s just say that I’m not a happy camper!
Whether you’re like me, or you’re a morning person instead, it’s helpful to plan your campsite around your sleep cycle. If you don’t like to be woken up before 9am, see if you can pitch your tent close to a structure that will block the first rays of light in the morning. If you like waking up with the sun, you’ll want to do the opposite of that.
10. Be Considerate
When you don’t have designated spots for camping, you may run the risk of being inconsiderate without even realizing it. For example, despite camping in more of a dispersed area, you won’t always be the only one there. As people who enjoy the outdoors, we generally like to be left alone and given our space, so that we can fully enjoy our surroundings. Escaping from others is a big reason why some of us go camping, after all.
With that in mind, as you go about choosing your campsite, don’t make camp too close to anyone else who might be sharing the space with you. If possible, pitch your tent far enough away where you can’t be seen, or at the very least, put a couple hundred feet between you. Keep noise to a minimum as well – if you want to have music playing, use earbuds, not a Bluetooth speaker. And finally, don’t be an eyesore that blocks the views of those around you, unless it’s absolutely necessary.