How to Pick the Perfect Campsite

When pitching your tent in the backcountry, here are six key things you should consider.

By Kraig Becker

How to Pick the Perfect Campsite
There is more to picking a good campsite than just a beautiful view.

Choosing the right campsite for our backcountry excursions can be surprisingly more challenging that you might think. Sure, it’s nice to consider things like proximity to water, scenic views, and locating a soft, level surface to pitch our tent on. But as it turns out, there are a host of other things to keep in mind as well, not all of which may be quite so apparent at first glance.

It should be noted that if you’re camping in a state or national park, you’ll often find yourself required to stay inside a designated campsite. Usually those sites were specifically chosen because they have all the features necessary for a safe outing, while also protecting potentially fragile environments.

There are many parks and other public lands, however, that allow backpackers to camp freely in the backcountry, meaning you are can set up your tent just about anywhere. If that’s the case, these are the six most important things you need to consider when choosing where to settle down for the night.

1. Camp Near (But Not Too Near) Water

Photograph by Kraig Becker
Camping too close to water can be dangerous at times if heavy rains are predicted.

The number one priority for most backpackers and campers is finding a source of fresh water that they can camp close to each night. Chances are you’ll be using water to not only make your meals, but to clean up your cooking utensils afterwards. Additionally, you’ll want to filter the water for drinking as well, which makes having it located close by extremely handy.

That said, you should always set up camp at least 200 feet from any fresh water source. This allows both other hikers and local wildlife to come and go without having to pass through your campsite. It also helps to cut down on trash and other unwanted items ending up in lakes or streams. 

Quick Tip: Plan on arriving at your campsite at least two hours before sundown. That way you can take advantage of the daylight to set up your tent, cook your meals, and complete your other tasks before it gets dark.

 

2. Look for Privacy and Shelter

Photograph by Kraig Becker
For increased privacy and comfort, avoid camping too close to someone else.

When searching for a place to rest for the night, look around for spots that can offer any kind of shelter. For instance, trees overhead can provide some shade from the sun, which is especially handy first thing in the morning. Also, keep an eye out for boulders, rock faces, or trees that can serve as a wind block to cut down on the ruffling of your tent while you’re trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Also, don’t be afraid to wander off trail a bit to find a location that is secluded and quiet. Even though you’re in the backcountry, you may still run into other campers, so choosing a spot that is away from anyone else is always nice. You’ll enjoy the peace and quiet, and appreciate not stumbling across one another throughout the night. 

3. Safety First

When picking out your campsite you’ll want to find a spot that offers relatively flat ground to set your tent up on and serve as your living space. But before you do that, take a closer look at the area to make sure it is safe.

  • Examine the trees overhead to ensure there are no branches that are threatening to come crashing down in the night.

  • Avoid slides. If you find yourself camping at the base of a hill, be sure you’re out of the way of potential rock slides, avalanches, or areas where running water could come rushing through.

  • Camp on higher ground to avoid potential flash flooding or if the ground is especially dry, build a fire ring or go completely without a fire.

Safety should always be an important consideration when deciding where you’re going to camp each night. For instance, if you’re camping on a beach, it is important to identify exactly where the high-tide line and set up your tent above that mark.

Don’t camp under a lone tree or one that is substantially taller than the ones around it either. If a storm roles in while you’re at the campsite, those types of trees are the ones that tend to attract lightning.

4. Be Comfortable

Your campsite can play an important role in how comfortable you are during your stay in the backcountry. For instance, camping in a valley or other low area often means that temperatures are cooler and the humidity is higher. That often translates to colder nights in your sleeping bag and more condensation forming on your tent. It can also take longer for the sun to crest any surrounding ridges in the morning, which means your camp will stay chillier for a longer period of time, too.

Pitching your tent higher on a hill will mitigate most of those issues and will likely deliver better views as well. You’re also more likely to find a steady breeze, which can also make things more comfortable. Wind helps to keep flying insects to a minimum, which is pretty much the exact opposite of what you get when you camp too close to water. Bugs tend to congregate near lakes and streams, bringing all kinds of annoying nuisances with them. 

Quick Tip: Setting up your tent in the shade isn’t just good for keeping the temperature cooler inside, it can reduce wear and tear on your gear as well. UV light from the sun can degrade the fabrics that make up the tent, causing them to weaken over time. But by setting up camp under a tree or in the shade of rock face, you can help prolong your tent’s life.

 

5. Respect The Wildlife

When choosing your campsite, it is important to remember that the backcountry is often teeming with wildlife. Be sure to look for fresh signs of animals in the area –– including game trails –– before setting up camp. You’ll also want to hang your food in a tree each night in order to keep it out of reach from hungry scavengers. Nothing brings an abrupt end to a camping trip quite like waking up in the morning to find all of your provisions have been eaten by a thief in the night.

Bears are obviously the biggest concern for most hikers and campers, but there are plenty of other animals to keep an eye out for. Wolves, coyotes, moose, mountain lions, and even deer can get aggressive at times and it usually pays to give them a wide berth.

Smaller animals, like raccoons and possums, can be a major nuances as well, sometimes wandering into camp in search of food. Don’t give them any or they’re likely to be back looking for more before you know it. 

6. Be Aware of Local Conditions and Regulations

Before embarking into the backcountry, check online or at the local ranger station for any rules that could impact when and where you can camp. Some locations won’t impose any restrictions at all, while others will adjust their regulations on a seasonal basis depending on conditions. Some areas of the backcountry could be closed at certain times or you may be required to camp close to the trail. Either way, it pays to know ahead of time.

It is also important that before you set out you learn about things like the rules governing campfires. There may also be restrictions about carrying your trash out when you leave and having as minimal of an impact on the environment as possible.

These guidelines should serve as the basis for what you should look for when searching for a campsite. In the end, it’s all about finding a place that is safe, comfortable and convenient where you can relax and enjoy the outdoors for a few days. 


About The Author: Kraig Becker is a freelance writer, journalist, and consultant who covers mountaineering expeditions, polar exploration, adventure travel, and other outdoor pursuits. He is the editor of The Adventure Blog, the founder of The Adventure Podcast, and a contributor to online and print outlets like National GeographicPopular MechanicsGear InstituteDigital TrendsOutdoorX4 Magazine and others. He serves as the Adventure and Outdoor Travel Expert for about.com and is currently working on his first book, Reaching Beyond Boundaries with co-author Don Mann. 

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