Setting up your campsite: Understanding the basics

By Thomas Ray

Setting up your campsite: Understanding the basics

The end of the trail is near, at least for today. As you walk into your campsite and remove your pack from your back, the breeze feels good after a long day out. You’ve reached your destination for the evening but now, it’s time to set up camp. Where do you begin? 

1. Choosing a site

Luckily, most of the guesswork involved in choosing a suitable site has been eliminated if you have been assigned an area in which to camp. Nevertheless, if you are within an assigned campsite, it will likely offer multiple possibilities, and you will still have to pick the spot where you will pitch your tent. Your choice becomes more critical if you are choosing a site “from scratch,” since areas that offer trailside camping wherever you wish require much more pre-planning. 

When choosing where to pitch your tent, remember that you are probably camping to “get away from it all.” Therefore, your site should offer privacy and be situated well away from other parties. Make sure to identify a place where nature's call can be answered discreetly. Be mindful of your neighbors, if you have any.

Your camp should also be near a water source if possible, especially if you are spending more than one night there. However convenient it may seem, do not camp too close to the water. In warm weather, these areas can be buggy. In the cooler months, cold air will settle near the water, making your camp dreary and damp. Instead, try to camp on the high ground nearest the water. Sudden thunderstorms are common in certain areas. This will also prevent your camp from being washed away during a flash flood. Stay away from ridges, however, as this may increase your exposure to wind and lightning. 

Your camp should be in an area protected from wind. This could be within a group of trees, within a valley or behind large boulders. Check all nearby trees to make sure that they don’t have dead limbs that could fall and injure you. If you are planning to build a campfire, the availability and location of dry wood is another consideration.

Before pitching and staking your tent, choose a relatively flat and level piece of ground. Remove any sticks, stones and other debris from it before unrolling your tent. This will protect your equipment and help insure you get a comfortable night's rest. If it's hot, choose a shady spot. Whether it's hot or cold, you may want to choose an area that will be exposed to the morning sun, so that your tent and gear can dry before packing up for the day ahead. 

2. Water

Unless there is a pump or faucet, you will have to filter and disinfect water before drinking. Do not trust a spring unless you know for certain it is safe. Some “springs” are actually just water seeping through rocks or the ground from above. Follow all directions that came with your unit and filter the water, refilling all your containers. Next, chemically treat the water to disinfect it using a chlorine dioxide solution or tablets. Before you leave, drink as much water as you can. Refill your canteens, then filter and disinfect the water for the walk out.

3. Organize

Once you set up your tent and top off your drinking water supply, it's time to reorganize your gear. Chances are, by now, everything is a jumbled mess in the bottom of your pack. It pays to get everything reorganized so that your evening will go smoothly. Take your sleeping pad and bag into the tent, along with your pillow if you require that, and arrange your bed. Take out the food for the evening meal along with your cooking gear. Put your flashlight or headlamp where you can find it. 

4. The evening meal

It might also be a good idea to cook dinner and get cleaned up before dark. If you are in an area frequented by bears, cook, eat and clean up well away from camp. Do a final shakedown of your gear, remove what you’ll need from your pack for the evening, then hang it so animals aren’t tempted by the food inside. Many campsites in such areas have bear lines for this purpose. 

Gather firewood if you plan to have a campfire. In many established areas, wood is scarce, so you may have to range some distance from camp to find enough. Finally, settle in for the evening in the comfort of knowing you are prepared for the night ahead.

Stay safe and enjoy your time in the outdoors!

5. Tips to remember:

A great trip begins with a great plan made weeks, or perhaps months, in advance. Some areas require booking of campsites weeks ahead. Do your research!

Familiarize yourself with all rules and regulations.

Always stop and set up camp well before dark. This will allow time to take care of important tasks like gathering firewood and cooking before nightfall.

Keep gear organized.

Run a clean camp. Don't leave food or crumbs lying around that will attract animals to your camp. Hang your pack at night or when you are not in camp.

Minimize impact. Follow “Leave No Trace” guidelines when in protected areas and parks.

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