5 Tips for Preparing a Site for Camping

By: Mark Boyer
Child exploring nature while camping outdoors in a tent.
The best place to set up camp in most areas will be generally flat, not too bumpy and with good drainage. See pictures of national parks.

So, you're planning to leave the comfort of your home to get in touch with nature and spend a few nights outdoors? Before heading out into the wilderness, you'll want to take a few minutes to plan what you'll need. The first question to ask when preparing for a camping trip is whether you're pitching a tent in a campground or hiking into the backcountry. If you're embarking on a several-day backpacking expedition, you'll probably want to leave that eight-person dome tent at home, and instead opt for a lightweight tent, or even a bivouac sack.

Wherever you choose to go camping, there are a few general rules to follow. First, leave as little impact on the land as possible. You also want to practice good fire safety when setting up your campfire and cooking area. And you need to make sure your food doesn't attract bears and other critters. Of course, you have to choose a campsite before any of these rules apply, so read on for our guide to preparing a safe, comfortable campsite where you can get a good night's sleep.


5: Finding the Ideal Campsite

Comfort is of the utmost importance when selecting your dream campsite, but so is following the rules. The specific rules of each national park, national forest or state forest are different, but most agencies typically ask that visitors camp at least 200 feet from the nearest water source, both to protect sensitive plants near the shoreline and to prevent people from contaminating the water. That said, you'll likely want to set up camp close enough to a water source that you can easily fetch some for drinking.

The best place to set up camp in most areas will be generally flat, not too bumpy and with good drainage. Sleeping in a tent that is set up on a steep slope is never a good idea, because you'll likely slide downhill while sleeping. However, you also don't want the ground to be perfectly flat, because in case it rains you don't want the water to pool beneath you. In the event that it does rain, it is, of course, better to camp on higher ground.


Although lush meadows look inviting for backcountry camping, it's usually better to camp in somewhat thicker vegetation. Why? In the first place, it's better not to be the tallest thing around in case of a thunderstorm. It's also nicer for other people who are camping to see what appears to be a "wild" setting. Before setting up your tent, be sure to clear the area of any big rocks, branches or twigs to make the ground more comfortable to lie on.

4: Set Up Your Tent

man holding rope to a tent
It's a good idea to stake your tent to the ground to prevent it from blowing away in rough weather. If you don't have any stakes, tie the tent down to nearby trees instead.
Design Pics/Thinkstock

You've found a campsite, staked out your territory and cleared it of any unwanted debris; now it's time to actually set up the tent. Depending on what type of tent you have, you should lay a waterproof tarp or cloth down on the ground before you get to work fitting the polls together and stretching the canvas. A ground cloth creates a thin barrier of protection between the bottom of your tent and anything beneath that might puncture the tent. It also prevents ground-level condensation from getting in. The ground cloth can have other uses, as well. Under certain conditions, the tarp can be used as a rain shield in your cooking area, for example, or you can create a separate low-tech shelter [source: REI].

After setting up your tent, be sure to put an additional tarp or rain fly on it. A rain fly is a waterproof tarp that fits to the outside of your tent. Even if rain isn't in the forecast, it's a good idea to set up the rain fly, because it will also keep your tent dry from dew. If it's windy, it's probably a good idea to stake the tent down to the ground to prevent it from blowing away. After going to all the trouble of setting up a tent, it'd be a shame to let it blow away! If you don't have any stakes, or if the ground is too rocky to anchor them, you can tie the tent down to nearby trees (but be careful not to trip over the ropes).


3: Food Storage

You've cleared the site and set up the tent; now it's time to make sure that your food is protected against both wildlife and spoilage. Leaving your food out for wildlife to pick at and steal isn't just a nuisance; it can also help animals become accustomed to -- and even dependant on -- humans. The last thing you want is to attract a bear, raccoon or even a skunk to your campsite.

In bear country, this is especially important. Bears can smell food from miles away, and they're very intelligent and opportunistic. Adult grizzly bears are larger than black bears, and they aren't as agile climbers, so hanging your food and food preparation equipment from a tree in a plastic coated bag that seals in odors is a good option. Black bears, which are smaller, present more of a challenge to outdoor enthusiasts. In many places where black bears are active, like Yosemite National Park, hanging food is illegal. Park rangers instead require people to store all food, and things that smell like food, like toothpaste and deodorant, in a plastic, bear-resistant canister or sealed in a locker. And if you plan to catch fish while camping, be sure not to clean the fish near your campsite and to properly dispose of fish waste [source: National Parks Service].


It's important to protect your food from animal invaders, but it's equally important to protect it against microorganisms that will cause it to spoil. It's pretty simple: If you plan to bring perishable food on your camping adventure, be sure to bring a cooler with enough ice to keep it from spoiling. The easier option is to bring non-perishable foods. Many companies offer freeze-dried meals that are lightweight and easy to prepare, but you can also bring other non-perishable foods like oatmeal, pasta and rice.

2: Set Up a Fire and Cooking Area

campers by campfire
Not all campsites and public lands allow open fires, and those that do often have fire regulations. Check with the local authorities to find out what the fire rules are where you're planning to camp.

Fire is perhaps the most primal comfort known to man, and nowhere is it more enjoyable than when you're camping. However, due to forest fire risks, not all campsites and public lands allow open fires, and those that do often have fire regulations. As a general rule, it's a good idea to check with the local authorities to find out what the fire rules are.

Most outdoor recreation areas permit the use of gas stoves, because when operated properly, they're generally a much slighter risk of forest fire than open fires. However, in some fire zones, campsites come equipped with designated cooking stations that are located on elevated surfaces.


If you're camping in a designated campground, it's better to use an existing fire ring instead of starting a new one. If no fire pit or ring exists, the U.S. Forest Service recommends digging a 1-foot (.30 meter) pit in a spot that is at least 15 feet (4.57 meters) from any trees, shrubs or tents. Before preparing the fire, clear a 10-foot (3.04-meter) diameter around the fire ring. If the fire ring isn't on raw earth, sand or gravel, make sure that the ground is damp before lighting a fire. After lighting a fire, keep an eye on the weather to make sure that strong gusts don't spread the fire beyond the fire ring. After lighting a fire, be sure to stay with it until it's completely extinguished [source: SmokeyBear.com].

1: Leave as Little Impact as Possible

The best campsites are found, not made. When camping, whether it's in a designated campground or deep in the backcountry wilderness, the most important thing is to leave the campsite in better condition than you found it. That means packing out anything you brought in, properly disposing of all human waste and generally minimizing your impact on the natural environment.

When preparing a campsite, the best way to limit your impact is to choose an established campsite instead of setting up a tent on untouched, natural land. Although tents seem light and innocuous, they can suffocate native vegetation. If an already-used campsite isn't available, the next best option is to set up camp on a durable surface, like gravel or sand. That probably doesn't sound as comfortable as setting up a tent in the middle of a grassy meadow, but the plants will thank you for it. It follows that digging trenches, or even building structures is a no-no when camping. People come to the outdoors to be closer to nature. When you go camping, you should be considerate of other people and respectful of the natural world by leaving it undisturbed [source: Leave No Trace].


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Leave No Trace. http://www.lnt.org/
  • National Park Service. "Bear Safety in the North Cascades." (Jan. 25, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/noca/naturescience/bear-safety.htm
  • National Park Service. "Bears & Food Storage While Backpacking." (Jan. 25, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/bearcanisters.htm
  • National Park Service. "Wilderness Food Storage." (Jan 25., 2012) http://www.nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/wilderness-food-storage.htm
  • Only You Can Prevent Wildfires. http://www.smokeybear.com/
  • REI. "Reasons for Using Bear-Resistant Canisters." Jan., 2010. (Jan. 25, 2012) http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/bear+resistant+canisters.html