How to Choose a Good Campsite

By: Clint Pumphrey
pitching a tent
These people have the right idea: a flat spot with a view, near a water source. See pictures of national parks.
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It's 4 p.m. and you've been hiking with this 35-pound (15.8-kilogram) backpack for six hours. Too exhausted to trudge another step, you decide to pitch your tent ASAP -- on the slope right next to the trail. Because, I mean, why not? At dusk, you realize you're nearly out of water and you've no idea where to find a stream. Without filtered water, you can't boil your food on your camp stove, which means you'll be eating energy bars for dinner. In the night, you hear a tree fall even though there's no wind and wonder whether the others will follow suit. At one point you're sure a wild animal is sniffing through your backpack for the energy bar wrappers you didn't put in the bear canister you should have placed 200 feet (61 meters) from your tent. As if that isn't enough, it seems some loser (you) pitched your tent on a bed of rocks on a hill that your sleeping bag keeps sliding down.

As you can see, choosing the wrong spot to set up your campsite can lead to a miserable night in the dark. It can also be dangerous (read: never ever pitch your tent near a dead tree, or worse, a group of dead trees, as they may fall). So, what should you consider before you set up camp? Comfort, solitude, scenery and environmental impact are a good place to start. Ask yourself: How level is the ground here? How might my being here disturb others? Is the view spectacular? How will my activities impact the landscape around me? Some locations might fit the bill in every way, but often there are trade-offs. For example, perhaps you decide to hike past a location with a panoramic view so you can be closer to a water source. What else should you consider?


Important Campsite Features

When you first arrive at a potential campsite, take a look around. Where is it in proximity to water and to the trail? While you should never camp less than 200 feet (61 meters) from a water source, you should at least be close enough to one for dishwashing, cooking and bathing purposes. A campsite should also be at least 200 feet (61 meters) from the trail; that way both you and the people hiking on the trail enjoy greater solitude. Also, pick a spot that's flat. If you can't find a perfectly level location, be sure to orient your tent so that your head will be higher than your feet. Before you put up your tent, clear any rocks, sticks and pinecones that might poke you in the back while you're trying to snooze.

Think about the weather conditions. If it's hot, camp in a shady forest where the sun is less intense. If it's cool, orient your tent to the east so that the warm rays of the morning sun wake you. Avoid narrow valleys, ridge tops, and notches or low points in a ridge where strong winds develop. If it's windy pretty much everywhere, try camping behind a windbreak like a bush or boulder. And whether it's windy or not, survey the immediate area for dead trees or broken limbs known as widowmakers that could potentially crash into your tent during the night.


Rain has the potential to cause problems as well. If you camp in a low spot, it may collect water during a storm, or worse, that water could wash you away during a flash flood. Higher ground tends to drain better, and as a bonus, it'll stay warmer at night since cooler air tends to sink into depressed areas. Finally, consider how well your campsite is protected from lightning if storms are threatening. Avoid high points, exposed areas and taller trees in favor of areas partway down a slope that aren't likely to flood.

Considerations When Choosing a Campsite

If you've done any camping at all, you're probably familiar with the Leave No Trace principles, which are designed to protect recreational resources on natural lands. If possible, set up camp in an established spot. If you can't find one of those, be careful in creating a new site -- select a durable surface like a rock slab or forest duff, which is the ground cover in a forest consisting of leaves, needles, twigs and bark.

While you're milling around camp, wear soft-soled shoes, not your hiking boots, since those are liable to compact the soil (which makes it hard for plants to grow). It's best to avoid building a fire if there's no established fire ring. But if you really want one, just make sure to collect firewood from the ground, completely burn all the wood, and scatter the cool ashes. Finally, try not to camp in one place for more than a few days. When you leave, pack out your trash and replace anything you moved so it looks like you were never there.


You should also consider how your presence might affect animal activity in the area. Look for natural paths through the forest known as game trails where animals regularly travel. Placing a tent along one of these routes may block nervous woodland creatures from finding their way to a water source or other necessity. Also, nuisances from animals can be avoided if a campsite is properly selected. To avoid pests like mosquitoes, stay away from areas where both water and wind remain stagnant. Occasionally, larger animals like raccoons, possums, skunks, or even bears may wander into your camp, usually just out of curiosity. To reduce the chance of such encounters, avoid camping along game trails and be sure to cook, wash dishes and hang food at least 200 feet (61 meters) downwind from your tent. And remember: Don't feed the animals! When they get used to -- or habituated to -- human contact they can become a greater nuisance or danger to people.

These tips are great for three seasons out of the year, when the temperatures are up and the ground is clear. But what about camping in the snow?


Choosing a Winter Campsite

aurora borealis
A snowy campsite with a lovely view of the aurora borealis. Yes, please!
Photoconcepts/Thorsten Henn/the Agency Collection/Getty Images

The good thing about camping in the snow is that you won't impact the environment as much -- since it's coated in a cold, white cushion. The bad thing is that that cold, white cushion is hard on your body. With a few simple tips, though, you can set up a campsite that will keep you safe and warm even during the darkest depths of winter.

Many of the same factors that influence summer campsite selection will affect the decision in the winter. You can camp on the snow or on any bare ground showing through the snow, but not if it's supporting significant plant life. As with summer camping, you should choose a relatively flat spot so you and your sleeping bag won't slide downhill in the middle of the night. Consider camping in the sun for warmth and avoid depressions where cold air may settle. Wind can be a real problem for winter campers as well. If you see hard, sculpted snow with a frosty, brittle texture, that means this an area where wind is frequent and conditions are harsh. Loose, powdery snow is a bad sign, too -- it means that the wind has deposited snow here and your tent would be covered quickly. Avoid both of these types of areas.


Snow hazards should definitely be considered. Foremost among these is avalanches. Before you go camping, check with your state's avalanche prediction center and consider staying at home if the threat is high or extreme. When you're on the trail, look around for trees that have been mowed down by an avalanche and for piles of avalanche debris pushed into the canyon below you. These are signs you should move on before pitching your tent. Other hazards include crevasses, or deep cracks that form in glaciers, and cornices, or overhanging masses of hardened snow that form at the top of steep mountain ridges.

As long as you avoid these hazards, your snowy campsite should be a comfy winter wonderland -- if perhaps a chilly one. And you can settle in for few days of skiing or snowshoeing, and a couple nights of starry skies.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Bauman, Joseph and Myrna Trauntvein. "Camper Dies When Tree Falls on Tent." Deseret News. July 18, 1994. (Feb. 6, 2012)
  • Berger, Karen. "Choosing a Campsite." GORP. Sept. 15, 2010. (Feb. 6, 2012)
  • Cox, Stephen M. Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2003.
  • Curtis, Rick. The Backpacker's Field Manual. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005.
  • Langston, Mark. "How to Choose a Campsite." Backpacker Magazine. October 2007. (Feb. 6, 2012)
  • L.L. Bean. "Choosing a Campsite." 2012. (Feb. 6, 2012)
  • REI Staff. "Campsite Selection." REI. 2012. (Feb. 6, 2012)
  • The San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club. Wilderness Basics. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2004.