Circle the Wagons: How to Choose the Perfect Campsite
The sun dipping deep into the horizon throws longs shadows across the trail. It’s been a day of white sandy washes, boulder outcroppings, and wind caves dotted with petroglyphs, but the Carrizo Gorge trestles and Goat Canyon will have to wait until tomorrow. Until then, serious consideration must be made to find a campsite for the night, regroup, and start fresh in the morning’s first light. Since the nearest KOA is 400 miles away, you’ll have to rely on your inner prairie-crossing pioneer instincts: circle the wagons, strike up a campfire, and prepare to be amazed by the number of stars are in the sky.
To some, campsite spotting is an art form, a back-to-nature experience that puts them at one with the forest where they can read the land and, through intuition perhaps, stroll through a stand of trees and pick the perfect spot: a smooth, flat expanse of pillow-soft pine needles, shaded by sugar maples, filtering a dappling of sunlight through their perfectly-spaced leaves. Others toss their tent to the ground and wherever it stops rolling is where they set it up. The happy medium to finding a suitable location is in the art of compromise.
Location, Location, Location
When initially looking for a campsite, always go uphill. You want to find a campsite that has some elevation in relation to the ground around it, like a small knoll or rise that will deflect any rain should foul weather arise. A depression will only collect water, and even a light sprinkle could end up turning into a small flood. Vast scenic views are nice and relaxing, like a rocky overlook or the peek of a large hill, but high winds are not. The more exposed your site is, the more it will be affected by the weather; it may not be windy now, but it might be in the late afternoon and early evening.
Choose a site that is away from the trail. Before you leave the house, check the regulations of the area you’ll be camping in to see if there are any places off limits to overnight camping (some scenic areas and points of interest restrict camping). Avoid marshlands, green meadows, tall grass, ferns, or any shallow standing water. Mosquitoes, chiggers, ticks, ants, and water-borne insects are apt to congregate there, but if it’s unavoidable, pitch your tent upwind, as mosquitoes especially travel with the wind, not against it.
Though you’ll want to be at least 200 feet from any water (lake, stream, river, etc.) to better avoid bears, moose, and predators that use it as a drinking source (and to keep you from contaminating the water), you’ll want to be near enough to water to use for camping purposes (drinking, cooking, cleaning, hygiene). Traveling great distances to cart water gets old really quick.
The World is Flat
Unless you want to be constantly rolling into the corner of your tent or have your tent mates sleeping on top of you, consider locating a space that is as flat as possible.
If you’re practicing low-impact camping—and you always should be mindful of doing so—consider pitching your tent on a durable surface, like rock, bare ground, sand, or gravel. This is to protect any fragile flora that may be living there, and if you have the right kind of pad (or maybe a cot), you won’t feel the difference. Barring that, grass, sand, or a thick bed of pine needles will make a perfect mattress under your tent. Where possible, camp at a previously established campsite, and remember that the best campsite is found, not made.
For some, waking up at the crack of dawn with the sun boiling through the thin nylon of your tent is an unpleasant way to start the day, and if you’re camping in the desert, most would agree. There, you’ll want to find as much shade as possible.
However, if the weather plans to dip into the frigid parts of the thermometer, find a spot with southeastern exposure; that is, you’ll want to place your campsite closer to the western edge of a clearing, if you find one. The morning sun (from the east) will help warm you up from a frosty night and dry the tents from any morning dew, while the shade from the trees (on the west) will shield you from the warmer afternoon sun.
Learn the kinds of plants and trees that inhabit the area you’ll be camping in. Laying out your spread in a field of pretty red and green poison oak bushes or taking your daily constitutional in a patch of sumac is no way to spend a holiday. Know before you go.
Weather or Not
Outstretch your arm towards the setting sun with your hand sideways and your fingers facing you. For every finger’s width between the sun and the horizon, you have 15 minutes of daylight left. Is your tent up yet? Before you do so, anticipate how the terrain could work in your favor (or not) if the weather intensifies. Are you camping in a potential flood zone from an inundated river, a wind tunnel because of a narrow canyon, or under a tall lone tree that can attract lightning? The sun might be setting beautifully in 45 minutes, but there could be a blackened cumulonimbus tumbling just on the other side of the foothills.
Rain: If you’ve brought the proper gear, rain shouldn’t be a problem. That is, as long as you’re not camping in a depression or at the edge of a river or stream. If rain is forecasted, dig a shallow moat around your tent/ground tarp and an escape trench for any runoff to drain away. Remember, one-half inch of rain falling on 20 square feet of ground produces 125 gallons of water, easily enough to wash you away.
Wind: Mother Nature can be unforgiving, and she often displays her devilish sense of humor during high winds. Even though that dead branch has been clinging to the tree above your tent for more than 35 years, a stiff breeze could bring it down tonight. Be aware of what’s above you as well as around you. Boulders teetering on a precipice, branches hanging loose, downed trees precariously on edge, and even large bushes, can all be uprooted during a windstorm.
Don’t be caught on a flat open area during a windstorm. Instead, find a windbreak such as a pile of boulders or a stand of mature trees. Remember that breezes blow up canyons during the day and down them at night.
Lightning: One of the most powerful forces in nature, lightning can produce temperatures up to 50,000 degrees and electrical charges up to 100 million volts, both of which will kill you faster than you can blink. In nature, trees are the most vulnerable to lightning strikes, so being around a tree during a lightning storm is extremely dangerous. Lying on the ground in your tent during a lightning storm only maximizes your chances of getting injured if you are near a tree. Avoid the tallest trees (or the only tree) when picking your campsite. If it becomes too severe, hunker down in your vehicle until the worst has passed—sure, it’s not camping, but it’s not dying either.
Snow/Avalanches: Always look up. Nothing ruins a camping trip like unforeseen snowfall, and nothing will ruin your life like an unexpected avalanche. Since most avalanches happen during or just after a heavy snowfall, avoid those areas if possible. Keep your campsite away from hills with slopes that are 30 to 45 degrees, as they are most prone to avalanches (now you know why your compass has an inclinometer). As well, don’t set up your site under trees laden with snow (and especially don’t build a fire under one). Though the weight can vary (fluffy snow weighs less), one cubic foot of snow can weigh around 15 pounds.
Temperature: Hollows, depressions in the land, and valleys are usually the wettest, coldest, and foggiest spots around. When camping near a mountain stream, know that cold air travels with the direction of the water and will eventually settle in low places. As well, cold air collects in meadows and grassy areas, which is another reason to seek some elevation.
Recreational camping is supposed to be a fun activity, so when picking your campsite, avoid potential hazards. When near a river, look for the high-water mark (highest rounded rocks, driftwood and a “bathtub ring” appearance) and camp above it. Stay away from the base of hills that are covered with loose rocks and boulders or scattered branches and fallen trees. Don’t camp at the bottom of cliffs or under rocky outcroppings. Always look around you and weigh the chances for potential dangers. Your tent shouldn’t become a body bag.
Remember that animals live in the wild, and you’re breaking into their home and tromping around in it. Bears, wolves, coyotes, and cougars are always looking for their next meal. They’ll notice you and more than likely steer clear, but if properly motivated (i.e. hungry or cornered), all animals will attack.
Set up cooking, eating, and supply areas at least 100 feet from your sleeping area. Store food and odorous items, like deodorant and soaps, by hanging them at least 10 to 15 feet above ground or use bear-resistant containers. Store food in individually sealed packages, and plan meals carefully to prevent leftovers. Keep sleeping bags and tents completely free of food, food odors, and beverages. Do not sleep in the clothes you cook in, as the idea is to minimize the food odors that emanate from your camp, especially your tent.
Snakes and most reptiles spend the better part of their time coiled up in rocky crevasses or under low bushes and fallen trees. Be wary of reaching into places you can’t see and camp clear of large cracks or breaks in rock piles.
Although neighbors can be nice, you came out to the middle of nowhere to be alone (or with your group). Give already established campsites plenty of space and pick a spot well out of view of them. Be respectful of others, especially the ones that will come after you. Leave no trace but footprints. Pack out your trash and completely extinguish any campfire coals that might still be smoldering.
With a little common sense, some patience, and a bit of luck, finding the perfect campsite to fit your group’s needs will be easy. If you follow some sage advice, not only will the trip be better for it, but so will you.
- Leave behind a copy of your itinerary
- Confirm the area’s pet policy
- Arrive before nightfall
- Check the weather before you leave
- Follow fire safety protocol for that area
- Minimize your impact on the environment
- Study the area before you go
- Bring the right gear for what is expected
- Bring a map for each person
- Store your food properly
- Keep garbage at least 10 feet from the campfire
- Be prepared
- Don’t leave food unattended
- Assume you know how to do everything
- Harass the wildlife (they have no moral code)
- Be cheap with your gear/equipment
- Cut down trees/bushes for firewood (green wood burns poorly)
- Don’t take electronics…that’s what you’re trying to get away from
- Leave a campfire unattended
- Be inconsiderate of others and their privacy
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Tread Magazine.