There is nothing quite as special as getting to spend the night out in the wilderness. There’s a beautiful sense of freedom that comes with it, that’s hard to describe and it’s a great way, as part of a backpacking trip, to enable you to go deeper into trails and mountains to see areas you just can’t reach on a day hike.
Photo Credit: Andrew E. Larsen
In the last few posts I’ve been taking a closer look at camping and all that it entails. We started by looking at what gear you need. You can’t go too far without choosing a suitable tent to protect you from the elements or without having a decent sleep system to enable you to get as comfortable a nights sleep as possible.
So, you’ve got your camping gear together, you’re ready to hit the trail to see some amazingly beautiful landscapes and wilderness stopping to camp along the way. All good!
However, there is one thing you need to seriously think about when you’re heading out on the trail on your trip. What is that? Well, where are you going to camp?
In this post I’ll take a look at some top tips for helping to find a suitable camping spot and choose a good campsite. Even if you have all the right gear, you won’t have a pleasant experience if you plonk your tent down in the middle of a spot prone to flash flooding or in a valley that attracts gales when the winds get up!
As well as picking a spot that is suitable, you as always want to leave as minimum an impact as possible on the area you camp in.
Choosing a Camp Site
Picture this, you’ve been out hiking all day and you decided to hike on into the night to enjoy the beautiful stars in the sky. At midnight you are tired and you decide it’s time to pitch tent. Just one problem, it’s dark!
The first thing you need to do when you’re out backpacking and camping in the wilderness is to aim to get to the area you plan to camp before it’s get’s dark, ideally leaving yourself two hours is a good idea.
When you are planning your trip and your hike for the day, you should be able to find a relatively good location for camping by using the detail on a map.
Now, this will only give you a general area so when you get there, you will need to spend a bit of time looking for the best place in that area to actually pitch your tent. It’s worth noting as well that while it’s very possible that an area looks good on the map, it may not be as suitable when you actually get there.
So, if you have two hours or so before sunset, you have time to find a good spot and / or make moves to an alternative location further on if the need arises. You will also have time to get an evening meal together too before the sun goes down.
When choosing a location to pitch your tent, your first concern should be weather protection. You need a site that will offer protection from the rain and wind, and the combination of the two which can be much harder to deal with when they get heavy and hard.
Photo Credit: Iris
You should look for some kind of natural shelter if you can and pitch your tent on the sheltered side of it. For example, if you can use the shelter of a large cluster of boulders or a patch of trees, you will have a natural barrier to the oncoming weather. When you have your spot, pitch your tent with it’s back the wind.
Look for Level Ground
The next thing you need to think about is level ground. This is kind of stating the obvious but it’s worth pointing out as you can get caught on this if you’re new to camping and pick something that isn’t level enough to sleep on.
In many ways with camping, as with anything on the trail, you always learn more with experience.
Photo Credit: Rob Lee
Now, you want ground that is level but not hard compacted ground that is dipped into a depression as this can collect water in heavy rain and you could have a very wet bed in no time!
A good choice is if there is some kind of natural mattress, as I like to call it. If you think of grassland areas on softer ground.
When you put your camping roll mat down in your tent and snuggle up in your sleeping bag, the ground will actually add a bit more comfort to your nights sleep. That is the ideal, although not always possible. If you can use the ground to aid your comfort, excellent!
Try and Avoid a Gradient
As much as possible, you want the flat ground to be level. Any gradient can add to difficulties depending on it’s size. If you must have a gradient, try and keep it small and always place the head of the tent at the higher end of it.
If you’re in anyway unsure about the gradient, lie down on it, obviously with your head at the high end, and see how it feels.
It is a really good idea to try and camp as near to water as possible for obvious reasons. You need water to drink and cook so if you have a flowing source close by, that makes your life and nights camping a whole lot better!
Photo Credit: Diana Robinson
Now, you of course need to be wary of the water too. If it’s a river, be sure you’re far enough away from it so it won’t cause you any difficulties. Also, be sure to check the water line on the river bed to see how high the river can rise in heavy rains.
As mentioned above, look out for any signs of flowing water having been there and if you see signs relocate. Choose a camping site at least 100 feet (30 meters) away from the water source and above any visible water line.
Camping 100 feet away from your water source will also help prevent you from inadvertently polluting the water if you’re too close to it. It’s important you know how to look after sanitation in your campsite as you want to have minimum impact on the local environment.
NEVER camp on a dry river bed! That’s just asking for trouble in terms of flash flooding which is seriously destructive in very quick time!
Now, although it’s good to camp close to water, be sure to keep in mind the local ecology and the animals that depend on it. If you’re camping in more arid areas and there are clear signs of animal trails on your site, from the animals accessing the water source, it’s best to look for another site.
Firstly, because you ideally don’t want to upset the normal routines of local wildlife and prevent them from accessing their normal water source out of fear.
Secondly, depending on the local animals, I’m thinking bears or the like here, you most probably don’t want to be in the middle of their water highway as you never know, they just might drop in to say hello! Not good!
When you get the stove out and start getting your well earned meal together, it can be a very good idea to cook well away from your tent, again at least 100 feet (30 meters) is a good benchmark to use.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, the smell of food can attract wildlife so better to keep them looking further away from your actual camp site should they show up to see what the unfamiliar cuisine that their nose has caught a whiff of is!
Secondly, cooking close to your tent could lead to unfortunate accidents. An errant spark from your stove or if your stove get’s blown over in the wind while you’re looking elsewhere could set your tent alight which is really not cool!
Your exciting trip into the wilderness has just taken on a whole new dynamic and can easily move from a relaxing hiking trip into a night practicing your survival skills in the wilderness! I’ve only built a shelter from branches and such once on a survival course I did, trust me, it isn’t fun 🙁 So best avoided 😉
Simple precautions like this are always just sensible!
Campfires can be more trouble than they’re worth and, contrary to popular belief, they are very bad for the ground. I won’t go into the best way’s to light a campfire if you must have one but generally, I think they’re best to leave alone and in many cases, they’re illegal anyway.
However, in some camping spots on the trail, there may well be permanent camp fire rings in place. If so, if you can get a fire together and you need one, then maybe go ahead and utilize it.
Photo Credit: Gonzalo Díaz Fornaro
The same rules as above apply, so camp far enough away from it as burning wood when damp can have lot’s of sparks shooting out from it, and you really don’t want that landing on your tent or have animals stopping by to see what you’re cooking. Again though, personally I’d try and leave it and get by without a campfire.
Areas Not to Camp in
It’s worth taking a few moments to list out some areas that are just best avoided as a camp site. I’ve touched on some of these already but for completeness I’ll mention those ones again here.
Anywhere that is openly exposed to the elements, heavy win and rain etc., isn’t ideal to camp in. Sometimes you may have no choice but try your best to get leeward, or out of the wind, at least.
Camping Beside Trees
OK, I did reference these above as a good place to camp as they can offer protection from the weather. That is true, but be sure to use your common sense.
If you have a massive tree beside you that looks dead and like it could topple in high winds, it obviously is a bad idea to camp under it. Keep lightening in mind too if you’re unfortunate enough to get caught in some of that action!
When you look at a camp site at the foot of a rock hill and you see rocks all over it, the likelihood is that these stones are falling regularly. You don’t want to have one of those land on your head while you’re dreaming 🙂
On first glance, they can seem really good but they can be very damp and act like a sponge in heavy rain so be careful with them.
We mentioned this in red above. Avoid, avoid, avoid!
Valley floors tend to have cold air in them as it’s heavier than warm air and so tends to sink in valleys. Now, this is only a concern at certain times of year in certain conditions but it is something to keep in mind.
Stating the obvious here but on a ridge, you’re very exposed. Really a bad idea as you will be exposed to high winds and potentially lightening if it is on the weather menu for the evening. I’d treat summits in the same manner.
The classic wind tunnel! Again, in certain weather, you might get away with it but mountain weather is unpredictable as the best of times. If the wind get’s up at 3am, you could be in a pickle if you have to up sticks and move camp as it’s getting lifted from the ground!
I hope you found this post on how to choose a campsite useful. These are the main points I think about when I am looking for somewhere suitable to pitch camp for the night. Remember, you really want to get this right as you don’t want to have to try and relocate in the middle of the night in darkness. Just will not be fun!
There are plenty of special environments and locations that require you to camp in a certain way so as a final note, always be sure to educate yourself on any local regulations or legal requirements to pitch camp. Always respect the environment in the way laid out in the rules by the local folks who either run the place or live there.
What do you think? Have I missed anything? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
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