How to Find Great Campsites
Choosing great campsites will leads to incredibly memorable trips, but it’s not as simple as just throwing a tent down on a flat piece of dirt.
If you choose your campsite poorly and you could damage wilderness areas, expose yourself to wind & cold temperatures, or even wake up with two inches of standing water in the bottom of your shelter.
Use common sense in the backcountry and follow these general guidelines to greatly improve your camping experiences.
First of all, make sure to know the regulations of the area that you’ll be backpacking in.
Many wilderness areas have established campsites that they ask you to camp in. In very popular areas, you might even have to reserve specific sites before your trip.
For this reason, finding great campsites often starts at home, when you are planning your trip.
Established sites might be marked on your map or guidebook and they might even be marked with signs on the trail.
Other times you’ll have to find established sites on your own, which is generally easy to do. When planning your trip consider the locations that other travelers would likely want to camp.
For example, if there is a river crossing or a lake in an area that’s a few miles from another water source, it’s likely that other backpackers have wanted to camp nearby, so there is probably an established campsite there.
Have a general plan for where you’d like to camp but make sure to leave room for flexibility.
Sometimes you might get to a spot that you planned to camp, but you feel like going farther. Or maybe the weather is bad and you’re ready to stop early. Either way, being flexible is an important part of all successful backpacking trips.
It’s generally a good idea to plan on reaching your campsite with a couple hours of daylight left. It’s not a lot of fun trying to setup camp in the dark, and can be even worse if it’s raining.
Setting up camp will take some time. You’ll want time to pitch your shelter, clean up after your hike, cook dinner, and pump water.
Also, finding a good stopping point for the day can sometimes be tricky. You won’t know what the campsite looks like until you get there, but a topographical map can help you make an informed judgment ahead of time.
Established campsites are often in beautiful areas, not far from the trail, with easy water access.
They often have fire pits, a few spots to pitch your shelter, and might even have good rocks or logs sitting. All these factors make them very convenient and desirable.
Camping in previously established sites is also the best way to minimize your impact on the environment, rather than impacting a pristine area for the first time.
The majority of established campsites are close to easy water access, which is a convenient feature. Camping by water will make it easier for you to wash up after your hike, cook dinner, clean dishes, and purify drinking water.
Camping by water is nice, but you should always camp far enough away to give wildlife an unobstructed path to the water. The leave no trace guideline is to camp at least 200 feet away from water sources.
Some established campsites are dry sites, meaning that they won’t have any water access. A dry campsite will require you to carry extra water to your camping destination, but can be very pleasant way to camp as well.
Dry camps often have great views and fewer bugs. Dry camps can also help you to avoid cold and wet conditions.
Low spots in valleys by rivers are generally the wettest and coldest spots to camp. So, camping away from water can be a good way to reduce the amount of condensation on your shelter and provide a warmer nights rest.
While camping in established campsites is the preferred method for most backpackers, there are some downsides to established sites as well.
The ground in established sites is usually packed down hard and might have exposed rocks and roots. This isn’t a problem for inflatable pad users, but it can be lead to an uncomfortable night’s rest for foam pad users.
Also, established campsites can sometimes attract unwanted animals attention. If backpackers don’t properly protect their food, they make it possible for animals to have an easy meal.
Once animals learn that backpackers provide easy food, they’ll keep coming back to scavenge for more food.
For this reason, established campsites can sometimes have nighttime rodent problems, like mice looking for food or materials to build their nests.
In rare cases established sites are frequented by larger animals, like bears or deer, so always make sure to store your food properly, for your benefit and for future backpackers.
An alternative to camping in established sites commonly used by ultralight backpackers and thru-hikers is called stealth camping.
Stealth camping is when hikers walk away from the trail to find unused and secluded sites to make camp for the night.
Hikers who practice stealth camping only do it in areas where it’s allowed and always minimize the amount of impact that they make on the environment.
Stealth camping can be a good option especially for long distance backpackers that are attempting to hit daily mileage targets. However, it’s never ok to disrupt an area when you make a stealth site.
One of the most important rules of stealth camping is that you must leave the area exactly as you found it, without any trace of you’re presence. Be careful not to trample any vegetation or harm any animals and their habitats.
It’s best for stealth campers to stay away from building fires. The danger of starting a forest fire is increased at a non-established site and signs of campfires fires are hard to erase.
When considering camping in an area, whether it’s an established site or a stealth site, make sure to pay close attention to where you’re going to setup your shelter.
The most important factor to look for is proper water runoff, not a perfectly flat area, so take a very look at the ground where you plan to pitch your shelter.
If a rainstorm were to break out, where would the water go? Make sure to check for signs of previous puddles and look for good drainage.
Perfectly flat spots are good for comfort, but bad for water drainage. Try to choose a site that’s on a slight angle, which will be both comfortable and dry.
Also, pay close attention to the wind exposure of your shelter site. It can be great to have a campsite with an open view, but make sure you’re not dangerously exposed if a storm rolls in.
Using small trees and bushes for cover is a great way to reduce wind exposure and protect yourself from storms.
Set up your shelter away from cliffs or any area that might have falling rocks. Also, take a look at the trees around your site to make sure there aren’t any dead limbs or trees that could fall on your shelter if strong winds start to blow.
Choosing good campsites will make your trips a lot more fun, and will also help to keep you safe and dry.