I will never forget the first time I went camping on my own. I used to go camping with my dad when I was a kid, but I never paid much attention to where he pitched our tent.
So when it came to pitching my tent for the first time camping solo, I didn't put too much thought into it. I just stopped for the night when I was tired, set up my tent, and went to sleep.
By the next morning, I was cold, tired, and had a backache. My tent had half-collapsed, and the ground was muddy. I was nowhere near a water source, and couldn't even make breakfast until I packed up and moved again.
I didn't want to make that mistake again, so I did some research when I got home. The next time I went out, all that extra learning and preparation paid off. I had a much better experience.
Since then, I've learned a lot more about picking campsites which are safe and comfortable. Below are my top tips to help you select your next campsite!
1. Make sure that you are setting up your tent on level ground.
You want your camping surface to be as close to level as possible. A location like this is helpful for a few different reasons. Firstly, you will have an easier time erecting your tent, and it will be more stable.
Secondly, the rest of your supplies will also be more secure. Thirdly, you will sleep more comfortably.
Acceptable surfaces for camping include:
Just be aware that compacted gravel as well as rock can lead to concerns involving flooding. I will explain this shortly.
What if you are stuck with angled ground? Try not to sleep with your body perpendicular to the tilt of the earth. If you do this, gravity may pin your body against the side of the tent. This could destabilize your shelter. It could also result in condensation leaking through to make you damp and cold overnight.
Instead, lay down in your tent with your feet pointing downslope. This position should be reasonably comfortable (the blood will not be rushing to your head), and you will not roll into the side of your tent. Of course, if you are setting up a hammock to camp, you do not need to worry so much about the level ground.
2. Check to make sure the ground isn’t compacted.
Really great campsites can become quite popular. Other hikers and backpackers may make use of them, even in remote areas. When this happens, the ground in these areas can become compacted.
If you are a beginning camper, you may think that compacted earth is a good thing. It is sturdy, after all; it should do a great job bearing the load of your tent and your gear.
That much is true, but compacted ground can be problematic if it rains, especially if you are in a low-lying area like a valley. All the run-off from the hills and crags around you will rush down into your campsite, and it will not have anywhere to go.
Because the earth is firm, it will be hard for the water to penetrate the soil and seep down below. Instead, it will sit on the surface. The result is that you may wake up in a flooded campsite. To say this is unpleasant is an understatement. It may even ruin some of your provisions and damage some of your supplies.
So look for an area where the ground is firm enough to support you, but not so firm that it will trap water. You can also check around for drainage. Make sure that you are not sleeping in some manner of hollow. All the water will drain right into it and form a puddle. You want the water to flow out, not in.
3. Pick a location which is close to a water source, but not too close.
On that note, it is vital to choose a campsite which is reasonably near a source of water. If you are close to civilization, this could be a water pump. If you are in the boondocks, it might be a river, stream, or lake. You never want to be rely 100% on the water you have brought with you to get through a night. Being close to a stream or river also makes it easy to refill your canteens before heading out the next day.
Why don’t you want to be too close to a water source? This consideration goes back to the issue involving compacted ground, at least in part. If it rains, you do not want your campsite to get wet because a stream or river rises.
There is also the matter of contamination to consider. If you camp too close to a water source, there is a chance that you could inadvertently pollute it.
4. If possible, choose a sheltered location, but not one which is hazardous.
One of your first instincts while setting up a camp is probably to check to see if there are significant windbreaks around the site. These could include trees, bushes, rock walls, and so forth. You may even be tempted to sleep in a cave if you find one.
This is all very well. Indeed, you should try and sleep where you have shelter. It will make for a more comfortable night and will make it less likely that your tent will blow over. If you are surrounded on three sides by rock walls, you also will only need to watch the entrance to the area for wildlife or other intruders. The cliffs or trees around you will screen out some of the sunlight too, which can help keep you cool while preventing sunburns.
You do not want to pin yourself in, though. Windbreaks may also pose hazards. Check the integrity of tree limbs above your tent, and make sure that you are not camping next to any trees which have been damaged by storms or fire. If there is snow in the branches, be aware that it could fall suddenly. Also, check rock walls and slopes around your site to make sure that avalanches or rock slides are unlikely. Flooding is a concern as well—more on that momentarily.
5. Camp at elevation when you can.
There are a few advantages to camping at elevation. First of all, doing so makes it unlikely that you will face problems with flooding. The water should drain away from your campsite down into the valleys or canyons.
Secondly, if you happen to be camping during the hot months of summer, you should find that it is cooler the higher you climb.
Thirdly, insects tend to congregate in the lowlands. You can considerably reduce your exposure to mosquitoes, ticks, and other pests if you are camping at 4,000 feet or above. An elevation like this not only makes camping more enjoyable, it makes it safer too.
6. Your campsite should be accessible to you, but out of the way of human or game trails.
If you are backpacking through the wilderness, you probably are trying to get away from civilization, crowds, noise, and chaos. For this reason, you should pick a campsite which is not directly on or next to hiking and game trails. Staying away from paths such as these will prevent interruptions.
Plus, staying away from game trails has an additional benefit, which is keeping you away from game. You do not want to be dealing with wild animals in the middle of the night; you want to be sleeping safely and soundly.
There is also the additional issue of hunters and stray bullets. The last thing you want is to catch a bullet meant for a deer or fox. If you keep away from game trails, you can camp a lot more safely all around.
7. Make sure you’re not in a spot which could be deluged by a flash flood.
Flash flooding is a significant risk in some areas, and it can be one which is hard to predict. Indeed, you cannot guess whether a flash flood is imminent based on the weather in your immediate environment. A weather event which happens miles away could result in flooding where you are thinking of camping.
The most dangerous place to be during a flash flood is in any sort of narrow canyon or gorge. Slot canyons in particular are unsafe to camp. They have literally been carved into existence through fluvial erosion. What has happened before so many times in the past is likely to happen again, You do not want to be there when it does.
Your best bet if you want to avoid being caught in a flash flood is to keep to the high ground. You will be safer on top of a hill or cliff than you will down in a ravine.
8. Decide whether it is important for you to be close to amenities.
Think about your goals for your camping trip. Also, consider other details like who will be traveling with you and what they might need. Pick a location to camp which offers what every member of your party needs to have a great time.
For example, if you are backpacking on your own, and your goal is to get as far away from civilization as possible so you can practice your survival skills, it makes sense to choose a remote campsite. At the same time, you do not want to put yourself at unnecessary risk.
Picture the worst-case scenario. What if you get mauled by a wild animal, or you trip and fall off a ledge, breaking your leg? Suppose your provisions fall into a river to be swept away?
How far would you be able to make it on your own without help? It might sound exciting camping days away from the nearest town or highway, but accidents do happen. It is smart to camp where you will have a good chance of making it back to civilization if something does go wrong—or where help will be able to get to you if you are stranded.
Now imagine a completely different scenario. You are camping with your spouse and two young kids. You and your spouse have some survival skills, but your children do not. They also are not up for long hikes.
In this case, you would probably want to camp close to amenities. If you set up within a half hour walk of a campground, your kids can use regular toilets and showers if they need them, but can still get the wilderness experience. Choosing an open area where they have plenty of room to play is also a smart idea. Your children will be able to have more fun, and you will be able to spend less time listening to their complaining or worrying about their safety.
9. Know the rules of the area where you will be camping, and make sure it is a good fit for your needs.
Finally, there is the matter of regulations to consider. No matter how far out in the boondocks you are, there is an authority in charge of managing that land and regulating what takes place there. That means that a specific set of rules governs its use.
For example, there are a lot of locations where you are not allowed to build a campfire. At others, there may be rules involving water, like how close you are allowed to camp next to a river, stream or lake. Still other locations have specific laws involving hunting and fishing.
If you break these laws, you will be disrespecting the land. You might also incur hefty fines if someone catches you.
Figure out in advance whether you need to be able to hunt or build a fire, and how close to the nearest water source you want to be able to camp. Then check the regulations for the area you are thinking of visiting to make sure that it is going to fit your needs. If it will not, you may want to think about camping somewhere else.
Conclusion: It Takes Time and Experience to Recognize Great Campsites, But the Effort is Worth It
If you are trying to hike a long distance, you may be tempted to go as far as you can before you set up camp for the night, but that often isn't the most logical way to go about things.
If you wait until you are tired, you may find that you are stuck with the best of limited options--which may not be that great.
Instead, I recommend that you plan ahead. Research the area where you’ll be camping and see if you can scope out any suitable spots based on other peoples’ experiences or map data that you find.
If you cannot do that, plan to stop for the night before you are too fatigued to go on. That way you can be more selective about where you pitch your tent or hang your hammock. When you get a deep and restful night’s sleep and wake to find your campsite safe, dry and undisturbed, it will all have been worth it.