How to Choose a Backpacking Campsite

Finding a suitable campsite can make the difference between getting a good night’s sleep, or tossing and turning most of the night. Where you set up camp also can have impacts on the natural environment, so it’s good to be aware of a few guidelines.

This post is an excerpt from the book “I Heart Backpacking: How to Get Started” by Lisa D. Holmes and Sara Carroll

Campsite selection

How to Choose a Backpacking Campsite

using rocks to help stake a tent

Whenever possible, camp at already established sites rather than creating a new one. These can often be identified by areas void of vegetation. Look for a spot with bare ground or gravel, or a smooth ledge of rock, and avoid pitching a tent on sensitive vegetation. The damage from being trampled by a tent can take years to recover. Never pitch your tent in fragile areas such as wildflower meadows.

 

How to Choose a Backpacking Campsite

designated campsite in the North Cascades

In high-use areas, you may be required to camp at designated campsites marked with signage in order to help reduce the impact that so many people visiting a place can have. Contact an area’s ranger station to learn more about campsite requirements, including the need for advance reservations or permits. Please abide by the rules set up by land management officials. They are created to help protect both wildlife and the natural beauty of the wilderness.

 

How to Choose a Backpacking Campsite

in exposed areas, find trees and shrubs to set up next to for protection from wind, rain or full sun exposure

 

Locating your campsite near a water supply will make it easier to get water for cooking and cleaning without needing to carry a larger quantity of water a long distance. Just be sure to set up camp at least 200 feet away (about 70 steps) from streams, rivers, and lakes to enable wildlife unhindered access to water sources, and to protect the fragile environment near the water’s edge.

Attempt to find an area off the trail and out of view. Try to find a spot away from other campers so that all parties can enjoy the solitude.

How to Choose a Backpacking Campsite

camping on the beach above high tide zone

Factors that may improve the conditions of your campsite location include:

  • Avoid low spots and drainage areas that may fill with water when it rains.
  • Stands of trees can provide shelter from the wind, are usually warmer than exposed areas, and can help to prevent condensation from morning dew.
  • In high winds, look for a location with boulders, shrubs, or trees that can provide a windbreak.
  • If insects are present, try finding a more exposed and breezy area that might help to blow them away.
  • During periods of hot weather, find a spot with at least partial shade. Direct sunlight can be harmful to the fabrics of tents over prolonged periods. Plus, getting into a sweltering tent is no fun.
  • Colder air settles in low-level areas such as valleys, canyons, and beside water sources, so set up camp in a sheltered area on higher ground in cold weather.
  • For sleeping comfort, find a flat area to pitch your tent to avoid rolling downhill all night long. If you have no choice but to sleep on a bit of a slope, keep your head uphill.
  • When camping on a beach, make sure to set up well above the high tide line.

 

How to Choose a Backpacking Campsite

Leave No Trace Principles (LNT)

The purpose of LNT principles is to protect outdoor spaces from the impacts of humans, leaving no trace of our experiences. When choosing a campsite, here are a few additional things to keep in mind:

Dispose of waste properly

Keeping a clean and organized camp enhances the wilderness experience for everyone, and helps to keep wildlife from raiding your camp. A major part of keeping a clean camp is disposing of waste properly. You’ve likely heard the adage of “pack it in, pack it out.” The idea of leaving nothing behind is an important piece of land ethics. It can be easy to leave small bits of trash behind. Before you leave a campsite, walk through to ensure that all trash, including tiny pieces of food waste such as nut or seed shells are removed.

Don’t alter the landscape

Always, always leave things how you found them so that others may enjoy the beauty of the wilderness. Do not create new fire rings, lean-tos, or other “improvements.” If you move rocks to create a better space for your tent or kitchen, replace them when you are done. Trees should be left as they are and not altered. Even the act of placing a nail in a tree can open it to disease. 

Leave it where you find it

While backpacking you may have the opportunity to find cultural artifacts and other natural objects such as feathers, rocks, arrowheads, or antlers. These types of objects are essential to the wilderness experience. By leaving these items, you are allowing fellow backpackers the opportunity to have the same sense of wonder and discovery that you experienced upon finding them.

To learn more about Leave No Trace Principles, visit lnt.org.

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