“The mountains are calling and I must go.” — John Muir
The mountains have called you and you must go. But go where, exactly?
How do you pick the perfect campsite? Nothing can ruin an outdoor adventure quite like choosing a poor home-away-from-home. The wrong campsite can lead to sleepless nights, bug bites that don’t quit, or even more dangerous consequences like having to quickly escape floods or wind storms. The following guide will help you enjoy all the magic of the great outdoors without the inconveniences of a bad campsite.
What kind of camping experience do you want to have?
Finding the perfect camp spot depends a lot upon what kind of experience you’re looking for. If you’re looking to be outdoors, but you also want running water and bathrooms, then you will probably need to make a campsite reservation online. This is especially true if you want to camp in a National Park. In places like Yosemite National Park, you might have to make a reservation 6 months to a year in advance to camp in one of the more popular sites.
If you’d rather rough it and avoid having camping neighbors, your search will be a bit more involved. Dispersed camping, for example, is not for the faint of heart. You’ll need to carry your camping needs in your pack and hike until you find a good location. So first, decide what you want and need to enjoy your experience.
Do your homework
Once you know where you want to go, do some research about the area—read up on local wildlife, weather predictions, and the insects you might encounter. This information will impact what kind of gear you bring and what you include in your emergency kit.
Finding the perfect place to camp will depend upon landscape, weather, and region, but there are some general guidelines that apply to most, if not all, camping experiences.
Access to water
It’s important to have good access to a water source, so make sure you know where one is before you set up camp. But don’t pitch your tent too close to the water’s edge. You want about 200 meters between you and the water to avoid bugs and potential flash flooding.
Be sure to find a flat piece of ground for your tent, and if the ground isn’t completely flat, make sure to sleep with your head uphill. Clear away all rocks and debris from the area. They’ll be uncomfortable to sleep on, and they could also puncture your tent.
While you don’t want to pitch your tent in an exposed area or on a ledge, you also want to make sure you’re not setting up in a valley. Narrow, low grounds tend to be colder and collect water.
If the weather is particularly windy, or you’re camping in the desert, you’ll want to pitch your tent where there is a wind barrier.
If you’ve been camping before, you know that even if you go to bed cold, the sun can really bake your tent in the morning. This is especially true in the desert. Find a spot that will allow you some recourse from the sun. That said, it’s not a good idea to sleep directly underneath tree branches, especially dry, broken, or dead ones. High winds or rain could send them toppling onto your tent. They don’t call them widowmakers for nothing!
Don’t sleep where you eat
Make sure to put a safe distance between your tent and cooking area. The residues from cooking can attract bears and other cute-but-not-so-cuddly creatures. It’s also a good idea to store your food in a tightly secured area to keep the scent from attracting animals.
For the most part, people escape to the wilderness for a sense of solitude. Avoid setting up too close to fellow campers. You both will appreciate the kindness. On a related note, be kind to the people who have already set up their campsites. Be cognizant of the vistas you’re enjoying, and make sure you’re not blocking anyone’s view.
Set up in the Sunlight
Trying to set up a campsite in the dark can be incredibly frustrating and sometimes dangerous. Be prepared to get an early start on the day, so you can find a spot while there is plenty of daylight left.
Some National Parks will have vendors who sell firewood, but if not, buy firewood from a store close to the campground. Always use local firewood to eliminate the risk of introducing non-native insects. Some areas require anyone with a fire to have a permit. Check with rangers from the area for local requirements. Only start fires in designated areas! If you’re backpacking and there’s no fire ring, build your own and break it down when you leave.
Mother nature is beautiful, but she can also be cruel. Educate yourself about the area you’re camping in to avoid poisonous plants or animals.
Be in the know
It’s fine to not know everything about camping—being an expert takes time, experience, and dedication. But it’s important to do your research, not only for your own safety, but also out of respect for our public lands.
Leave it as you found it
Over 100 years ago, John Muir wrote that he must heed the call of the mountains. We can respect the sacredness of that call by treading gently and keeping the wild in wilderness. Clean up after yourself, leave no traces, and preserve what nature has given us.