Selection of a good spot to camp is one of the most important aspects of a backpacking trip for me…I tend to spend at least 12 hours in camp so it directly affects over half my trip! Note that this doesn’t apply so much to use of existing campsite locations, although even then you should be very careful of pitch location within the site. Even at an old faithful campsite, conditions can change (i.e. weaker limbs on trees than the last time you were there).
I have a 3-level approach to selection of a camp site:
- Pre-Trip Site Selection
- General Site Selection
- Pitch Site Selection
I thought it might be useful to go through each of these steps one by one in case folks are interested, and use both a good and marginal site result as two case studies.
Pre-trip Site Selection:
When planning a trip, I tend to avoid established camps and prefer Leave-No-Trace (LNT) campsites off-trail. The first thing I do is establish my general mileage and route for the day. This determines roughly where I will end up, which leads to the general camp location. I look for an area on a topographic map with relatively flat contours and proximity to water. This does not mean I camp by a stream…in fact over 2/3 of my camps are dry. What it does mean is that I have the ability to “camel” up on water for the night and next morning within about an hour or so of the potential camp.
Here are two general areas I picked out for different trips…first in the White Mountains in NH and the second an unnamed quiet spot in an overused wilderness area close to me.
In the White’s, my wife and I wanted to have a quiet camp one of the two nights (the second was pretty much constrained to a tent platform site) and also shave off some of our second day climb up to the peaks. An area on the USGS 1:24,000 topographic map looked like it had some potential off the Twin Brook Trail. I was pretty confident we could find something for our 3-person tent, but since it was new territory I had a backup plan of dropping back down to the 13 Falls tent site below it….although that would mean re-climbing the next morning.
Here are several potential sites I picked out year’s ago at one of my favorite backyard wilderness playgrounds. This area is mostly wooded and lower elevation so I wanted a fair weather site that got a lot of breeze and also some winter views after the leaf fall. Several potential knobs not too far from water sources below are circled on the map.
General Site Selection:
Once I arrive in the general area, I will spend a good bit of time hunting around for the right site. This may include wandering an area of several acres or heading further up the trail to see what’s around the next bend then backtracking if it doesn’t look as good. I think that is the hardest part – going backward at the end of the day and feeling like you are losing ground. However a good camp site is well worth it and most of the time I don’t regret that versus settling for a less ideal campsite. This process can often take me 30 minutes or more.
In the White Mountains, this general selection took about 45 minutes. I first had to ensure that we were 200 feet from the trail (Forest Service rule) which wound around the area…a couple of sites were 200 feet from where I left the trail, but less from the trail ahead or behind due to the curve. The ground was also extremely hummocky with few spots large enough for a 3-person tent that I was carrying since it was a couple’s trip with my wife. This micro-topography is not something that you can pick out on topo maps, and unless familiar with an area it is a wild card. I passed up a couple of spots that seemed to have historically been disturbed.
They were flat but had too much vegetation that I didn’t want to damage (especially the ferns).
We finally settled on the slightly higher area at the edge of a flat saddle that seemed to have potential to be a little boggy but was not wet this time of year. You can see the lack of hummocks and relative lack of slope in this photo. The site wasn’t ideal but dry enough based on the season and weather patterns.
In the other wilderness area with the three potential knobs, the site selection was easier. The first (northernmost) one I hit was exactly what I wanted…flat topped and enough soil to get some of my variety of tent stakes to hold.
Pitch Site Selection
With both general sites selected, it’s down to the tent pitch selection. First and foremost is safety…looking out for widowmakers and other loose branches that might damage the tent if the wind picked up. This factors in with my preference for at least a decent chance of seeing stars so gaps in the canopy at forested sites are important. Here is an extreme example of where you don’t want to camp!
Once I have a suitable pitch site for safety, it’s all about a good night’s sleep. If the weather is good, I’ll lay down on the ground for a few minutes (usually on a ground cloth) and make little adjustments in the orientation of the pitch site to account for minor slope, roots, etc. I try to avoid doing any site improvements so I can leave no trace in the end.
Finally, its the orientation of the tent – which way will the doors open and where will the pack go? There is rarely a perfect campsite, but there are a lot that come close.
The White Mountain site turned out better than expected,
and the no-name wilderness camp has become a frequent peaceful stop for me on short winter trips when I can’t wander farther from home.
The research and field search for camping spots has become one of the most satisfying and rewarding aspects of my backpacking over the last decades. Happy hunting for campsites!