20 things to look for when choosing a good
Now the time has come, you have done the research at home and you are out hiking. A lot of the decisions about your campsite will depend on what happens throughout your day. You will be gathering information all day unconsciously and will use that information to make your decisions when it comes time to search for a suitable site. Rather than give you a shopping list about what to do or find in order to have the perfect campsite, I have put together a list of questions. These will help you identify your needs for your campsite.
1. How long do I plan to stay here?
The length of time you will be at the one place makes a big difference. If you are only there to get a few hrs sleep and off again at dawn the following morning you may get away with a less than ideal place for a temporary camp. But if you are using this as a base camp for a week much more consideration needs to be taken as to the exact location of your tent.
2. How early do I plan to pack up and head out tomorrow?
If you are doing a through hike and want to get in 20 or 30 miles on the trail tomorrow you will likely want to be up early and head out as soon as possible. This may mean your tent or tarp might be still wet or icy. You may be striking camp in the dark, so care should be taken not to camp too near any hazards. If you have a more relaxed schedule you might have time to wait for your tent to dry completely before packing it away. If this is the case you might want to think about where the sun will rise in the morning and where the shadows will be. Perhaps the sun might not reach your camping spot until 10am due to high mountains to the east.
3. What is it I want to do there?
You might be camping alone and just need a quiet spot to sit and think or to write. Perhaps you are the leader in charge of a bunch of boy scouts and need to occupy and entertain them for the weekend. It could be that you are camping as a family, with you and your partner and a couple of young kids. You might plan to go swimming or fishing tomorrow. Or perhaps you are here to try some new climbs on the slabs of granite nearby. These considerations will make a big difference to the decisions you make on choosing a campsite.
4. What sort of tent do I have?
This will make a big difference to the site you choose to pitch it. I have a very large canvas tent that I use when we go car camping as a family. It has a very large footprint, is very comfortable and is great for extended camping in the one spot or for use as a base camp. Sometimes however I go solo and just need a very small area to pitch my tarp and sleep on the ground. Or sometimes I am in my hammock and pitch my tarp over the top of that.
5. Will I be needing a campfire?
For some people a campfire is a necessity. I have to say there is nothing quite the same as sitting around a lively campfire singing songs, eating baked vegies from the coals, toasting marshmallows and smores, and just gazing into the dying coals late into the night. There is a time and a place for a fire. If not carefully controlled they can be a dangerous thing. I have seen many a young boy burnt from playing in a fire, and if not carefully monitored and completely extinguished they can lead to forest fires and cause catastrophic disasters. When you venture off the beaten track deep into wilderness areas campfires are frowned upon. The leave no trace principle is the code by which we try to live. This means doing any cooking on a small camp stove and completely removing any trace that you had been there when you leave. There is nothing worse than seeing the ugly scar of a fireplace in an otherwise pristine location.
If you are in a campground where fires are permitted, use the fire pit reserved for that. Don't light multiple fires all over the place. Keep them contained and monitored. Keep your fire away from your tent, it only takes a small spark to burn a hole in your tent. Make sure you never light a fire on a peat bog. These fires can burn for years deep underground and are impossible to put out.
6. Do I have water with me or do I need to camp near a clean water source?
When you are camping water is a big priority. You need to have a source of clean drinking water nearby. This may be in the form of a creek or river, or it could be a well or spring. It could be a water drum or bottle that you have carried with you. If you are camping near a natural water source like a creek it is a good policy to camp close but not too close. It is a good rule of thumb to stay about 50m or more away from the creek so that you do not contaminate the source. There are other considerations to think about. You may encounter animals that come to the water source to drink during the night or early morning.
7. Will it be cold or hot tonight?
If it is a still night and likely to be cold, the cold air will flow down to the bottoms of the valleys. Fog and mist generally form along waterways and in hollows. This will make a very damp campsite and condensation on your tent will be much higher. A better plan might be to camp a little way up the side of a hill perhaps facing east so that you will warm up a lot faster in the morning. If it is likely to be a hot night a spot beside the river in a clearing will give you the best chance of a nice breeze.
8. Will there be bugs?
usually be a lot more bugs around water sources especially if they are slow
moving or still. Stagnant pools are excellent breeding grounds for gnats and
mosquitoes so keep clear of those. You will encounter a lot more bugs if it is
a still night than if there is a breeze. If you do happen to have a fire the
smoke will help to keep the bugs at bay. If you can't escape the fact that
there will be bugs, make sure you are well prepared. Screens on tents need to
be zipped up at all times especially if there is a light on inside the tent,
bugs are drawn to a light. Long clothing and mosquito head nets are a better
solution than bug spray.
9. Is there a storm or strong winds likely?
You should have some idea of the weather forecast from your research you did before leaving home. I also have a barometer on my watch which lets me know if the air pressure is dropping rapidly. If it looks like a storm is likely try to find a sheltered spot. You don't want to camp under large trees in case there are strong winds. Trees can blow over or drop limbs and can be dangerous. You are better off camping on the leeward side of a hill to get out of the main force of the wind. Using cliffs or boulders as shelter can be better than using trees in strong wind. If you can find a grove of small trees or shrubs these make excellent wind breaks without the danger of falling limbs.
10. Is lightning a possibility?
If an electrical storm is possible you might encounter lightning nearby. You want to stay away from anything that might attract the lightning. Stay away from antennas, metal towers, and tall trees. I have seen large trees blown completely apart from lightning strikes and they can also be the cause of forest fires.
11. Is it likely to snow?
I love camping in the snow! As long as you are adequately prepared! The experience of waking up to a new snowfall is like nothing else. The silence during a snowstorm is magical. Don't be put off if it's likely to snow. If you are expecting a large snowfall make sure your access point back to civilisation is still clear and don't pitch your tent under branches that may break with the added weight of the snowfall. Evergreens are usually ok they will shed the snow naturally, but you don't want 100 pounds of snow toppling onto your tent at midnight either!
12. Is it likely to rain where I am staying tonight?
Rain is a very common occurrence when camping. It is only a matter of time and you will experience camping in the rain. Make sure your tent is pitched well. If it has an inner with an outer fly make sure the fly is pitched taut and not touching the inner. Don't pitch your tent in a depression or hollow as water will collect there. You want a base that is well drained and won't turn to mud. A base of pine needles are excellent as a ground cover. You also need to consider ground water. If you are on the side of a hill and it rains heavily the water will run down the side of the hill and onto your tent. Be aware of this and be prepared. You might want to make a small wall of rocks to divert any groundwater away from your tent. Just remember to put them back where you found them when you leave.
13. Is it likely to rain upstream of where I am?
This is something a lot of people miss. Sometimes flash floods can sweep through an area in a matter of minutes with no warning at all. This is especially true when you are canyoning or canyoneering. It might be a fine sunny day with no sign of rain where you are but 50 miles upstream they might have had a downpour a week ago. People have lost their lives in canyons where water levels can rise suddenly with nowhere to escape them. Be aware of what is upstream of you and do your research.
14. Are there any animal paths or tracks nearby?
Animals tend to follow paths of least resistance to get around. Especially grazing animals. They tend to come down to drink at rivers each day and are not expecting a tent to be in their way. If you are observant you will see where there are natural tracks. You might see tufts of fur on branches or scat on the ground and paw or hoof prints in the mud or dirt. This will give you clues as to who is around and what to look out for. Best to keep away from animal paths and also human trails as well.
15. Are the any insect nests nearby?
Insects can be problematic especially if you happen to camp near their nests. Bees, wasps or hornets nests are definitely something to avoid. Ants can also be dangerous. There are fire ants in USA and army ants in Africa. Here in Australia we have bull ants which can grow up to almost 2 inches long. They are highly aggressive when defending their nests and have a painful sting as well as large jaws capable of a nasty bite. If you want to see an 6'6 Australian man run stir up a bull ants nest next to him!
16. If you are camping under trees are they sound?
Even if there is no wind around it is good practice to look carefully at the trees you will be camping under. If they are dead trees or have dead limbs on them - often called widow makers - steer clear of them.
17. Is there any danger of falling rocks or avalanches?
It is not a good idea to camp too close to crumbling cliffs or shale which can be very loose. Similarly camping near glaciers or in avalanche prone areas is very dangerous. Best to keep right away from these areas unless you have no other choice. I once camped in a canyon bolted to the sheer cliff just inches away from the top of a waterfall as I had no other choice at the time. There was no danger here as the rock was sound and there was no danger of rising water as there was no rain in the catchment area at the time.
18. Is there a level spot that I can pitch my tent on to make it more comfortable?
If you camp on a slope, chances are you will be cursing your choice of location somewhere during the night. You will tend to roll towards the downhill side of your tent and you will end up touching the side of the tent, letting in moisture and probably soaking your sleeping bag as well. Not to mention if you are sharing the tent with anyone they will likely roll into the other side of you. It is a good idea to have a slight slope to your tent site for run off if it rains but you don't want it too steep. If you have no choice but to camp on a sloping site position your tent so that you sleep up and down the slope not across it so that you don't roll and with your head at the top.
19. Is there any poison oak, poison ivy or nettles around?
There are some plants that you need to avoid as well. Some will give you a nasty sting or rash. We even have stinging trees here in Australia, in fact the giant stinging tree is one of the biggest trees in the Australian rainforest. Blackberry thickets and Lawyer vines or "wait a while" are also common here. They are long vines with prickly stems that grow in profusion in the rainforest.
20. Will camping here have a negative impact on anyone else?
We all try to leave as little impact on the environment as possible. We leave no trace that we had ever been there when we leave, and don't damage the environment in any way while we are there. If there are other campers around try to keep the noise down and be considerate of others.
Can you think of any other suggestions I have missed? Please let me know in the comments!