Backpacking Basics: Picking a Campsite

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Lately, it seems like I’ve been inundated with pictures on Instagram of girls in tents, perched on an exposed ridgeline, looking out over a majestic mountain range right at sunrise. While these pictures are, no doubt, absolutely beautiful, every time I see one, I think to myself, “There is literally no way that they actually camped there.”

Now, I know that there has been a TON of talk on social media about the dangers of posting the “perfect picture,” for your thousands of followers to attempt to recreate.  And while I disagree with a lot of the discourse around the topic (I personally have enough faith in humanity to believe that the majority of people aren’t going to recreate a dangerous situation or violate the Leave No Trace principles solely for the purpose of getting a good picture), I do actually think that these campsite pictures create a false expectation of the perfect campsite, which can get a beginner backpacker into actual trouble.  While beautiful, campsites along exposed ridgelines or above the treeline can place campers in precarious situations. In reality, the campsites that afford the most expansive and beautiful views are, frankly, infeasible and unsafe. Let’s be real – the perfect campsites aren’t instagrammable.

That being said, I thought I would put together a list of the most important things that I look for in picking a campsite, in the hopes that some beginner backpackers would have a more realistic expectation of a good campsite when going into the backcountry.

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One of the best things that was instilled in me as a young backpacker was to always take your time looking for a good campsite.  It sucks, I know. The thought of FINALLY getting to your destination, only to have to continue to hike around looking for a good spot instead of taking off your hiking boots and cracking open a cold beer that you lugged all the way up here – it really, really sucks. But trust me when I say, it is completely worth it.

The first thing that I look for when choosing a campsite is relative seclusion.  Do yourself and your fellow hikers a favor and get off the beaten path! Once you get to your overnight destination, drop your pack near the trail and go exploring! I always leave my pack behind – no use lugging it around when it might take you awhile and a bit of backtracking to find a spot. Look for use-trails or bunches of trees to get you started. No joke, I tend to usually take about 20 minutes to find a good spot – you won’t regret taking your time once you’ve come upon your campsite.  My personal motto is – the further away from the trail, the better!

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One of the most important things to keep in mind when scouting out a campsite is to look for an area that has already been established as a campsite.  Picking out a previously impacted spot is relatively easy to spot – look for shaded and flat areas, usually surrounded by trees. Avoid pitching your tent on top of plants and meadows – look for bare ground!

Quick tip: If you arrive at a seemingly perfect, previously-impacted campsite, but there are a few buried rocks sticking out of the area in which the tent would lie perfectly in, move on to the next site.  The rocks are placed there intentionally by the forest service and trail crews to deter overuse from campers trying to camp at that location. The rocks are intentionally buried like icebergs so that they cannot be easily removed.  If you happen upon this, just move onto the next site – I promise, there will be more!

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The next thing that I look for in a good campsite is adequate tree coverage.  Weather in high mountain ranges tends to be extremely unpredictable. I don’t care which mountain range or state you’re in – you (or your tent!) don’t want to be caught as the tallest thing around in a thunder and lightning storm. Make sure to place your tent underneath a few tall trees if feasible, and enjoy the protection that they offer!

As you are scoping out spots under trees, however, be sure that the immediate area above your tent is free from any dead trees.  I’m sure there are plenty of different terms for dead trees, but I was taught to have your campsite free of snags (stand-alone dead trees) or widow-makers (trees that have begun to fall, but have gotten caught on another tree or boulder, etc.).  Both of these kinds of dead trees are subject to fall at any moment, and you want to make sure that your tent is nowhere near any line of fall. During my most recent trip to Big Pine Lakes, the wind picked up in the middle of the night, swirling in 30-40 mph gusts around us.  It’s times like these that remind me just how important it is to make sure that there are no dead trees anywhere around your site!

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While you want to be close to a water source, be sure to camp at least 200 feet from it.  This will greatly reduce the amount of human impact that will make itself into the water. Recently, the forest service has been advocating for camping only 100 feet from water, but as a rule, I always make sure to be at least 200 feet. Might as well reduce our impact even more if we can feasibly do so!

Once you’ve picked your spot, establish a kitchen at least 200 feet from your tent.  Wildlife tend to be attracted to the scents and smells that you produce while you cook, so, as a general rule, keep that stuff away from where you’ll be sleeping!

Well, there you have it, folks! The things that I prioritize when I look for a campsite in the backcountry.  I guess I should end on this note – while these are the things that I prioritize and look for while searching for a campsite, I’m sure there are plenty of other words of advice that you can take heed of.  I would consider myself quite experienced in backpacking, but in no way am I the perfect backpacker.  If you have more tips and tricks that would be helpful for a beginner backpacker, feel free to leave them in the comments below!

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Happy trails!

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