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Five-star campsites || Part 2: Ideal features of camping zones


Campsite selection is a critical backpacking skill, nearly on par with navigation and fire-starting. In this four-post series and in the video embedded above, I share what I know.

  • Part 1: Importance, regulations, LNT considerations, planning, zones and spots
  • Part 2: Ideal features of camping zones
  • Part 3: Ideal features of camping spots, and tradeoff balancing 
  • Part 4: Four examples of classically bad camps

Recall from Part 1 that I assess backpacking campsites on two levels: zones and spots. The zone-level features of a five-star campsite never change. But spot-level features depend on whether I am sleeping on the ground or in a hammock. In this post I will discuss zone-level features.

Safety

This one should be obvious, but it’s worth repeating. Among others, be wary of campsites:

  • With standing dead trees, especially in windy conditions;
  • In the bottom of a canyon that can flash-flood, especially if rain is in the forecast or if storm clouds have been seen; and,
  • That are easily accessible by road and/or a short hike by (possibly belligerent) locals.

Perched

Cold air is denser than warm air. It acts like water on calm nights, flowing down drainages and settling into basins. Campsites at lake-level or in the bottoms of valleys and draws will be colder than higher camps nearby, by up to 10 degrees in my experience.

Such camps are not only colder, but they are also more vulnerable to condensation (and dew and frost). The dew point is more likely to be exceeded because the relative humidity is higher.

Heavy frost at Gray Jay Campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park. It sits in a deep glacier-carved valley, has no thermal cover, and a creek runs through it. On most nights of the year, it is a cold and wet location.

Heavy frost at Gray Jay Campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park. It sits in a deep glacier-carved valley, has no thermal cover, and a creek runs through it. On most nights of the year, it is a cold and wet location.

Distance from water

Water sources evaporate and increase the local humidity. This additional humidity further increases the risk of condensation in campsites located near water.

In addition, insects are most prolific around standing and running water, in which they hatch.

Thermal cover

By using a sleeping bag and sleeping pad, I minimize heat loss through convection and conduction, respectively. But I don’t stop there — I also try to minimize heat loss through radiation.

What’s radiation? In this specific context, radiation is heat given off by me and by the earth in the form of electromagnetic waves.

In campsites with good thermal cover — like a dense tree canopy — the radiant heat is reflected back at the ground. Low cloud cover has a similar effect. I stay warmer, and condensation is less likely.

Without thermal cover — like in an open meadow on a starry night — the radiant heat escapes into the stratosphere. In calm conditions, the temperature of an object (e.g. my tent fly) can actually drop below the ambient temperature because of the additional heat lost through radiation.

A camp among lodgepole pines in Yosemite. Notice the meadow just beyond the treeline -- lacking thermal cover, a campsite out there would be much colder.

A camp among lodgepole pines in Yosemite. Notice the meadow just beyond the treeline — lacking thermal cover, a campsite out there would be much colder.

Wind protection

A gentle breeze through camp is an asset: relatively dry air replaces the air inside my shelter, which is relatively humid (from respiration, perspiration, and drying equipment and groundwater). This lowers the risk of condensation. The breeze can also negate radiant heat loss, as it will re-warm objects to the ambient temperature.

But moderate winds (or stronger) are disruptive to sleep and will increase convective heat loss. Good campsites have natural wind protection, like heavy forest, thick brush, big boulders, or an earthen berm. I generally stay away from ridgetops, meadows, mesas, balds, and other areas that are exposed to the wind.

Peak bug season is the one exception to this rule. In that case, a stiff wind keeps the insects grounded.

Normally I would avoid a camp like this in Alaska's Yanert Fork valley: it had no wind protection or thermal cover. But in this case, a steady breeze kept grounded the mosquitoes, which were at their peak during our late-June trip.

Normally I would avoid a camp like this in Alaska’s Yanert Fork valley: it had no wind protection or thermal cover. But in this case, a steady breeze kept grounded the mosquitoes, which were at their peak during our late-June trip.

Low elevation

The temperature changes 3 to 5 degrees per every 1,000 vertical feet. Humid climates are at the low end of this range, and drier climates are at the high end. To find warmer camps, go downhill.

At lower camps, there is also more oxygen in the air. This helps with recovery and with combating altitude sickness.

At nearly 12,000 feet, this campsite near Copper Mine Pass on the Kings Canyon High Basin Route was probably 10 degrees colder than lower-elevation campsites in Cloud Canyon, not even factoring for radiant heat loss or wind exposure. Also, it would have exacerbated the symptoms of a a group member who was suffering from altitude sickness.

At nearly 12,000 feet, this campsite near Copper Mine Pass on the Kings Canyon High Basin Route was probably 10 degrees colder than lower-elevation campsites in Cloud Canyon, not even factoring for radiant heat loss or wind exposure. Also, it would have exacerbated the symptoms of a a group member who was suffering from altitude sickness.

Resources & amenities

It’s convenient to have water nearby, especially for extended camps. But it’s not a requirement, and it only takes a little bit of forethought to utilize a dry camp: How much water will I need for dinner, and in the morning before I reach my next water source?

Other noteworthy resources and amenities include firewood, bear boxes, fishing opportunities, and early morning light.

This campsite had everything. Water was a 5-minute walk away. The downed trees behind the existing fire pit supplied firewood. And the valley was east-facing, so we had early morning light.

This campsite had everything. Water was a 5-minute walk away. The downed trees behind the existing fire pit supplied firewood. And the valley was east-facing, so we had early morning light.

Scavenger-free

High-use campsites are a reliable source of calories for bears and “mini-bears,” like mice, squirrels, raccoons, marmots, and gray jays. They become “trained” to visit or take up residence in such sites, just as they would a berry patch.

I avoid high-use camps for many reasons. One of the biggest is to have a night of rest that is not interrupted by mice scurrying outside my tent or by a bear playing soccer with my food canister.

This cute-looking snowshoe hare chewed my trekking pole grips and the brim of my visor while I was sleeping, presumably for the salt. Such "mini bears" are common at high-use and designated campsites, like Red Eagle Lake Campsite in Glacier National Park.

This cute-looking snowshoe hare chewed my trekking pole grips and the brim of my visor while I was sleeping, presumably for the salt. Such “mini bears” are common at high-use and designated campsites, like Red Eagle Lake Campsite in Glacier National Park.

Privacy

As a new backpacker, I intentionally used popular campsites so that I would have company, which made me feel more comfortable. Now, I would much rather sleep in a private and secluded camp, where I will not:

  • Encounter trash-filled fire pits;
  • Find Charmin blooms around the outskirts of camp, or toilet paper under every rock;
  • Be kept awake by talking, snoring, or midnight uses of the bathroom by other backpackers; and,
  • Have to sleep on a hard-packed surface that is uncomfortable and cold, and that pools rainwater.
Popular campsites offer community and security, but I don't enjoy the accompanying noise, trash, toilet paper, hard-packed campsites, and rodents.

Popular campsites offer community and security, but I don’t enjoy the accompanying noise, trash, toilet paper, hard-packed campsites, and rodents.

Aesthetics

A true five-star campsite will have superb aesthetics: an expansive view, old growth trees, bugling elk, white noise from a nearby waterfall, etc. But this is usually the first feature that I’m willing to compromise, as it has little effect on my sleep quality.

A room with a view. Gore Range, Colorado.

A room with a view. Gore Range, Colorado.

7 Responses to Five-star campsites || Part 2: Ideal features of camping zones

  1. Rich Drogpa September 17, 2016 at 12:42 pm #

    Hahaha… That hare pic reminds me of an incident when a bunch of marmots chewed through my sneakers while on my John Muir Trail thru-hike long time ago… Great memories, thx;)

  2. Emily September 17, 2016 at 1:15 pm #

    Thank you for doing this series, it has been very informative and I am looking forward to learning more! In theory, I already knew a little about site selection but I usually find my camp lacking. My big problem: I often end up in popular campsites because that’s all I can find. When you are hiking on a trail, are your five-star sites usually near the trail, or do you leave the trail to look around? Using maps, intuition, or both? And, uh, how far away from the trail? I suspect I need to get better at identifying promising zones on a map and then going a bit off trail to look at them – is that what you do? Thanks again 🙂

    • Andrew Skurka September 19, 2016 at 9:40 am #

      I added a topographic map to the Introduction to this series, so that you can better understand how I would evaluate camping zones. http://andrewskurka.com/2016/five-star-campsites-part-1-introduction/

      Without detailed maps (e.g. USGS 7.5-min maps), it’s difficult to identify off-the-beaten-path camping areas. To find good camping zones on these maps, you need to develop your map-reading skills, which can only be done with practice.

      It helps to be familiar with the area, or at least areas nearby, so that you can extrapolate past observations onto unknown terrain. For example, I know that in the Indian Peaks Wilderness (which is in my backyard) that a deep east-west valley in the 9,000-foot range is going to be host a thick spruce/fir forest, probably too thick to find a camp. Instead, I would look for the edge of a meadow or a south-facing aspect, where the sun can better penetrate and dry things out, which will keep the forest more open.

      • Ryan November 10, 2016 at 10:01 pm #

        Hi Andrew, awesome series and awesome blog. I am in the exact same boat as Emily—in the past, I’ve read some of the general tips that you describe in this series, but in practice I have very little idea how to look at a topo map and identify good campsites. On one of my last trips I was determined to find something good on my own, and kept looking and looking and finding absolutely nothing as darkness approached. Then right when it got dark I found the absolute perfect 5-star campsite. That was luck more than anything, but the experience really makes me want to learn the skills to do that more consistently. Just as a suggestion, perhaps you could write a more detailed entire blog post with your thought process that you go through when you look at a topo map and note potential campsites? You gave some good pointers in this series, but I still definitely don’t feel equipped to look at a topo map and identify points the way you do (other than looking for spots that are fairly flat below treeline).

        • Andrew Skurka November 11, 2016 at 2:43 pm #

          You have echo’d a content suggestion I have heard before. I’ll write it down on my list of prospective subjects. Sounds like it would be valuable, but I need some time to think about how to approach it — I could create a 10-example post just on the Colorado Front Range, so creating something that is relevant to other regions (while being practical to write) may be a tall order.

  3. MarkL September 20, 2016 at 2:44 pm #

    In Western Washington the limiting factor, unless you are in the high alpine, is the vegetation. Going off-trail can be an absolutely miserable thrash and if you sleep on the ground you aren’t likely to find a clear enough piece of ground anyway. The topography is also a lot of very steep valleys with little in the way of flat areas.

    East of the Cascade Crest, however, is much more forgiving, with the bonus that it is significantly drier (but colder).

  4. Jean May 30, 2017 at 6:38 am #

    Excellent series of posts.

    I mitigate the need for water and the scavenger problem by eating at a watered site, then moving on for about an hour before bedtime. This obviously requires planning. I’ve never really used the topo for this purpose – but will start.

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