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Five-star campsites || Part 3: Ideal features of camping spots, plus Tradeoffs


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

In Part 2 of this series I discussed the ideal features of a camping zone, which is a general area like a creek valley or lake basin. For example, I seek out locations that will be forested and that aren’t in the bottom of a drainage.

Once I have arrived in a camping zone, I must select a specific camping spot to set up my shelter. The ideal features of a camping spot differ, depending on whether I am sleeping on the ground or in a hammock.

Ideal camping spots for tents and tarps

An ideal ground spot is:

  • Flat,
  • Level, and
  • Soft

If you have done any home improvement, you probably already understand the difference between flat and level. A ground campsite needs to be both.

The one exception is a site that perfectly matches my preferred sleeping position. As a back sleeper, I like an incline for my head, a divot for my butt, and a concavity for the backs of my knees. Imagine the profile of a reclining chair or an adjustable bed.

Soft ground may consist of forest duff, grass, or sand. Please be considerate of durable surfaces, and avoid fragile ground cover like cryptobiotic soil, moss, and alpine tundra.

Tom Turiano giggles at this camp's goodness. It was flat, level, and amazingly soft. But it was not a durable surface, and I would not have camped here if we'd been in a high-use area. We were not, however -- we were deep in the Alaska Range, way off-trail. There were few other options, anyway.

Tom Turiano giggles at this camp’s goodness. It was flat, level, and amazingly soft. But it was not a durable surface, and I would not have camped here if we’d been in a high-use area. We were not, however — we were deep in the Alaska Range, way off-trail. There were few other options, anyway.

Soft campsites are more comfortable, which diminishes the need for a thick and heavy sleeping pad. There are other perks, too; soft camps are also:

  • Warmer, because the ground has less thermal mass to conduct heat away from me; and,
  • Less likely to pool rainwater, because the ground surface is more porous.
An ideal camp in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. Flat, level, and soft. And a durable surface of lodgepole pine needles. This was a dry campsite out of view of the trail.

An ideal camp in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. Flat, level, and soft. And a durable surface of lodgepole pine needles. This was a dry campsite out of view of the trail.

Ideal camping spots for hammocks

A good hammock spot is easier to find in many parts of the country, especially the Appalachians. I need:

  • Two solid anchors (e.g. trees) about five stride lengths apart; and,
  • A vacant corridor wide enough for my tarp.

I prefer to sleep over an area where it is easy to walk (e.g. free of standing water and blowdowns) but that does not necessarily need to be the case.

Anchored to a bomber spruce and sub-alpine fir in the Indian Peaks, in an established campsite.

Anchored to a bomber spruce and sub-alpine fir in the Indian Peaks, in an established campsite.

Compromises and tradeoffs

It’s rare to find a camping zone and camping spot with every ideal feature. Usually, some level of compromise is necessary. For example, the effort to descend to timberline may be onerous or exceptionally off-route, or the last decent camping opportunity before a pass (which I’d prefer to do in the morning, when I’m fresh) may be near a low-lying lake.

Furthermore, features of five-star campsites can sometimes be in conflict or mutually exclusive. For example, I have often sacrificed my camp’s aesthetic value by hunkering down in the timber, where I have less visibility but better thermal cover and wind protection.

To determine what I can or cannot compromise, I primarily consider my most urgent needs. A few examples:

  • If I’m struggling with the altitude (e.g. headache, throwing up, labored breathing), descending is the topmost priority.
  • If I’m concerned that the warmth of my sleeping system is near its limits, finding a relatively warm campsite will be my chief concern.
  • If I’m leading a Type 1 Fun (“fun to do now, fun to talk about later”) group trip in the fall, when the days are short, I will find a campsite with ample firewood.
This popular camping area at the base of Wyoming's Gannet Peak offered no thermal cover or wind protection; and rodents survive on crumbs dropped by backpackers and climbers. But Dave E. stayed here anyway because the wind was mild, the temperatures were well within the warmth of his sleep system, and it was the last good camping spot for several miles to the north on the Wind River High Route.

This popular camping area at the base of Wyoming’s Gannet Peak offered no thermal cover or wind protection; and rodents survive on crumbs dropped by backpackers and climbers. But Dave E. stayed here anyway because the wind was mild, the temperatures were well within the warmth of his sleep system, and it was the last good camping spot for several miles to the north on the Wind River High Route.

2 Responses to Five-star campsites || Part 3: Ideal features of camping spots, plus Tradeoffs

  1. Nathan September 23, 2016 at 7:04 pm #

    Speaking of firewood: How do you keep camp fires from burning holes in your synthetic clothing? This summer, I swear I looked away for a second and I had a big hole in the front of my shirt!

    • Andrew Skurka September 23, 2016 at 7:26 pm #

      Higher quality wood will spark less, as will a smaller fire. Otherwise, it’s part of the territory.

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