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Five-star campsites || Part 4: Four examples of classically bad campsites


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 the previous two posts I discussed the ideal features of backpacking campsites, on both a zone- and spot-level. There are many of them, probably too many to remember.

So in this final installment I will discuss four classically bad campsites. Despite having multiple and severe problems, I regularly see backpackers camping in these types of locations. If you avoid them, you will not necessarily find yourself in a five-star campsite, but probably something closer to one.

1. Appalachian Trail shelters

During my Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2002, I stayed at many trailside shelters, either inside the shelter or camped just outside. I enjoyed the company, and they were extremely convenient during downpours.

Cold Spring Shelter, May 2002. During downpours, the AT shelters are a blessing. Otherwise, I stay away.

Cold Spring Shelter, May 2002. During downpours, the AT shelters are a blessing. Otherwise, I stay away.

When I have jumped on the Appalachian Trail in more recent years, however, I avoid these campsites like the plague, due to:

  • Fearless rodents,
  • Abundant snoring and smells,
  • Unsanitary privies, and
  • Hard, cold, and non-porous ground sites that are seldom flat and level.

To find five-star campsites on the Appalachian Trail, it is perhaps essential to use a hammock. Nearly every viable camping spot for a ground shelter on the AT is heavily impacted.

2. High-use camps on the John Muir Trail

Traffic on the JMT has exploded in recent years. It may be “America’s Most Beautiful Trail,” but its most popular campsites inspire me to sleep elsewhere along the corridor — or to backpack in entirely different parts of the High Sierra. Problems:

  • Often close to water, and often located in deep lake basins and canyons,
  • Not private,
  • Discarded trash in fire pits, and toilet paper under too many rocks,
  • Home to mini-bears, and frequented by black bears, and,
  • Hard, cold, and non-porous ground sites.
A black bear in Bubbs Creek, a few miles downhill from the John Muir Trail. I'm sure that he or she knows where all the high-use camps are in this area, and frequents them in the hopes of finding crumbs, buried leftovers, or an open canister.

A black bear in Bubbs Creek, a few miles downhill from the John Muir Trail. I’m sure that he or she knows where all the high-use camps are in this area, and frequents them in the hopes of finding crumbs, buried leftovers, or an open canister.

3. Alpine

Above the timberline, the aesthetics are often five-star. Alpine camps are usually private, too, but for good reason:

  • Unsafe during thunderstorms,
  • Exposed to high winds,
  • No thermal cover, and thus vulnerable to significant radiant heat loss on calm and cloudless nights,
  • Less oxygen, and,
  • Often bumpy and rocky.
One of my dumbest camps ever, in the Indian Peaks. The krumholtz trees were too neat to pass up, though.

One of my dumbest camps ever, in the Indian Peaks. The krumholtz trees were too neat to pass up, though.

4. Meadows

A flat and grassy opening, perhaps with a view, may seem like a good campsite. It’s not:

  • Cold and wet,
  • A breeding ground for mosquitoes and black flies,
  • Very vulnerable to condensation due to high humidity, relatively cold temperatures, and lack of thermal cover, and,
  • Not a durable surface.

Not convinced? On your next trip, camp in the timber nearby, and visit the meadow in the morning to observe the differences in temperature and humidity. If it was a calm and cloudless night, they likely will be drastic.

Heavy frost coats a meadow in Yosemite's Emeric Creek valley. We camped in timber nearby, about 50 vertical feet higher than the creek. We experienced no dew, and temperatures remained above freezing.

Heavy frost coats a meadow in Yosemite’s Emeric Creek valley. We camped in timber nearby, about 50 vertical feet higher than the creek. We experienced no dew, and temperatures remained above freezing.

4 Responses to Five-star campsites || Part 4: Four examples of classically bad campsites

  1. Robin September 19, 2016 at 1:58 pm #

    Thanks Andrew, this has been great. I have learned a lot and am left reexamining some assumptions and habits.

    I have two sleeping bags, a 15 degree and a 30 degree, and the 30 degree is new. It’s more than a pound lighter, and it packs much smaller allowing me to bring a smaller pack, but in the high sierra I can wake up cold even though I sleep in a down jacket. One thing this post taught me is ways to potentially use this ligher bag more of the time.

    I look forward to seeing how this article changes my perceptions and choices over time.

    I am still left thinking of my trip into Lake Basin, Dumbell Lakes Basin, and Ampitheater Basin…Findig a site like you describe would have really become the focus of my trip and would have involved lots of compromise.

    • Andrew Skurka September 19, 2016 at 2:55 pm #

      I know well the areas you mentioned, since they are all on the Kings Canyon High Basin Route. I have found plenty of decent camps in there. However, they are not abundant, and you need to work your itinerary around them. If you’re not willing to do that, then you need to carry more equipment (e.g. warmer bag and pad, full-sided shelter) so that you can sleep well in a less friendly campsite.

      I’ve camped in Lake Basin a few times. There may be a few other good sites around, but there aren’t many.

      Camps in Lake Basin

      Dumbbell is harder, and I’ve never been forced to camp here thankfully. There are many good flat, level, and soft spots, but thermal cover is hard to come by. It’s mostly willow up that high, and willow = wet in the High Sierra, so you generally want to stay away from it.

      Dumbbell Lakes Basin

      Finally, Cataract. Amphitheater Lake is austere, but there is okay camping further down.

      Cataract Creek

  2. richard September 20, 2016 at 4:53 am #

    what is a mini-bear?

    • Andrew Skurka September 20, 2016 at 6:37 am #

      Mice, squirrels, raccoons, marmots, gray jays, etc. Basically a bunch of camp robbers that do not pose the danger that a bear does but that can bust into food just as well.

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