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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.