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.
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;)
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 🙂
I added a topographic map to the Introduction to this series, so that you can better understand how I would evaluate camping zones. https://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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
In my experience, I often find it convenient to create the option to dry camp. That makes it more likely that I’ll locate a virgin or low use campsite, with fewer bugs (because I’m camped far from water). Filling my Platypus with 2 or 3 liters an hour or so before my anticipated stop time is the key.
Hi Andrew, thanks again for this great post. Like the comments from Emily and Ryan above, I find it often difficult to find a great spot “in advance”. It’s not so much a problem of map reading (although I can still improve here), but it’s mainly a problem of how to estimate distance in time (particularly in elevated terrains). If I do find a good spot on the map, I often can’t accurately gauge how long it will take to get there (especially in areas where I hike which are not flat). To compound matters, I want to time the camping to around 1 hour before sunset to maximize my hiking but still set up in daylight. Sometimes I run across incredible sites but decide it’s not worth to take them because it’s too early yet to set up camp (only to regret them later when nothing better comes up my way). Walking and setting up camp at night is not my cup of tea. Any ideas/suggestions on this issue would be welcomed (thanks again).
Sounds like you just need a better sense for pacing.
Try dead-reckoning, https://andrewskurka.com/2017/tutorial-dead-reckoning-navigation-hiking/
That works well on horizontal or rolling terrain. But when it gets steep, it’s difficult to maintain the same walking speed, so you need to make an adjustment. A good rule of thumb is add 20 minutes per 1,000 vertical feet of gain. Or, if it’s just really steep, think about it in terms of vertical speed. Some reading on that, https://andrewskurka.com/2018/high-route-time-days-management-vertical/. Read the section on “2. Vertical change per distance.”