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
Campsites are not created equal. Where possible, I seek out locations that are relatively warm, dry, private, aesthetic, and free of bugs, rodents, and bears — “five-star campsites,” I call them. A high quality campsite makes a difference:
- It is more conducive to a night of quality sleep, and
- It enhances my backcountry experience.
Sadly, I see many backpackers who lazily choose their campsites and/or who cannot differentiate good campsites from bad. They select sites that are cold, prone to pooling rainwater, at risk of heavy condensation, intruded upon by other campers, and home to copious mosquitoes and four-legged scavengers.
Some backpackers try to offset poor campsites with their equipment. They sleep in double-wall tents, so that they are protected from condensation by the inner body. They cozy up in synthetic-insulated sleeping bags, so their warmth is not as compromised by moisture. And they carry plush and excessively warm sleeping pads, so that they can sleep comfortably on any surface.
Personally, I prefer to simply find better camps.
Regulations and LNT
Camping wherever I please is not permitted on all public lands. Especially in high-use areas like Yellowstone National Park, many land managers concentrate and cap backcountry use by requiring that backpackers stay in designated campsites.
While I’ve never found a designated site that earns a five-star ranking, I try to make the best of it. There is a range of quality, both between and within camping areas. For example, in Rocky Mountain National Park, Sandbeach Lake is a better site than Gray Jay; and at Caribou Lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, site #6 is better than site #2. Among what is available and compatible with my itinerary, I take my pick of the litter.
When at-large camping is permitted, I prefer to use virgin campsites (or very lightly used ones) and stay away from popular areas. But this is not always appropriate, or consistent with Leave No Trace (LNT) guidelines. Specifically, when I’m backpacking with a group or when I’m planning an extended camp, I try to limit my impact by using established sites (if available), rather than creating new ones.
One of my evening in-camp rituals is formulating a plan — with a varying level of specificity — for the following day, and perhaps a day or two beyond as well. When I leave camp in the morning, normally I already have identified several areas where I may sleep that night.
These prospects are based on expected mileage (or vertical, for routes with extreme up and down) and on what seems most promising. My plans are informed by my datasheets, topographic maps, guidebooks, and/or what I have learned from other backpackers.
Detailed maps are critical in finding good campsites. In the US, I recommend the USGS 7.5-minute series, as shown in the screenshot below. (Read more: Essential backpacking topo maps.) They depict the topographic relief and the vegetation with more precision than small-scaled recreation maps like the National Geographic Trails Illustrated series.
As the day progresses, my options narrow. For example, I project my ETA at Prospect A to be too early, and at Prospect C too late. But I’m on perfect pace for Prospect B.
Zone- and spot-level selection, and shelter types
It’s useful to evaluate campsites on two levels: zone and spot. (I have referred to them as macro and micro, too.)
- A camping zone is a general area, like a ridge or a canyon.
- A spot is the exact location where I pitch my shelter.
The respective quality of zones and spots is important, but ultimately a quality spot is more important than a quality zone. I can still sleep decently on a breezy ridge, but not in an inch-deep puddle.
Regardless of whether I am sleeping on the ground (under a tent or tarp) or between two trees (in a hammock), the characteristics of a high quality zone are the same. For example, in both cases I want to avoid the bottom of drainages, where the air is relatively cold and humid.
But my perception of a high quality spot changes with my shelter. For example, as a ground sleeper I must find a root-free footprint, whereas in a hammock I can hang over a briar patch if I care to.