5 Tips to Help You Choose a Perfect Campsite Every Time

You can set a freestanding tent up almost anywhere, but if you’ve recently made the move to an ultralight shelter, you’ll find that they’re a lot less forgiving of poor campsite choice. It’s common sense to set up in a flat spot free from rocks and roots, but there are other factors to consider if you want to consistently choose a perfect campsite. Wind, water, and trees can all make or break your night. These tips will help you set up in the best spot possible, no matter what type of shelter you use or what the weather is doing.

The Basics

Unless it’s your first camping trip ever, you already know to find a flat place to pitch without roots, rocks, or other obstacles. You probably already know to think about the weather too. You can camp in the most exposed spot in the world on a sunny, calm day. However, if it’s wet, cold, or windy, you’ll need a more sheltered spot. You should also remember to observe Leave No Trace principles. If you need a reminder, traveling and camping on durable surfaces is principle number two. This means if you’re in a high use area, use an established camp spot. If you are in an area without established spots, try to minimize your impact on vegetation and stick to rock, gravel, and sand as much as possible. 

Ready to move beyond the basics? The five tips below will help you out.

choose a perfect campsite

No worries about water at this campsite in Algonquin Provincial Park, but the bugs were ferocious.

1. Think about water sources.

This depends on where in the world you are camping. If you’re in the middle of one of the PCT’s infamous dry stretches, you’ll want to camp as close to a water source as possible to minimize heavy H2O carries. (Remember to camp at least 200ft away from water in the interest of Leave No Trace ). However, camping next to water isn’t always feasible. Dry camping is a fact of life on many long-distance trails where water is scarce. Pro tip: if you camp shortly after filling up at a a water source (rather than directly at the source), you won’t have to carry the water you’ll need overnight very far, but you can still cut into your mileage for the next day.

Conversely, if you’re camping somewhere with a healthy mosquito population, you should camp as far away from water as possible. Unless, of course, you want to spend your entire evening hiding from bugs. This tip is particularly relevant if you use a tarp or mid shelter without a bug net. Mosquitos hatch from water, and while there’s no guarantee that you won’t still be eaten alive at a dry camp, there will be fewer bugs. 

2. Don’t wake up in a puddle.

Even if your shelter has a watertight bathtub floor, you should figure out where water is going to go if it rains. Stay away from depressions where water can pool underneath you. If you are in an area where flash floods are common, stay out of danger zones. Look for channels in sloping ground to see where water normally runs so you can avoid it being funneled into your tent. If your shelter allows the rain to splash off the ground underneath the fly, choose a surface that minimizes this (for example, pine needles create less splashback than mud). If you wake up in the middle of the night to rain splashing or running inside your shelter, try scraping a trench around your shelter with your poop trowel or trekking pole to divert the water (just remember to fill it back in the morning). 

choose a perfect campsite

This PCT campsite was in the first patch of trees after Forester Pass.

3. Trees are your friend.

Trees are great. They shelter you from the wind and sun. You can tie tarps to them. You’ll get less condensation sleeping under a tree than in the middle of an open field. You can hang food from their branches. They keep you safer if a thunderstorm rolls in. If the weather’s bad, and camping below treeline is an option, you should find a nice little grove to set up in.

If there aren’t any trees, you can still find sheltered spots. Even a small bush is an effective windbreak. Boulders and rocks can shelter you too. You can also find shelter by dropping off of ridgelines and using terrain features like dips and hollows in hillsides.

Spot all the blowdowns around this campsite on the PCT in Oregon. Photo courtesy Steve Harvey.

4. Watch for murder trees.

Trees are your friend… until they try to kill you. My tramily not-so-affectionately calls those dead snags leaning over your campsite “murder trees,” but you might know them as widowmakers. Even if they don’t topple over onto your tent in the middle of the night, the constant creaking and worry about every gust of wind will ensure that you don’t sleep. Look up before you pitch your shelter and make sure you stay far away from standing dead trees. 

Small shrubs were the only shelter from the wind on some parts of the CDT.

5. Don’t get blown away.

My tarp is my favorite shelter, but I’ve spent more than one night with it wrapped around me like a burrito because the wind kept knocking it down. Picking a sheltered spot can help with this, but you should also keep wind direction in mind when setting up. Hiding your shelter behind a tree only helps if you set up on the leeward side. Many ultralight shelters also have a specific side that you should set up facing the wind. This is normally the more steeply angled, shorter side. If you use a tarp, set it up close to the group and steeply angled to shed the wind better. 

You can use the wind to your advantage, too. Mosquitoes hate wind, and you can find relief from them by camping in an exposed spot. As long as you make sure the weather is favorable, you can camp in a spot with a decent breeze. Wind also helps to reduce condensation if you’re camping somewhere without tree cover.

Campsite choice is important for any tent, but especially ultralight shelters. If you follow the above tips, you can get a good night’s sleep no matter what type of shelter you use.

Featured image: Graphic design by Sophie Gerry.

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Comments 1

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    Sam : Nov 4th

    Good article, thanks for the tips!

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