2020 – A Decade of Lessons Learned . . . Campsite Selection


Lessons Learned:

  1. Weather conditions should be a primary consideration.
  2. Views with a flat sleeping surface are my highest priorities.
  3. Being near water isn’t necessary.
  4. Condensation sucks.
  5. Campfires are overrated.

I rarely plan my campsites in advance preferring to hike until I’m tired or until I find an amazing view or setting. As the afternoon grows long I’ll start looking at my maps. This is where learning to read topography lines helps, although they only tell part of the story. Reality may mean rocky or wet terrain, or you might find a bunch of down trees or widowmakers from recent fires. There might be a lake but it might be surrounded by willows making access nearly impossible. Of course there is always the possibility you might find fresh bear scat or a bunch of other humans. Since I rarely use campgrounds or stay in areas requiring permits, my tips are primarily for dispersed or wild camping.

Severe Weather:

  1. Wind
    • Hide in the trees to minimize direct gusts (avoid widowmakers)
    • Position your shelter with narrow end into wind
    • Avoid sandy areas or you might get sandblasted
    • Secure tent with stakes prior to erecting
    • Reinforce stakes with rock weights
    • Use extra guylines
    • Pack earplugs if you’re a light sleeper
  2. Rain
    • Avoid low spots where rain might puddle under your tent
    • Consider semi-open areas or you might hear drip drip drip from the trees all night
    • Usually rain is accompanied by wind
    • Pack earplugs if you’re a light sleeper
    • For multiple days of rain while backpacking
      • Add a polycro sheet to line inside of tent as many tents will wet through even with ground cloth
      • Add a plastic garbage bag to keep wet stuff separated from dry stuff
      • Add kitchen gloves to wear over your regular gloves
      • Consider a rain poncho
  3. Cold
    • Avoid damp areas near creeks and meadows as they tend to be chillier
    • Pay attention when hiking toward end of day as you may feel temperature drop zones
    • Sheltered campsites are better to minimize wind chill
  4. Lightning
    • Avoid areas where you are the tallest object or where you are near the tallest object.
    • Avoid being on surfaces such as granite where lightning radiates rather than absorbs.
    • Most likely you’ll experience rain and wind with the lightning.
    • Try to find a dry surface to camp on as water conducts electricity.

Condensation:

You can minimize condensation by

  • selecting a campsite that isn’t damp or near wet meadows
  • encouraging ventilation by finding a little breeze and leaving doors open

I prefer sleeping without my rainfly so I prioritize finding locations that are less likely to generate condensation.

Ground Surface:

An air mattress can temper ground imperfections, but slope can interrupt sleep.

  • Lie on your tent or ground sheet prior prior to erecting your tent to determine if ground is sufficiently flat (I need my head higher than my legs).
  • If the door needs to face a particular direction consider sleeping on the opposite end if that’s how the ground slants.
  • If your mattress is sliding around inside your tent consider adding a few drops of tent sealer to the bottom of the air mattress or a few stripes on the floor. Sleeping at an angle helps at times.

Dry Camping:

The group I started backpacking with were destination campers. Usually the goal was to camp near a lake or creek which makes for easy water collection and camp cleanup. Having water nearby also makes it easier to follow campfire rules.

When I started long distance hiking, I found the joy of hiking until I was tired and then finding a place to set up camp. It was great not having to reach a particular destination. I just needed to be aware of water sources and collect adequate water for the night and morning.

Spending time in areas with limited water made it evident animals would be nocturnal visitors to those sources, making these areas less safe and noisier. Another benefit of camping away from water is fewer bugs.

I’ve also learned over time I prefer quiet campsites, free of loud water sounds like those made by crashing waves or raging waterfalls. Trickling streams or soft creeks add white noise, but for the more gregarious I need my earplugs.

Compromise:

  • I give up views frequently when I’m long distance hiking as I can’t plan for premier campsites.
  • Group camping dictates use of previous campsites to ensure LNT whereas when solo camping provides a lot more options.
  • Companions may have different preferences. For example if you’re hiking with a hammock user or someone with a large tent footprint, your priorities may become secondary.
  • When solo, I might spend an hour looking for the perfect campsite whereas I’d never subject a companion to such craziness.

Leave No Trace Principles (link):

“Selecting an appropriate campsite is perhaps the most important aspect of low-impact backcountry use. It requires the greatest degree of judgment and information, and often involves making trade-offs between minimizing ecological and social impacts. A decision about where to camp should be based on information about the level and type of use in the area, the fragility of vegetation and soil, the likelihood of wildlife disturbance, an assessment of previous impacts, and your party’s potential to cause or avoid impact.”

Links:

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