How to choose a Campsite
When it comes to choosing a spot to camp, more often than not it’s usually a pretty straight forward ordeal. However, depending on where and when you are, there can sometimes be a list of factors to consider before you lay your head down for the night. There is a lot which can play into your decision when choosing a campsite, and much of it will rely on your instinct, tolerances, and current situations. This information alone won’t tell you how to make the best choice for every situation, but it will arm you with the knowledge to apply it to any unique circumstances you may find yourself in…
Availability of Water
Generally, the first thing you’re going to consider when choosing a spot to camp is the availability of water. If weather or any other emergency type factors aren’t in the equation, then water will be your first consideration. When it comes to this first consideration, there are three sub-considerations.
Firstly; decide if you plan to camp next to a water source, or if any of the water sources even have viable camping near them. If you get this figured out satisfactorily, then the other two considerations are obsolete.
Secondly; if you plan to not camp near a water source or if the water sources do not have viable camping near them, then you need to take inventory of the water you do have. This means “cameling up” (drinking lots of water, as well as procuring close to, or the maximum amount of water you can carry) at the next source you come to and rationing appropriately. If you’re simply too tired or unable to make it to the next water source, then you need to ration what you already have in preparation of dry camping. This means you might have to forgo cooking with water or cleaning your dishes; depending on how much water you have left, as well as how far it is to the next water source in the morning.
Thirdly; if you’re planning on dry camping away from water after cameling up, or even without having had the opportunity to camel up; you need to be aware of where the next water source is and choose a camp spot that will put you in an advantageous position for the next day. If this means pushing yourself a little further at the end of the day so that your next source is only five miles away instead of ten…do it. Sometimes fatigue can inspire poor decisions that leave you in a worse predicament with deteriorating conditions as time goes on. You should never camp away from water without knowing at least where the next water is going to be. Sometimes you can’t know where the next water is going to be due to the unpredictability of a “dry season.” In cases such as this, always treat every upcoming water source as having the potential to be dry. Ration your water accordingly until you get official word or find out for yourself what the water situation ahead looks like. This way you don’t leave yourself high and dry by accident, possibly putting yourself or others in a dangerous situation. It happens all the time.
I’ll conclude this section by saying that water needs to be at the forefront of your mind in nearly every camping decision. Sometimes you’re in locations where it’s simply not a factor, but the first time you let yourself get lax in your water knowledge, you could end up without it for longer than you’d like; leading to a plethora of potential problems. If conditions may be frozen or snowy, then make sure you have the means to melt snow or ice. Stay water conscious at all times!
The next most important factor when choosing a camp spot is weather. Depending on how severe or sudden the weather is, it may end up preceding the availability of water when it comes to making your final choice (or split decision) on where to camp. I’ll be honest, when it comes to weather, a lot of the decisions you make will be based off common sense.
Lots of Wind: If possible, avoid camping at higher elevations; trees tend to thin out and even disappear the higher you go, subsequently providing less cover and wind break. Also, wind tends to increase the higher up in elevation you are; this is usually because there are fewer objects to buffer it; objects like other mountains, hills, trees, or large natural features of the land. Avoid camping in gaps, notches, or passes; these tend to act as the wind funnels of the mountains. Although these sorts of areas appear to be “lower spots,” that may be safe; it is usually the exact opposite when it comes to higher winds funneling through these areas. Trees are also not always the best bet for cover in high winds. If you notice a lot of dead trees or dead branches within a specific area, then you might want to find another one with healthier, sturdier looking cover. Don’t put yourself in a position to possibly have a branch or tree blown down on top of you. Your best bet in windy conditions is to find reliable, sturdy cover in the form of trees, rocks, or other natural formations. Sometimes all you have to do is work your way around to a different side of the mountain/hill you might be on, escaping the wind altogether. It goes without saying that you should avoid most wide open or exposed locations; be it ridges, outcroppings, certain meadows, or certain valleys; that is unless you are prepared for the current conditions and are taking calculated risks.
Lots of Rain: When dealing with high volumes of rain, there are a few factors to consider that will make your life much easier when you decide to camp. Firstly, be mindful of camping next to lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, or creeks; they are liable to swell and flood your position. Be careful not to camp in natural bowls or depressions; no matter how small. An area that looks perfectly flat for a tent may actually be slightly depressed, creating a perfect spot for water to collect and pool; subsequently swamping and flooding your shelter. Also be mindful of downhill runoff; if you’re camped on the side of a steep incline, the potential for runoff to reach you is considerably higher. If you can choose a spot with soft, absorbent ground, usually the better off you’ll be. I’m talking about pine straw, leaves, loam, or in some cases… sand. If the earth is packed down hard, or there is lots of clay where you plan to camp, the chance for pooling and expanding puddles is much higher. The more absorbent the ground – the less chance there will be for water to quickly collect on the surface. Of course sometimes there is so much rain, none of this matters. Depending on how much rain and whatever other conditions accompany it (wind or lightning); make the best decision possible to not get flooded out, or have your shelter compromised by wind, then further compromised by the accompanying water getting inside of it. I can’t tell you how many hiker friends of mine have awoke in their shelter, floating around on their air mattress.
Lightning: It pretty much goes without saying that you should never camp or even really hike in exposed areas during lightning. If you’re in a forest full of trees, then odds are you’re safe. If you’re in a small grove of trees, or even under a lone tree… then you’re more of a target. Try not to camp on top of certain types of rock either, as they have other elements or compounds within them that may conduct electricity. Herds of deer and elk have been killed by lighting striking large areas of rock with high metal content, where the animals have been standing or walking.
Snow: Choosing a camp spot in the snow or ahead of potential snow can be similar to choosing a spot during wind or rain. You need to try and find natural wind protection without putting yourself in danger of falling ice, or branches. Be wary of avalanche danger if the level of snow is high enough for this to be a consideration. It may behoove you to wake up periodically to knock accumulated snow off your shelter to avoid it collapsing in on you. If there is already a decent amount of snow on the ground, you may want to create a natural barrier with it to block out wind and provide extra insulation. If you can, always try to clear the ground of snow before setting up your shelter. If this is not possible, then you need to be sure that you have sufficient insulation beneath you (sleeping pad, ground sheet, etc.), or consider finding a different spot.
To conclude this category, I will simply say to just be smart and use common sense when you get caught in bad weather, or know that bad weather is imminent. Consider all factors of wind, rain, and lightning before setting up camp anywhere. Just because conditions may be favorable at the moment in a specific area, doesn’t mean they will remain that way.
Temperature and Topography
One of the most annoying challenges campers deal with is condensation; waking up in the morning or the middle of the night to water clinging all over your shelter, gear, sleeping bag, or all three. The first step to avoiding or combating condensation is knowing what causes it. Condensation occurs when warm air meets with a cold surface (or at least a surface colder than the air). When this happens, little droplets of water will form on said object. So how can you avoid condensation?
Firstly, you can go a long way to help lessen or prevent condensation by keeping your shelter well ventilated. This means keeping some zippers cracked open, or bug netting exposed by peeling back you rain fly to allow air in and out of the shelter more easily. The stuffier and hotter it is in your shelter… the more condensation that is likely to occur when temperatures outside drop. This can also mean venting your sleeping bag/quilt a little more (if you can help it). What happens is the air temperature in the tent (or whatever shelter) can become warm and humid from their “human heaters,” due to the lack of ventilation. When the warm air inside the shelter hits the cooler fabric of the shelter, the moisture in the air condenses into liquid. It’s the same principle with your sleeping bag.
The second step to avoiding condensation is trying to avoid the “dew point.” The dew point is the temperature to which air must be cooled to become saturated with water vapor. If the cooled air becomes further cooled by coming into contact with the surface of an even cooler object (vegetation, rocks, your shelter, your gear, your sleeping bag), the airborne water vapor will condense to form liquid water. If temperatures are freezing, then the dew point subsequently becomes the “frost point;” creating frost and ice on everything instead of water droplets.
There is no set temperature at which the dew point can be reached; it all simply depends on how much moisture happens to be hanging in the air (the humidity) at a given time. The higher the humidity, then the higher the dew point will be. This means it doesn’t have to get very cold for condensation to form. Luckily, areas of high humidity don’t tend to get very cold, even at night; but when it does, you can expect a great deal of condensation. In dry areas that experience great fluctuations between their daytime and nighttime temperatures; you can usually expect any moisture in the air to reach the dew point during the night at some time or another, especially in certain geographical features of the landscape…
Sometimes there will simply be no avoiding the dew point or the frost point, but there are steps you can take to lessening it or avoiding it altogether. The first step to combating the dew point is to camp in areas that will remain warmer throughout the night. This does not mean to get as low in elevation as possible, like many people (including myself at one point) tend to think. The ambient temperature (not factoring in wind chill) does drop 3.5 degrees (Fahrenheit) for every thousand feet in elevation you gain. Many people interpret this as meaning, “the lower you go, the warmer you will be.” This is in fact incorrect (to a certain degree). Hot air rises and cools, while cold air settles. But where does this cooler air settle? It’s pushed down into every nook and cranny by the rising warm air. This means valleys, canyons, ravines, gulches, river beds, creek beds, gaps, notches, and anywhere that water tends to collect (lakes and ponds). These areas will be considerably cooler than areas slightly higher in elevation around them. If you’re trying to avoid cooler temperatures, as well as the accompanying dew point, then you need to avoid areas like the ones mentioned. This is where camping next to a water source can turn into a double edged sword, especially if it’s a larger source running through a low point in the land. If you can elevate yourself slightly above these lower areas, the temperature difference can be dramatic; sometimes up to ten degrees or more. Often times you can physically feel the temperature changing drastically as you go up or down, into or out of one of these landscape formations. Sometimes the difference isn’t apparent until the coolest part of the night, which comes between 2 am and 5 am, when the dew point is most likely to be reached.
Taking all of the above factors into consideration can go a very long way to decreasing or eliminating condensation on your shelter, sleeping bag, and other gear. If I know it’s going to be a cool night, I will never camp in a valley or directly next to a water source if I can help it. I will always opt to get around twenty to fifty feet higher than the largest section of the low spot that I may be in. Sometimes this number is less, sometimes it’s more – depending on how large the area is. If it’s nothing more than a river coursing through an area, then all I may need to do is get to the top of the bank or a short way up the nearest incline. If it’s a larger valley, then I may need to climb a good fifty feet (or more) higher than the main valley floor, in whatever way I can; it might even mean just walking until I’m no longer in the valley (or just biting the bullet).
Lastly, you can help lessen or prevent condensation by making camp beneath, or sleeping under trees; mostly thick, low hanging trees like big conifers. Trees suck moisture out of the ground, as well as the air. They can help reduce the amount of moisture in the air within their given area, or provide a little more insulation (with your help beneath them) to keep the ambient air temperature from reaching the dew point. Sleeping underneath low hanging conifer trees is extremely viable for cowboy campers, since shelters can sometimes be too bulky to fit beneath the ideal tree. Also, you can’t get much more ventilated than cowboy camping, so you decrease your chances of condensation by default when you cowboy camp.
On the flip side, perhaps you are trying to get as cool as possible because it’s so damn hot at night (think East Coast humidity). Simply do the reverse of everything I said above, and you will indeed find the coolest temperatures to be found. Remember all of these factors and tricks, and you’ll go a long way to improving your comfort on trail.
I went over how to avoid insects pretty extensively in my article “The art to Cowboy Camping.” But I’ll give you a quick rundown here. When it comes to avoiding most flying, biting insects, you’re going to want to stay away from areas of standing water, or high moisture. This means lakes, ponds, slow rivers, muddy areas with lots of puddles, and areas with tall vegetation or thick, cool shade (dense groves of trees). When you have sufficient shelter, bugs are usually not a factor, but if you’re using a tarp or hammock without a bug net, then you’ll want to consider these types of locations.
If you’re trying to avoid extra interactions with wildlife, then there are ways to also decrease those probabilities. If it’s particularly hot during the day and night in a certain region, then most wildlife will remain at higher elevations, where it tends to be naturally cooler all around. Wildlife also tends to be attracted to standing sources of water, meadows, and valleys at night. Watering holes make fantastic ambush areas for predators, so I tend to avoid them. Valleys and meadows make for excellent grazing, therefore creating a rich environment for grazing animals, as well as the predators who hunt them. These are factors I take into major account when camping in grizzly, wolf, and mountain lion country. Any time I’ve ever camped in a meadow or near a lake/pond, I’ve always had to deal with deer, elk, or moose wandering through or by my camp, making noise and disturbing my sleep. I love seeing these animals in the daytime, but I prefer to not put myself in their way at night, especially when I’m by myself.
Lastly, if you’re trying to keep your wildlife interactions to a bare minimum (especially bears), then you will definitely want to consider not cooking or eating where you camp. By eating your dinner and doing your dishes a half mile or more before the area you plan to camp, you can drastically minimize your chances of attracting bears, raccoons, mice, or any other nosy creatures. Also, if you have gear or clothing that is particularly saturated with salt from your sweat (especially backpack straps), you may want to keep it out of reach of creatures like deer or porcupines by hanging them in a tree or keeping them in your shelter.
If nighttime wildlife encounters are something that do not bother you in the slightest, or even something you welcome… then by all means don’t take any of this advice. Non predatory animals are not so much a threat as they are a nuisance at night; but know that you are putting yourself, as well as predatory animals at extra risk if you are forced to defend yourself; or if other humans are forced to take out retribution on an animal due to your poor choices and its subsequent curiosity.
What I look for
When weather is not a factor and I have all my ducks in a row regarding water, I do have some personal criteria for my ideal campsites. Of course sometimes I’m so tired I’ll thrown down my stuff at the first level surface or appropriately spaced trees (if I’m hammocking) that I find. But a lot of times I’ll make the extra effort to find something memorable and appealing. Firstly, I love to build fires; they are the cornerstone of my camping experience, so if it’s safe, and if I have the chance to… I will almost always build a fire. When looking for the perfect campfire campsite, I always try to choose a spot that’s somewhat protected from the wind; not prone to go up in flames with the slightest spark; plenty of dead wood lying around the area; and a decent amount of rocks to build a fire ring (if there isn’t one present already). If I’m going to build a fire, then bug presence doesn’t really matter. Fires will for the most part keep flying insects away from you. The heat is usually a little too much for them to get close, but if you can’t build a fire big enough to keep them away with heat; then I’ll usually throw a few hand fulls of green vegetation on the fire intermittently to get a little smoke going – which does keep the bugs away.
Secondly, I love being able to see great views or sunsets/sunrises from my campsite. I’ll stop early for the day if I can find a truly beautiful spot with a view, or with a chance for fishing. I’ll dry camp on a whim and suffer a little bit if I think I’ve found a unique, once in a lifetime type campsite. If I can find a location with a view, fishing, and fuel for a good fire; then I’ve hit the holy grail of camp spots (in my opinion), and there is not much you can say to convince me to go any further for the day.
If the weather has been great and I’m planning to cowboy camp without a fire, I will actually seek out areas that might be prone to a little more wind; especially if there have been a lot of bugs. A decent breeze goes a long way to keeping the air clear of biting insects. I don’t go overboard with it, but I will usually seek out a higher elevation spot that’s not too exposed, but exposed enough to be vulnerable to any wind; usually a forested ridge-line, or forested outcropping. I choose my battles very carefully.
Basically, there can be almost endless factors that go into personal campsite preferences, or even ways of dealing with certain situations. You could write a book trying to go into them all, but the major ones I’ve listed here should more than suffice. If you have still have any nagging questions I might have missed, please ask them in the comment section!
So as you can see, there can be a lot to consider when it comes to choosing a place to sleep at night. I’m sure it feels a little bit like information overload, if not a tiny bit overwhelming. With practice and experience, all of this becomes second nature; you will literally be able to process all of these factors almost instantly when it comes to knowing and choosing the right or wrong spot to camp. Sometimes it will be a matter of choosing the lesser of two or even three evils, since you can’t always have it perfectly your way in spite of whatever Mother Nature has in store for you. In those cases, just do the best you can. Keep your head up, your mind sharp, your sense of humor plentiful, – and you’ll almost never go wrong. And even if you do, you’ll at least be able to laugh about it, hopefully…
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