Every seasoned camper will admit to finding themselves, at one time or another, so tired, pressed for daylight or challenged by incoming or inclement weather that they simply pulled their tent from it’s bag and put it up as quickly as possible – wherever they could. Those veterans will further admit they probably didn’t sleep as well that night as they could have if they’d have taken just a few extra minutes to get settled. They’ll also say that this practice is irresponsible.

Campsite selection goes beyond simply finding a place that is aesthetically pleasing to spend the night or a few days. What you look for in a site affects comfort, safety, the environment, wildlife and other campers.

Campsite Selection and Preparation Criteria

Whether in the wilds, miles from civilization, at a wilderness area campsite or at an improved campground, there are a number of campsite selection criteria to consider.

  • Level the playing field. A level site is critical – if you want to sleep well. If you are forced to set up on a slight slope, don’t sleep laterally on the slope or you’ll wake with lots of sore muscles that worked all night to keep you in place – whether or not you wanted them to work. Sleep with you head above your feet or vice versa – whichever makes you most comfortable.
  • Conduct a surface check. When camping with a tent, terrain type under the tent matters too. Bumpy, clumpy meadows, although they appear soft, are usually far less comfortable than a flat pine-straw bed – even with a camping mattress.
  • Look skyward. Pay attention to what’s overhead. Dead trees/limbs or the potential for falling rocks can create dangerous situations. Without the protection of a tent, large cones are can pack a wallop.
  • Exterminate insects, naturally. Mosquitoes and other insects inhabit moist, protected areas. Select a campsite on a knoll, point or any region where a breeze, that helps deter insects, is often prevalent.
  • Regulate water flows, naturally. Set up in an area where water can drain away from the site, especially the tent. Avoid flat areas in depressions. In some improved, public camping areas, digging a shallow trench around the tent is permitted. However, avoid the practice by carefully selecting your site.
  • Redirect the winds. If you’re camping in windy conditions, seek areas that offer protective cover. Rock outcroppings or groups of bushes can help protect your tent.
  • Be aware of your location. Pay attention to your surroundings. Setting up on a sandy, dried up creekbed may seem like a great idea. An unexpected or heavy rain, however, can put you in harms way. Also stay away from high ridges exposed to extreme weather and basins where cold, damp air often collects.
  • Calm the storms. If a storm is looming or has been predicted, take the time necessary to set up your tent properly and seek protection. Stake the tent, put up the fly and get all the gear that must stay dry inside the tent. Doing so allows you to enjoy the comfort of your wilderness home rather than find yourself hectically pounding stakes or gathering gear in a rainstorm at 4 a.m.
  • Respect your fellow campers. Being mindful of others is simple etiquette. Set up in an area and in a way that does not encroach on other campsites or campers privacy. Respect “quite time”, usually recognized as any time after 9 p.m.

Wilderness Campsites

Backpacking Campsite

When enjoying wilderness camping, an additional set of criteria comes into play.

  • Avoid the water. Camp 300 feet from water — streams, rivers and lakes — to protect the resource. Draw water for cooking, drinking and bathing and carry it to your camping area. Also be mindful of water control regions below dams. When water is released, the river is a treacherous place.
  • Identify and stay clear of fragile regions. The weight of a tent and even footsteps can destroy a delicate habitat. Take care to identify such areas and avoid them. For instance, fragile alpine meadow vegetation can take many years to recover. Also honor designated low-use or no-use areas. Select areas with hardier vegetation such as grasses and sedges, rather than areas with more fragile lichens and mosses. Move camp every two to three days or before signs of your presence become noticeable. Also wear soft-soled shoes around camp [camp shores] to minimize impact.
  • Learn not to dig. Trench diggers change your ways. In the wilds, never dig. Use the natural lay of the land to drain water. Further, if an obstacle is so obtrusive that it must be dug up because it will impede comfort, find another site.
  • Forego the fire. Fires, that are acceptable in heavily wooded regions, should be avoided in areas of delicate habitat or open spaces. Fires leave scars. If you must have a fire, use an existing fire ring, whenever possible. Also collect only dead and downed wood. Standing dead snags are an important part of the landscape, let them stand. Also consider a foil lined pit or fire pan as an alternative. A fire pan is a metal tray used to contain a campfire and prevent it from blackening the soil. Fire pans should be big enough to contain a small fire and have at least a 3-inch high lip around the outer rim. Elevate the pan to avoid scarring the soil.
  • Consider wildlife. Our presence in the wilderness affects the behavior of all wildlife. Set up camp in areas away from trails, waterways and food sources that may be frequented by wildlife.
  • Move into someone else’s space. Whenever available, use an established campsite, one used by those before you. Doing so allows much of the habitat to remain in its natural state, providing a more aesthetically pleasing experience for everyone. If it’s necessary to camp at an unused site, try to pick more resistant areas such as areas with little plant cover.

In All Camping Situations

  • Respect the wilderness and others
  • Carry out more than you carried in to the wilds, and
  • Follow the Tread Lightly pledge:
    • Travel Only Where Permitted
    • Respect The Rights Of Others
    • Educate Yourself
    • Avoid Streams, Meadows, Wildlife, Etc.
    • Drive and Travel Responsibly

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