How to Find a Good Campsite
You have prepared well for your overnight trek - all the right gear, awesome food and state-of-the-art backpack. The weather is fine and the views are gorgeous. When the sun starts to set you suddenly realize you need to find a spot for the night! You have less than half hour before the darkness so you just dump your stuff on the first somewhat Ok-ish spot. The next day you wake up miserable, under a canopy of condensation and a vertigo. You get out of your tent only now spotting the protected plants crashed last night by your feet while pitching the tent.
Well, it could be worst - you could have woken up in a puddle of water or not woken up at all being crushed under a widow-maker, a heavy dead branch falling on your tent in a strong midnight wind.
Not exactly a vision of the perfect camping trip, huh? Choosing the right camping spot should not be a last-minute action but rather needs preparation and thoughtfulness. Not just to catch some restful sleep but for basic safety. This is important in particular if you plan on wild camping.
Let’s get you prepared for a lovely and safe camping trip with a few tried-and-true tips and hacks!
Before you hit the trails: Camping Gear
If you just bought your tent, make sure you pitch it before you go on your big adventure. Set it up in your backyard, a local park or even your living room, to learn how it works. Check if all the pieces are present and you know what goes where. If your tent is double-walled, which means it has the inner tent and a separate fly sheet, check if there is a chance to attach one to the other. In an event of a rain it can help you erect your tent faster and protect the inner from moisture.
Some tents are very easy and intuitive to pitch and some require some attention and care. You don’t want to attempt figuring out the set-up after a long hike, when you are tired, cold and there is a storm coming.
If your tent is not new, make sure you treat it properly after each camp out. It’s no fun to go for a fantastic trip just to realize your tent is all moldy and disgusting because you forgot to dry it after your last trip a few months back.
If you don’t have any shelter yet - it’s worth learning a bit about your options, as there are many: tents, tarps, bivvies, and hammocks. I like tents the most but it’s your call what suits your needs.
2. Before You Hit the Trails: Research Your Options
Learn as much as you can about possible campsites before your trip. Read what terrain you are likely to encounter, what is the forecast, what are the established campsites you can stop at, etc.
If you plan on wild camping, make sure you know the legal side of it – is it legal to do so? Generally accepted? Absolutely forbidden? Make sure you know!
Does the terrain allow for wild camping? There are places where finding a small patch of somewhat flat and dry land is simply impossible! If you know you will hike in a very rocky and dry area where it is impossible to stake your tent – maybe it’s worth to buy/borrow a self-standing tent?
Another thing to consider – is the terrain rocky or grassy? If you know you are quite likely to pitch your tent over harsh, rocky soil it would be worth grabbing a protective footprint for your tent. This would protect your tent’s floor from getting holes or your air mattress punctured.
If there are established campsites along your trail, you need to be aware if you can just show up or if you need to book in advance. Some popular trails can fill up fast and simply be closed to new comers.
3. Camping at Established Campsites
There are many different kinds of campsites and as a rule I try to avoid the long-term caravan kind of places. They tend to be loud and people like to do bbq and party till late. Sometimes there is no other choice if that’s the only one in the area but if you have other options – it’s worth picking a smaller one.
On the other hand – the big and well-established campsites have good facilities with washing machines and big sanitary blocks. As such they are good as a stop to wash your clothes and clean yourself well after a few days hiking in the wilderness…
When you are looking for a spot to pitch your tent on a campsite it’s worth looking for a bit secluded area, if possible. Camping close to the sanitary blocks might mean a short walk to use the toilet in the night… but it also mean crowds passing by your tent all the time. Personally, I prefer to walk a bit to the facilities but have some peace and quiet.
You might also want to consider the wind direction in relation to your pitch and the sanitary block… you know what I mean, right?
When you walk around searching for a good spot, consider other campers. Don’t go right next to someone unless it’s generally really crowded and no other place is possible. If the campsite is big and someone chose to go far away from others, don’t spoil it by camping right next to them.
4. Stealth and wild camping
We don’t always have a chance to find the perfect camping spot but we should try to find the best possible. There are also some places that should be avoided at all costs for safety reasons. If you hike in a mountainous area it might be difficult to find a suitable spot fast – you have to think about it early on. Check the map to see if you have flat areas on your trail.
Finding a good general camping area
Choose a place that is not in a hollow spot or anywhere rain water can gather. Be on the lookout for dry stream beds that fill with water when it rains and other possible escape routes for rain water. Don’t be afraid to camp when it’s raining - it just requires some thinking.
Find a place that give you some wind protection if the weather is bad but don’t hide completely – a good breeze helps with insects, provides air flow in your tent and helps to minimize condensation. I enjoy a windy camping spot - when you know how to pitch your tent in heavy winds, there is nothing to worry. Unless the winds get too strong, of course.
Be cautious about camping on a completely exposed ridge or a hilltop, especially when a storm can be in the forecast. It’s better to camp close to forest or rocks in such conditions. The views can be stunning but risk is high. Last summer I camped on a pretty open ridge during a thunderstorm… there were some higher peaks not far from me but I was scared like crazy that night. It was hard to find a suitable camping spot and I had no idea a thunderstorm was coming… There was also this time I had to camp on a Trotternish Ridge, on the Isle of Skye. My goodness, I was sure I would be blown off the spot! But had no other choice, really…
Mind your surroundings and look up – if you pitch your tent close to trees look for old branches that can fall when the wind gets stronger (so called widow makers).
It’s great to be somewhat close to water source but not right next to it. Close proximity to standing water means mosquitoes and higher risk of condensation. It can also swell in rain. We also shouldn’t camp too close to water to avoid polluting it and in case we would block an animal corridor.
If you are looking for a spot for a wild camp, make sure it’s one that does not look like it was used the night before. The ground (and plants) need to time to recover, when campers keep on camping in the same spot, the damage might become permanent. Additionally, when people camp on the same spot over and over again, it becomes compacted and does not soak the water. Any rain stays on the surface and you can wake up in a pool.
Try to find a spot away from the trail, hidden a bit so it does not disrupt other hikers. Sometimes it’s hard to do when the terrain is lacking in suitable spots but try your best.
Away from any road, village or trail head. For safety reasons, I prefer to camp away from a chance to meet accidental tourists or local kids wishing to party in a close-by scenic spot. I hike and camp solo which means that I take special care in choosing quiet, private places, away from potential human-related risks.
Think of the next morning – do you want to wake up in full sunshine or in a shade? Depending on the area you hike in (and the season), both options could be advisable. If it’s full summer and the sun rises early on, you can forget about sleeping in. On the other hand – it helps with drying any condensation or dew moisture. If you plan on a rest day and spending some time inside your tent, a nice shade could be the only way to survive the heat.
Beauty of the area. We go hiking and camping not just as a workout. We want to feed our eyes and souls with the beauty of Nature. Think what view you would like to have from your tent and see if you can have it. Safety first - but there is nothing wrong with wanting a scenic spot.
Preparing the ground for your tent
Pick a flat and bare surface. If you hike in areas with protected and fragile flora, make sure you don’t pitch your tent over the plants. Find a spot that is on harder surface. If you don’t have to worry much about fragile plants, pick a spot where you do as little damage as possible.
If your ground isn’t exactly flat, you should sleep with your head higher; otherwise it’s an unpleasant trip into the vertigo land. I remember when I wild slept in Catalonia on a an uneven ground, I woke up with a horrible vertigo – I didn’t even notice the ground was just slightly on a slope and I was sleeping with my head lower than the rest of the body. After I switched around, all went back to normal.
Clear the ground – but be careful. It’s always better to pick a spot that is already more or less clear of roots, rocks and branches. If you have no other choice – make sure you don’t damage fragile local ecosystems. Don’t move bigger rocks with no reason. Don’t break off branches to create a spot for yourself.
Sometimes there is no way to clear the ground completely - it’s good to have a thicker air pad to have a comfortable night sleep no matter the slight discomforts of the ground.
5. Always minimize your impact
This goes with all we do outdoors – we should create as small as possible an impact on the environment. We need to accept that sometimes our night sleep in the Outdoors won’t be perfect and it’s OK. Instead of digging, clearing, cutting and destroying to mold the environment to our needs, we should find the best we can – and accept it.
When you pack – check if you didn’t leave any garbage and try to put everything back to how it was (as much as possible). Learn the principles of Leave No Trace to be a responsible tourist.