Photo: Alex Messenger/TandemStock

How to Choose a Backcountry Campsite

Photo: Alex Messenger/TandemStock

How to Choose a Backcountry Campsite

At the end of a long day of backpacking, it’s tempting to plop down at the first level site you encounter. Don’t. The best campsites offer shelter, protection from bugs, convenient access to water, and stay-longer views. In short, they have it all. Campsites like this can be found from the mountains to the desert to the beach and everywhere in between—here’s how to find yours.

Minimize impact: 

First, understand the principles of Leave No Trace camping. If there are designated or otherwise clearly established sites available, use them. Don’t trample vegetation and disturb animal habitat by making new campsites. If you’re in a truly remote area where few have camped, pitch your tent on durable surfaces such as sand, slickrock, gravel, or snow. 

Scout around:

Drop your pack and explore the area for campsite options. The best site is rarely the first one. 

Check for hazards: 

Avoid dangers like standing dead trees (which could fall at any time), rockfall areas, flash flood zones, and spots below the high tide line on a beach. 

Find water: 

You want the nearest water source to be close enough to be convenient, but at least 200 feet away from your camp to prevent pollution and disturbing wildlife, and to allow access for any other campers in the area.

Find shelter: 

The best sites have natural weather protection. Trees provide cover from rain and wind (boulders can also serve as windbreaks) as well as shade. If lightning is a possibility, don’t pitch your tent in the middle of a field or any other place where you’re the highest thing around. 

Go high:

Elevated areas will be warmer (cold air sinks), but also more likely to have breezes to help keep the bugs away. Conversely, low, wet areas are notoriously awful for biting bugs. 

Go low: 

In some cases, you’ll want to camp in valley or canyon bottoms to escape the heat and be near water. Pay attention to the conditions and adjust accordingly.  

Seek flat ground. 

You want your campsite to be totally level. Lie down on the ground to see how it feels before you unpack your tent. If you must make do with a slightly angled site, make sure your head is on the uphill side. 

Look for a kitchen: 

Cooking is a big part of camping. Logs and rocks for sitting, cooking, and eating are a bonus. 

Locate the outhouse: 

Some backcountry camping areas are equipped with outhouses. If there is one, decide if you’d prefer to be nearby or as far as possible from it. 

Scout a view:

A sweet vista makes every campsite better. Just be mindful that safety conditions, like shelter or lightning, might take priority. 

Go to the light: 

Do you want early-morning sunshine to warm up? Look for an eastern exposure. Prefer to sleep in and enjoy long evenings? Go for a western aspect.