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Rules for Picking the Perfect Campsite

Troy Thomas


By: Christine Peterson

There are numerous considerations to bear in mind when choosing the perfect campsite.

It’s late. Your shoulders are tired from carrying a pack, or your ass is tired from driving on rutted roads, and all you want is to find a camping spot and stay. But before you commit to the first place that suggests it could house a tent, there are a couple of questions you’ll want to ask yourself:

Am I a late sleeper? Do I want to watch the sunrise? Are there bears around? Do I want an Instagram-worthy spot without being that guy that pitched his tent on a wind-swept ledge?

The good news is, you can have beauty, comfort, and safety, but you’ll have to be willing to work for it. Next time you pull up to a campsite for the night, either in your truck or on your own two feet, think of these 10 ways to maximize your comfort and minimize the danger.

Plan For The Sun

Area maps can help you both find an ideal location and help situate basecamp according to such factors as predominant wind direction, sunrise, sunset, and, of course, distance to the best fishing hole.

Most of us are either morning people or night owls. Depending on what you prefer, or what you want for this particular night, think about how much—or little—sun will be on your tent in the morning. If you plan to sleep until 9 a.m., choose a spot deeper in the woods where the sun won’t crest the horizon and immediately heat up your tent.

Anticipate Storms

Bad weather is almost inevitable on any prolonged camping trip. Avoid campsites amid tall trees or in depressions where water can inundate your basecamp.

"Just as in fishing, think about seams," says Marco Johnson, senior faculty for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Fish will choose places that are calm enough to relax but close enough to the fast water to catch food as it passes by. The same goes for avoiding bad weather at a campsite. Find a place that's protected from the wind by a boulder, a small group of shrubs, or along the edge of trees. Then you can have the vistas over meadows and peaks for your pictures but remain protected from any sudden storms. Beware of sleeping in depressions that could fill with rainwater or under the tallest trees in the forest that will, one day, catch a bolt of lightning.

Avoid Bugs

Situating your camp kitchen in somewhat windier locations will help you avoid insects. (Nathaniel Welch/)

Whether it's horseflies, deer flies, mosquitoes, or white socks, most places you're camping will likely have at least one kind of pesky biting insect. Fortunately, you can be a little proactive. If you're in an area known for bugs, choose a campsite farthest away from mosquito-breeding standing water. You may also have to decide between being more exposed and deal with wind or in the trees, fighting the bugs. One option is to cook and eat in a windier area and leave the buggy, protected spots for when you're in your tent.

Check The Trees

Pitching your tent away from dead or dying trees is a must.

As important as it is to look down for the best tent spot, it’s maybe more important to look up. Widowmakers got the moniker for a reason: They kill people. When you are choosing a spot, make sure to scan not only right next to your tent, but also a large enough perimeter that if a dead lodgepole pine or some other large tree topples, it won’t smash you in your sleep.

Count On Critters

Game trails are great for accessing high-country lakes, but make for poor campsites. (Nathaniel Welch/)

Don’t put your tent on a game trail. While a deer passing through might be nice, the grizzly or black bear following it will be less nice. Also, remember to follow standard regulations for food storage and cooking in bear country. Scan for trees suitable to hang food, and keep anything edible out of and away from your tent. Keeping a clean camp isn’t just because of bears. Many chipmunks and squirrels have become so used to people dropping food or outright feeding them that they will brazenly chew through your food bag or slip in a vehicle door left ajar.

Stay Away From The Stench

Sure, being near the outhouse in a campground can be convenient when you drink too much water before bed. But often those close spots are also the rankest. The same goes for dumpsters. Check where the bathrooms and garbage cans are when you arrive, and position yourself a far enough distance that you won’t wake up in the night with a stench in your nose that won’t go away.

Know Your Gear

There’s no excuse for gear failure. A backyard dress rehearsal set up can help you avoid heartache once you hit the woods.

This isn't exactly a tip for choosing the right spot, but it's critical to understand how and where to use your camping gear. "You should be comfortable in your ability to put up a shelter that's not going anywhere," Johnson says. In other words, it's important to be able to trust your gear before setting up camp for the first time in the woods. Practice using it and familiarize yourself with your equipment.

Choose A Level Spot

Sometimes the most obvious camping rules are the most ignored. Level ground makes for the most comfortable campsite.

This seems like a basic one—until you don’t do it. Finding a spot that’s level and positioning yourself in the best way in the tent is the difference between a good night’s sleep and waking with a permanent headache because blood rushed to your brain all night. It’s also what keeps you from rolling on top of your tent mate, who might never want to be your tent mate again. And while you’re checking, scan for rocks and roots.

Leave on Trace

Always be certain to leave your campsite in impeccable condition.

Just because a campsite could be perfect if you rearranged the rocks, logs, and other features doesn’t mean you should. “Good campsites are found, not made,” says Johnson. If you’re in a campground, use designated fire rings and clean up after yourself. If you’re in the backcountry, look for spots that have already been used. Pay attention to fire restrictions, and if you build a campfire ring, disassemble it before you leave.

This article first appeared in Field and Stream.