How To Choose The Perfect Backpacking Campsite

Leave No Trace

The first rule of backpacking, camping or hiking: leave no trace.

As an outdoorsman, it’s your job to camp with as little impact on the environment as possible. Practice the “Leave No Trace” policy and keep this in mind when choosing your campsite. Avoid trampling over vegetation, especially if they’re already fragile. If you can find an established campsite, all the better.

Do not take anything from the site as a “souvenir” or intentionally disrupt the area just for fun. Practice proper trash disposal while you’re at it. Keeping the “leave no trace” principle in mind makes for a more sustainable camping experience as it helps preserve these campsites for many generations to come.

Pick A Relatively Flat Site

Now that you’ve got that down pat, it’s time to select a campsite.

You don’t want to spend the night on top of bumpy rocks or pitch a tent on an uneven surface. Sleeping on a slope is possible…but who wants to keep sliding down their tent? That being said, it’s always great to choose a location on relatively flat ground. Make sure that the area is well-draining and doesn’t pool with water so you don’t wake up in a flood.

It’s also best to avoid slopes (for reasons stated above), as well as low-lying areas like crevices, canyons, and gorges as they are also prone to flooding and on especially windy days, gusts.

Sites with natural insulation like short grass or leaves help so you don’t lose too much heat from the ground. Be on the lookout for bugs and their nests, though!

Protect Yourself From The Wind

You don’t want strong winds to blow you or your tent off the camp, so select an area that’s naturally protected from strong wind. Rock faces and boulders offer natural protection. Starting a campfire is much easier with windbreakers like these, too.

Don’t Stay Too Near The Water Source

tents in a valley with a lake

As a rule, stay about 200 feet away from the water source. This ensures that you’re far enough from contaminating it, but near enough for you to gather water for cooking and drinking.

Keep in mind that you’re not the only one needing water out on the trail. A water source like a river, stream or lake can be frequented by a variety of local wildlife like bears and moose. Stagnant water sources are popular with bugs like mosquitoes, while rivers and marshes are prone to leeches. Staying at a safe distance means that you’re relatively out of these animals’ and these critters’ paths.

It also means that you’ll be spared flooding or a sudden rise in the water levels. This is also applicable when you’re camping near or on the beach: make sure to stay away from the tide line unless you want to be swept away in your sleep.

Look Out For Widowmakers

Choose a location that’s clear of things that might fall on you, like standing dead trees, loose or broken tree limbs or even boulders. Survival expert Les Stroud fondly calls these things “widowmakers” and for good reason: if they fall on you, you’d most likely sustain serious injury or even die. So, when choosing a campsite, make sure it’s not directly under any widowmakers.

Camping underneath trees has been part of a long-winding debate among many outdoor enthusiasts. On one hand, trees can offer ample shade during hot days and in some scenarios, shelter during rain showers. On the flipside, taking shelter underneath large lone trees also means you’re at greater risk for widowmakers. When it’s raining, the foliage could drip for hours on end, drenching your tent in the process. Then, there’s that increased chance of getting struck by lightning.

All things considered, trees are great for shade during the daytime. A grove of trees can surely offer protection from strong winds. However, there are some situations where you’d be better off finding another spot.

Beware of (And Respect) Local Wildlife

It’s always best to know the kind of wildlife that thrives in your camp so you can adequately prepare for them. As a rule, food should not be kept inside your tent. Keep your site spotless and store or dispose of food properly. If you’re deep inside bear country, make sure to select a spot where you can secure your bear lines to avoid any furry visitors during the night.

Know The Camping Regulations

A responsible camper will have obtained all necessary permits before going out on a trail. Sloppy camping practices often lead to mishaps like wildfires, animal attacks or, at the very least, a nasty fine from a ranger, so make sure you have your permits and are aware of advisories issued in the area.

It’s important to know what you can and can’t do in your location of choice. Once you’ve chosen a campsite, it’s prudent to follow the area’s rules, regulations and warnings. For example, campfires are generally prohibited during the wildfire season, so make sure to light fires only where (or when) they’re allowed. It’s also prudent to be aware of bear and wolf warnings, as well as weather advisories.

Snag The Best View

We spend all this time outdoors for spectacular views that we can’t otherwise see from the city or suburbs, so make it count. When possible, pick a site with a great view— something that will make all that hiking worth the trip.

In your quest to find the best view, though, be mindful of other campers. Be a good sport and try not to spoil their view and privacy while you’re at it.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re new to camping or a tried-and-tested expert, you really can’t deny that finding the best campsite is part of the fun.

Sure, it could take a little bit of experience, foresight and good old common sense, but it’s still something that you can enjoy nonetheless. To be perfectly honest, selecting the right one is pretty easy once you get the hang of it. So, practice that skill. Go out more often! You don’t even have to go far. If you’re from North America, chances are there’s a great trail within your tristate area just waiting to be discovered. If you wanna go international, we also listed some of the world’s most breathtaking hikes, so be sure to check that out.

Anything else we missed? Let us know in the comments below! Happy camping!

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