Primer: How To Choose The Perfect Campsite

Camping – and getting out into the great outdoors in general – has seen a pretty big spike in popularity over the last few years. And for that, we are grateful, because it means more of the world’s natural landscapes are becoming more appreciated and, hopefully, more valued. Whether you’re a longtime woodsman or a first-time weekend warrior, there’s one skill that can make or break just about any overnight trek into nature: picking the perfect campsite.

Now, you might think that this task is as simple as finding the nearest clearing and posting up for the night, but you’d be dead wrong. Finding the best place to set up camp is a lot more than simply pitching a tent wherever you think it might fit. There’s equal parts art and science to the process and more than a few important factors to keep in mind. In the following how-to guide, we’ve outlined all the things you should be considering when choosing your ideal campsite.

Prepare Ahead

Camping Starts At Home

A little plan can go a long way toward a successful and enjoyable outing.While you can certainly throw caution to the wind and hit the campground with little-to-no notice, you’re not going to get the best out of the experience if you go into it completely blind. That is to say, even the most impromptu camping trips require at least a little bit of planning ahead, lest you’re perfectly okay with forgetting necessary gear, not knowing what you’re in for in regards to the weather and environment, or other unfortunate happenstances. We’re not saying you need a 300-point itinerary for every trip you take, just that a little plan can go a long way toward a successful and enjoyable outing.

Seasonal Safety: The time of year you choose to camp is going to have a major effect on where you do so. For most folks, camping is a leisurely activity intended for warmer weekends. That means you’ll want to avoid doing it in the dead of winter anywhere that it snows – unless you’re seeking out a survival situation. It will also be of great benefit to be aware of possible inclement weather in your site of choice. As an example, the American South sometimes experiences massive thunderstorms in the middle of the summer – which is something best avoided – but you’ll be hard-pressed to know about them if you don’t do your research beforehand. Familiarize yourself with where you are going, or else you’re doing yourself and your camping buddies a disservice.

Pack Accordingly: Find out what the weather is going to be like and/or what kinds of changes could befall you during your time in the great outdoors and match your apparel and gear. For instance, you likely don’t need a waterproof parka if you’re camping in the desert – but you might want some extra bedding for when the temperature drops at night. Just as this applies to apparel and gear, so too does it apply to your tech and/or tools. For instance, you don’t want to bring along anything you need to plug in if you’re not staying at a campground with site outlets. Similarly, you don’t necessarily need a shovel and toilet paper if your campsite has plumbing. And if you’re not sure, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Position For Sunlight

Plan For Water

Once you’ve figured out to where you are headed, when you’ll be there, and you’ve made the trek, there’s still more to be done. Yes, that’s true even if you’ve rented out a designated site. For starters, you’ll want to orient your gear and/or tent in accordance to the position of the sun throughout the day. If you’re going to be camping somewhere very hot, it might be best to point your tent away from the arc of the sun. That means, in the northern hemisphere during the summer, you’d aim your tent door north and perhaps even shield the rear with a reflective cover. If you’re going to be far from civilization, you’ll likely want to choose a campsite with a relative proximity to water. You could also benefit from placing your tent in the shade of a tree or a large bush, while making sure that foliage isn’t ready to fall or home to wildlife and/or bugs, pests, or anything that might damage your gear or put you in danger. Similarly, when it’s colder, you’ll want to get as much sunlight as possible during the daylight hours. This, of course, isn’t a hard rule, but it’s definitely something to think about.

Another thing worth giving serious consideration is your proximity to a water source. Sure, at a designated campsite with loads of other folks, there will likely be faucets and/or drinking fountains. But that’s not going to be the case if you’re camping in the woods off the beaten path. If you’re going to be far from civilization, you’ll likely want to choose a campsite with a relative proximity to water, so if the need arises you can access it. But you don’t want to be too close, as water sources can sometimes flood, attract wildlife, and can be breeding grounds for bugs and bacteria.

Danger Zones

Be On The Lookout

You might not be able to avoid all issues, but you can at least be prepared to deal with them.Just as there are certain things you want to look for in a good campsite, there are some things you want to avoid, as well. Again, this applies less to designated pay-to-stay campgrounds and more out-in-the-wilderness areas. Still, this knowledge can be applied regardless of the popularity of your chosen region. It’s also worth noting that the natural word can sometimes change without notice, so it’s a good idea to be aware of how your surroundings change over the course of your trip. You might not be able to avoid all issues, but you can at least be prepared to deal with them.

Uneven Ground: Putting your tent and gear on a slope should be avoided at all costs. At the least, a hilly campground will force you inevitably to go chasing something you’ve dropped or set down precariously. At worst, you could roll yourself into danger in the middle of the night, wrapping yourself up in your tent and/or trapping yourself in a dangerous and potentially deadly situation. Find a wide and flat place to set up camp, unless you absolutely cannot. If you must set up camp on a slope, do your best to tether and anchor yourself and your gear, to avoid danger as best you can.

Nearby Waterways: While you’ll certainly want to be within spitting distance of a source of water – especially if you’re camping on your own in the wilderness or in a survival situation – you also want to be very wary of water sources. The reason is simple: the ocean, rivers, lakes, and even streams change depth, direction, and rapidity – sometimes at a moment’s notice. If you’re too close to one during a flood, you could be swept away with the current before you even knew what happened. So, when picking your campsite, watch out for muddy ground near the edge of bodies of water. Similarly, pay attention to the surrounding vegetation. If you notice that there’s a small stream through a largely dry and plant-free area, you might be in the middle of a flood plain – which could turn into a raging river in seconds given the right circumstances.

Animal Tracks & Droppings: While certainly less pervasive than weather and water issues, but still plenty dangerous when out camping, wild animals – specifically predatory ones – are to be avoided whenever possible. There are a few ways to mitigate the risks involved with wildlife (like keeping your food in airtight containers and/or up off the ground and away from where you sleep). The best, however, is probably avoiding animals’ feeding, breeding, and migratory grounds. If you find a place that looks pretty good for a campsite, but you notice that there are large droppings and/or footprints surrounding the site, then it isn’t good enough. Find somewhere else or you could be facing down a dangerous beast – one that’s upset to encounter you encroaching on its space. And that doesn’t solely apply to animals with teeth and claws. Even a small deer can cause you a lot of harm and/or damage if it feels threatened.

Minimize Impact

Best Environmental Practices

It’s of the utmost importance you take care of the places you choose to visit.It’s very important to remember: whenever you go camping, you are a guest. Unless you’re Tarzan, the wilderness is not your home. And, as a guest in nature, it’s of the utmost importance you take care of the places you choose to visit. While you might not think that this is a part of finding the perfect campsite, any environmentalist or outdoorsman that’s up to snuff would wholeheartedly disagree. Knowing how to take care of your campsite is, arguably, the most important part of choosing one – especially if we want to maintain these places for further outings and, inevitably, future generations.

Only What You Can Carry: It should go without saying that you’ll want to pack everything you need for your trip. And while it might not be a bad idea to bring a little extra as a contingency backup, you’ll also want to avoid bringing anything that’s unnecessary. For instance, if you’re going camping in a dense forest with just one or two people, you don’t need a family-sized tent. Similarly, you’ll want to know how much waste is created by the things you bring. Prepackaged food makes a lot of waste, so make sure you have room in your pack to stash the trash separately from the rest of your gear. Don’t bring more than you can carry; don’t get overzealous. And if you’re not willing to carry your garbage, don’t make any.

Leave No Trace: Ideally, when you’re all finished camping, you’ll leave nothing behind but footprints. Granted, if you have to use the restroom while you’re out in the woods, this is a lot harder to manage. Still, you should go into your trip with the intention of leaving your campsite as you found it – which includes putting out and cleaning up your campfires, if you’ve made any. Not only does this help keep the area safe for animals and future campers, but it also ensures that the area is not compromised by negative human activity. There’s nothing more disrespectful to nature, your fellow travelers, and whatever governing body has a claim to the land than leaving behind a bunch of trash and/or destruction.

Cleaner Than When You Arrived: Not everyone is as considerate as we’d like them to be. But that can be balanced – to some degree – by being extra mindful ourselves. If you’ve cleaned up your campsite and everything you’ve brought with you, but you notice that someone else was not as thorough – make the extra effort and clean up after them. It might seem like a thankless job, but you can’t begin to know the positive impact this would have on the places you visit were everyone to adopt the same mindset and attitude.

Get Comfortable

Home Away From Home

Picking a place that ensures you get the most out of your experience from a personal enjoyment standpoint is perfectly okay.As we mentioned earlier, camping – for most people – is intended to be a joyous activity. For some, that means pushing their personal limits in regards to survival. If you’re a part of that very small group, more power to you. But, if you’re not, there’s nothing wrong with incorporating some creature comforts into the experience. If you want to watch some exciting movies with your camping partner(s) after the sun goes down or you’d rather sleep in your car than a tent, take that into consideration when choosing your campsite. This can mean picking a campground with power outlets or camping somewhere with a lot of sunlight and bringing along a solar charger. The point is: picking a place that ensures you get the most out of your experience from a personal enjoyment standpoint is perfectly okay. Don’t feel like you have to camp somewhere awkward or with only spartan accommodations if you don’t want that out of the experience. Get comfy; you’re going to be there a while.

How To Build A Campfire

Once you’ve settled into your campsite of choice, you’re going to probably want to know how to build a campfire to stay warm and cook whatever food you’ve brought along.