You can set a freestanding tent up almost anywhere, but if you’ve recently made the move to an ultralight shelter, you’ll find that they’re a lot less forgiving of poor campsite choice. It’s common sense to set up in a flat spot free from rocks and roots, but there are other factors to consider if you want to consistently choose a perfect campsite. Wind, water, and trees can all make or break your night. These tips will help you set up in the best spot possible, no matter what type of shelter you use or what the weather is doing.
Unless it’s your first camping trip ever, you already know to find a flat place to pitch without roots, rocks, or other obstacles. You probably already know to think about the weather too. You can camp in the most exposed spot in the world on a sunny, calm day. However, if it’s wet, cold, or windy, you’ll need a more sheltered spot.
You should also remember to observe Leave No Trace principles. If you need a reminder, traveling and camping on durable surfaces is principle number two. This means if you’re in a high use area, use an established camp spot. If you are in an area without established spots, try to minimize your impact on vegetation and stick to rock, gravel, and sand as much as possible.
Ready to move beyond the basics? The tips below will help you out.
1. Think about water sources.
This depends on where in the world you are camping. In general, it’s nice to camp near a water source so you don’t have to schlep drinking and cooking water very far. If you’re in the middle of one of the PCT’s infamous dry stretches, you’ll certainly want to camp as close to a water source as possible to minimize heavy H2O carries. (Remember to camp at least 200ft away from water in the interest of Leave No Trace). However, camping next to water isn’t always feasible. Dry camping is a fact of life on many long-distance trails where water is scarce.
Dry camping pro tips:
- If you camp shortly after filling up at a water source (rather than directly at the source), you won’t have to carry the water you’ll need overnight very far, but you can still cut into your mileage for the next day.
- You might also consider rehydrating and eating your dinner at the water source while you’re filtering so that, when you leave with water bottles full, you don’t have to use up any of that agua on cooking.
Conversely, if you’re camping somewhere with a healthy mosquito population, you should camp as far away from water as possible. Unless, of course, you want to spend your entire evening hiding from bugs. This tip is particularly relevant if you use a tarp or mid shelter without a bug net. Mosquitos hatch from water, and while there’s no guarantee that you won’t still be eaten alive at a dry camp, there will be fewer bugs.
2. Don’t wake up in a puddle.
Even if your shelter has a watertight bathtub floor, you should figure out where water will flow if it rains. Stay away from depressions where water can pool underneath you.
If you are in an area where flash floods are common (arid regions such as the SoCal section of the PCT are common offenders) stay out of danger zones. Look for channels in sloping ground to see where water normally runs so you can avoid it being funneled into your tent. Flash flood drainages often look deceptively smooth, flat, and inviting, but don’t be fooled. They’re called flash floods for a reason, and you don’t want to be caught unawares. Stick to high ground.
If your shelter design allows the rain to splash off the ground underneath the fly (for instance, if the fly doesn’t come down very low), choose a surface that minimizes this (for example, pine needles create less splashback than mud).
If you wake up in the middle of the night to rain splashing or running inside your shelter, try scraping a trench around your shelter with your poop trowel or trekking pole to divert the water (just remember to fill it back in the morning).
3. Trees are your friend.
Trees are great. They shelter you from the wind and sun (the latter is crucial on hot summer days). You can tie tarps to them. You can hang food from their branches to keep it safe from wildlife. You’ll get less condensation in your tent sleeping under a tree than in the middle of an open field (because grasses are nature’s steam vents).
Importantly, trees keep you safer if a thunderstorm rolls in, though you should take care to camp in a large cluster of trees as a lone tree can act like a lightning rod in a storm. If the weather’s bad and camping below treeline is an option, you should find a nice little grove to set up in.
If there aren’t any trees, you can still find sheltered spots. Even a small bush is an effective windbreak in a pinch. Boulders and rocks can shelter you too. You can also find shelter by dropping off of ridgelines and using terrain features like dips and hollows in hillsides to your advantage.
4. Watch for murder trees.
Trees are your friend… until they try to kill you. My tramily not-so-affectionately calls those dead snags leaning over your campsite “murder trees,” but you might know them as widowmakers. Even if they don’t topple over onto your tent in the middle of the night, the constant creaking and worry about every gust of wind will ensure that you don’t sleep. Look up before you pitch your shelter and make sure you stay far away from standing dead trees.
5. Don’t get blown away.
My tarp is my favorite shelter, but I’ve spent more than one night with it wrapped around me like a burrito because the wind kept knocking it down. Picking a sheltered spot can help with this, but you should also keep wind direction in mind when setting up. Hiding your shelter behind a tree only helps if you set up on the leeward side. Many ultralight shelters also have a specific side that you should set up facing the wind. This is normally the more steeply angled, shorter side. If you use a tarp, set it up close to the group and steeply angled to shed the wind better.
You can use the wind to your advantage, too. Mosquitoes hate wind, and you can find relief from them by camping in an exposed spot. As long as you ensure the weather is favorable, you can camp in a spot with a decent breeze. Wind also helps to reduce condensation if you’re camping somewhere without tree cover.
6. Consider your landscape position.
Although camping above treeline beneath the stars is a magical experience, it comes with a certain level of risk, particularly during the summer months when thunderstorms abound in mountainous regions. You will also be exposed to potential high winds and extreme cold.
Conversely, dense, cold air also tends to settle and pool at the bottoms of valleys. If your goal is to stay warm, you should aim for a middle ground between these two extremes.
High elevation hikes: To minimize your risk of altitude sickness in high-elevation regions (generally above 8,000 feet), don’t camp more than 1,000 feet higher than your campsite of the previous night. It’s OK to gain more than 1,000 feet during the day as long as you come back down to sleep.
7. Get a little distance from the trail.
After a grueling day on the trail, the last thing most of us want is to thrash around in the underbrush looking for a hidden off-trail campsite. However, it’s nice to have enough separation that you don’t have a conga line of hikers parading past your tent. A distance of just a few yards, some trees, or a nice berm can make your site feel more private.
Some areas require hikers to camp a minimum distance from the trail so as not to impact others’ wilderness experience. For instance, in New Hampshire’s White Mountains National Forest, campers are required to set up at least 200 feet away from any trail.
8. Location, location, location.
Scenery: Long-distance hikers don’t always have the luxury of picking the most scenic campsite on the trail—but this is an article about how to choose a perfect campsite. Ideally, wouldn’t you prefer to camp with a gorgeous view, a swimming hole, or a babbling brook? But there’s more to location than just great scenery.
Mileage and proximity to roads: Long-distance hikers should consider daily mileage goals and proximity to towns and roads. A “perfect” campsite five miles from where you woke up that morning is alright for an occasional near-o. However, hikers looking to average 15 or 20 miles per day must eventually get used to passing up ideal-looking spots because they’re too close or too far away from their starting point.
Proximity to towns or road crossings can be a double-edged sword. Camping near the road can expedite your resupply run or provide a safety net for beginners should something goes wrong. On the other hand, you may be kept awake by road noise, foot traffic, drunken youths partying in the woods, etc.
9. To shelter or not to shelter?
On trails with robust shelter systems, like the AT, lean-tos let backpackers avoid the inconvenience of making and breaking camp. This is a particular boon in wet weather. Shelters and group campsites are also great places to socialize if you feel lonely.
On the other hand, they might not be the best choice if you’re looking for privacy and solitude. They also tend to attract more wildlife, increasing your risk of a wildlife encounter or chewed-through food bag.
If you play your cards right, you can have the best of both worlds. Look for a tent pad close enough to communal areas to come down and socialize for an hour or two before bed, but far enough to avoid the worst of the noise and activity after dark. Pack a pair of earplugs to block out noise at night. Take care to store your food properly overnight, taking advantage of bear lockers or poles if they are available.
Distance from the privy: If camping at an established group campsite or shelter, avoid the tent pads closest to the shitter for obvious reasons. Stay upwind if you can.
Campsite choice is important for any tent, but especially ultralight shelters. If you follow the above tips, you can get a good night’s sleep no matter what trail you’re on or what type of shelter you use.
This article was originally published on 10/23/2020. It was updated by our editorial staff on 8/18/2022.
Featured image: Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.