Campsite Selection: 13 Things to Think About

There are a ton of things to think about when embarking on a backpacking trip, but one thing many campers – particularly novices – fail to consider is site selection. This is a shame, as the place you pick will have a huge influence on the overall experience.

Select a good site and you’ll likely have a great time; pick a bad spot and you’ll likely spend all weekend waiting to go home.

But don’t worry – campsite selection needn’t be terribly complicated. You simply need to keep a few things in mind to help avoid setting up camp in a place that’ll leave you regretting your decision. We’ll share some of the most important considerations below.

1. Respect the Rules of the Park You’re Visiting

Different parks and wilderness areas have different rules regarding campsite selection. Some allow backpackers to camp anywhere they like, while others only allow camping in established sites.

Being forced to stick to pre-determined campsites seems like a bit of a drag to some, but it can help those without a great deal of backcountry experience avoid a number of common pitfalls. Preexisting campsites also eliminate a lot of the grunt work necessary to establish a good location, thereby leaving more time for s’mores, campfire stories and relaxation.

Regardless, just be sure that you follow the rules and regulations regarding campsite selection for the park you’re visiting. Failure to do so may result in heavy fines or expulsion from the park.  

2. Take Advantage of Natural Clearings  

Assuming you’re camping in a park that doesn’t require you to camp in pre-determined spots, you’ll want to select a site that won’t force you to do a lot of unnecessary work. Essentially, that means picking a spot that’s already clear – you don’t want to have to cut down trees, lift heavy logs, or move a bunch of rocks out of the way.

Not only do these kinds of activities leave the wilderness less wild, but they also represent a ton of work you’ll want to avoid. After all, you’re on vacation!

Now, when camping in anything other than the most remote backcountry areas, this will often mean selecting a place that’s obviously been used as a campsite before. But if you are in a true wilderness area that’s hardly been touched by other humans, try to take advantage of the natural clearings created by large tree falls or near large rock outcrops.

3. Calibrate Your Distance from Water

You’ll obviously want to select a campsite that’s relatively close to the water – particularly if you plan on staying at a given site for more than a day or so. You’ll obviously need water for drinking, but you’ll also need water for cooking, bathing, and general clean up chores. Trekking a mile to collect a liter or two of water at a time will get old quickly.

But you don’t want to camp too close to the water either. Doing so will usually lead to mosquito problems, and if you situate your campsite on a floodplain, you may be woken by water flowing through your tent in the middle of the night. For that matter, waterside campsites are often popular with raccoons, who may help themselves to more of your food than you’d like.

Some recommend camping about 100 feet or so from water – assuming that’s outside of any existing floodplain. It’s pretty easy to lug water this distance, and it means you’ll already be half as far as you’ll need to be from the water when nature calls (the rule of thumb for poopin’ and peein’ in the wilderness is 200 feet from the water).

But others recommend camping at least 200 feet from water, primarily to avoid setting up shop on a wildlife highway to the water and to give other campers plenty of elbowroom.  

4. Watch Out for Tree Hazards

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While the odds of a tree or branch falling on you while camping are pretty low, the stakes involved are very high. Even a small falling branch is likely to leave you seriously injured, and a large branch or entire tree will likely kill you.

Accordingly, it just makes good sense to glance up when picking a campsite.

Obviously, you’ll want to avoid camping under any visibly dead trees or those with large, dead branches. But there are some other things you may want to consider when evaluating the trees surrounding the site too.

For example, to the extent you’re comfortable identifying trees, you’d be wise to avoid camping under weak-wooded species and instead opt for those that typically have very strong wood and sound structure.

This means opting to camp under tuliptrees or sweetgums, rather than sycamores along riparian areas and the forest edge and being mindful of oaks when camping in uplands and deep forests – in some areas, a horrifyingly named phenomenon called sudden limb drop is quite common.

Hickories have some of the hardest, strongest wood in the forest, but you’ll have to weigh that against the possibility of having nuts fall on you from great heights.

5. Select a Place of Suitable Size

You don’t need to hold out for a gigantic clearing when camping in the forest, but you do want to make sure you pick a spot that offers sufficient space for comfort and safety.

The exact amount of space you’ll want will vary based on myriad factors, including the size of your party, the weather, and the relative bear risk in your area, among other things. So, try to simply envision the layout of your site before picking a specific location.

Minimally, you’ll want to select a space that has enough room for your tent, as well as ample space for a campfire located a safe distance from your tent. You’ll also want enough space to store your pack and other gear, perform necessary chores, and simply stretch out.

6. Look for Level Ground

Always try to pick a level campsite, except when things like heavy rain or flooding are likely (in which case you’ll want to look for places featuring a slight slope to provide drainage).

Doing so will not only make sitting around the campfire more comfortable, but it’ll also make things like cooking easier (ever try to cook a pot full of water at an angle?). That said, the most important reason to seek out a flat campsite is that it’ll help ensure you get a good night’s sleep.

Pitch your tent on uneven ground and you’ll slowly but surely find yourself sliding downhill as the night wears on. This makes it difficult to rest properly, and it also means you may find the downhill portion of your body bumping into the (potentially damp) tent walls.

7. Consider the Sun’s Path

Whether you’re camping in the summer or winter, you’ll want to consider the sun’s influence on your comfort.

Seriously – this isn’t something to just gloss over. Pick a sunny spot in August and you’ll be miserable at midday; pick a shady spot without morning sun in the winter and you’ll spend coffee time jealously glaring at the sunny spots you do see.

This can be tough to accomplish if you arrive at your campsite after the sun has set, but you can at least scan the canopy above to see if there are any significant gaps through which the sun may peek. You may also be able to check for clues like dry patches of soil amid an otherwise damp forest floor – the lack of moisture in such cases is likely due to the sun’s rays. Similarly, if you’re camping in the winter, you may take note of places with more or less ice than others.

One more thing to keep in mind: While we tend to think of the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, this isn’t exactly true. The sun actually sets in the southeast and sets in the southwest – at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

8. A Slight Breeze Is Often Wonderful

You don’t want to camp in a spot beset by gale-force winds, but a nice breeze is often a selling point in all but the coldest conditions.

For starters, a gentle breeze will make it easier to prevent smoke and food odors from blowing into your tent (just be sure to situate your tent upwind of the fire). A bit of wind will also help keep you a bit cooler during the hottest parts of the day.

But one of the best things about wind is that it often helps keep the local mosquito population relatively low. Mosquitos are featherweight flyers, who get blown off course easily. Accordingly, they tend to prefer sticking to sheltered spots with very little wind.

9. Think About Your Food Storage Strategy

Food storage is an important consideration for any camping trip, as it’s almost never wise to simply leave food laying around overnight. In a best-case scenario, you may simply find some of your food ruined by rodents; in a worst-case scenario, you may put yourself in legitimate danger, should you attract the wrong kinds of visitors.

Historically, there weren’t that many options at your disposal – you simply had to hang your food from a tree limb and hope for the best. But modern campers have a variety of food-storage options at their disposal to suit different situations and scenarios.

Some campers still prefer to hang their food out of the reach of hungry critters. Fortunately, many modern campsites already have wires installed specifically for such purposes, which makes things much easier.

Others will prefer to use bear bags or bear-proof storage containers, which protect your food without needing to be hung high above (though it is still wise to fix some reflective tape to these containers – this will make it easier to find them after a bear has tossed them hither and yon).

Car campers may be able to get away with storing food inside the vehicle but be sure to ask the rangers first – bears have learned to open cars in some places, and you may even be fined for leaving food in your car at times. And in some cases, you’ll find that your campsite has a dedicated food locker available, which makes things remarkably simple.

But no matter which option you prefer, make sure that you factor your food storage strategy into your campsite selection process.

10. Think Twice About Camping in High-Traffic Areas

Before explaining why you may not want to camp in high-traffic areas, let’s at least acknowledge the fact that high-traffic campsites are often popular for a reason.

Some are situated near points of interest, while others are located in supremely convenient areas. Others may not offer anything especially valuable yet endure a ton of traffic because they’re simply located alongside popular trails.

And aside from any unique value these places may offer, it’s also worth pointing out that they are typically quite “broken in.” There will almost always be an existing fire circle, and many will feature suspiciously flat, cleared spaces that are perfect for a tent. They may even have logs sitting around the fire already.

But, as mentioned, there are reasons you may want to avoid high-traffic sites. A few of the most important include:

  • Rodents tend to be most numerous in high-traffic sites. Drawn by the availability of free food, rodents may not only represent a nuisance and ick-factor, but they can also spread dangerous diseases and are worth avoiding.
  • Mosquitos are often more numerous in popular campsites. The combination of a consistent food supply and scattered bits of water-retaining refuse frequently cause mosquitos to hang around high-traffic campsites.
  • High-traffic campsites don’t offer a ton of solitude. Though this may not be a drawback for more social campers, those seeking solitude and an escape from other people will not enjoy high-traffic campsites.
  • You won’t have much privacy at high-traffic campsites. It may not be a problem for all campers to see a steady stream of hikers walking by as they sit around the fire. But few will appreciate answering nature’s call or changing clothes in front of a passing group of strangers.
  • Criminals are most likely to target popular campsites. Sadly, crime is a bigger threat than would be ideal on the trail. Thieves – and those with worse intentions – will generally start looking for trouble in places that typically harbor people.

11. Think About Your Environmental Footprint

You’ll always have some kind of imprint on the environments you explore. If nothing else, you’ll certainly leave footsteps in your wake.

But you’ll always want to limit these as much as possible. And in those cases where you can’t help but leave your mark, it’s wise to do so in the same places others have (yet another thing to consider when thinking about the amount of traffic a given site experiences).

This means not pitching a tent in the middle of delicate meadow vegetation. This means not camping in a spot where freshly fallen acorns – an important food source for many local critters – carpet the ground. This means confining your large party to previously used campsites, rather than establishing one from scratch.

Basically, it means just being as gentle on the environment as you possibly can.

12. Be Considerate of Other Campers

In addition to considering the way in which your actions and campsite selection influence Mother Nature, you’ll also want to consider how you’ll be affecting other campers.

Camp long enough and you’ll certainly have a “this jerk at the next campsite” story. That’s a rite of passage for dedicated campers, but you know what isn’t so honorable? Being the villain in one of these stories.

So, keep other campers in mind when selecting your site. Don’t pick the spot directly adjacent to a place in which others are already camping if you have other options available. Don’t crowd your neighbors so much that your cooking odors blow right into their tent. And for heaven’s sake, don’t set up a latrine anywhere near other campers.

Just be considerate – it isn’t really complicated.

13. Scan the Site Thoroughly Before Settling In

Before you take off your pack and finalize your decision, be sure to walk around the entire campsite. Look carefully for any previously unseen red flags.

Spot some unsavory litter or paraphernalia scattered about? You may want to travel a bit farther off the beaten path. Notice a hornet’s nest a bit too close for comfort? That’s reasonable enough justification to deny your initial impulse and move on.

Honestly, it is really easy to decide you’ll just make the best of a site and ignore serious flaws when you’ve been hiking for miles, burdened by a heavy pack. But that’s a mistake.

Your choice of campsite is crucial to your overall camping experience, and it is not something to take lightly. So be patient, and just walk around any potential site for a minute before you formally declare it your temporary home.

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You needn’t make campsite selection overly complicated, but it is something you’ll want to consider carefully.

We think the 13 things outlined above pretty much sum up the things you’ll want to think about, but we’re curious to hear about the things you think we missed. So, let us know your campsite-selection secrets in the comments below. If we really like them, we’ll add them to the article above!

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