Choosing the Best Wilderness Backpacking Campsite
If your next trip is taking you to a popular trail in a National Park or areas where campsites are available by obtaining a permit and making a backcountry reservation, often times there will be little to decide upon when it comes to choosing a campsite; if designated sites are all that’s available most of the deciding has already been done for you. When exploring more remote wilderness areas and in all areas where dispersed or zone camping is allowed or all that’s available however, when choosing the best place to camp for the night a variety of factors will need to be considered based upon the terrain, season, and other elemental factors. This of course is in addition to the standard prerequisites of finding a spot flat enough to sleep, with good drainage, and that has sufficient space for your shelter.
Proximity to water is often a high priority for many campers, but it’s not necessarily a requirement with sufficient planning for dry camping. Water simply equates to convenience – instead of having to carry water, which is quite heavy, from the last source to your dry campsite for the night, when camping close to water it’s easy to setup first, then filter water to get you through the night and have enough to get started on the trail the next morning. Camping near water can have a few drawbacks however, including a colder night – water seeks out low points in the terrain and this is where the cold air will flow and settle after dark. Additionally, wildlife encounters may be increased – including mosquitoes – and at times campsites or camping areas near water can become overused. If you do plan to dry camp, you may want to consider some extra water capacity – your standard Platypus container for example is quite ultralight (when not filled!) and they’re great for taking along when you might need to dry camp on a particular trip.
Depending on the weather and season, wind may best be avoided or can be sought out at other times of the year. While mountain campsites above treeline may offer the best view and make for a share-worthy photograph, these types of campsites can expose you to the full force of the wind. This makes everything from cooking to getting a good night of rest that much harder, and in these situations descending just a bit and seeking out the trees will help greatly. When backpacking in mosquito season however a bit of a breeze can be a godsend, especially when camping near water. (Always carry repellent – Herbal Armor is a personal favorite, combined with a backpacking headnet for maximum sanity regardless) Thankfully, mosquitoes typically coincide with warmer temperatures so getting a little breeze is no big deal. If wind is a factor that you can’t avoid, having a double wall shelter, especially one with a solid or partial solid interior will help, and seek out any kind of natural shelter possible whether a grove of shrubs, a boulder, heading to the lee side of a slope, etc.
For the benefit of all involved, it’s best to avoid any type of area where wildlife will tend congregate or be prone to utilize. Many times, this can mean avoiding overused areas where resident wildlife has come to expect food rewards from insufficiently protected and stored food, and additionally consideration for natural wildlife corridors and funnels should be evaluated in any situation. This includes trips where you’re following a marked trail, hiking offtrail, and in heavily used areas as well as in true wilderness. Just like camping at least a couple hundred feet away from the main hiking trail is a great idea and is usually regulated, using the same strategy when it comes to game trails or areas where wildlife would have to pass is a good idea.
A great example is a large lake with a cliff band on one side, with a grassy meadow in between the cliff and shoreline. The only way wildlife (or other hikers for that matter) can get from point A to point B is by taking the area between the cliff band and the shoreline, and this type of area is one best avoided. If you’ll be camping in areas where bears are present, additional practices for backpacking in bear country will of course be in order. When you are camping in a popular area, use extra caution with food preparation and storage (by utilizing an Ursack, a bear canister, or food hang - check regulations).
Nightly temperatures can vary wildly with terrain – and with cold air sinking and warm air rising camping lakeside at the bottom of a valley may not be the best choice if you're after a warm night, as cold air will settle right where you’ve setup camp. This can be counter-intuitive to some extent however, as when we begin to make large scale elevation changes in mountainous terrain – in the order of around a thousand feet or more – it will be cooler higher and warmer lower. It is usually too tedious to descend 1000 feet or more on any typical backpacking trip just to find a warmer campsite – since most likely you’ll have to gain that elevation back the next day so some compromise is in order. One exception might be in cold weather however, when descending can be quite appropriate in order to drop below the snowline of an impending storm or at least get to an elevation where total snow amounts will be more manageable.
No matter the overall elevation, finding that small rise above the valley floor, or camping on a bench part way up a slope can be significantly warmer than just a contour line on the map lower and will be drier and less prone to overnight condensation as well. When this situation can’t be avoided, having a sleep system that’s dialed in should get you through the night in relative comfort, and make sure to bring that pack towel to dry the condensation off your tent in the morning.
Something to be sought after in the cold, and avoided when it’s hot – exposure to the sun is always something important to consider. On winter and shoulder season trips where snow can be a factor, planning your trip and campsites to follow south-facing slopes can limit your snow exposure if desired, and will always be warmer than frigid north facing slopes that may see little to no sun at all on short winter days with a low sun angle. In desert or arid climates finding any terrain features to provide shade will be appreciated during the warmer months, although some of this comes down to timing in regard to setting up and leaving camp as well.
In forested areas trees play a huge part in campsite selection – so much that we devoted our Issue 31 Trail Tip to the subject, but in short when it’s cold camping in the trees will be warmer at night and block more wind and precipitation, while being less of a condensation prone campsite, but those trees will also block those first rays of light on chilly mornings. It can be a tough call – and may depend on how early you plan to be up and leaving camp. Additionally, you will want to avoid camping anywhere near or within range of trees that may fall when camping in a forest.
Without a doubt there is no one single best campsite checklist than can be provided that will cover all circumstances, or even cover a single area when one considers the variability of seasons and weather. When it comes down to choosing a campsite for the night on a typical backpacking trip, there may indeed not be an area available that checks everything off the list of factors that are important to you and are most suitable for the situation. However, a quick consideration of the various factors applicable to the situation at hand can help when it comes to choosing between several initially suitable camping areas, or help seal the deal on avoiding a possibility altogether and instead hiking on to greener pastures.
In any case, when it comes to finding a wilderness campsite make sure you check the associated regulations in regards to the required distance from trails, lakes, and streams (note that many established wilderness sites you may come across will not necessarily conform to these regulations), or any other regulations that may be in effect for your backpacking destination of choice, while following practices to ensure you leave no trace.
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