WHAT WORKS: Campsite Selection

June 14, 2016

  • by
  • Peter Reese

Dear W.W.:  We’re looking at some Forest Service and BLM camping options for a trip coming up.  We’ll be hiking in and want to make certain we pick the best spot.  Advice?

Hey Spot Seeker: Congratulations.  You’ve fled the gravity of everyday life to arrive in a better place.  Now that those tent, hammock, bivvy or ground cloth are ready to unfurl, five factors come into play.  Fly through them to camp more securely and safely.

FACTOR #1:  Prevailing winds

Obvious but frequently ignored, you’ve got a simple choice with dramatic consequences. Decide whether air movement through your shelter or from head to toe on your body is desirable as it can 1) regenerate stale air, 2) move exhaled moisture out and 3) minimize tent vibration (important on marginal stake-outs).  Pitching perpendicular to the prevailings may be warmer – and less dusty – but introduce significant stress on structure and occupants.  In any case, changing weather can defy expectations hour-by-hour (even minute-by-minute).  Watching tent poles snap in Patagonia eight years ago inspired greater awareness on our part.

FACTOR #2:  Cold morning air

Lower elevations and protected sites are frequently magnets for low, moist air in the predawn hours.  Verdant undergrowth is one sign that moisture is regular and abundant.  Instead, consider moving slightly upslope.  Active Junky backcountry travelers have learned this one the hard way during fast-and-light trips where their sleep systems were, by intention, on the bubble (warmth-wise according to manufacturer specs).  Also, in colder spring and fall conditions, taking on extra dampness may preclude staying dry – and getting warm – the entire trip:  Hypothermia can start as warm as 50 degrees as we’ve experienced first-hand in the wilds of southern Ohio.

FACTOR #3: Drainage topography

Flattened brush, compacted or grooved soil and gravel washouts are not good signs.  While potentially the result of torrential rains, they indicate the direction even moderate volumes of water and snowmelt will follow.  Alluring because they’re well-defined and clear of debris, they receive Active Junky’s collective thumbs-down for desirability. Instead of pursuing extensive trenching or rock wall construction, consider nearby locations with less threat of water intrusion.  Don’t ignore changing lake or river levels attached to upstream rainfall – or dam releases.  We’ve nearly lost canoes on four occasions when sandbars disappeared in the night.

FACTOR #4: Objective – and mobile – dangers

Rockfalls often accompany well-sheltered alpine bivvy locations.  The presence of poisonous plants needs to be assumed in the Midwest and Southern United States.  Snake, spider and ant habitat precludes some location – or mandates extra vigilance.  Even large mammals can jeopardize the experience.  A past trip to Isle Royale resulted in a moose-tromped tent (fortunately unoccupied at the time).  In most cases, the critters and creatures were there first and, in any event, need due consideration.  

FACTOR #5:  Environmental consequences

Absolutely essential for responsible travel, continued backcountry access and camping depends upon each visitor’s behavior.  Campfire use is one key as employing only established campsites during low risk times is still an action with long-term, negative consequences.  Embracing pioneer hubris to scrape virgin sites doesn’t fit the new ethic, nor does dragging firewood across vegetation or pulling rocks out of the ground to create a fire circle.  Consider the warm glow of a rechargeable lantern if supplementing the heavenly fireworks is the plan.  


Here’s to the best campsite you’ve ever found, Spot Seeker

In the new “What Works” column, Active Junky gear testers will be answering your questions. Send an email to [email protected] with questions on all things gear, tips and more. 

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