Choosing a Good Campsite
You have done your due diligence finding a good campground centrally located to the things you want to do in the perfect area. Or, you have backpacked into an area and located a sweet lake in the bowl of some beautiful mountain paradise. What do you need to think through in choosing the right place to lay out that tent for your one night's rest, or your week of family activities?
Obviously, the nature of your trip will dictate some of the considerations, but let's start with the most important consideration - safety!
Safety First in Choosing your Campsite
Nothing puts a damper on the camping fun like a lightning strike, flash flood, or waking up to realize you placed your tent on a bear trail in the Alaska wilderness.
I believe anybody who is smart enough to be in the outdoors does not need too much elaboration on any of these ideas, but maybe just had not thought through the dangers that could be present.
Be alert to flash flooding areas. A lot of developed campgrounds will alert campers to sites in areas subject to flash flooding - but do not rely on this! Be responsible for yourself and family. Do some research on the area and pick a site on high enough ground to avoid flash flooding. Small creek beds are just a bad idea. It may be tempting because you want to be near water, but unless you are 110% sure of the weather and/or that the creek does not flood, don't do it.
Lightning is a risk above tree line. That is not the only lightning risk for sure, but too many backpackers travel to the high country and get up high and think the view and absence of bugs is worth it. Many high peaks get lightning on most afternoons and evenings and camping in such an area is in the rookie mistake category. Get off the ridgetops and down a little lower where you do not represent the most attractive target for mother nature's shortest of lessons.
Also be careful camping below tall trees in any campground. As we will discuss soon, shade is a good thing, but being under a single tree in a storm is asking for trouble.
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Hammock at Acadia National Park campsite
Edited Image 2016-07-07 17-28-27
Cooking on grill at Lake Michigan Rec Area campsite
View from Cadillac Mountain - Acadia National Park
View from campsite at Trappers Lake in Colorado Flattops Region
Red Bluff Campground on Upper Huzzah
Coffee pot on the campfire
Edited Image 2015-7-6-10:49:24
Picasa - Camping at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park - Montana
Campsite at Lewis and Clark State Park in Montana
Choose a Level Site
This is a challenge at times, but is really important for a variety of reasons. For those times where it's impossible, we'll give some suggestions on what to do. In this same section, let's also cover setting up camp on and elevated pad.
Getting camp set up on a level area makes sleeping and comfort easier and greater. The key thing is that you never want to orient your tent and sleeping pads and bags with your head facing downhill. It will be a terrible night's sleep and likely find you waking with a throbbing headache. Additionally, camping on a hillside may have you discovering the drainage pattern runs right through the middle of your tent in a heavy rain.
When you can, set your tent on an elevated pad area so that rain drains away from you. Many campgrounds have the sites set up this way anyhow. On rare occasions when all other possibilities have been exhausted, AND doing so will not cause ecological damage, you might dig a small trench around your tent, with a drainage outlet sloping away.
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Loon at Jordan Pond - Acadia National Park
Lake Michigan Beach
Dry Fork Campground Mark Twain Cedar Creek
Dry Fork Campground Mark Twain Cedar Creek
Huzzah Creek, Ozarks, Missouri
Huzzah Creek, Ozarks, Missouri
North Tongue River - Bighorn Mountains - Wyoming
Majestic Glacier National Park Mountains
Glacier National Park
The Shade Factor
Most of your camping expeditions will likely be summer or at least warm weather endeavors, so shade is certainly a good thing. But, you need to think through the advantages and disadvantages of that shady spot.
First of all, keep in mind the issue we discussed before...if you are under the lone or tallest tree in an area, you have chosen to camp underneath a natural lightning rod. Not a wise idea.
Second, insects tend to congregate in areas with vegetation, and that shady area might be awfully buggy. My favorite option, when it's available, is to get the tent underneath shade, and have the picnic table and fire pit where you will spend time outside the tent, out in the open. We typically put a sun shade with mosquito netting over the picnic table. If there is no picninc table, we have a small bagged camp table we put in our bug/sun shelter. In the evenings, after the sun has gone down, we can sit by the campfire out in the open. When and if we are around camp during the warm part of the day, we can sit under the bug shelter.
Which Campsite Should I Choose?
At right is a campground map. It's pretty typical. I have no idea where it is. The only slightly out of character aspect is that there is only one restroom. Apparently this campground has drinking water and bathrooms as the only amenities.
Let me guide you through what my thought process would be here, keeping in mind that I'd also get on Google Maps or Google Earth to try and ascertain information about shade and anything else that looked pertinent. I am assuming this is a trip where I have my wife and/or children.
So, we want the restroom to be within reasonable proximity, we want to be reasonably close to water, we'd like to have as much privacy as possible, and if there is any strategy by which we can reduce the number of cars that pass, that would be nice as well.
Normally, I like to be on the outside of loops. Often there will be trails leaving from these sites that access other hiking trails or trails to fishing spots, etc. Here, the only outside loop sites seem to be adjacent to what looks to be the main road where there might be traffic all night long. So, for me #'s 15 and 16 are out.
#12 is too close to the restrooms...people will likely pass through or very close to this site when heading to the restrooms. #'s 10,11,and 13 are close to the restroom, but are right beside water supplies and so again, traffic through those sites might be a problem.
Sites #7,8, and 9 are all relatively close to water and restrooms. None of them seem to have an advantage in terms of space around them for privacy. All other factors considered then, I'd likely choose #7.
It has good proximity to water and restrooms, and is on the outside of the loop for the purposes of potential trails.
Finally, if we were all on board that the primary purpose of the trip was to fish Tenmile Creek, and we all agreed to sacrifice proximity to restrooms to be closer, there are some very attractive sites on that side. It is certainly the area I'd choose if I was there by myself.
Putting it all Together
Safety comes first. Get your site as level as possible. Try to get shade that is safe. Try to locate a campsite that is private and has good proximity to the amenities that are available and important to you. Camping is an awesome experience when things go right. In campgrounds and in the backcountry there are occasionally circumstances that arise that could not have been forseen - like obnoxious campground neighbors. But with some foresight, you can plan ahead and make your trip the best it can possibly be.