How to Choose a Campsite

Your campsite is your home base when camping. It’s where you go to sleep at night, where you keep your gear while you’re out hiking, your campsite is your home while you’re on a camping trip. Picking the perfect campsite is a skill that seasoned campers spend years learning and if you choose the right spot, it’ll help your camping trip to be ever the better. On the other hand, picking the wrong campsite can turn you idyllic back-to-nature vacation into a logistical nightmare. 

There are a lot of different factors to keep in mind when picking a spot to spend the night, but we are here to tell you everything you need to know. If you’re staying at a campground, you’ll be choosing from a number of predetermined campsites, so there’s a little less to worry about. Most campgrounds will provide you with a safe and adequate campsite when you arrive, but you can still use these guidelines to help you pick the best from your campgrounds selection.

If you’re primitive camping, meaning you’re away from a campground and adventuring off into the backcountry, then choosing your campsite becomes all the more important. Because it’s all down to you to make sure you pick the ideal spot, all campers must know what to look out for, and what to avoid.

Throughout this article, we will go into detail about each and every element of the perfect campsite, so on your next camping trip, you can choose the very best spot. 

If you prefer camping in a campground to venturing off the grid, we have some helpful tips on choosing a campground too. Campgrounds can vary hugely in what they offer, so finding the right one for your trip will make a big difference. 

 

A view from inside a tent looking towards a forest.

Knowing which areas and for how long you plan to stay are the first things to consider when looking for a camping spot.

 

Location, location, location

Before you start thinking about pitching your tent, the general location of your campsite must be considered. It’s a good idea to know in advance where campsites can be found along the trail. You can discuss this with a park ranger before setting off, as you may also need to pick up a backcountry permit.

Some popular areas may be closed due to heavy use, to allow the wildlife some respite, so just make sure you know the rules and regulations of your area and abide by them. Try to arrive at least two hours before sunset, so you have plenty of time to pick the perfect spot and set up. 

Be considerate of other campers when selecting your site- you don’t want to crowd them unless you have no other choice, as so many people choose to camp in the backcountry for some quiet and solitude. Try not to place your tent where it might ruin the view for others, you should be out of sight of the trail as well. Blend in, don’t barge in. Try to minimize your impact on the environment by picking a spot where the ground is already mostly bare, rather than doing damage to the natural beauty that may take years to reverse. 

 

Choosing the right ground

The first thing you need to locate when choosing a campsite is flat, level ground. Try to avoid gradients, as you may find yourself sliding down the hill in your sleeping bag. The ground should be flat but not hard and compacted, take care to watch out for any depressions or ditches, as these could flood easily.

If you can find some grass to create a natural mattress, this will help with your comfort levels at night, but try not to squash any wildflowers. For your comfort, take a few minutes to clear the area you plan to pitch your tent of rocks, twigs, and anything else that might stick in your back in the middle of the night. The best campsites are flat areas covered by grass or sand, this will provide the most comfortable sleeping surface. 

 

Finding some shade

Especially during the summer, having a shady spot to pitch your tent is very valuable. It’s not necessary to have shade all day, but shelter from the morning sun is a must-have. Being woken up at 7 a.m. in a stiflingly hot tent is not much fun at all.

If you can’t find a shady area, near trees or bushes, you can create a shade shelter of your own. In the desert, shade throughout the day is a big plus, so bring along an extra tarp and some poles and ropes, to create your own shady respite from the sun. 

 

A lake surrounded by mountains.

Camping by the water is a great way to stay cool, especially during the warmer seasons.

 

Camping near a water source

If you’re in a National Park that features rivers, lakes, or streams, it’s a great idea to pick a spot nearby. Being out of a campground, you won’t have easy access to potable water, there are no water hookups in the wilderness. Having a stream or river nearby will provide you with water to drink and cook with, after purifying of course. Rather than having to pack in gallons of water to sustain you, there will be an unlimited resource for tapping. However, remember you should always bring at least three days’ supply of emergency drinking water. 

Camping by a lake or river also means having somewhere to swim! Swimming in nature is a wonderful experience, and also a fantastic way to stay cool in the summer months. So we’ve established that being near to a water source has massive benefits for backcountry campers. 

However, there are also a few things you need to be wary of when camping near water as well. As a powerful element of nature, a fast-flowing river could pose a threat to your camping trip rather than being a saving grace. Take care to check the high water line on lakes or river beds, as heavy rain can make the water level rise very fast. You don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night to find the water level has risen due to a thunderstorm and enveloped your campsite. Never camp on a dry river bed, that’s just asking for trouble.

As a rule, you should try to leave around 200 feet between your campsite and the water. Not only will this provide a safe distance to protect you from flash floods, but it’s also one of the leave no trace guidelines. Keeping a safe distance from any water source will prevent you from accidentally contaminating it in any way, which could pose a threat to the natural wildlife of our National Parks. 

Remember, this stream or river isn’t just a pretty natural feature for you to pitch your tent by- it’s also likely drinking water for the local wildlife. If you see evidence of animal trails near your site, it’s best to look for another spot. Camping is about spending some time in sync with nature, so try not to disrupt the daily life of wild animals by blocking their path to the water.

Additionally, it’s possible that you might receive a visit from some predators in the area who are going for a drink, so this is an extra special consideration, especially if you’re camping in bear country. It’s also worth noting that insects love to congregate around water, especially lakes and ponds, so be careful you don’t pick a campsite that will be infested with mosquitos by sundown. 

 

A girl with a hat in the rain in the woods.

Knowing which campsites can provide warmth and shelter is essential, especially when a storm is approaching.

 

Finding shelter from the elements

Picking a campsite nearby to trees, boulders, or other similar natural features will give you a bit of shelter from the elements. A little protection from wind and rain can make a big difference in harsh weather. Check the forecast in advance, and make sure you find a natural windbreak if windy conditions are expected. High winds could damage your tent, cause it to collapse, or even blow it away. Camping in a sheltered spot will also contribute towards a milder temperature, and just help towards a more chilled out camping experience in general.

 

Avoiding hazards

Venturing out into the wilderness is exciting, and picking a spot in the middle of nowhere to spend the night is a wonderful experience. However, there’s also some danger involved, as some natural features may pose a threat to your campsite. Be mindful to avoid low spots, as they can collect water, and also tend to be colder, especially at night. 

Avoid pitching your tent beneath anything that might fall, such as dead trees or rocky ledges. You might think that it looks secure, but all it takes is a bit of wind to send branches crashing down onto your tent. The 200-foot rule applies to hazards as well as water, always pitch your tent a safe distance away. 

A mountain ridge makes for a beautiful view and a very picturesque photograph to post on Instagram, but camping here will leave you very exposed. Enjoy the views on a hike, but pitch your tent somewhere more sheltered. Another thing to avoid on alpine camping trips is mountain passes.

Although they may seem sheltered, there’s a significant threat of wind tunnels forming. In certain weather, you might be able to get away with it, but the elements are ever unpredictable. If the wind picks up in the small hours of the morning, you may find yourself having to pack up and move camp in the dark. 

 

A person in a tent in the snow.

Seasonality and weather conditions will be the main determiner in where you choose to camp.

 

Picking a winter campsite

Wintertime camping is a less explored but equally enjoyable option for campers. It provides its own set of challenges and rewards and also puts forward different considerations when choosing a campsite. Camping on snow reduces your environmental impact to almost zero, which is a very appealing factor to most campers.

It also provides a much softer bed to sleep on, providing you have enough insulation from the cold of course. When camping in colder months, it’s even more important to pick a site on higher ground, as low points will reach much cooler temperatures. 

Unlike summer camping, shade is something you want to avoid during the winter. Instead, try to pitch your tent where it will receive full sun in the morning so that your tent will warm up. This will make it a little easier to crawl out of your sleeping bag and face the day.

Examine the surface of the snow in your area; if it has a frosty, brittle texture in some areas and a softer surface in others, this is a sign of harsh winds. If you spot these signs, it’s better to look for a more sheltered spot in order to avoid waking up in a snowdrift. 

Finally, carefully scan your surroundings for signs of avalanche activity. Look for trees that might have been mown down, debris in the area below you, or large amounts of snow above you. If you see any of these warning signs, move to a less threatening area. 

 

Campfires

If you’re planning to light a campfire on your trip, keep a lookout for permanent or already established fire circles. Campfires aren’t particularly good for the environment or the ground, so if you’re going to light one, at least minimize your damage.

You should also check with park rangers if you’re planning to light a fire, as in a lot of National Parks they’re actually illegal. The 200-foot rule applies to campfires as well, so if you do decide to light one, make sure it’s away from water sources, trees, your tent, and anything else which could catch alight. 

 

A picture of a fire in the woods.

Now that you’ve found the perfect campsite, it’s time to light the fire and get cooking.

 

Choosing a campground

If you aren’t ready for a primitive camping trip, or you need a little more security when you go to sleep at night, campgrounds offer organized spaces with predetermined campsites. However, picking a campground to visit can be hard if you don’t know what you’re looking for. 

Firstly, consider the sort of experience you’re after. If you’re looking to be as close to nature as possible without going completely off the grid, campgrounds in National or State Parks are best. If a campground allows RV’s, it’s probably not offering the natural experience.

On the other hand, if your aim in camping is to enjoy recreational activities, to keep the family entertained, look for a larger centrally located campground. There’ll be restaurants and attractions nearby, and it should be well equipped with amenities such as bathroom and electric hookups. 

Think about the size of the campground you’re after. Larger campgrounds mean more amenities, and plenty of other campers to socialize with, however, they can be very crowded, loud, and may detract from the nature you might otherwise enjoy. Conversely, smaller campgrounds are quieter and give a more back-to-nature feel, but be aware that the best ones get booked up fast. 

If campfires are important to you, check whether they’re allowed at any campground you’re considering. In many locations, they’re restricted due to threats of forest fires or other dangers. There’s also firewood to consider- at a popular campground, you might struggle to collect it, meaning you’ll either have to bring some with you or buy it on-site at great expense! 

There are other rules at campsites as well, regarding noise curfews, pet policy, food storage, and many other things. Look these up beforehand, to make sure you’ll be allowed to do all the things you’re planning on. 

Lastly, check what the bathrooms are like. You can’t expect much from campground facilities, so always bring a pair of flip flops for the shower. Even the best campground can have some pretty shocking facilities, so if you’re worried, read through some reviews and see what past visitors have to say. 

 

A campsite in a field with cars.

Campsites come in all different varieties and finding out what suits your needs beforehand will make you a happy camper.

 

Final Verdict:

Knowing how to choose a campsite is a vital piece of knowledge for outdoor adventurers. This information will help you get the most enjoyment out of your trip, and more importantly, keep you safe. 

 

To recap, here are the main things to keep in mind:

 

  • Have an idea in advance where you’re heading, check with the park rangers, and try to use previously established spots. 

 

  • Look for even, level ground, but avoid compacted ditches.

 

  • Camp near a water source if you can, but not too close. Watch out for high tide lines, animal trails, and insect activity. 

 

  • Use trees, rocks, and anything else you can find to shelter you from the elements. A little protection from the wind and rain goes a long way.

 

  • Look for high ground. This will help you avoid floods, as well as helping you to stay warm.

 

  • Pitch your tent in the shade, unless it’s winter. This will help you keep cool and is also more likely to be sheltered. 

 

  • Avoid hazardous spots near to dead trees, loose rocks, or anything else that might fall. The same goes for avalanches. 

 

If you’re camping in a campground rather than in the backcountry, put some thought into which one you choose. Think carefully about what you want from your campground, and book in advance! 

Choosing the right campsite can make your natural getaway a dream, it’s really one of the biggest parts of camping. Safely and respectfully enjoying the beauty of nature is what it’s all about, and by following these guidelines you should have no problems. As always, remember to follow the leave no trace and campfire safety guidelines in order to protect our environment.

 

Bonus tip: While you’re at it, check out this handy video on spotting animal trails

 

Riley Draper

Riley Draper

Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.