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How to Choose a Campsite: a Guide to Finding the Perfect Camping Spot

Choosing a great campsite can make or break your camping trip. Here are 5 guidelines with tips and questions to help you choose a good campsite.

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Choosing a great campsite can make or break your camping trip. Throughout my almost four decades of camping, I’ve tent-camped, hammocked, backpacked, and car-camped in horrible, incredible, and many in-between campsites. Good situational awareness is key when choosing a campsite. Here are five guidelines with tips and questions to help you choose a good campsite. 

1) Plan ahead.

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What do you want out of your camping experience?

Do you primarily want a good night’s sleep? Do you primarily want to have a great time with friends? Maybe you value a convenient campsite near the bathrooms, showers, or other amenities. Or maybe you want to go fishing, off-roading, or to the beach. Cost is usually at least a secondary consideration. What you want is personal and likely a combination of factors. 

Gather good intel.

Identify a few potential campsite options.

Identify a few possible campsite options within a certain distance in case you want to stop sooner or go on further if you’re stuck in traffic, get a late start, or find that you have the energy to go further than originally expected. 

Test gear at home before your trip. 

Testing your gear helps you visualize the size of your tent, RV, or hammock in a camp spot. It also helps you estimate how long setup and breakdown takes. Gear testing at home helps you determine what pieces and parts you have or are missing. 

Schedule your arrival at least 2 hours before sunset. 

You can set up camp in the dark, but I guarantee you’ll enjoy the camping experience much more if you get there in the daylight to avoid campsite surprises such as scenery, pests, and gear difficulties. 

2) Look for a comfortable campsite.

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Look for a level area. 

Are you comfortable lying down? This is critical for a good night’s sleep. Consider a slightly inclined spot for water drainage in case of rain. Avoid low campsites to avoid dampness and coldness.

Look for plush, dry ground.

Is the ground soft and porous? Look preferably for a campsite covered in natural materials like leaves, moss, or sand to help with sleep padding, warmth, and water drainage.  

Look for enough space and seating

Is the campsite roomy enough for sleeping, cooking, sitting, and cleanup areas? I value finding comfortable sitting places, such as logs or rocks nearby. Sometimes this isn’t always possible, but you at least need enough space to set up your tent. 

Look for water. 

Is there water nearby for hydration and cooking? Camp near a water source but not too close. Camp at least 200 feet away from streams and lakes to reduce the impact on the native plants and animals. Camping near a water source is sometimes not an option.  

Look for privacy. 

Is the campsite generally peaceful, and is there anything that might attract animals or people to your campsite? Avoid camping on either human or animal trails. Also, look for some separation between campsites. Privacy is not always available.  

Look for naturally protected and sheltered areas.

Is the campsite exposed to sun, wind, and potential rain? Forested campsites are often best for natural shelter. Also, consider the sun exposure. Morning sun and afternoon shade usually work best. Practically, this means southeastern-facing campsites are preferable. 

3) Look for a safe campsite.

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Anticipate potential rain and wind.

Would this campsite be a good location in a storm? 

  • Avoid low campsite spots and potential puddle areas. 
  • Anticipate how rain might drain out of your campsite. 
  • Know the potential weak spots of your camping gear.
  • Consider the wind direction and forecast. 
  • Look at the bent of trees, which may indicate the direction of common wind. 
  • Utilize forested or boulder areas for weather protection. 
  • Try to place the foot of the tent facing the wind so that the wind blows over your tent instead of catching it. 

Avoid potential deadfall.

Are any dead trees, limbs, or loose rocks above or nearby? Look up and around. Situational awareness is critical to avoiding widow-makers. 

Avoid low spots.

Does it look like a puddle was here? Low spots are cold and potentially wet. Try to find a campsite with higher ground that is not exposed. 

Avoid pests and poisonous plants.

Is there evidence of animal droppings, food bits, ants, or other bugs? There’s nothing worse than setting up camp in a beautiful spot only to find you’re sitting on an ant nest. Pests looking for food, including mice, rats, raccoons, chipmunks, and bears, are attracted to larger, popular campsites. Look for animal holes or nests nearby. Be aware of poisonous plants in your areas, especially with kids. 

Avoid danger zones.

Is this a spot at risk for a major natural disaster? Consider tides on the beach, avalanches in snowy areas, and flash floods in desert/dry areas. Use common sense to avoid exposed campsites such as high points, wide-open areas, and lone trees. 

4) Look for an environmentally friendly campsite.

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Use established campsites when possible.

Where have others previously camped? The best campsites are found, but they are not made. Consider a campsite with durability and leave no trace principles:

  • Previous hikers, campers, or rangers have created designated spots for a reason, such as a tent platform, gravel pad, or other marked areas.
  • Keep campsites small, even with a large group. 
  • Avoid large flat areas to avoid the creation of crowded, noisy mega-sites.
  • Avoid lightly used sites, as even a single night can reverse natural recovery and potentially create an unwanted established campsite.
  • If no established campsite is available, camp on a grass meadow, under shaded trees with non-vegetated leaf litter, or on flat, bare rock. Avoid camping on broad-leaf plants or lightly used sites. 

Follow the 200 ft rule.

Is the campsite at least 200 feet from the nearest water source? Both people and animals highly use these areas. Many smaller, fragile wildlife live within this 200-foot zone. Avoid camping in this zone, especially if established sites are outside this fragile impact zone. 

Consider responsible hammock camping in wilderness areas to reduce impact.

Can you use a hammock here? My favorite way to wilderness camp for over a decade is with a hammock. You can also be part of the solution to reduce impact while enjoying the outdoors. Hammocks reduce your environmental footprint if used correctly [1]. They have the added bonus of making campsite selection much easier. Uneven, rocky, root-covered, muddy ground with tall weeds and sticks everywhere is no longer a concern. 

5) Look for a beautiful campsite.

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A good campsite is often not the most beautiful. If a beautiful spot is a priority, you might have to consider reasonable compromises. Nothing is wrong with wanting that awe-inspiring view or a campsite that feels just right!

Start dreaming of your next ideal campsite. What does it look like? Then, put together your ultimate camping gear list or start planning delicious camping meals.

FAQ

What is the best age to go camping with kids?

Camping can be a fun and rewarding experience for people of all ages as long as you are prepared and comfortable. However, some factors that may influence your decision are the type of camping, the location, the season, the amenities, and the activities available.

What should I consider when camping with infants and toddlers?

Babies are somewhat easier to camp with if you keep them warm or cool, depending on the weather. You may want to choose a campground with amenities like water, electricity, and camp showers or camp close to home in case of emergencies. Also, babies and toddlers can be fussy, especially when tired, so camping in a trailer or RV might work better than a tent.

Camping with toddlers can be challenging, as they may be curious and adventurous but also prone to eating stuff they shouldn’t or wandering off. You may want to find a campsite with grassy or sandy areas or bring a playpen or a play tent for them. Avoid campsites near water, cliffs, or other hazards, and keep an eye on them at all times.

What about camping with preschoolers and elementary-age kids?

This is a great age to start camping, as they can enjoy nature and learn new skills. You may want to involve them in the planning and packing process and let them help with simple tasks like setting up the tent or collecting firewood. You may also want some fun outdoor activities ready for them, like hiking, fishing, or playing games.

How about camping with older kids and teens?

Camping can be more adventurous and exciting with older kids and teens, as they can explore new places and try new things. You may want to choose a campsite that offers more challenging outdoor activities, like backpacking, canoeing, or rock climbing. You may also want to give them some independence and responsibility, like letting them choose their tent or cook their meal

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AUTHOR
Daniel Borkert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Outdoor Footprints, a website that tells you everything you need to know about camping and hiking. He is an avid outdoorsman with almost four decades of experience in hiking, camping, caving, and fishing. Daniel loves to involve his wife and kids in his outdoor pursuits and inspire other families to do the same. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his family and an energetic Boston Terrier named Zion.

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