How to Choose a Backpacking Campsite

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Ideally you will want to plan campsites prior to heading into the backcountry if possible however there are many instances that you will have to find your campsite out on trail. Understanding how to choose a backpacking campsite will be crucial for a safe while also memorable experience.

In our simple guide we are going to teach you how to choose a backpacking campsite, we will outline key considerations for selecting a spot for safety, legality, resource availability, and environmental protection. You’ll learn how to pick a location that promises comfort and ticks all the right boxes with minimal impact to the environment.

How to Choose a Backpacking Campsite

Choosing a campsite is an important part of trip planning. After all this is where you will be spending the night and at the end of the day you want to have a reliable and comfortable place to stay to rest tired legs.

Evaluating Campsite Locations

Choosing the right campsite is not as simple as pitching a tent in the first flat spot you see. It’s about evaluating the terrain and considering factors like level ground, durable surfaces, and hazard-free areas. This careful evaluation ensures a harmonious balance between comfort, safety, and environmental responsibility.

Level Ground

The first thing most people get right in looking for a campsite is level ground. After it’s been a long day of hiking, and all you want is a good night’s sleep. If your tent is pitched on a slope or uneven ground, you might find yourself constantly sliding or rolling to one side. Uncomfortable, right? So, ensuring level ground is a must for a good night’s sleep and tent integrity.

Arriving early at your campsite allows you to do a thorough check for a level sleeping surface, ensuring it is free from rocks and roots. These are a couple strategies I use to find flat ground:

  • The quick walk through: A quick walk around the site can help you identify the best spot to pitch your tent.
  • Lay down: After I do a quick walk through, I will take my tent out and lay it flat on the ground prior to setting up. I will lay down on my tent to gauge the comfort, this also helps me figure out how I want to sleep in my tent when I set it up.
Choosing a backpacking campsite off trail

Durable Surfaces

When you’re out in the great outdoors, it’s essential to remember that we are just visitors. Our activities can have a significant impact on the environment. That’s why camping on durable surfaces is so critical.

When looking for a campsite off the trail make sure to look for established campsites first. These areas have already been impacted and are designed to withstand repeated use. Avoiding compacted ground is also a good idea, as it can lead to issues with water drainage and result in a waterlogged camp during heavy rain.

Free from Hazards

As much as we love the thrill of adventure, no one wants their camping trip to turn into a survival situation. That’s why it’s crucial to be aware of potential hazards like “widow makers” (dead trees that can fall without warning), rockslides, or flash floods during your camping experience, not only for your safety but also for the safety of other hikers.

Before setting up your camp, it’s important to thoroughly assess the area for any potential dangers. Here are some steps to follow:

  1. Look up and around. Are there any dead branches or loose rocks that could come crashing down?
  2. Assess the health of nearby trees and avoid pitching your tent below dead branches.
  3. Will it storm and are you tenting in what could be a flood plain?
  4. By securing a campsite early, being aware, and prepared, you can have ample time to identify and avoid these hazards.

Proximity to Resources

When out in the backcountry, having easy access to essential resources can make your camping experience a lot more comfortable. Ideally it is nice to have a reliable water source identified that you can walk to from camp or good coverage from wind if it should pick up.

Water Sources

Water is a fundamental resource when camping. But while camping near the water’s edge can be convenient, maintaining a safe distance from the water source is crucial for both safety and environmental protection.

The Leave No Trace principles suggest setting up camp at least 200 feet away from a water source. This not only prevents potential water contamination but also reduces shelter internal condensation and lowers humidity levels at night, making your sleep more comfortable.

Wind Protection

After a long day of hiking, the last thing you’d want is to have your tent blown away by high winds or to spend a sleepless night in a wind-rattled shelter. Choosing a campsite with good wind protection can make your camping experience much more pleasant.

Natural topography such as valleys, ridges, and lower elevations can act as natural shields against high winds. However, a gentle breeze can also be beneficial for bug deterrence and reducing condensation inside the tent.

A great view is always a bonus

Scenic Views

Let’s be honest, a big part of the appeal of backcountry camping is the opportunity to immerse ourselves in breathtaking scenery. Waking up to a sunrise over a serene lake, enjoying a meal with a panoramic vista in the background, or simply relaxing next to a babbling brook can significantly enhance your camping experience.

Orienting your tent to catch the morning sun can add to the quality of your camping experience, creating a picturesque start to your day. However, remember to respect nature and avoid disturbing fragile plants or wildlife to maintain the beauty of these scenic spots.

Leave No Trace Principles

When it comes to backcountry camping, it’s not just about finding the perfect campsite. It’s also about leaving that campsite just as perfect for future campers. This is where the Leave No Trace principles come in. These principles guide us to minimize our impact on the environment and promote responsible camping.

By following these principles, you can enjoy the beauty and serenity of the great outdoors while ensuring it remains pristine for future generations. Whether you’re camping in a popular area or a pristine wilderness, these principles help preserve the environment and make camping a sustainable activity.

Campsite Selection

Choosing a campsite is not just about finding a spot that’s comfortable and convenient. It’s also about minimizing our impact on the environment. One way to do this is by selecting pre-existing campsites. These sites have already been used and are not officially recognized or maintained.

By camping in these sites, we can prevent further environmental damage. Plus, staying informed about specific campsite regulations, permits, and restrictions can help us stay compliant with laws and uphold the principles of Leave No Trace.

Low-Impact Camping

Low-impact camping is all about leaving no trace of your stay. It involves practicing responsible camping habits like packing out all trash and using catholes for human waste.

It also involves using a stove for cooking and a lantern for light to minimize campfire impacts. And to minimize the risk of wildlife encounters at campsites, it’s recommended to practice proper food storage in sealed or bear-resistant containers and keep the campsite clean. By following these practices, you can enjoy your camping experience while protecting the environment.

Legal and Safety Considerations

While camping is all about enjoying nature and having fun, it’s also important to keep legal and safety considerations in mind. Here are some key things to remember:

  • Understand and adhere to local rules and regulations
  • Be aware of wildlife in the area and take necessary precautions
  • Prepare for emergencies by bringing a first aid kit and knowing the location of the nearest medical facilities

By following these guidelines, you can ensure a successful and safe camping trip.

Remember, camping isn’t just about you and nature. There are regulations and requirements put in place to protect both you and the environment. Ignoring these can lead to legal complications and harm the natural surroundings.

Backpacking tents off trail

Backcountry Regulations & Permits

When planning your backpacking trip, it’s important to be aware of the regulations of the area you’ll be visiting, especially when considering various backpacking trips. This can include things like permits and restrictions that are designed to manage the number of backpackers in an area and preserve the natural environment.

The process for obtaining permits can vary, with some areas using a lottery system for high-demand locations, while others issue specific campsite or general area permits. These permits are generally affordable and are checked by patrolling rangers, so it’s important to secure them ahead of time to avoid any legal issues.

Wildlife Awareness

There’s something magical about encountering wildlife in their natural habitat during your backpacking trip. However, it’s important to remember that we are visitors in their home. Therefore, understanding wildlife behavior and securing food and trash properly can reduce the risk of wildlife encounters.

When choosing a campsite, it’s recommended to:

  • Select a spot away from areas where wildlife congregates, like water sources
  • Learn about the behaviors of potentially dangerous animals like bears, cougars, and moose
  • Remember, a respectful distance keeps both you and the wildlife safe.

Emergency Preparedness

As much as we hope for a smooth and problem-free camping trip, it’s always best to be prepared for emergencies. Developing an emergency management plan that includes risk assessments, communication protocols, and evacuation procedures can ensure your safety in case of emergencies.

Carrying essential emergency supplies like a first aid kit, PLBs or communicators, extra food and water, and an emergency blanket can be crucial for camping safety. It’s also a good idea to stay informed about the weather forecasts and to have a clear evacuation plan in place. Remember, being prepared is not being paranoid, it’s being smart.

Tips for Finding the Ideal Campsite

Now that you have all this information, let’s talk about some practical tips for finding the ideal campsite. Remember, a great camping experience starts with a great campsite. And finding that perfect campsite requires some research, flexibility, and early arrival.

With these tips, you’ll be better equipped to find a campsite that not only meets your needs but also minimizes your impact on the environment. This way, you can enjoy your camping experience to the fullest while preserving the beauty of nature for future generations.

Research Ahead of Time

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is not researching potential campsites in advance. This could lead to a lot of stress and frustration when you arrive at your intended campsite only to find it unsuitable or already occupied.

Some tips for finding the perfect campsite include:

  • Using guidebooks and online resources to identify potential campsites
  • Consulting with park rangers for additional options
  • Making campsite reservations in advance when visiting popular backpacking destinations

These strategies, along with a detailed itinerary, will help ensure that you find the ideal campsite for your outdoor adventure, taking into consideration various campsite locations, the needs of larger groups, and the presence of other campers.

Also, always plan to reach the campsite at least two hours before sunset to avoid setting up in low light conditions.

Using rocks to pitch a tent on desert ground

Flexibility and Adaptability

Even with the most meticulous planning, you might face unexpected changes in terrain or weather conditions. This is where flexibility and adaptability come in. Being prepared to alter your campsite choices due to unforeseen circumstances can save you a lot of stress and discomfort.

Identifying alternate campsites during the planning phase can be beneficial if your original site is unusable. And remember to assess your campsite in real-time upon arrival. On-site evaluations can help you avoid committing to a suboptimal location.

Arriving Early

Arriving early at your campsite location increases the likelihood of securing your preferred spot. Plus, having sufficient time to set up your camp properly is a critical benefit of early arrival.

Setting up camp during daylight ensures better visibility and reduces the risk of injuries or setup errors. Plus, in areas where campsite options are limited, early arrival prevents the need to rush and compete for space. Remember, the early bird gets the worm or in this case the best campsite!

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I choose a good campsite?

To choose a good campsite, look for terrain that is level and free from hazards, with access to resources like water and beautiful views. Make sure to follow Leave No Trace principles and be prepared to adapt to different options.

Why is it important to camp on level ground?

Camping on level ground is important because it ensures you have a comfortable sleep and protects your tent from water pooling, preserving its integrity.

What are Leave No Trace principles?

Leave No Trace principles are guidelines that help campers minimize their impact on the environment by offering tips on campsite selection, low-impact camping, and respecting wildlife and nature. They’re essential for preserving nature for everyone to enjoy.

Why is it important to arrive early at the campsite?

It’s important to arrive early at the campsite because it increases your chances of securing a preferred spot and gives you time to set up your camp properly during daylight, reducing the risk of injuries or setup errors. Arriving early sets you up for a safe and enjoyable camping experience.

What should I do if I encounter wildlife at my campsite?

If you encounter wildlife at your campsite, stay calm and make noise or create barriers. Be sure to have protective equipment like bear spray ready, and store food in sealed containers to avoid attracting wildlife.


In a nutshell, how to choose a backpacking campsite involves considering various factors such as the terrain, proximity to resources, Leave No Trace principles, and legal and safety considerations. It also requires research, flexibility, and early arrival.

While it might seem like a lot of work, remember that a great camping experience starts with a great campsite. So next time you’re planning a backpacking trip, keep these tips for how to choose a backpacking campsite in mind!

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