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Choosing a Campsite

Choosing a campsite can determine the outcome of your camping trip. Camping is fun, provides a great opportinity to get back to nature and provides exercise. However, where you decide to set up camp is important. In private campgrounds and numerous state and national parks there are rules and regulations that limit where you can camp.

I know in New Hampshire you cannot camp within 100 yards of streams, rivers and trails. You have to check distances for each park you plan on camping in. You also have to check fire regulations that change for each season and conditions.

What to look for When Choosing a Campsite.

When searching for a campsite there are numerous things to look for. You have to consider :


Terrain is the general condition of the land. It considers the slope and proximity to cliffs, swamps and tree line. There are regulations in many states about camping above the tree line.

You do not want to camp on top of a hill or above the tree line. Camping on top of a hill gives you no protection from wind. Unless you want the wind to keep the bugs at bay wind can create problems with starting fires and increases the chances of campfires spreading to nearby leaves and bushes. Before you know it there is a forest fire out of control being fueled by the wind.

If there is any chance of rain it may be accompanied with lightning. Lightning strikes are common on hilltops. To reduce the chances of a lightning strike keep below the top of the hill.

Swamps are breeding habitat for bugs, especially mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are drawn to warm bodies, carbon dioxide and bright colors. If you do not have a choice about the proximity of a swamp tries to camp downwind. If you camp upwind your scent and breath will be carried towards the swamp allowing more bugs to detect you. Downwind your scent will be detected by fewer mosquitoes.

Cliffs are dangerous places. If you camp on top of or at the bottom of a cliff your avenues of egress are limited. If you have to vacate your campsite for any reason such as the threat of animals ( deer, moose or bears ) your route of escape is greatly reduced. Also, you can become trapped in the case of a fire. At night you can easily forget about the cliff and walk into nothing. At the bottom of a cliff you are open to avalanches and falling rocks.

Camping above the tree line is not permissible in many parks. Also it is almost impossible to find a flat area free of rocks to set up your tent. Some parks provide shelters for hikers and allow the use for overnight stays but not for more than that.

Being out in the open also puts you at the mercy of the wind. On windy days you will have to tie every thing down so it is not blown away. Chasing after a jacket or stuff sack that is being driven by the wind is dangerous on rocky slopes. It is also hard to find fuel for a campfire and will restrict you to using your stove.

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The type of ground you decide to camp on varies. The ideal type would be packed gravel with few stones. This allows for drainage, sparse vegetation and strength to hold stakes.

Loamy soil turns to mud when it rains and will have thick vegetation. It is comfortable in dry weather but can quickly turn into a mud hole when it rains. Also the vegetation is fragile and will harbor insects and snakes. The main idea of camping is to do as little damage to the environment as possible.

Rocky soil is uncomfortable. You have to move a number of rocks to put your tent and there is always one or two that you missed under your sleeping pad. Not to mention the difficulty trying to sink a tent stake.

You also have to check the ground for anthills or boroughs. You do not want to camp with ants because they can get into anything and be a painful nuisance. Boroughs can be shelter for numerous types of small animals such as mice, chipmunks and snakes. While mice and chipmunks are comical to watch they can chew up your camping gear. They love food and will chew through your pack to get at your supply of energy and granola bars. Snakes are a different story. If you are in an area with poisonous snakes beware and check around rocks and downed trees.

Dry river and stream beds can become raging torrents of water very quickly. It does not have to rain where you are to fill them. Rain storms a few miles away can affect them without any warning. If there is a dry bed, camp on higher ground.

Do not camp in low spots. Rain water flows downhill and collects in low lying areas. If leaves look like they are flat and compressed they have been in standing water. This could be an indication that the area will fill during a rain. Camp on higher ground or be prepared to move if it rains.

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Water is essential to life. If you camp in the desert, water is scarce to nonexistent. Maps for known locations of water are available but the water sources may not be reliable. The sources can dry up or move. Find water before you set up. Do not set up at the water source because all animals will use the source, just know where the source is keeping it within reach.

Wooded areas have abundant water but can be hard to find for novices. When searching for an area to camp, locate a water source first. You do not want a long commute to a source. When I camp I bring a five gallon plastic container but when backpacking I use a stuff sack with a plastic bag for an inside liner. Both are heavy when full so you don’t want to carry them for long distances.

For information on how to treat different water sources see my best camping water filters. Set up your camp close enough to a water source but far enough away to comply with regulations.

In wooded areas it is easy to find wood for a campfire. In rocky terrain you may have to search in a river where debris accumulates at a bend or rock trap. Try to place your camp close enough to a source of campfire fuel so you do not spend all day lugging firewood.

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Game Trails

Animals do not just roam around the woods. They have set boundaries and trails going from sleeping areas to feeding areas. They also patrol their areas looking for mates and competition for mates. It is a lot easier to walk on trails than it is to break their way through brush. Know what kind of wildlife is in the area you are in.

Do not set up camp on a trail or have ropes cross a trail. If you set up on a trail you will have numerous visitors from bunny rabbits to moose and bear. While rabbits are cute, moose and deer antlers can become entangles in ropes causing injury to the animal and damage to your gear.

Bears are inquisitive and will search out your food supply. If you camp on a trail your chances of being discovered by a bear are higher. I cannot stress this enough. If you are in bear territory, do not store, cook or eat in your campsite. Keep your dining and storage a few hundred feet away from your tent.

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Widow Makers

Widow makers are trees and limbs that can cause injury if they fall on you. Look around for trees that are leaning or are dead and rotten. Eventually severely leaning or dead trees and branches will fall. You do not want to be under them. Remove them or move to a safer spot.

Watch for large rocks on hillsides that can become loose and roll. If any look precarious, stay away. A small rock can tumble down and strike a larger rock setting the larger one in motion.

Once you have chosen where to set up your campsite you have to decide where to set up your tent.

Camping and backpacking can be an enjoyable experience. You just have to know what to look for when choosing a campsite.The idea is to have fun, remain safe and create enjoyable memories not disastrous ones.

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