In established campgrounds, picking a site is easy – usually just selecting the numbered parking spot and plunking down a tent. But stray from the beaten path and the question of where to spend the night can get a bit more complicated. Here are eight things to consider.
1. Safety first – Look for dead branches or trees (called "widow makers" for a reason) that could fall on your camp. Is the site in a likely location for lightning strikes such as high, exposed ground? Never pitch a tent in a dry wash. Flash floods can happen quickly and without warning.
2. Comfort second – Look for a place with flat ground that is preferably free from rocks or other debris to set up your tent. This can be harder than expected in rugged mountains or desert, or super easy in deciduous forests and meadows. Grass and pine needles make great soft surfaces over which to pitch a tent.
3. Follow the path more traveled – When it comes to campsites in the wilderness, less is more. With so many people crowding wild places, it is best to reuse sites if possible rather than creating a new one every time someone camps. Many popular areas require the use of established sites, which simplifies selecting a location and limits the number of campers at any given time.
4. Water access – Easy access to water is great but varies dramatically depending on the environment and could range from a raging river to small puddles. Regardless, water is critical for drinking and cleaning, so ready access is very helpful.
5. Mind the environment – Your tent will leave some, albeit minimal, damage on the ground, especially if set up for several days. Avoid placing tent on fragile lichen, vegetation or living soil crusts in the desert.
6. Fires – First, be absolutely certain that fires are allowed and that there is no fire ban in effect. Be sure it is clear from overhanging branches. Dig a small pit or pitch the fire on bare earth, sweeping away any debris that could ignite. A ring of rocks can help contain fire, but also leaves the stones blackened for years. Keep fires small and closely managed. You should be left with nothing but a few ashes.
7. The call of nature – Know and obey the local rules and established norms for each area. Many fragile locations require feces to be carried out with hikers in "blue bags." Others, such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, have established pit toilets at designated campsites. In many areas, it is accepted practice to bury feces and toilet paper 6 inches, far from water sources.
8. Keeping a low profile – Many times hunters consider the wind direction and the effect their campsite will have on game patterns. In some cases, it's better to camp close to a trailhead and walk farther each day, especially with a large group that makes lots of noise and wants to enjoy an evening campfire.
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