Choosing a Campsite

“It always rains on tents. Rainstorms will travel thousands of miles, against prevailing winds for the opportunity to rain on a tent.”

– Dave Barry

Choosing a suitable campsite is an integral part of your everyday backcountry routine. Knowing what to look for, and just as importantly what to avoid, can mean the difference between deep slumber and a fitful night of tossing and turning.

Sajama National Park, Bolivia, 2017 (MLD Solomid XL).

Established Sites

If camping at established sites, stick to the designated area so as to not expand the already impacted surface. Leave no rubbish; improve your karma by picking up a few pieces of other people’s rubbish. Make this a habit. If other hikers see you doing it, it may just catch on.

Stealth Camping

If camping away from established sites, often referred to as wild or stealth camping, the hiker’s responsibility to practice no trace principles is even greater. Avoid making fires (except in emergencies), uprooting plants and breaking off branches in order to make space for your shelter. When it is time to leave if your shelter has left any imprint, be sure to remove it before setting off.


Altai Tavan Bogd | Western Mongolia, 2009.

Where to Camp?

Factors to look for in a good campsite include:

  • Well Drained:  Not a great feeling waking up in a puddle at 2 am.
  • Sheltered: Camping under big trees means less dew and more warmth. Just make sure that there are no dead branches hanging overhead.
  • “Relatively” Flat and Even: Personally, I prefer to camp on a slight slope. Sleeping with my feet on top of my pack and my head pointing downhill helps to reduce any swelling which may have accumulated in the lower extremities after a long day on the trail.
  • Breezy: If you are camping during bug season, particularly if you are using a bivy or tarp, look for a place that is at least somewhat exposed to the wind.

Sangre de Cristo Traverse, Colorado, 2016 (HMG Square Flat Tarp).

Places to Avoid

  • Depressions & Gullies are likely to be waterlogged or flooded during heavy rains.
  • Gorges: If you are camping in a gorge, pay particular attention to any changes in weather patterns. Always try and make camp above flood debris levels (i.e. the highest point reached during floods). Flash floods move incredibly quickly. If there is a chance of heavy rain, it is best to keep walking and make camp elsewhere.
  • Exposed Ridges: Avoid camping on exposed ridges or hilltops, especially in areas subject to frequent storms. If conditions are bad, it is usually better to descend and seek shelter in the bush or in lee of rocks.
  • Lone Trees: Avoid camping under lone trees that may attract lightning strikes.
  • Fragile Vegetation: Always look for places where your impact can be minimized.
  • Next to Water Sources: Camping next to water sources can often mean more bugs, condensation and the possibility of unwelcome nocturnal visitors (see Bears in Health & Safety). That being said, there are definitely times when it is nigh on impossible to resist a gorgeous lake or riverside campsite. My advice – weigh the pros and cons and take each situation on its own merits.
  • Valley Floors: Another way to minimise condensation is to avoid camping on valley floors, where katabatic air will sit of a morning.

Erg Chebbi | Sahara Desert, Morocco, 2008.