tent campsite glowing trees
Photo by Denys Nevozhai

If you looked to Instagram to learn how to camp, you’d get the impression that the perfect campsite is at the edge of crystal-clear lake, at the highest point of a mountain, or in the middle of a wildflower-filled meadow. But try actually camping there. You’ll soon see why seasoned outdoorsmen and women never do this. That flat spot at the lake’s cove is the preferred drinking hole for all kinds of wildlife, your stakes will be ripped out of the ground on that beautiful mountaintop, and the mosquitoes in that meadow…well, let’s not talk about the mosquitoes.

It’s time for a refresher on the art of choosing the perfect backcountry campsite.

Avoid Water

Let’s start with the basics: you do not want to camp next to your water source. Yes, we’ve all done it. Yes, it is convenient. And yes, they do make for great, brag-worthy photos. It’s also dangerous. In the short-term and the long-term.

In the short-term, you risk animals using your campsite as a staging ground for a midnight drink. And the more wildlife that runs through your campsite, the more likely you are to be caught in the crossfire or put in direct danger.

Long-term, that convenient campsite is doing damage to that pristine lake. Erosion on the soil banks is leaching silt that muddies the water. Contamination from campers is polluting the drinking water. Even soap can have a negative effect. It can disrupt the natural balance of the lake and promoting algae blooms.

Campfire-Free Campsites

It can be hard to bypass the pre-manicured campsite–a flat area already brushed free of pine cones and rocks, a boot path cut over to a scenic bathroom break, and a pre-made (and used) campfire at the ready.

Unfortunately, those sites with pre-made campfire pits are all too often used as a dumping ground for trash (I’m looking at you, Coors Light can), making these sites potentially dangerous. As anyone who has been to Yosemite National Park knows, bears would usually rather eat trail mix than mountain berries, and they have learned that these kinds of campsites more often than not have easy-access meals. And don’t think that you’ll be safe so long as you string up your food–rats have no trouble climbing up, out, and down to your bear hang, and ripping a hole in your new backpack.

Get Off the Trail

Skipping the more heavily used campsites in wilderness areas is a good first step to improving your backcountry camping experience, but let’s face it: critters large and small know that an inattentive human with some tasty treats can be found along the entire length of a trail. Rats that will chew through your tent at night to get at that snickers wrapper. Chipmunks that will stay just out of reach until there is a split-second gap to steal your dinner. And here in the Pacific Northwest, gray jays have been known to swipe chips out of people’s hands just inches from their mouth.

Getting away from these pesky vermin means getting away from the trail. Fortunately, you don’t have to go too far to start reaping the benefits: just getting out of sight of the trail can be enough to avoid some of these challenges.

Even better? You’ll also be able to avoid the real bane of the backcountry experience: other campers.

Stealth Mode

Of course, once you’ve left the trail and pre-established campsites behind, the real fun begins: finding a (truly) perfect campsite. This part is a bit tricky: you are trying to find a campsite, not establish one–that could easily result in just another overused and trashed site along your route. What you’re looking for here is a place in the woods that already works as a campsite without you having to do anything to it–a flat patch of ground wide enough to fit your tent, a smooth slab of rock, a nook inside a grove of trees that will keep the condensation in your tent down. No rocks to move, no plants to tear out, no roots to flatten. When you pack up in the morning to move on, it will be as if you were never even there.

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