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October 2007

How to Choose a Campsite

A NOLS veteran offers tips on balancing comfort, safety, and Leave No Trace principles.
Backpacker_Magazine_Mark_LangstonPhoto by Tracy Gillete

Deciding where to camp is a bit like buying a house. You need to scope out the neighborhood, check the plumbing, test the foundation. In his 15 years with the National Outdoor Leadership School, Mark Langston has overnighted in dozens of memorable sites in the North Cascades and Olympics. A strong believer in the Leave No Trace ethic, Langston says a great location can balance “comfort, safety, views, and solitude.” Here’s his advice on finding that sweet spot.

Scout it out Start your site search well before dark; you have just 30 minutes of good visibility after sunset. Water access is the “make or break factor,” says Langston. Look for hazards like dangling branches, rockfall debris, flash-flood zones, and avalanche runouts.

Follow the lines Consult your topo map; open circles indicate flat land, while stacked lines ringing a site can be good windbreaks. “Cold air flows downhill, so higher land will be warmer at night,” says Langston.

See it coming Anticipate how terrain could intensify weather. Could a long valley become a wind tunnel? Where will the runoff flow in a storm? What will attract lightning?

Respect sensitive terrain Choose previously impacted sites, or pitch your tent on a durable surface like a rock slab or forest duff. Use multiple walking paths to access your water source and cathole areas.

Use natural advantages Seek shady forests in the summer, maximize southern exposure on cold days, and “choose a dry, sunlit spot with a steady breeze in mosquito country,” says Langston.

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