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Backpacker Magazine – October 2007

How to Choose a Campsite

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

by: Mark Langston

Photo by Tracy Gillete
Photo 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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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star


Star Star Star
Feb 14, 2014

Concur w/Speshul 41 on water. In lots of places, like the Texas Big Bend, camping near water is not usually an option - but you never camp in a low area cause water can show up quick. Overhead debris is not an issue in the desert, but all that low lying stuff that sticks in you definitely is. Its a hard list to make because lots depends on your environment.

Star Star Star
Speshul 41
May 11, 2013

First, water is NOT in any way a "make or break factor". Carry a largish platypus or similar and fill it up with what you need for the night and morning before heading to that awesome campsite with huge views that's nowhere near water. Some of the best site I've ever had were dry camps. Usually less bugs farther from water too.

Second, identifying things like rock fall hazard, dead limbs or trees, and avalanche paths takes some time and experience to be able to evaluate. Falling trees and branches are the biggest hazard for most backpackers (so far as camp selection goes). Trees with missing bark around the trunk or the big limbs are a good sign to relocate, as are mushrooms and plate fungi on the tree or signs of insect infestation, like lots of little holes.

thomas j wack
Oct 24, 2010

good thought, good information

thank you

thomas j wack

thomas j wack
Oct 24, 2010

good thought, good information

thank you

thomas j wack

Nov 08, 2009

Thanks a lot..... I have accomplish now my report and this helps me a lot.. Thanks and more power.

Nov 01, 2008

Don't forget to look up. Widow makers (Dead tree limbs) can make for a bad night in high winds!

Sep 29, 2008

When you finally do decide on the location, scope out the surrounding areas for shelter areas incase of emergancy, (i.e. floods, tornado's, etc.)

Aug 16, 2008

just go camping somewhere, the tales will be better with the strife encountered.

Jun 20, 2008

Save your fecal matter. Take it with you and spread on the entrance of your tent. This will keep spirits from bothering you.

Jun 08, 2008

make sure the ground is clear aswell, you dont want creepy crawlies in your sleeping bag. a ring of insect repellant is good if you use an ultra-lightweight tarp for a shelter

May 01, 2008

Apr 30, 2008

Picking out a site is one of the most fun things to do "out there".

Apr 30, 2008

This guy is on to something!
Mar 11, 2008


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