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First Night Out: Set up a Campsite

How to choose a campsite, set up camp. and sleep comfortably.
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Start Smart

In Camp

Choose a campsite

Some parks have designated sites. But if you have free reign to choose your home for the night, follow these tips for making the ideal camp.

  • Time your hike so that you arrive at the camp area several hours before sunset. You’ll have plenty of time to find a site, pitch your tent, cook dinner, and clean up before dark.
  • Always opt for a spot where others have camped before, rather than a pristine site, to concentrate impact on the area. Look for level, cleared patches in zones protected from the elements by trees or rocks.  No impacted sites? Make camp on a durable surface, such as slickrock, sand, forest duff, or a gravel bar. Stay 200 feet from water sources and trails.
  • Find a flat, well-draining spot; water pools in depressions. Remove all rocks and pine cones.

Change it up

Before setting up your shelter, take a moment to have a snack and change into a dry baselayer; add a midlayer if it’s chilly. You’ll cool down quickly now that you’ve stopped moving, and it’s much easier to stay warm than to get warm. 

Pitch your tent

You practiced this in your yard at home, right? Then camp setup should be a snap. Just remember these tips for the perfect pitch.

  • Orient your tent so that its narrow end faces into the wind.
  • Always stake out the tent, even if it’s not windy at the moment; breezes may pick up as the air cools. Pull the stake loops taut, then drive the stakes into the ground at a 45-degree angle, with the points facing into the tent. In hard-packed ground, gently use a rock to hammer stakes in.
  • Guy out the tent in windy weather by securely tying the guylines to stakes, trees, or rocks. Use an adjustable knot, like the trucker’s hitch (backpacker.com/knots), so you can slide it up or down.

Set up your bed

Right after pitching your tent, unstuff your sleeping bag so it can fluff up after being compressed in your pack. Put a clean, dry pair of socks, a book, and/or writing material next to your bag so you won’t have to dig around at bedtime.

Sleep warm

At high elevations, even summer nights can dip toward freezing. Stay cozy by changing into dry baselayers; add a midlayer, light puffy, and/or a hat. If it’s really cold, have a slow-burning bedtime snack, like a chocolate bar, to keep your metabolism cranking overnight. Still chilled? Do jumping jacks before getting into your bag, situps once you’re zipped in, or take a tightly sealed Lexan bottle filled with hot water to bed.

Take care of business

The major difference between backpacking and car camping? In most cases, no toilets. Here’s how to use nature’s restroom.

  • Pack a toilet kit consisting of hand sanitizer, TP/baby wipes, and extra zip-top baggies—or skip the TP and baggies in favor of natural materials like leaves, smooth stones, or snow. Pack out TP.
  • Find a spot at least 200 feet from camp, trails, and water sources (bonus: great view). Use a trowel to dig a 6- to 8-inch-deep cathole. When you’re done, completely fill in the cathole with soil and sterilize your hands.

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