How to Choose Your First Campsite

Find the perfect spot to pitch your tent with these tips.

Photo: MR.WUTTISAK PROMCHOO/Moment via Getty Images

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Brush up on backpacking basics with tips, tricks, and advice from Backpacker’s experts in Hiking 101.

So, you’re new to backpacking and scanning the map before your first true overnight. You might be thinking, I can just pitch my tent anywhere, right? Wrong. Sure, the beauty of carrying a portable home on your back is that you could, in theory, set it up wherever the fancy strikes, and in an emergency situation where you need shelter ASAP, anywhere will do. 

But when it comes to choosing a campsite, some places are better than others. From an etiquette standpoint, your camp shouldn’t infringe on the experience of other hikers, and shouldn’t cause any lasting damage or alterations to the landscape when you leave. And from a comfort standpoint, any seasoned backpacker knows that campsite selection can make the difference between a miserable night and a restful one. 

Beginner backpackers should consider visiting trails with abundant established campsites. These impacted spots will make it obvious where to camp with evidence like clear tent sites or even platforms. On some trails, you can even reserve spots ahead of time to guarantee you’ll have a great place to make camp. But on other trails, you’ll need to search out your own campsite. Follow these tips for finding an ideal spot to pitch your tent. 

Make sure it’s off the trail. 

We’ve seen it before: A first-timer decides to call it quits on walking for the day, and throws down their gear on the first flat patch of dirt they see. Except, that flat patch of dirt happens to be the trail, and uh, some of us are still hiking here. You can see why this might be a problem. 

Ensure your spot is at least 200 feet from the trail, both for your own privacy and to preserve the immediate scenery for other hikers. It’s even better if you can pitch your tent in a less visible place like a stand of trees or behind some boulders. There’s nothing like feeling as though you’re the only person around, even if you’re a short walk from the trail.  

Keep water close, but not too close.

You’ll want easy access to a river, stream, or lake to fill your water bottles and cook dinner. But just like the trail, make sure to bed down at least 200 feet from the water’s edge. This ensures that your camp won’t block water access for wildlife and that your kitchen (and, er, personal) waste won’t foul the water. It’s good for you, too: Camping right next to water can cause lots of unpleasant condensation to form in your tent overnight, and can be buggier than other areas. 

Seek out level ground. 

How can you ensure a poor night’s sleep? By lying on sloped ground where you’ll slide off your pad or into your partner all night. Look for a flat spot large enough to fit your tent, but make sure you’re not camping in a low spot where water might pool in the case of a rainstorm. 

Camp on durable surfaces. 

The last thing you want is for your tent to mar the landscape in the long term. Packed dirt, rock, sand, and dry grass can handle the impact of a few nights of camping, and will recover after you’re gone. Moss, fragile alpine vegetation, and wildflowers, on the other hand, might not, so avoid pitching your tent on top of them. If you’re staying for multiple nights, look for a site that appears well-used, but take care not to expand the campsite. 

Look up.

Camping in the forest? Ensure you don’t pitch your tent below dead branches, called widowmakers. It sure would be a shame if the wind knocked one of those down on you in the middle of the night. Some tree cover can offer nice protection and privacy; just make sure they’re living and sturdy.

Get out of the wind. 

If that rock under your sleeping pad doesn’t keep you up all night, the flapping of your tent in the wind certainly will. Plus, no one wants to fight gusts of wind while trying to light a camp stove. Especially if a windy night is in your future, look for a spot that’s sheltered behind some rocks, sloped ground, or bushes and trees.

Bonus points for good views.

Flat ground, water access, and durable surfaces are a must when choosing your campsite; a nice spot to watch the sunset is just gravy. Spots with felled logs or flat rocks to sit and cook on up the appeal.Every beginner backpacker suffers a wet, windy, or uncomfortable night at some point. With practice, you’ll learn to recognize the perfect tent site to make your home away from home. To take the stress out of finding a campsite, build some time into your hiking schedule to search so you’re not rushed before dark: Looking for a place to rest when you’re already tired and hungry is no fun. When you arrive to an area you suspect might have good camping spots, drop your pack and look around—a little bit of exploration without weight on your back could turn up some pleasant surprises. And as always, be mindful of Leave No Trace principles, plan ahead, and you’re sure to find some epic spots to rest your head. 

Sign up for Outside+ today. 

From 2022