Backcountry Campsite Selection: How to Do It Right

Campsite Selection: A blue ultralight single-person tent set up in a level spot amidst the mountains

In this post, we'll take a look at:

Choosing the right campsite is like finding the coziest spot in nature. Whether you’re a new or seasoned camper, effective campsite selection is key for a good adventure.

In this post, we’ll give you a quick checklist for choosing a campsite, covering safety, terrain, and environmental factors for a comfortable camping experience. Let’s start.

Key Takeaways

  • Prioritize safety – avoid hazardous areas and wildlife habitats.
  • Seek level, well-drained terrain with natural ground cover and wind protection.
  • Minimize environmental impact – camp away from water sources, avoid damaging vegetation, pack out all trash.

Campsite Selection 101: How to Do It Right

Safety Basics

When it comes to campsite selection, safety should always be your top priority. Let’s take a closer look at what you need to consider:

  1. Stay Away from Danger Zones: Look around and make sure you’re far away from any danger zones. These could be areas prone to rockslides, avalanches, or flash floods. Camping near such places can be risky, so it’s best to steer clear.
  2. Avoid Lone Trees and High Ridges: Steer clear of solitary trees, mountain tops, and high ridges since they can draw lightning during storms, which is potentially hazardous.
  3. Watch Out for Animal Habitats: Take care not to set up camp near animal trails, nests, or habitats. You don’t want unexpected wildlife visitors snooping around your tent at night.
  4. Stay Clear of Cold Valleys: Skip camping in low-lying areas like canyons or valleys, where it’s coldest and more humid. Opt for a warmer, comfier spot for a good night’s sleep.

Terrain Considerations

Campsite Selection: A hiker beside his ultralight backpacking tent, strategically pitched among the protective cover of bushes on the only relatively flat ground available

The terrain of your campsite plays a big role in your hiking and camping experience. It affects how comfortable and safe your stay will be. Let’s dive into some important terrain factors to keep in mind:

  1. Look for Level Ground: Start by finding level ground for your campsite. It may seem small, but it’s crucial. A flat campsite prevents tent sliding, simplifies setup, and enhances sleeping comfort. We recommend looking for campsites with less than a 10 degree slope for comfortable sleeping.
  2. Think About Natural Ground Cover: Search for natural ground cover like pine needles, moss, leaves, or sand; they’re more comfortable and insulating than hard-packed dirt, providing a fortunate find.
  3. Look for Something to Block the Wind: To prevent your tent from being blown around by strong winds, camp near healthy trees or bushes for added stability and comfort.
  4. Consider Drainage: To keep your tent dry when camping, pick a spot with good drainage (i.e., the location slopes away from the tent so water runs off and not into/under the tent). Check the ground for dampness to make sure it won’t flood when it rains. Campsites near rivers and creeks are more prone to flooding.

Environmental Factors

The environment around your campsite can greatly impact your camping experience. To choose the perfect campsite, you’ll need to consider these environmental factors:

  1. Proximity to Water Sources: Choosing a campsite close to water is handy for access to drinking, cooking, and cleaning. But remember, it can get colder due to cool air and humidity. Aim for a spot with a distance of at least 200 feet (about 61 meters) away from the water’s edge.
  2. Beware of Widow-Makers: Highlighted in the safety section, but worth repeating: Stay safe by checking tree health around your campsite. Avoid camping under trees with rotted branches and steer clear of dead trees when choosing your spot. If you are not sure how to do this, check out this guide.
  3. Leave No Trace: Preserving the wilderness is crucial. Dispose of litter in designated bins or carry it with you when you leave.


Investing time in campsite selection can either make or break your next adventure. Ideally, we all desire a peaceful and quiet campsite with a nice view. However, before finalizing a spot that appears perfect, prioritize the following factors:

  • Safety is your priority – stay away from danger zones and be aware of wildlife.
  • Terrain assessment is crucial – aim for flat, dry ground with natural cover.
  • Lastly, show consideration for the environment by minimizing your impact.

With careful campsite selection, your next trip is bound to be safe, comfortable, and environmentally responsible. Happy camping!


Which direction is best to pitch a tent?

The best tent direction depends on factors like wind, sun, views, and safety. For windy conditions, position the narrow side against the wind. In cooler weather, face the entrance toward the morning sun for warmth. In hot weather, avoid the sun and try to find a natural shade. Maximize views or privacy based on your preference. Consider proximity to water and level terrain, and avoid potential hazards.

What is the best location to set up your tent?

The best tent location balances safety, comfort, and environmental care. In a forested area, choose a spot that’s level, away from dead trees, and not too close to a river to prevent flooding risks. In an open, non-forested area, prioritize shelter from the wind, a flat terrain, and avoid low-lying spots that might collect water.

How do you choose a tent site in poor weather?

In the rain, choose a spot away from flooding and with good drainage near water. If it’s windy, seek shelter among the trees. In cold weather, pick a place with ground insulation and some morning sun, or find a campsite with materials for a campfire.

What factors should you consider in campsite selection for large groups?

For large groups, find a spacious, relatively flat area. Look for multiple access points to water and amenities. Seek natural dividers like bushes or rocks to delineate tent sites. Allow ample walking space between sites. Check group size restrictions and disperse sites for privacy.

Are there any important environmental considerations for campsite selection?

There are important environmental considerations when selecting a campsite. It’s crucial to avoid fragile areas like wetlands or dunes that could be damaged, while also maintaining a suitable buffer from water sources to prevent pollution. Don’t cut vegetation unnecessarily or disturb wildlife trails, burrows or nests – look for existing clearings instead. Follow Leave No Trace principles by packing out all trash, choosing dispersed sites away from high-use areas, and minimizing your impact on the land. Also be aware of any protected area rules or seasonal closures.

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