The Art and Craft of Picking the Perfect Campsite

August 12, 2019Garland Kennedy
Camping teapot and cap on the gras at sunrise time. Mountains of Bulgaria.

Camping teapot and cap on the gras at sunrise time. Mountains of Bulgaria.

Any hiker planning to spend a night outdoors needs to choose a good campsite. This may seem obvious to the experienced outdoorsman, but any pro knows that no one is above refreshing the basics. And let’s face it, sometimes the options aren’t obvious. Is a given area safe to pitch your tent? Is there water? What about wildlife risks? It’s easy to list out good campsite features on paper, but out in the wilderness, the choices can be far more daunting.

What if none of the options are ideal? How should you prioritize needs? It’s a tough decision, but maybe we can make it a bit simpler.

A well-placed camp needs easy access to a reliable water source. We need water for drinking and cooking, and there are few things worse than hauling water after a day of hiking. So be sure to place your camp within easy reach of water.

A spectacular campsite near Shadow Lake in the Wind River Mountains in western Wyoming. We had great views, a nearby lake, and flat, open ground to pitch tents on. It was ideal, and the constant breeze even kept mosquitoes away! Photo courtesy of Garland Kennedy.

In Wyoming several years ago, we set our camp on the snow in the Wind River Mountains because there was no exposed ground. We did not have enough fuel to melt snow for water, so we listened for water flowing beneath the melting snow. Once we located a stream, we had to dig through 3 feet of snow to access the water. That was a bad campsite. 

While a good campsite has ready access to water, it’s important that you’re not too close. As a rule, you should set up camp at least 200 feet away from your water source. This not only helps keep you away from a surprise flood at night, but it also minimizes your impact on the environmental health of the watershed.

Next, you need a place to pitch your tent. A good campsite will have a level patch of ground without a lot of undergrowth. Before pitching your tent, try lying down in your chosen spot to see if the ground is comfortable enough to sleep on. You’ll want to sleep with your head elevated slightly higher than your legs, so make sure to orient the tent for that as well. Ideally, you’ll find a spot that has been camped in before, which will make it easier to set up your tent. You also won’t destroy vegetation or leave additional scars on the landscape.

A somewhat brutal campsite at the top of Dogsled Pass in the Talkeetna Mountains. The Alaskan winter is rough, though it was easy to find drinking water as long as there was fuel to melt snow. Notice how the tent is halfway submerged in snow. The author and other campers dug a pit and built a snow-wall to keep out the worst of the wind. Photo courtesy of Garland Kennedy.

But don’t forget that a solid campsite needs to be free of major security risks, too. For example, setting up your tent on a game trail might be a really bad idea. I’ve never had a bear stumble into my tent in the early morning, and I don’t plan to put myself at risk for that. Camp well away from any trail. As with water, 200 feet of separation is a good general rule. While this may be a pain in some areas of the country, it’s a necessary security precaution.

If you are in an area with predators, make sure to secure your food, as well as anything with an odor, in a container or location that animals cannot reach. Bear canisters, bear bags, and tree hangs are all effective.

Good camping spots also provide some shelter from inclement weather, but be careful not to set up your tent right beneath dead trees. They have earned the name “widowmakers” for a good reason. I once camped in an area that had recently burned, and I had no choice but to sleep beneath the creaking dead trees. The haunting noise of burned-out trees swaying overhead evoked images from Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” As much as I love that book, I did not enjoy the sensation of being in it.

The view from a tent in the Chugach Mountains, near Anchorage. This midnight sunset was amazing, as was the view down the South Fork Eagle River Valley. Though the author and crew camped fairly high on the mountain, the campers made sure to set camp near a small stream of snowmelt for easy water access. Photo courtesy of Garland Kennedy.

Lastly, it may not be essential to your safety, but try to find a place with a pretty view. The best camping spots linger in our memories and keep us coming back for many years. 

Scout your camping areas in advance, both on park websites and topographic maps, to make sure you always get a good spot. And if you’re going to a more popular place, check online for vacancies and whether reservations are available or required.

A good campsite can be the capstone of a good trip. Choose wisely, and you’ll find places that take your breath away every time you return.

Garland Kennedy
Garland Kennedy

Garland Kennedy is a contributing writer for Coffee or Die. As an avid backpacker and outdoorsman, he has explored wide-open spaces all over North America — from the forests of North Carolina (he’s a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in medieval history) to the mountains of Alaska. His previous bylines include gear reviews on

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