Q&A: How to Find the Perfect Campsite

When I hike with non-backpackers, I’m struck by the difference in the way we view the woods.  It’s not that backpackers don’t notice the trees or the wildflowers or the views, but we are also aware of the nearest water sources and campsites.  It seems that one has a different relationship with the woods after living in them for several months.  (This is one of the many topics I could geek out about, but I’ll refrain from word-vomitting here.)

As a result of this difference in perspective — and because of all of the aspiring backpackers I’ve been talking with recently — I thought I should post some tips for finding the perfect campsite.

On the Appalachian Trail, hikers call camping away from a shelter “stealth camping.”  Some hikers walk all the way from Georgia to Maine without stealth camping more than a handful of times; other hikers do so nightly.  In addition to shelters, there are dozens of designated, well-used campsites (many of which are quite lovely and comfortable) in the AT corridor, but the secret to finding a good site that’s not among those begins with knowing where to look.

1) Be on the lookout for campsites near water sources, trail junctions, low points, and high points.

Once you’ve walked along the Appalachian Trail for a little while, you’re bound to notice that campsites, with some exceptions, are found in predictable locations.  Because many hikers don’t enjoy dry camping, campsites can often be found near water sources.  (If you choose one of these, just be sure to Leave No Trace by camping 200 feet from the water and disposing of waste properly.)  You’ll also find them at trail junctions (i.e., when the AT meets a popular blue-blazed trail).  Campsites are common just before and after big climbs, and they can almost always be found on high points or near views, although it is exceptionally important to practice LNT principles if you’re using one of those sites because of their popularity.

2) Remember that campsites might not be adjacent to the trail.

Sometimes, it seems that AT hikers develop (Long Green) Tunnel vision, as they have a tendency to walk right past beautiful outlooks and campsites without noticing them.  On the Appalachian Trail, many established campsites are very near to the trail; however, some of them are several hundred feet off the footpath.  As evening approaches, it’s a good idea to scan the relative distance for established campsites.

Relatedly, watch for side trails, cairns, and even water bars that lead to campsites.  For example, just north of Garfield Hut in the White Mountains, a water bar leads to a much-appreciated complex of campsites.  In North Carolina last weekend, I found (but didn’t sleep at) a sweet campsite in a rhododendron grove that was marked by a couple of cairns.


A favorite Appalachian Trail campsite of mine, near the end of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness in Maine

3) Look up.

Camping in a clearing means that you’ll have a great view of the stars but will also likely wake up under a dew-covered rainfly.  (Similarly, camping near a lake, while picturesque, might make for a damp, foggy morning.)  Camping under a pine tree might make for soft mattress, but you’re unlikely to escape without pine sap on your belongings.  That’s not to say that I haven’t opted for dewy and pine-sappy nights dozens of times, but it is worth keeping in mind.  While you’re looking up, check for any widow makers that could fall on your tent.

4) Consider the weather.

When choosing where to make camp, it’s a good idea to think about the weather.  Dry camping might not be a good idea if the day’s hot weather left you dehydrated; camping on an exposed ridge might not be the best way to spend a cold night.  If there are any clouds in the sky, you probably don’t want to have your tent situated in a depression that might find you in a puddle come morning.

5) Check for signs of wildlife.

One of the benefits of camping away from shelters is the reduced wildlife presence; you’re much less likely to have your tent or food sack “moused” if you’re not camping somewhere mice and chipmunks know to frequent for food.  It’s advisable to look around a potential campsite for signs of bear activity (e.g., scratching on trees, scat, etc.), and it’s generally not a good idea to camp near berry patches or other food sources.  In areas where bears are common, you might want to avoid camping near water sources for similar reasons.

6) Choose unestablished campsites with care.

Because I have a habit of spending long days hiking and making camp only when the diminishing light forces me to do so, I often camp in unestablished campsites.  However, I choose these carefully to minimize my impact, which is especially important on a trail as well-traveled as the AT.  I search for flat spots that are at least 100 feet off the trail and free of plants or fungi.  While most established campsites are lower than the trail, climbing up inclines near the trail has led me to some of my favorite and most secluded campsites.

I think that sums up my process of campsite selection.  How do you select your nightly home away from home?

2 Replies to “Q&A: How to Find the Perfect Campsite”

  1. Good point about sites above the trail. Folks tend to set up below because that is what catches their eye as they walk down the trail, but they pass a lot of good spots by because of that. Scanning for ridges above the trail and exploring them often leads to a flat spot overlooking the trail below

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kym Zest says:

    Love it, really awesome points. Paddling in the BWCA I like to look for sturdy trees away from the cook area for hanging the food pack. Depending on the conditions looking for an open high point exposed to breezes to push the bugs away is nice. Or something sheltered from wind if it’s cold and stormy. It’s also a nice luxury if I can pick something east facing to watch a sunrise. Unfortunately, like you I often find that we paddle past lovely camps through the afternoon and right up to the last light and get stuck at whatever site we come to last.


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