Beginners Guide: How to Choose a Great Campsite

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Learning how to choose a great campsite is an important skill every camper needs. Below I’ll share all the things to consider and look out for when you’re choosing where to pitch your tent!

dispersed camping in Utah with an orange tent surrounded by trees

If you made reservations to camp at a campground, there are likely designated campsites and platforms where you set up your tent.

But if you’re dispersed camping (camping on public lands), campsites can be less obvious.

Regardless of what type of camping you’re doing, it’s a good idea to be aware of these tips and considerations before you set up camp. Let’s get started!

Dive Deeper >> Learn the difference between campgrounds vs dispersed camping.

How to Choose a GREAT Campsite *AVOID THESE MISTAKES*
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How to Choose a Campsite

1) Look for a previously disturbed spot

Ideally, when you start driving on public lands looking for camping, you want to try and find a campsite that’s already been created.

These spots are usually really easy to see.

Look for a rock ring fire pit and an area that’s been matted down from a tent.

Sometimes you can even see potential camp spots on the satellite view of a map on your computer or phone.

This is really helpful as you’re planning a camping trip. I like to get a sense of what’s available before I even leave home.

Then, when I’m on the go, I’ll use the Gaia GPS app on my phone to help me adjust as needed.

On the app, I download maps for offline use, and then I can see satellite views even when I don’t have service.

car camping in Utah with an orange tent

2) Find flat and firm ground

This may seem obvious, but it’s worth mentioning because you’ll definitely feel it at night if the ground is not flat.

Even the slightest slop can make for an uncomfortable night sliding off your sleeping pad!

Next, you want the ground to be somewhat firm.

In other words, avoid pitching your tent on wet squishy marshland.

rain on the tent

3) Consider water drainage

If you arrive at camp on a beautiful sunny day, you might not think to consider rainfall, but you should.

What if it rains a lot on your camping trip?

Where is all that water going to drain? Where will it pool?

These are places where you want to avoid setting up your tent.

This is especially important if you’re camping in the desert where the flash flood potential is high. You need to take flash floods seriously.

The rocky desert landscape does not absorb water well and all that water runs down into washes.

It can go from nothing to a lot really quickly, so make sure you avoid these areas.

When you arrive at a potential campsite, look at the ground and surrounding landscape at large and think about where water is going to drain.

choosing a good campsite

4) Look up and around you

This is a simple but crucial consideration.

When most people arrive at a potential campsite, they naturally start looking down at the ground.

This is great, but it’s just as important that you look up and around you too!

You want to look up and all around your campsite for standing dead trees or large dead branches that could potentially fall on your campsite.

These trees are sometimes called widowmakers, and you definitely don’t want one falling on your tent while you’re sleeping.

When you arrive, take a walk around the potential campsite. Look at the trees from different angles and make sure they look healthy before you pitch your tent.

Standing dead trees are typically different colors and they generally look unhealthy compared to the rest of the trees in the forest.

green tent pitched in southern Utah desert campsite

5) Consider protection from weather

The next thing I’m thinking about is possible protection from weather such as thunderstorms and high winds.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be struck by lightning!

For example, pitching my tent in a large open meadow or on a ridge will leave me really exposed if a thunderstorm rolls through.

So instead, I might choose to pitch my tent in a growth of small trees of uniform height.

Avoid pitching your tent under the tallest trees in the forest as these are more likely to get struck by lightning.

selecting a campsite in utah

6) Think about the sun and shade

I like to think about how the sun is going to move throughout the day and how much sun or shade my tent will have.

For example, in the hot summer months, I’d love for my tent to be in the shade as much as possible, especially in the morning hours.

The inside of the tent will heat up fast, so if I want to sleep in, maybe I can position my tent to be shaded longer based on where the sun is going to rise.

In the colder winter months, I want the opposite!

In the morning, I want the sun to hit me as soon as possible to warm things up.

Note >> This is NOT the most important consideration on this list! You should not adjust for sun exposure at the expense of any of the other tips above.

waterfall surrounded by bright green foliage

7) Keep a distance from water sources

Lastly, the general guideline is to set up camp at least 200ft away from water sources such as streams, rivers, or lakes.

Check any local forest rules and regulations because in some cases, it might be more.

This being said, it’s a good idea to consider the resources that will be available at or near camp.

For example, if I’m backpacking, I want to make sure my camp is within easy walking distance of a water source so that I can gather more water as needed.

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    Choose the Perfect Campsite!

    While this list might feel like a lot of things to think about at first, it will become a habit, and assessing a potential campsite can be done very quickly.

    The main point I want you to remember is this:

    All of these tips can be boiled down to situational awareness.

    Every situation is different. You’ll have to assess where you are and make the best decisions possible given the location and current conditions.

    You must be aware of your surroundings.

    Instead of getting out of the car and pitching your tent the second you arrive, stop and get quiet.

    Listen to the trees and the wind and the water.

    Look at the ground.

    Walk around the area.

    Look up and around you.

    Think about how the sun is going to move throughout the day.

    Think about how and where water will drain.

    Take in the landscape, and then pitch your tent.

    This practice will set you up for a fun, comfortable, and safe camping trip!

    Other Camping Tips:

    If you have any questions about selecting a good campsite, simply comment below! 👇

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