How to Pick and Set Up a Backcountry Campsite

By Alexander Popp


If you’ve followed our guide on planning a backpacking trip, you should have a good idea of where you’re headed each day and where you’ll be camping.

But in the backcountry, things tend to change and disrupt carefully laid plans. It could be weather forcing you to stop early or groups already camping in your favorite spot, whatever happens, it’s good to know how to adapt and pick a good campsite if the need arises.


How to Pick Your Site

  • The first thing you need to consider is where camping is allowed. Different areas, like National Parks, State Parks, Wilderness Areas, will all have different rules on where camping is allowed. Many of these areas will require permits or backcountry campsite reservations in advance, so before going out on any trip you should know these rules and have them incorporated into your plans.
  • Consider your proximity to water and trails. A generally accepted rule is that your campsite should be 200 feet away from water and the trail. This helps minimize our impact on natural resources and wildlife and keeps campsites secluded.
  • Consider other campers. Like the 200 feet rule for water and trails, it’s a good idea to give other people their own space. That means opting for dispersed campsites whenever possible and taking others into account when picking your site. Avoid camping in common areas, viewpoints, cooking spaces, seating areas, that others might want to use.
  • Flat ground is great, but flooding isn’t. Another generally accepted rule (and probably just common sense) is that the best campsites are found on flat ground. Nothing is worse than rolling down a hill while you try to get to sleep. You know what’s worse though – waking up with a tent full of water. When looking for flat areas to set up your tent, kitchen, and gear storage areas, be on the lookout for areas that rain might pool. Often these areas can be very flat and look perfect but are normally directly adjacent to hills and inclines where rain can naturally flow. Similarly, if you’re camping near a beach, ocean, or otherwise, look for signs of flooding or high tide.
  • Minimize damage to your surroundings. Everything we do out in the backcountry has an effect. Sometimes positive, but mostly negative. So, we’ve got to do everything we can to minimize that impact. When picking a campsite, that means sticking to established campsites, keeping fires in existing pits and not cutting any live trees or other vegetation.
  • Find shelter from the elements. Some of the best spots we stay at aren’t much to look at, just a clearing between points A and B with water and tree cover, but they’re the best because they protect our camp from the elements. Campsites that are sheltered by hills, outcroppings of rocks and groves of trees will go a long way towards protecting you from wind, rain, and other elements.

How to set up your campsite

  • Look for sites with nearby sources of water. Having a campsite with a good source of water nearby is at the top of this list because camping somewhere without water is not great. In cases like that, you have to carry in water, which makes cooking, drinking, and cleaning up a series of calculations.
  • Keep an eye on what’s above you. In backpacking, there is an environmental hazard that we call a widowmaker. Usually, it’s a dead tree branch or branches that are hanging above the campsite, which could possibly be blown down by rain and wind, hurting or killing an unaware camper. But beyond tree branches, when setting up your campsite, it’s always good to look up at the skies and see what could possibly come down on you if the weather gets bad.
  • Separate your spaces. Even in the backcountry, you will need designated spaces in your campsite for tents, cooking, eating, and using the bathroom. Like with your home back in civilization, you can’t have people eating in the bedroom, pooping in the kitchen, etc. That would be confusing and chaotic, not to mention unsanitary. So, you’ve got to set up your camp with those things in mind. Designate an area about 100 to 200 feet away from any tents as a cooking area. Bathroom areas should be designated 200 feet from the main campsite, water sources, and the trail. Doing those two things will keep animals attracted to the smell of your cooking away from where people are sleeping and human waste away from water sources and people.
  • Get to camp before sundown. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, especially on long hikes that push you all day, but getting into camp after the sun has already set isn’t a whole lot of fun. When at all possible, shoot to get in camp as early as possible so you have plenty of time to get set up before bedtime.
  • Scout what you’ll need early. If you get to camp early and don’t immediately see things like firewood and locations for a bear bag hang, drop your pack and go scouting for them! The last thing you want to do is hunt around in the dark last minute for those things. Scouting them out early is always a good idea.

Learn more backpacking tips from World’s Best Adventures! If you like these tips and want to learn more, join World’s Best Adventures on a trip this spring. We take beginning backpackers, families, groups, and hikers of all skill levels on guided backpacking trips to some of the most beautiful locations in North Carolina. Learn more here.

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