Four checkpoints for selecting a backcountry campsite

By Chelsea Parrott


When choosing a tent site or hammock site, it is important to choose the safest location for yourself and for the health of the ecosystem where you will be visiting. 

For every outdoor recreational area, there will be unique factors governing the best practice for campsite selection. Always plan ahead and prepare by researching the recommendations of local land managers and following Leave No Trace outdoor ethics.


Chose Durable Surfaces

Hikers and backpackers should travel on durable surfaces while hiking and when setting up camp for the night. Durable services include established trails and campsites rather than creating new campsites and “social trails”. Walk or camp on top of areas that cannot be harmed by continuous human foot traffic such as rocks or dirt. 

Choose a campsite where you will not trample vegetation. The death of plants around a campsite is not only an ugly eyesore for visitors, it also leads to major erosion issues and a loss of natural habitat for wild animals. The damage to these plants can occur simply from the normal activities of one hiker, not to mention the accumulated damage of many hikers over the course of an entire hiking season. 

Imagine the amount of walking around camp an average hiker might do over the course of one evening; arriving at the campsite, scouting for a tent spot, setting up a tent, walking back to cook food, walking back to store food, walking to the bathroom, walking to the water source, and repeating these actions for breakfast in the morning. Even hammock users impact the areas below their hammock and around their support trees during their camping setup and normal routine. 


Avoid Water

Hammocks and tents should be set up well away from water. Water sources are delicate ecosystems with a direct effect on plants, animals, and fellow hikers. If hikers set up camp near water sources, they are potentially increasing the erosion issues in that area by trampling vegetation and actively disturbing the ground with tent stakes, removal of leaf litter, or collecting of firewood. 

When erosion occurs from a lack of vegetation holding soil in place, loose soil and sediment can flow directly into the waterway. This increase of silt and sediment can contaminate the water and kill creatures in that ecosystem.  


Overhead Hazards.

Once you’ve found a flat area for your tent or two suitable trees for your hammock, make sure you look up! Dead trees or large branches might be suspended over your site. These hazards could fall on your tent, damaging your shelter and they could even fall on YOU. Even if the weather is fair when you set up camp for the evening, unexpected weather and winds could bring branches or precarious trees down during the night. 

DO NOT attempt to bring down any dead trees. These standing “snags” are important elements of the ecosystem and might be home to numerous animals and nesting birds. 

Hammock campers should choose trees that are not only alive but also strong enough for the weight of their sleep system and body. Check to make sure that your hammock straps are not causing friction damage to the trees. Create a buffer between your straps and the tree bark with sticks, just be sure to return the sticks to where you found them before finally leaving the campsite. 


Animal Neighbors.

Check your tent area for creatures that might live in the surrounding trees, rocks, or ground. Depending on where you are recreating, there could be nesting ground bees to avoid, or perhaps a baby bird living in a nearby tree. It is important to respect the home of these creatures while we visit their natural spaces. Also, no one wants to get stung by bees!

During certain seasons such as autumn, animals need to access food sources safely. For example, a campsite in black bear territory should be situated far away from a big berry patch so the animals can safely eat, and the hikers can safely remain out of the way. When preparing for your adventure, research the types of animals and their seasonal behavior during your visit. 

With these first four checkpoints of tent site selection in mind, continue to further your backpacking knowledge by consulting local land managers about the camping regulations and recommendations in your area. 


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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