Where is this spot? No way I'm going to tell you. But I mention it to illustrate a key aspect to happy backcountry travel: Finding and recognizing a good camping spot. This particular one is all the more amazing due to its near-pristine state despite being in a heavily traveled area. Most hikers, lemming-like, make a beeline for the lake, where they set up tents on damp sites and sit unhappily amid clouds of mosquitoes.
Not only is my site better, it's more environmentally friendly. Here's what makes it so good:
• It's well removed from the lake and the nearby trails. As a rule of thumb, a backcountry campsite should be at least 200 feet from a water source or trail.
• Nearby trees, along with the boulders, provide shelter from rain and wind. At the same time, the trees aren't so tall as to threaten me with "widowmakers" - branches that can fall from a tree during a windstorm.
• Although sheltered, the site is high enough to get some breezes, and is well removed from standing water. So few bugs bother me.
• The sandy tent site is durable and renews itself each year. Even a hard rain will remove most traces of my presence.
• If I wish, I can site the tent so it catches the morning sun. Or, place camp for the best sunset.
True, sites as perfect as this are hard to find. But with a little effort you can ensure that your site will be a happy home during your wilderness excursion. Here are some rules of thumb for finding a great campsite:
• Check maps and guidebooks before your trip, or talk with backcountry rangers. Know what local restrictions might be (such as no campfires) and where established campsites may already exist.
• Allow yourself time to find and set up camp. Thrashing around in the dark trying to find a site is no fun.
• Once you've reached your approximate destination, toss the packs off and start scouting. Look for high areas that offer views and breezes; hard, flat sites that won't be easily scarred by tent stakes or Vibram¨ soles; sheltering rocks and trees to block the wind; and eastern or southeastern exposure for warm morning sun.
• Be aware of potential hazards. In addition to falling limbs, these can include flash floods (hence, avoid dry creek beds) and nocturnal animals (watch for tracks, droppings and bedding signs). Also, cold air tends to pool in valleys and canyons. If nearby trees are wind-deformed, take that as a clue and stake your tent out well, even if there is no wind at the time.
• Be flexible. An ideal campsite may present itself a mile from your intended destination. Or, as has happened to me more than once, a much-anticipated camp spot may turn out to be a boulder field or bug hole, necessitating a few more miles of trudging.
Follow these guidelines, and you're just about certain to find campsites that you can enjoy, while also knowing you've done right by the wilderness.