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Finding a Home in the Woods

By Doug Gantenbein - June 12th, 2003

I know the best backcountry campsite in Washington State, a place high in the central Cascades, near a lovely alpine lake. From it, I look down on the lake, across a deep, wooded valley to distant peaks, and out to the horizon at Mount Rainier. The spot is set amid a jumble of SUV-sized, salt-and-pepper granite boulders that have been polished and rounded by long-ago glaciers to form what amounts to a collection of backcountry La-Z-Boys. Sun-warmed, they're perfect lounging places. As for the tent, each spring the snowmelt flows down from the surrounding hills, carrying sand with it, and pools between the boulders. The water evaporates by July, leaving billiard-table flat stretches of sand for the tent.

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.


Comments

Camping spots selections

Great information and down to "EARTH too! Now how about the Northeast? Everyone forgets the Northeast! We love the outdoors too and have many new potential outdoor enthusiasts and seasoned ones as well! Our weather always presents a great deal of variation and therefore challanges not to forget WHAT and HOW to PACK!! Keep this site updated and active please don't forget all those upcoming people who are realizing the magic of the outdoors!

Posted on November 26, 2010 - 10:13am
by Visitor naturelove christy

finding the 'perfect' campsite

Alot of good points here; and may I emphasize that with most campers, this is their one trip they will make all year, with months of planning and anticipation; and they have romantically pictured the campsite in their minds and attribute their measure of the finding 'the perfect campsite' to be a most important measurement of the success of their trip. With that, I would emphasize that the campers give themselves extra time to find that better campsite. In balance, know also, that you might have to be content with the wonderful view though the ground is rocky, or other such compromises.

Posted on August 18, 2010 - 7:21pm
by Hans

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