The first step to finding a good campsite when hitting the backcountry is plan ahead. Know where you are going and the terrain you will be expecting. Spend some time looking at topographical maps to get an idea of the area you will be camping in while you are trekking. Although setting up camp along a river or on a ridge isn’t the most brilliant thing you can do, identifying an area that will be comfortable and scenic will be helpful. Maybe there is a bluff a short distance away to watch the sunset over a valley, and walk out again to see the morning fog below. If you are going out into the southwest, maybe there are nearby rock formations that will glimmer ghostly in the moonlight.
You also need to bring the right equipment with you when camping. If you are going to be out above the tree line on a windswept mountaintop bringing an A-frame tent with regular stakes may make for a pretty poor experience. Bring a Tunnel tent into the rocky southwest, and you may not be able to find a place to drive your stakes through the ground! Self-erecting dome tents afford the most versatility to conditions, but they are not perfect. If you will be camping on a beach, in soft sand or the snow, make sure to bring special stakes that are perforated or are barbed to bite into the soft ground. Sand and snow stakes can be 9” to 12” long, or longer.
So you get to your potential spot and it hasn’t already been taken, now what? Evaluate the area where you are going to setup camp. You want to find a level area free of tree roots and rocks. Unless you are setting up camp in a prepared site, never camp within 200 feet of a standing or moving water source or in a riparian habitat. You should never setup camp on or along a trail. Camp should be out of sight from the trail you are traveling and out of sight from fellow campers. Never modify an area by removing rocks, logs or vegetation to create the perfect campsite. Always follow Leave No Trace ethics. An area with firm soil is best.
You don’t want to be directly under a tree, in the event of a sudden storm the tree could serve as a lightning rod, it could get blown down, and the tree will drip sap all over your rainfly on your tent. Setting up camp on a rise, slightly above the rest of the terrain will aid in making sure water doesn’t start flowing through your camp if it rains. If you are camping near water, or where water could flow, be sure to camp above the high water mark. Washes are very tempting areas to setup camp, but could be disastrous in the middle of the night. Even if it hasn’t rained in your area a dam release or rainstorm 500 miles away can send water rushing through. Don’t camp on a ridge. The exposed area is susceptible to both lightning and wind. Again, ridges are tempting areas as they are typically flat and offer tremendous views.
Now you have narrowed the area down further, you have found a nice flat spot in a clearing, about five hundred feet from a wonderful bluff and six hundred feet from a clean water source. A light breeze cuts through the trees that will help keep the insects away, and there are no rocks or tree roots to keep you up with a sore back. Now what? You’re not quite ready to pitch camp, but your close. Look around at the area. Are there signs of animal activity including runs, paths or droppings? Are there signs of insect activity including anthills, trails, or a large number of spider webs or dragonflies? Do you see signs that water has flowed through your potential campsite during heavy rain? Setting up camp in the middle of a deer run will increase the chances of unwanted visitors in the middle of the night. Remember that hoofed mammals aren’t the only ones using these forest trails, and a deer can do a number to a campsite if properly startled. Setting up camp in the middle of a fire ant colony can bring about another kind of unwanted visitor.