Guides

Don’t Sleep on an Anthill

How to choose the perfect campsite.

Words and photos by Alex Blackmer

There’s nothing better than lying down beneath a star-strewn canopy and listening to the breeze having whispered conversations with the rustling aspens. Heading back to the car in the middle of the night because your partner has a rock for a pillow and you’ve accidentally pitched camp in the middle of a den of coyotes is decidedly less idyllic.

We’ve all been proud of our perfect “Insta-winning” campsites, but there’s a lot more to a great spot than its photogenic bona fides. Pitching your tent in a place that’s scenic, protected, safe, and comfortable is more art than science, so here are a few things to keep in mind when you’re trying to find a campsite that’ll actually, you know, make it easier to sleep.

Ground

Choosing the right surface for your tent is more complicated than it might seem, even if you have a good sleeping pad (and we can’t recommend one enough). Grass seems soft, but it’s surprisingly lumpy and sleeping there means you’ll crush delicate plants, especially in alpine environments. Rock slabs can be surprisingly smooth, but they’re hard as … well, yeah. Your best bet is to find a smooth patch of dirt or loam, ideally one that’s been used as a campsite before. It’s more likely to be smooth, and the odds of squishing an endangered flower or waking up on an anthill is markedly reduced.

Cover

Wind is the scourge of many a backcountry evening. It makes it hard to set up a tent, hard to cook, hard to relax, and hard to sleep, so finding cover can be a game-changer. Identify which direction the wind is coming from, and try to pitch camp on the leeward (sheltered) side of a hill, a ridge, a boulder, or a thick stand of trees (bonus points if you find a cave that’s not inhabited by hungry beasts). Nothing will be perfect if the wind’s really whipping, but it’s all better than being blasted by low-grade cyclones all night.

Shelter

“Sleeping” through a thunderstorm can be harrowing, but it’s a lot safer if you’re in a good spot. Hilltops are great if the weather’s fine, but riding out a storm there in a shelter made of lightning rods isn’t a relaxing time. Better to find a spot that’s down lower and less likely to attract lightning. Beware of pitching camp in a depression, though, because water can pool in a storm and you might wake up in a small wetland. Flat and not-very-exposed spots are best.

Water/Food

A lakeside campsite is always the dream, but “lakeside” should really mean at least 200 feet away from any water. Too close, and you run the risk of fouling the water, which, don’t forget, is what you’ll be drinking. You’ll also want to establish a kitchen that’s at least 200 feet from water and from your tent, and a food storage area that’s 200 feet from both of those (just imagine a triangle with 200-foot sides and a “room” at each point). You should also have a method to keep animals out of your victuals, whether that’s a bear hang, a bear canister, or a bear something else (bears are hungry).

View

If you can find a campsite that hits these criteria and has an awesome view to boot, you win. Amazing vistas are one of the major draws of the backcountry, and it’s up to you to find yours. Don’t forget to share it with us when you do!

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