In the following, we’re not going to talk about finding a spot at an overcrowded campsite. Rather, we’re going to give you some tips on how to find the perfect location when you’re wild camping in the great outdoors. Finding the perfect place can give you an gratifying feeling of fulfilment and personal achievement, especially if the search was long and difficult.
However, in order to avoid any unpleasant surprises once you’re in your tent, you may want to consider some potential difficulties that could pop up. Many of these problems, which I will go over in detail below, may seem trivial to experienced campers, whilst others can be solved on the spot with a little thought. But, I’ll go out on a limb and assume that nobody really has every single one of the following aspects on their radar.
Do your homework
Even if you find the perfect location, it will be all for naught if you can’t pitch your tent properly. Thus, it’s incredibly important to practise pitching your tent at home, check for damage and to see whether you have all the necessary parts. If you didn’t just buy a new tent and are taking an older one, it’s always a good idea to take along one or two spare pegs and a some materials for repairs. The latter doesn’t have to be some official kit – all you need is some tape (duct tape) to patch things up!
An admittedly odd-sounding, but useful tip is to take some piton with you. These are perfect for rocky terrain.
Because the ground is also an important factor to consider when choosing a pitch, it’s always a good idea to start looking at least 2 hours before sunset. Ok, that was probably one of the tips you would’ve thought of yourself. Let’s get to the stuff you may not know.
Rules and regulations
Being spontaneous and free is nice, but it’s always a good idea to do some research on a suitable spot for your tent before you go. As you probably already know, popular national parks have lots of rules and regulations, and oftentimes there are designated sites for tents. Sometimes, you even have to make a reservation. Regardless of whether you’ll be camping in a national park or elsewhere, you should always familiarise yourself with the national and local rules for tents and camping in advance. More often than not, you’ll find that camping in the wild is not really permitted but not really prohibited either. It’s definitely a grey area, but it will usually be tolerated as long as you’re not trespassing and pitch your tent out of eyeshot of towns and paths.
Since you’re never really alone in the “wilderness”, you’ll have to follow a few rules of conduct as well. This means you shouldn’t set up your camp and block the view of other campers. Rather try to become part of the scenery. You can do this by using already flattened spots from previous campers instead of levelling beautiful untouched meadows yourself. If you were happy about happening upon a beautiful, untouched piece of land, you don’t want to leave behind a dump. Or do you?
Unfortunately, there are some “pragmatists” who have no idea what to do with such thoughts. What such people are often unaware of is that it’d actually be in their own interest to put them into practice. Why? It’s simple, really: The more trouble we cause by camping wherever we want, the more rules and regulations there will be.
But that’s enough of that. Let’s get the the more practice-oriented tips.
When pitching your tent, make sure the surface is flat and not on a slope. Even the slightest incline can make you slip right off your sleeping mat (or make the sleeping mat slip around on the smooth tent floor). If a slight slope is unavoidable, try to position the tent or sleeping mat so that your head is higher than your feet. It’s actually a pretty comfortable position to sleep in (the other way around less so).
The best spot for a tent is of course a grassy surface. As long as the weather stays dry, a sandy surface can be quite pleasant as well. The best surfaces are usually free of any rocks, roots, pine cones or brambles. Other soft things like pine needles, leaves or moss are great too. If there’s hard or sharp objects, you shouldn’t remove them for the sake of your tent and your own comfort. If you don’t mind carrying some extra weight, you can protect the tent floor with a groundsheet.
But, if the soft ground you’ve found is in a low-lying area, you may want to opt for the higher, harder and uneven surface instead. Oftentimes, the ground is soft because water tends to accumulate there.
In the wintertime, “higher is better” is the rule to live by. This means that you should pitch your tent in higher areas as opposed to low-lying areas, because cold air tends to accumulate in hollows and valleys.
Before guying out your tent and making yourself comfortable, do a quick lie down first to see if there are any pebbles or unevenness that could disturb your sleep. Since you haven’t secured the tent yet, you can still move it a few centimetres to find the perfect spot.
Now that we’ve talked about the ground, let’s move on to the tent surroundings. Depending on what the surroundings are like, you might have to keep looking.
When it comes to the feel of the ground and overall comfort, there’s no universal rule to go by. After all, every person is different and has their own pain threshold. There are, however, certain criteria that are universal.
Water is something we always want to have close by, but also not too close. Access to water is much more important than a nice view. After all, how are you going to drink, cook and bathe without water? Fortunately, there’s usually no shortage of water, unless you’re adventuring in the desert or dry, grassy plains, like the steppes. In the mountains, there’s almost always clean, flowing water nearby. But, as seductive as it is to stay on the water, try to keep your distance. The ideal distance is about 50 to 100 metres away somewhere above the body of water – just not on a path leading to the water that would otherwise be used by wildlife.
Water in the mountains can rise surprisingly quickly – and not just during a storm but also when a dam is opened. Another thing to consider: The sound of flowing stream in the mountains can get pretty loud after a while, so taking some earplugs along on your trip to the mountains can be quite helpful.
Riverbeds and narrow ravines are some of the worst spots for pitching your tent – even if they look dry. Even if it looks like a clear day, it can be bucketing down upstream. Then, a surge of water could suddenly come rushing your way, leaving you just enough time to save your own skin – and that’s it.
In contrast to the mountains, you can find some quality spots on seashores. Here, you need to make sure you’re above the tideline. The tideline is easy to find by locating a strip of washed up shells, algae, pieces of wood and waste. And, don’t forget to account for high waves before you set up camp.
Always keep in mind that there are a lot of mosquitoes and other pesky insects around standing water. Here, it can be beneficial to find a spot that’s a bit airier or windier.
Whilst the cooler air in low-lying areas can be quite pleasant in the summertime, moist ground in the immediate vicinity of water never is. Wet or damp surfaces draw warmth out of the tent’s interior and consequently cause moulding and mould stains when the tent isn’t properly ventilated and stored afterwards. If you opt to pitch your tent on a wet surface anyway, you can store your tent in your pack for a few hours or even one day. This won’t do your tent any damage, but you should try to get it dry as soon as possible.
Water from above
Usually, rain shouldn’t be a problem – after all, most tents are designed to protect you from it. But, if a rain shower turns into a long, drawn-out storm and you’d rather not stay in the same spot forever, you may have to take down your tent in the rain. For situations like this, tents that allow you to take down the inner tent first (like Hilleberg tents) are the best choice.
If you already know that long rains are on their way, you can dig a drainage ditch around your tent. The quickest way to do this is with a strong stick or pole. A ditch can really make a difference when trying to stop water accumulating under your tent floor and directing rain water away from your pitch. Even a ditch that is only a few centimetres deep and wide can do this. If the ditch runs directly around the edge of the tent, it will catch the rainwater from the roof of the tent as well. But only do this if the conditions allow for it. Digging on campgrounds is usually prohibited. After all, there are usually shelters and common room areas you can use.
Storms and strong winds
It’s always a good idea to find areas where you could seek shelter in the event of high winds or heavy storms. Your best option is often boulders, ledges or small crags. Trees and bushes in the direction of the wind are not bad, either, especially if their canopies prevent it getting cooler at night in addition to breaking the wind. But, you should only trust young and very strong trees and keep your distance from others. If there is any chance of a tree falling or being uprooted, your distance from it should be at least equal to the height of the tree.
The next precaution you should take when it comes to wind protection is the the direction in which you pitch your tent. It is extremely important to reduce resistance. In the case of a tunnel tent, direct the narrowest parts toward the wind. The entrance should be facing away from the wind. On the side facing the wind, the tent should be taut and secured.
Very strong gusts of wind can break tent poles (especially lightweight aluminium poles). If this happens to you, you better have repair sleeves with you. To “splint” a broken pole, simply slide the sleeve over the broken section. If the sleeves are not included or have been lost, take your poles to your local DIY or hardware store and choose a light metal/aluminium tube with a diameter as close as possible to the diameter of your pole. You can even have it sawed down to the right length. For curved tent poles, these pieces should be very short, otherwise you won’t be able to slide it over the pole.
In the wintertime, you can see how the wind is blowing by analysing the texture of the snow. If the snow has a hard, but brittle texture, whilst the other surfaces in the area are soft, you can assume that there are often strong gusts of winds. If this is the case, you should pitch your tent elsewhere.
We’ve already written another post on the topic of camping and thunderstorms with tips on how to choose the best location in stormy weather. So if you’d like to know more, we recommend reading that article. After all, it’s extremely important, because a tent is far from being a Faraday cage. If your tent gets struck by lightning, only ash will remain.
So, your little holiday abode should never stand alone on a hill or other places where lightning tends to strike, such as in the immediate vicinity of electricity pylons, power lines, poles, a forest’s edge or individual trees. But, it is relatively safe to set up a camp between several trees and tall bushes – of course, considering the restrictions mentioned in the section on wind and storms. Also: don’t forget about the risks of a sudden rise in water levels as a result of thunderstorms.
Other important safety tips and a clever thunderstorm distance calculator can be found in this Base Camp blog post.
Sparks, rocks and avalanches
What do you think of when you think of a (camp) fire? Sparks and crackling sounds, right? While both make for a cosy atmosphere, the situation can get ugly really quickly if your tent finds itself in the way of the sparks. They can fly a few metres away from the fire and burn holes in a tent just like that.
Rocks, however, can do much more than just put a hole in your tent. For this simple reason, try to steer clear of anything that could throw rocks your way, like all rock faces that are more than a few metres high.
Small rocks can come loose on steeper slopes and hillsides and cause quite a bit of damage if they fall from a high enough location. The good thing is that you can easily recognise areas of frequent rock fall by the signs of impact. In the mountains, swaths are formed in many places, at the lower end of which the rocks accumulate. Water, mud or snowfall are also frequent characteristics for the formation of swaths. In winter, snow accumulation under steep slopes, chute-like clearings and bent trees are clear indications of avalanche tracks.
At this point, it’d probably be good to mention a few downsides to trees: firstly, resin sometimes drips out of trees, which make the flysheet stick together; secondly, they occasionally drop their branches without warning; and thirdly, after rain, they can drip for several more hours on your tent.
Sun or shade
Which is better depends primarily on your geographic location and the season. I assume you’d go with shade when camping in hotter regions. If there isn’t any “natural” shade, you can make shade by using a towel, tarp or something similar.
But even in the desert, during the summer season and in the early morning, it can be very chilly, so you might even prefer some morning sunshine! If trees or bushes are nearby, you can set up the tent in such a way that it is heated in the morning or in the afternoon. Of course, in doing so, think about the tent itself: direct UV light is not good for polyester and nylon fabric. This is especially important to consider on longer trips and long stays in one area.
In popular outdoor regions, such as the southwest of the USA, it’s not at all rare to encounter snakes or other territorial creatures. In subtropical and tropical regions, as well as steppes and deserts, this is something you should expect as well. Fortunately, if you don’t leave food or strong smelling substances lying around in your tent for all to see and smell, you shouldn’t have much of a problem. If you want to be on the safe side, don’t leave your tent open.
Depending on where you are, there are bigger predators as well. Surprisingly (and fortunately), the thin flysheet will act as protection. Only rarely have these larger animals ever ripped open tents. This form of protection even works on bears, even though they are known to have ripped open a few tents in their days. But this only happened because they wanted some of the delicious food which the campers left inside.
Last but not least: scenery and the view
You can choose where to pitch your tent based on the scenery or view, as long as you have ticked off all other criteria mentioned above. A beautiful, comfortable pitch without any risks hard to find. But that’s a good thing. After all, one of the things we love about nature is the fact that it is unpredictable. As long as you can wake up in the morning feeling refreshed and ready to start the new day, all is well, right?