Anyone who has ever spent a night under a tent in the great outdoors should be more or less familiar with the basic standard for choosing a wilderness campsite. Nothing beats a rewarding day out in nature, and having a safe place to lay your head down at night is mandatory to start fresh the next day.
When looking to pitch a tent, the most common suggestion is to find a flat stone-free area and a spot on the ground that is dry. Some even suggest looking for ant’s nests if you want to have an undisturbed sleep. All very good advice, but that’s not all you should look for when selecting a wilderness campsite.
⛰️ Going deeper into the wilderness
Once your journey takes you away from the formal campsite, beyond any obvious sign of human presence, the demands associated with picking a proper spot for your wilderness campsite increase significantly, more importantly, because we can all put up with a little discomfort at times, the need to identify a safe campsite rises too.
In this article, we will highlight some of the potential pitfalls that you may encounter when searching for a campsite spot, and we will provide some suggestions to avoid putting yourself at unnecessary risk when you have to put up a tent.
Potential hazards can be split very roughly into things that could fall on your tent and problems that might emerge from the other direction, rising from below. And just to prove that nothing in nature is ever clear-cut, there’s one potential source of trouble that can do both.
👀 Keep your eyes open
I once went out with my wife and my nephews for a week-long camping trip, and after a long day of hiking, we found a flat vegetation-free spot, big enough for our tents. In our haste to make the most of such an opportunity, we started setting up the tents, but I was feeling something was amiss. I stepped back and looked at our wilderness campsite with the tents up in place, and I realized there was a looming pine tree at quite an angle, right over the spot we picked.
As an experienced camper, I know that it’s impossible to avoid every tree out there in a falling distance, and if you try to do so, you’ll probably never sleep. However, at closer inspection, I saw that much of the roots of the pine tree started to lift clear of the soil on the side facing the prevailing wind. Not wanting to take any chances, we packed and moved to another spot.
As a general rule, you should inspect the area before setting your tent and look for dodgy trees or branches that can become a risk if the weather suddenly changes.
🍃 Falling stuff
One thing you should keep in mind is that the risk of something dangerous falling on your tent is not strictly reserved for trees. Even rock faces that seem stable drop chunks of stone every now and then. Some areas experience such a phenomenon all the time, and it’s the result of the freeze-thaw action during the colder times of the year, but it also occurs during rapid temperature changes. Such temperature changes often take place in the morning as the sun hits a mountain face.
Whatever may cause the stones to fall off, it is mandatory to acknowledge that dislodged stones can travel surprising distances. The mountain men learn to read the slopes, cliffs, and crags above them, but also the ground below.
If you plan your wilderness campsite in mountainous terrain, you better take a good look at what sits above you, but also inspect the ground you’re considering. Be particularly wary of land carrying fresh stone lumps without any lichen growth. These are a sure sign of an active boulder field. Try to steer well clear.
An average-sized slope of the right angle can also drop stuff with pretty similar disastrous results – snow. Most experienced outdoors enthusiasts are aware of avalanche dangers. However, no so many people consider the risks from just camping after a day out on the lower ground. They falsely assume that avalanche hazards are restricted to big mountains.
This is a dangerous assumption since avalanches happen even in modest hill areas, and even if the scale of such an avalanche may not be compared in scale with the ones from steep mountains, they can still be dangerous to unaware campers. Not to mention that you can deal with a snow slip much easier when you’re on foot compared to when you are lying down wrapped in a sleeping bag, in your tent.
The obvious thing here is to avoid picking a wilderness campsite anywhere below a steep snow-covered slope. Avoid anything approaching or over an angle of 30 degrees. Just like in the case of falling rocks, an avalanche can travel surprising distances across the relatively flat ground below these slopes.
If you add wind to the falling stuff equation, things can get even more dangerous since a tent failing from the sheer weight of the wind is very real. So the best advice that can be given here is to avoid finding yourself in this situation in the first place.
Check weather forecasts, and if they predict a good blow, then a more sheltered spot is preferable. A damaged tent can result in more than just a little discomfort, particularly in very cold or wet conditions.
🏕️ Inspecting the wilderness campsite area
If you find a promising wilderness campsite spot, always take some time to wander around. While a wood or low ridge might appear to provide shelter, the interrelationship between wind, topography, and vegetation can often result in oddities.
A spot that looks as if it will be wind-free might turn out to be much breezier than expected. Conversely, that seemingly exposed area can be surprisingly calm at times. A good meander, standing around for a while to give the next gust a chance to reveal itself, will soon identify the tranquil pockets. It’s then a matter of finding the best bit of flat, stone-free ground.
I’ve been lucky so far to travel to Europe quite a lot, and I always explore the outdoors when I have the chance. A thing I’ve learned there is that certain campers often pick abandoned shelters or homes as their wilderness campsite spots. The reasoning behind this is simple and clever. The people that used to live there knew the land perfectly, and their experience of building homes in the most sheltered places can and should be trusted.
Pitch your tent close by a cleared croft or hunter’s or trapper’s cabin, and you will usually enjoy a calm night.
🌊 The Coastline – the mirage of safety
A lot of people are choosing their wilderness campsite near a body of water, and even though those that often camp near the sea don’t need to be warned about tides, they can too, be caught off guard.
It is important to understand that the precise moment a tide will begin to lift and fall changes daily. This is why it becomes mandatory for every coastal traveler to have a tide time table. Never assume tides are similar since the amount the sea rise and drop vary constantly. People have learned that the moon’s movement is the main factor that influences the tides. However, the sun’s gravitational pull was also observed to affect tides.
What are called neap tides have the least difference in height between low and high water. At the other end of the range, spring tides can fall and rise much further. In some areas, the difference between neap high water and spring high water can be quite a few feet.
Suppose you pick your wilderness campsite by using the strandline as a guide for the highest point a tide will reach. The linear bunds of rotting seaweed and drift are often important and useful guides, but even so, spring tides can lift quite a way beyond that point.
🏞️ Flash floods
In the wilderness, the rivers you use as water sources or for your various hobbies (swimming, fishing, etc.) remain at a fairly consistent level, but that’s not a general rule. Any river will rise when the water supplying it increases in volume, and as you probably know, the most common factor leading to this is rain.
The problem is that most people camp in the vicinity of a river since the weather is good and the spot dry enough for an idyllic wilderness campsite. They fail to acknowledge that the river may have large catchment areas and that heavy rain upstream may put them in danger.
A dramatic storm in the mountains can occur without you being aware at all in your tent at the foothills. These storms often occur when good weather is predicted and can cause flash floods in a matter of minutes.
If you are considering a riverside campsite, don’t be tempted to pick the first attractive spot on the sandy banks. Look for tell-tale signs that there might be problems. Some of these signs will be dead vegetation hanging in the branches of bankside bushes and trees. If in doubt, move up onto the ground above the river edge. There will often be a terrace set higher.
Consider also manmade river level rises that are often common in some parts of the country. Deliberate discharges from dams upstream are very real problems for campers. If there is a reservoir upstream on your map, keep in mind that you may be surprised by a flash flood at any time. The smart thing would be to pick a wilderness campsite located well above the flow.
A river can increase in size even if no rain is falling, and this occurs everywhere where snow lying on the hills above the catchment starts to melt each spring. The key here is to check the temperature and understand that as spring advances and the temperature starts fluctuating, the amount of water entering a river as a result of snowmelt will constantly increase. Once again, if your gut tells you that the wilderness campsite you’ve chosen might not be ideal, move somewhere onto higher ground.
🐜 Crawlers and other inconveniences
I’ve mentioned before checking for ant’s nest, and this should become obvious for every camper before picking a wilderness campsite. Crawlers can find their way into your tent with ease, especially if you set up ten on top of their home. They can become a real inconvenience and ruin a good night’s sleep.
The same goes for mosquitoes and other winged things that may or may not bite you. The advice here is a pretty obvious one, and besides avoiding setting camp in a place where the air is still, an insect repellent can also come to your aid.
Related reading: Surviving Alone In The Wilderness
Other things you should be wary of are animal trails/routes and foraging grounds. Avoid picking a wilderness campsite that is near or on an animal’s path or in an area that harbors wild edibles. The last thing you need is being woken by a wild animal in the dead of night.
The major hazards listed in this article should give you a good start of what you should be avoided when picking a wilderness campsite. There may be others related to your living areas, and the first thing you need to do before packing for your next camping trip is get informed. Plan and never assume that “everything’s fine.”
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