Anyone who has ever slept under the stars will be familiar with the standard advice for selecting a wilderness campsite. When looking for a place to pitch a tent at the end of a long day in the outdoors, the recommendation is to look for a flat, stone-free area with dry ground.
Guidebooks and experienced outdoorsmen may even recommend a quick search for ant nests. All of this is excellent advice.
However, once we leave the formal campsite, beyond the meadows and beyond any obvious sign of human presence, the demands associated with finding an appropriate pitch increase significantly. More importantly, because we can all put up with a little discomfort from time to time, the need to find a safe campsite grows as well.
This article aims to highlight some of the potential pitfalls that can be encountered when looking for a place to set up camp in the wilderness, as well as suggestions for avoiding putting ourselves in unnecessary danger when we pitch a tent.
Potential hazards can be divided into two categories: things that could fall on your tent and problems that could emerge from below. And, just to demonstrate that nothing in nature is ever simple, one potential source of trouble can do both.
My wife and I were relieved to find a flat vegetation-free spot after arriving at an astonishingly beautiful spot and after a lengthy search. It was just the right size for our tent.
In my haste to make the most of this opportunity, I didn’t notice anything was wrong until the tent was spread out and attached to its main pegs. I took a step back to take in the looming presence of a large pine as I took another look at the site.
And it was looming, leaning at an angle right over our chosen location. Furthermore, a closer look revealed how much the roots had begun to lift clear of the thin soil on the side facing the prevailing wind.
To be fair, with a forecast for a relatively calm night, the likelihood of this tree falling before dawn was very low, but we still pulled up those pegs and moved.
To be sure, if we avoided every tree within falling distance out there, we’d probably never sleep, but it’s worth a quick look to avoid picking a pitch that’s too close to any suspicious-looking trees or branches.
The possibility of something unwelcome falling on your tent isn’t limited to trees. While some rock faces are surprisingly stable, almost all of them occasionally drop a chunk. Some do it all the time.
At colder times of the year, this is caused by freeze-thaw action, but even the rapid temperature changes that occur each morning as the sun hits a mountain face can dislodge things. Bits fall off for a variety of reasons.
These can travel surprising distances at times. Mountaineers develop the ability to read the slopes, cliffs, and rock faces above them. They can also read the ground beneath them.
When camping in mountainous terrain, take a close look at both what’s above you and the ground you’re thinking about camping on.
Be especially cautious of land that contains fresh stone lumps with no lichen growth. This is a sure sign of a thriving boulder field. Keep a safe distance from it.
Snow can fall from any reasonably sized slope at the right angle, with sometimes disastrous results. Most people are aware of the dangers that avalanches pose to climbers and skiers. Many people may not consider the risks of simply sitting in a tent after a day on lower ground.
Even when the hazards are recognized, it is common to believe that they are limited to large mountains.
Avalanches can occur in even the most remote hilly areas, and while the scale of an avalanche in the hills is unlikely to compare to anything seen in the major mountain ranges, they can still be deadly.
Furthermore, dealing with a snow slip on foot or on skis on the slope is one thing, but dealing with one while lying wrapped in a sleeping bag in a tent is quite another.
While certain slope angles and slope types are more likely to result in avalanches than others, and certain weather trends and snowfall patterns also increase the risk, the best advice is probably to avoid camping anywhere below a steep snow-covered slope, especially anything approaching or exceeding an angle of 30°.
Remember, just like with falling rocks, and avalanches can also travel surprising distances below these slopes across relatively flat land.
I’m going to add wind to this fall risk section. The risks of a tent failing from the sheer weight of the wind is very real. The best response is to try to avoid being in a position where the wind constantly blows on your tent in the first place.
To be fair, my wife and I don’t mind a little breeze. Sometimes the view from a particular vantage point or exposed headland is simply too good to pass up.
Check weather forecasts; if they predict a strong wind, a more sheltered location is preferable. A damaged tent can cause more than just a little discomfort, especially in extremely cold or wet conditions.
Always scan the camping area
When you arrive in a promising-looking area, always take the time to explore. While a wood or low ridge may appear to provide shelter, the interplay of wind, topography, and vegetation can frequently result in anomalies.
A location that appears to be wind-free may turn out to be much breezier than anticipated. That seemingly exposed area, on the other hand, can be surprisingly calm at times.
A good wander, stopping for a while to allow the next gust to reveal itself, will quickly identify the tranquil pockets. Then it’s a matter of locating the best piece of flat, stone-free ground.
Few people who choose to camp near the sea need to be warned about tides, but even those who are aware of the risks can be caught off guard. While the exact moment a tide begins to rise and fall changes daily (hence the importance of a tide timetable for any coastal traveler), the amount the sea rises and falls also varies.
Tides are primarily caused by the movement of the moon, but the sun’s gravitational pull can also contribute, and the resulting tides vary in size. Neap tides have the smallest difference in height between low and high water. Spring tides, on the other hand, can fall and rise much further. In some areas, the difference between neap and spring high water levels can be several feet.
Beach campers frequently use the strandline to determine the highest point a tide will reach. These linear bunds of rotting seaweed, driftwood, and, sadly, far too much plastic can make excellent guides, but they are just that. A spring tide could lift well beyond that line.
Wind can also have an impact. When I was camping in a coastal region, I was aware that a spring tide was on its way that night and planned accordingly, pitching in the summer heat well above a particularly stinky strandline.
I didn’t account for the strong breeze that was steadily building and blowing all the way down the sea inlet. In the end, we were safe and dry, but not before the wind and tide conspired to bring the waves dangerously close.
Many rivers maintain a relatively constant level. Others do not, and these fast-flowing rivers tend to run through wilder areas. Rivers naturally rise when the water supply increases, and the most obvious reason for this is rain.
The only issue is that, because catchment areas are often quite large, it isn’t always obvious where you’re thinking of camping that it has just begun to rain heavily somewhere upstream. A dramatic storm in the mountains may occur without your knowledge in the foothills. These storms can, and frequently do, occur during periods when good weather is expected.
Don’t be tempted to choose the first inviting spot on the sandy banks when looking for a riverside campsite. Warning signs there may be dead vegetation hanging in the branches of bankside bushes and trees. If in doubt, move higher up the bank of the river. A higher terrace is frequently present.
Although they are uncommon, man-made river level rises can occasionally cause serious problems for campers. Signs warning of unexpected water level rises as a result of deliberate discharges from dams upstream can be found on some riverbanks, but they can be difficult to spot or simply do not exist in wilder areas.
Keep this in mind if you see a reservoir upstream on your map. Keeping this possibility in mind will help you choose a campsite located well above the flow may be the best option.
Water can enter a river even when there is no rain, and any area with snow on the hills above the catchment will experience snowmelt each spring. Temperature is obviously important here, and as spring progresses, the amount of water entering the river changes.
Choose a location early in the day, and the warmth of the afternoon and evening sun may cause the water level to rise, often late into the night. A low beach location chosen in the evening may be underwater by night. If in doubt, again, move up to the higher ground.
Critters may also become a problem
Finally, there’s the issue I mentioned earlier, which can come from both above and below your pitch. I mentioned ants at the beginning of this article, and ants are far from amusing if you place a tent in the wrong place. Perhaps not a safety risk, but certainly a significant inconvenience.
Ant nests are one thing, but in many woodland settings, look for foraging routes as well. My wife and I discovered this the hard way, as with so many other camping issues. The forest floor that evening was flat and appeared to be devoid of any major insect habitat.
We hadn’t noticed the tiny path cut through the low vegetation, but it was a major highway for large ants traveling back and forth between nest and food source.
They chose the easy route, over the top, soon spreading out to check for any potential meal once our groundsheet was in place. In a nutshell, check the ground thoroughly before putting up that tent.
Finally, there are mosquitos and other winged bitters. And this section is brief because the advice is straightforward: avoid camping in areas where the air is still, such as dense woodland or noticeable dips in the ground, if these tiny blood suckers are a problem.
Even a slight breeze in a more open or elevated location will help keep flying insects at bay, although they will still lurk in wait in the comfort of your tent.
So, with a few major risks hopefully avoided, there you have it.
Happy camping in the wilderness!
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