Friday, December 6, 2019

Skills: Campsite Selection

It’s become a tradition in my family to take a trip to canoe to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota every few years. In this pristine wilderness, there are designated campsites we are required to stay in. Some are better than others. Some are situated on a small rocky island where there is almost no flat or soft spot for a tent. Others are plagued by hordes of mosquitos or exposed to strong cold winds because of no tree protection. Most are just a place to pitch a tent without much of a view or other features to extol. 

On our most recent trip, we spent six days canoeing into the remote backcountry. Most of the campsites were not anymore memorable than any others. However, on our fourth day of the trip, we came across the most excellent campsite we have ever seen in all our travels in the north country. As we rounded the bend of the lakeshore looking for a site, the first feature to jump out at us was the wide sandy beach! If you have been to many lakes than you know a naturally occurring sandy beach is a pretty rare sight! This one was perhaps 100 feet long and 6 - 8 feet wide, a perfect place for disembarking our boats. As we explored the campsite we found numerous flat soft spots for all our tents,  plenty of logs to sit around the fire on, and trees to protect us from the wind. 

After we pitched camp and sat preparing dinner, we realized the sunset directly in front of our view from the beach! As we had paddled the lake earlier in the day we had all agreed this was the prettiest lake of the trip so far. To top it all off, our guide told us this lake had the best fishing on our route. We decided to stay two nights it was so perfect. And the guide’s praise turned out to be true!

The more you camp, the more you will discover that not all campgrounds or sites are created equal. Some are fantastic, and some can completely ruin your trip. How do you go about ensuring you pick a good campsite? In my experience above, finding such a good site was mostly due to chance. But there are important factors you should keep in mind to help you select a good site and avoid a terrible one. If you camp a lot, you will inevitably have a few bad experiences. But you can learn from these how to make better site choices in the future. Here are several methods to employ when selecting a site that will help ensure you get the best site every time. 

1)  Follow the first Leave No Trace rule: Plan Ahead And Prepare. The more research and planning you can do ahead the better chances of getting a good site. Look at reviews of campgrounds and sites on various websites. Call the park rangers or a guiding service and ask for recommendations about the best sites and which to avoid. Also, ask about the best times of year to visit. Avoid peak season if possible to avoid the large crowds. If you plan on taking a group, try scouting out the location by going to visit ahead of time. You can also return to great places you have discovered on previous trips. 

2) Follow the second Leave No Trace rule: Travel And Camp On Durable Surfaces. look for sites that are preexisting. These are often in the best locations and helps reduce human impact. Look for durable surfaces like an existing tent pad or a sandy spot. These tend to be less full of rocks and roots and thus more comfortable. 

3) Follow the 6 W’s of campsite selection. 

   I) Willingness - make sure the landowner is willing to have you thereby getting permission or proper permits. 

   II) Wind - look for a site with protection from the wind even if there is no wind currently. It helps to know the forecast. 

   III) Water - be sure your site is near a water source but at least 200 feet away if possible to minimize your impact. 

   IV) Wood - if you plan to have a fire make sure you know the regulations, have a designated fire ring, and plenty of wood. Use heat-treated wood if it is required. 

   V) Wild things - be sure you’re not picking a site inhabited by another animal such as near a bear den. Also, be sure to follow local guidelines about keeping animals out of your food and camp. Bear canisters or hangs are required in some places. 

   VI) Weather - think about how the weather will impact your site. Do you have protection from wind, snow, rain? Is your tent safe from dead overhanging branches or trees that could be knocked down by wind or snow? Are you safe from avalanches, flash floods, rock falls or the incoming tide?

4) Do you have a good view nearby? If you can score a campsite with a great view that makes the spot so much better. If there is a good view a short way away it’s almost as good. This is where reviews and advice from others who have been there is invaluable. 

5) What amenities are available. Not everyone camps in the same way. Some prefer a primitive campsite with nothing but solitude. Others prefer a toilet or showers nearby. Check with the site manager about what’s available. Does it meet all your requirements?

There may be a perfect campsite out there somewhere. But you’re likely not going to find it every time. It’s important to remember that even if your site is awful, it can still make for good memories later. You could stay at home where it’s comfortable and not risk ending up in a bad site with an uncomfortable night. But you’re also risking missing out on a fantastic site you never expected that makes the whole trip worth it. So get out there, you never know what you will find. You may just find a spot you want to go back to again and again!

Find out more about good campsite selection and Leave No Trace here. 

Written by David F. Garner