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How to Choose Your Campsite – 10 Essential Steps

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Last updated on August 21, 2023

Pretty campsite by a river

So the car is packed, you've arrived safely at the camp ground – hopefully with plenty of daylight left – and now it's time to choose a great campsite location, pitch your tent and set up camp. Windy and wet conditions can really "dampen" the mood, so hopefully it's a nice still mild day, but if it's not, we push on.

No matter the conditions or your length of stay, a well-planned approach to setting up your campsite can get you into holiday and relax mode as soon as possible.

Whether you car camp, free camp, are on a pre-booked site, or are on a backpacking trip, to the extent that you can, you should consider the following factors before you make your campsite selection and start pitching the tent:

1: Camp and Travel on Durable Surfaces

Camp and travel on durable surfaces is the second of the Leave No Trace principles and focusses on minimum impact camping. This principle looks at low impact camping and recommends that where possible, and in areas without designated campsites , campsites should have bases such as rock, sand, dry grass, snow or compacted dirt.

In particular:

  • Avoid sensitive, fragile and non-durable ground areas that will not recover quickly such as soft plants, muddy sites and fragile soil layers
  • Stay within the boundary of your site
  • Organise your activities to avoid damage to the surrounding vegetation

If you can't find a suitable location, drive / walk on until you can, and at the end of your stay, leave the campsite as you found it, if not better.

2: Look Up

Look up and check the surrounding trees for signs of stress and if there are any particularly loose or dead branches that might fall onto your tent and campsite. You definitely want to look for healthy trees and not dead trees.

3: Look Down

Look down and clear the ground of sticks, stones and other lumpy or sharp objects that might damage your tent or be uncomfortable under your sleeping area. It's a good idea to avoid ant nests too! Check also the surface material and consider how easily you will be able to hammer in the tent pegs. Pitch too close to trees and you will hit tree roots. Likewise, avoid rocky ground.

4: Look Around

Look around:

  • Check the location of the facilities to see if they are too close to your site, or too far away. You don't want to necessarily be sleeping right next to the toilet facilities, but nor do you want to be trekking long distances to them either.
  • Access to water is important but camping too close to a nearby water source or body of water  could attract mozzies and other insects / bugs. Camp too far away and you will be lugging it over a long distance.
  • If you are free camping and there is plenty of room, allow plenty of space between you and the neighbours, and hopefully they will show you the same courtesy.
  • If you are free camping, check if the neighbours look like your kind of people - party animals, young families, dog lovers, gray nomads, peace and quiet lovers? Try to choose neighbours that suit or match your camping style - it might make for a much happier campground and you might just make some new friends.
  • If you are overnight hiking, avoid pitching on hiking paths and high traffic areas.

5: Check the Prevailing Wind Direction

Check the prevailing wind direction by observing the direction in which trees and bushes are growing and leaning, and where loose items like leaves have collected. You could also ask the camp ground managers and local campers. To reduce wind resistance:

  • Position the shortest side of the tent towards the prevailing wind but avoid facing the tent door towards the prevailing wind
  • Position the tent to avoid the drift of camp fire smoke
  • In windy conditions, leave enough room to park your car upwind of your tent for added protection
  • Choose a spot sheltered by buildings, other campers or wooded areas for protection from the wind

6: Choose High Ground

Choose high ground for the site of your tent and living area and avoid what might look like the natural flow of water, such as areas of ground that appear dry and cracked or more damp than the surrounding areas. You don’t want to end up in a pool of water or worse still be in the path of a flash flood. Even a light trickle of water in your direction can flood your tent and living area over time.

7: Choose a Flat Spot

Choose a flat spot, but if you can't find a location that is perfectly level, choose the flattest spot on the site for your sleeping area. On uneven ground, position your tent so that your head will be on the upward slope.

8: Be Storm and Lightning Safe

Be storm and lightning safe by avoiding hilltops and open areas where the tent will be at the highest point and vulnerable to the high winds and a lightning strike, especially if storms are possible. Also avoid camping close to isolated trees.

9: Where Will the Sunny and Shady Spots Be?

Where will the sunny and shady spots be? Orient your campsite to maximise:

  •  Morning shade for your sleeping area so you won't be woken up at the crack of dawn
  • Shade for the icebox/fridge and food storage area as much as possible and especially during the hot part of the day
  • A shady spot for relaxing under on a hot day, and likewise a sunny spot on a cooler day.

10: Check if Your Camping Setup Will Fit

Designated campsite sizes are not uniform and seem to be getting smaller, at least at popular camp grounds. Check how your entire setup can comfortably fit on your site, where the car will go and whether the path to the facilities is clear.

This is a fairly comprehensive list, and congratulations if you have found and configured the perfect campsite. Armed with this information, at least you can decide what is important to you on the day, and plan accordingly.