How to Choose a Backcountry Campsite (that follows Leave No Trace)

After a long day of carrying a heavy backpack on the trail, I know what it’s like to just want to set up your tent, make dinner, and fall asleep. When you finally reach the point where you’re going to set up camp for the night, you might be tempted to just take whichever spot is closest without a second thought.

If you’re new to backpacking, you might also wonder: Is it ok to camp next to the water? What about setting up your tent in vegetated areas where the ground might be softer? Or what happens if it’s late and you can’t find a campsite? Can you camp right on the trail? As someone who got into backpacking in my early adulthood, I remember wondering the same things during my first backpacking trips.

As more people are getting out and enjoying the outdoors, I want to share with you the details of how to choose a campsite that’s beautiful and comfortable while minimizing your environmental footprint. By following Leave No Trace best practices, the wild places that you and I love can be preserved for future campers.

In this blog post, I share the how to choose a campsite while backpacking so you can go into your next trip with confidence on where (and where not) to sleep at night.

1. Research before you go

Anytime you are going backcountry camping, you are responsible for learning the regulations as an important step in planning a backpacking trip. There really is no excuse for not knowing the regulations.

On some popular trails, like the Four Pass Loop Trail in Aspen, you are only allowed to camp in designated campsites that you have a specific permit for. In other areas, like Kings Canyon National Park, you are only required to camp a minimum of 25 feet from the water, but you must stay in designated, previously used sites.

Here are some things to look out for as you are researching the trail. 

  • Know where you can camp. Often when camping in the wilderness, there are campsite guidelines as to where camping is and isn’t allowed. The general rule of thumb is to camp 200 feet from a trail or body of water (more on that later), but depending on the setting, the rules may be different.
  • Research fire regulations. There are quite a few trails that no longer allow campfires. Take time to learn about fire regulations at your campsites.
  • Follow the rules. In no circumstances should you set up your tent where it is not allowed. This is just part of being a responsible outdoor enthusiast. Not following the rules encourages others also to break the rules. I urge you to take a stand against this. Lead by example.
Campsite with tent set up behind tree and tarp over picnic table with gear laid out on top of it
Before visiting Havasu Falls, I learned campers can only camp in the designated camping area.

2. Choose a flat, bare, stable surface

When looking for a campsite, you want an area that is flat and durable such as rock, sand, dry grass, or compacted dirt. Here are some other considerations to keep in mind before you pitch your tent.

  • Be mindful of plants and sensitive vegetation. Avoid trampling or setting up your tent on small plants or on top of vegetation. Choose bare dirt or rock instead.
  • Avoid making a new campsite when possible. Whenever possible, pitch your tent in an existing campsite, where it is evident others have previously camped.
  • Don’t camp too close to the edge of a cliff. Cliffs erode and placing your tent too close to the edge could accelerate erosion. Plus camping too close to the edge is dangerous when you get up in the middle of the night half asleep to pee.
Tent pitched at sunset with mountains in background
Here my tent is pitched in a flat area on bare dirt where it is clear that other people had camped before.

3. Don’t camp too close to water sources

While it’s always best to camp where you have access to a water source for drinking and cooking, you don’t want to set up your tent right on the water’s edge, whether that’s a river, lake, stream, pond, etc.

On time while backpacking in Idaho’s Sawooth Mountains, I came across an illegal campsite that was directly on the trail and also inches from the water. This violates several principles of Leave No Trace and the regulations listed on the wilderness permit that each group is required to sign and carry that states that you must camp at least 100 feet from the water. 

Check out this 7-day itinerary for an epic Idaho road trip including hiking, camping, rafting, and more for the outdoor enthusiast.

You can of course hang out on the water’s edge, but setting up your tent like this person did blocks access to the lake for wildlife and other campers who might need to filter water. It’s pretty selfish if you ask me.

Here are some tips for choosing a campsite that’s near, but not too close, to a water source.

  • Follow regulations. Unless existing regulations say otherwise, ensure you are at least 200 feet away from all water sources BEFORE setting up your tent.
  • Avoid contaminating water sources. Even if there is no wildlife, the rule of thumb to camp at least 200 feet from water is also to maintain the quality and safety of the water supply. When you are camping, what do you normally do when you have to pee in the middle of the night? You grab your headlamp, put on shoes, and stumble maybe 10 feet from your tent before you pee. Well if you are camped right on the water line, all that pee (or poop) conveniently runs right into the lake or river where you then go to collect your water. Gross, right? Let’s all keep our distance to help keep it healthy out there.
  • Avoid illegal campsites too close to the water. If you find a durable, previously camped-upon surface that is closer to the water than regulations allow, you might be tempted and think it’s ok because other people have camped there. But you staying there just continues to send the message that it’s ok to not follow best practices for choosing a campsite. Instead of camping there, you should allow that area to recover and the vegetation to grow back.
A tent pitched in a legal campsite in the Sawtooth mountains in Idaho with trees, dirt, and rocks surrounding the tent.
My tent is on durable ground with no vegetation in an area that has obviously been camped in before.

4. Be Respectful of Others

One time when I was backpacking in the Wind Rivers, we found an amazing campsite after a 10 mile day, only to be kept awake until midnight from rowdy neighbors across the lake. It was so annoying!

When I’m camping, I always remind myself of the golden rule – me having a good time shouldn’t affect anyone else’s ability to have a good time. Here are some ways I ensure that I’m being a good campsite neighbor and respecting my fellow campers while backpacking.

  • Keep your distance from other campers. If there are plenty of open campsites, try to choose one that is a reasonable distance from the other groups so you aren’t encroaching on other’s space. If it’s a crowded, popular area near a lake, you night not have a lot of options, but do your best to give your fellow neighbors some privacy, just like you would want other campers to do for you.
  • Don’t camp directly on the trail. Don’t set up your tent in a way that obstructs the trail. Look for established campsites that are well-off the trail, so oncoming hikers don’t have to dodge you and your gear or accidentally catch you changing your clothes or going to the bathroom in plain view.
  • Maintain a respectful volume. Other campers want to kick back and relax in peace – so keep music and group noise at a considerate level and think about how close other campsites are to your group. Remember the sound can echo through a canyon or across a lake, leaving your neighbors both awake and annoyed, especially if they have an early morning planned.
Three tents set up at a backcountry campsite in Olympic National Park
Being mindful of others is especially important if you have a large group

5. Be aware of hazards

I’ve made the mistake of setting up my tent too close to some dead trees before. The wind picked up in the middle of the night, and I was so paranoid that a dead branch was going to fall on me that I barely got a wink of sleep.

When you are selecting a backcountry campsite, you want to look around and see if there are any hazards to avoid:

  • Look for dead trees and branches: You don’t want to set your tent up right next to any dead trees that looks like they could blow over in a windstorm and fall on your tent. Same goes for putting your tent underneath any large dead branches.
  • Set up near smaller trees to protect yourself from lightning and wind: If you are camping in bad weather, it’s best to set your tent up close to some small trees. Avoid being directly next to the tallest trees, as lightning is attracted to the tallest object. Trees can also help break up the wind.
  • Avoid washes, gullies, and water drainage paths: Look for signs of water flow through your potential campsite, or imagine the water’s path or low spots where water might pool up in heavy rains. Avoid these spots, especially if in the desert or areas prone to flash floods.
Three tents set up at a backcountry campsite in Olympic National Park
The dark patches in the dirt indicate water flow, which helped us determine the drier areas to set up our tents

6. Think about the sun

If you are up in the mountains in chillier temperatures, you may want the warmth of the sun on your tent first thing in the morning. Or perhaps you’re in the desert where it’s hot, and you want to be in the shade as long as possible.

When figuring out the exact placement of your tent, you’ll want to consider where the sun rises and sets. Then set your tent up near trees or big boulders that will block the sun from hitting your tent at the hottest times of day.

This tree provided afternoon shade on my Paria Canyon backpacking trip where most of the sites were out in the sun

7. Minimize the Impact of Your Campfire & Campsite

While these days I’m way too paranoid about wildfires to have a campfire while backpacking, if you want to have a campfire, your first step is to make sure they are even allowed. In many wilderness areas or during seasonal fire bans, campfires are illegal, even if they are in an existing fire ring.

If you find out that campfires are allowed and you’re set on having one, here are a few things to look for when choosing a campsite.

  • Only use existing campfire rings. Don’t create a new ring as this can damage vegetation. Instead, find a campsite that already has a fire ring.
  • Don’t build a fire if it’s windy. All it takes is a few hot ashes to blow into some nearby brush.
  • Only use wood that you bought or collected legally. Many state and national parks don’t allow you to gather firewood. If gathering wood is allowed, only pick up dead and downed logs, and don’t cut down or harm living trees, as they are home for birds, insects, and other creatures.
  • Keep the size of your fire reasonable. There is no need to have a bonfire when you are backpacking.
  • Make sure your fire is 110% out. Do not go to bed or leave the campfire until you are certain it’s completely out. Peeing on your fire before curling up into your sleeping bag is not an appropriate way to put your fire out – rather, the best way to put your fire out and cool the ashes is to drench it with water. This is easy if you have a Platypus Gravity filter, since you can scoop up lake water and then carry it back to camp.
  • Don’t throw trash in the firepit. Trash doesn’t burn and eventually has to be packed out by someone else!
  • At the end of your visit, leave the campsite better than you found it. Search for cigarette butts, micro-trash, and food particles. Whether they were already there before you arrived or a result of your party, be a good steward and pick it up. Make sure you pack out all of your trash as well as any trash you find. Stay organized at your campsite with a designated receptacle, so your trash is all in one place and easy to dispose of when you get out of the wilderness.
Don't put trash in the campfire! Learn how to Leave No Trace at your campsite.
This was a fire ring I came across that was full of trash. Please don’t throw your trash in the fire.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is backcountry camping?

Backcountry camping means you have to walk on a hiking trail to a campsite in the wilderness. Since you cannot drive to backcountry campsites, you have to carry all of your gear in a backpacking pack.


What are some of the key factors to consider when choosing a campsite while backpacking?

The biggest factor to keep in mind is to ensure you’re in a legal and pre-established campsite. Then, I look for campsites that are flat, dry, safe, and comfortable, ideally one that’s slightly elevated to avoid pooling water if it rains. I like to be near a water source if possible, but I make sure to camp at least 200 feet away. Finally, I make sure that I’m off of the trail and respecting the space of any neighbors who have already set up camp by camping as far away as I can from them.

How can I ensure my campsite is safe from wildlife?

To keep wildlife away from your campsite, make sure you store your food and scented items properly. Depending on where I’m backpacking, I use either a bear canister or hang my scented items and food in a bag from a tree. I keep the canister or bag at least 100 feet from my campsite. Another good practice is to cook and eat away from your tent to keep food odors from attracting wildlife to your tent.

What should I do if someone already took the campsite I planned to use?

Before you head off to the trail, you should have a backup plan of where you’ll camp if your first choice doesn’t work out. Print out a map so you can use it to help you find alternative campsites and stay flexible. If you’re stuck, you could try asking the people at the campsite you wanted if they know of other good spots nearby.

Save this post to Pinterest

What would you add to my tips on how to choose a campsite? Let me know in the comments below!

The post How to Choose a Backcountry Campsite (that follows Leave No Trace) appeared first on Bearfoot Theory.

  • July 1, 2024