Choosing Your Backcountry Campsite

27, January 27th, 2010 by Carl D
Backcountry campsite in the Chugach mountains, Wrangell - St. Elias National Park and Preserve. From the Iceberg Lake to Bremner Mines trip.

Hey Folks

Here’s a short post with some tips for you on picking a campsite in the backcountry.  Why a post about picking a campsite? I think it’s useful because many folks overlook this part of a trip, as most people are (typically) so used to backpacking and hiking on trails in the Lower 48 states that it doesn’t really occur to them until it’s time to set up a tent. And by then, it’s too late.

Your campsite is your home, albeit ever so temporarily, and it’s well worth taking a couple of steps toward setting up home for the evening in a setting that you enjoy. Backpacking all day with a heavy load through rugged but beautiful mountains is hard work, and an important part of the trip, to us, is enjoying a great campsite. What makes a great campsite?

Firstly, it needs to be “low impact.” Essentially, low impact campsites are those that don’t leave undue stress on the landscape, or on other visitors to the park, both while you’re camped there and after you’re gone. There are a number of elements that are important, and I’ll stress a few of them here (this is not a comprehensive list).

Resilience of the ground underfoot to your camp. Camping is not merely a tent footprint. Camping often means, particularly in bear country, many trips back and forth from tent site to kitchen. With a group of even 4 people, that can quickly lead to  trails and travel sign on the tundra. Even all the most careful planning in the world won’t counter forgetting a jacket, or your gloves, or a lighter, etc; it’s amazing how rarely dinner goes by without someone having to make a trip or 2 back to the tent/backpacks to grab something forgotten; or grab a camera for that exhilarating sunset that always seems to happen while you eat.

A backpacking campsite on the Bremner to Tebay Trip, Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Alaska.

Fragile tundra can be damaged by heavy, stiff backpacking boots very easily. Even sitting enjoying your pasta fettaccini and scrunching around a little can damage the dryas (tundra); multiply that by 4 people and 2 meals, breakfast and dinner, and the kitchen can quickly become broken and torn underfoot. You might not notice it, but once you break camp and move on, the scars are left behind and clear for all to see.

Find hardy soil, rocky ground, etc. Move carefully back and forth to camp, don’t always use the exact same path, unless a social trail already exists. I believe it’s better to concentrate wear on existing trails than create new ones.

Secondly, try not set up right on a water source; this one, I think is more important in some circumstances than others. Smaller groups might be able to camp by a stream without leaving the same kind of impact as larger groups, and stressing careful camping practices around the area make a big difference. But the big issue is the volume of traffic the site may get. There are a couple of areas on some of our more popular routes that get more traffic during the summer backpacking season than others, and we’re always careful to avoid camping at those sites.

On the other hand, some sites might get used once or twice a season, and the area seems to bounce back well. If you DO choose to camp on a water source, take extra care to not pollute that source. The standard Leave No Trace practice for using the bathroom in the backcountry is 200′ from a water source, so we tend to set 300′ as a standard. Don’t cook and eat near the water source. Don’t wash dishes directly in the source. A swim and bath in a cool stream or tarn is an awesome experience in the mountains, and if you value it for yourself, value it for others – make the effort to not pollute and dirty the water.

Backpacking campsite on the Sanford Plateau, Wrangell - St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska. Mt Drum towering behind.
Backpacking campsite on the Sanford Plateau, Wrangell – St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska. Mt Drum towering behind.

The view: your camp is your home. Stop and spend the evening somewhere nice. One of things we pride ourselves on the most is killer campsites. Even on the exploratory trips, where we’re hiking the terrain unseen, we’ll typically hike an extra hour or 2 to find somewhere nice to camp. Getting up high is almost ALWAYS worth the effort. Nothing beats sitting on a high ridge with that great expansive view stretching down the valley beyond as you enjoy your cocoa.

If the weather is inclement, a suggestion is to save the climb for later, and hunker down low. Being exposed on a ridge isn’t a great option in a storm, and the view is typically not happening anyway. In such conditions, stay low, dry and warm. Save the hike up for a time when you’ll be able to see those distant peaks, and the sun lights up some high cloud from underneath.

On the issue of vista, do pay attention to your neighbors, i.e., both other hikers and wildlife. Don’t set up camp in an obvious wildlife corridor, or on a game trail, etc. Don’t set up camp next to an Arctic Ground Squirrel’s home, or close to nesting birds. Just as important, don’t set up camp on a trail or right alongside a route you expect other backpackers might be using while you’re there – unless you have to. But DO make the effort to camp out of the way, and not intrude your campsite on others’ experiences, both those who call the park/refuge home and those who are also visiting.

The last thing I’ll comment on here is campfires. I almost NEVER have a campfire in the backcountry any more. It’s rare indeed the times I have fire. When someone on a trip really desires a fire, and circumstances allow, or when a fire is good judgement, such as someone is cold and wet, we’ll have a campfire — BUUUUUTTT — we always make sure to use only dead and down wood, and remove as much sign of the fire as possible. Picking a spot for the campfire is a topic unto itself, so I’ll keep that topic short by saying be careful, take the time to know the regulations and suggestions from the relevant land management agency, and follow those.

Most often what causes problems is someone thinks ‘oh, I know the rules or protocols are x-y-z, but it’s just this once’. Well, that once follows someone else’s ‘just this once’, and precedes the next, and so on. Before you know it, there’s 4 or 5 fire rings within 100 yards of one another. Not to mention potential for starting wildfires. So if you’re out there on your own, do be careful, and respect the land you’re in. It’s good form.

One of the reasons I like the 1st photo in this post for this discussion is because it shows some of the things I’m talking about. You can see the water in the background, a good 100 yards from the tent ( a Mountain Hardwear PCT 1 – great tent!). The view is awesome, the terrain is solid and resilient, flat and comfortable for sleeping and you can see on the left hand side, a big, high ridge wall around the back end of the camp offers some shelter from inclement weather. One of my favorite campsites anywhere!

The other photos hopefully inspire you to spend some time finding a good campsite – it’s your home!

Remember: Great Campsites are Found, not Made.

Cheers

Carl

MSR Hubba tent, campsite in Chugach Mountains.
Sunset over a tarn, Wrangell - St. Elias National Park, Alaska.
Camping on the tundra, Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska.
Sunset over Hanagita Peak, Wrangell - St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska.
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