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Help Me Get Better @ Site Selection
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Delmar O'Donnell
(Bolster)

Locale: Between Jacinto & Gorgonio
Help Me Get Better @ Site Selection on 03/11/2014 10:36:21 MDT Print View

Taking stock of my skills, at this time I'm most critical of my ability to select a good camp site. I think I missed class on the day site selection was discussed, and would like to learn from those with more experience. What do you look for when selecting a place to sleep? (I use a solo tent, a Hubba, so I'm most interested in tent-site-selection, but I'm sure tarp-site-selection would be interesting also.)

Here's basically all I know at this point:
- Don't select top of ridge, due to wind and possibly lightning.
- Don't select hollows or low areas, as they'll be cooler.
- Don't camp in dry creek beds, due to flash flood.
- Don't camp under dead wood, which might fall on you.
- Find a site with good drainage, preferably a little taller than the surrounding area.
- Don't sleep on a slope that's left-right, as you'll struggle to stay on the mat.
- Try to find soft duff to camp on. (Ha! Virtually impossible in desert camping.)
I add to this:
- Sleep on a slight slope (because I just sleep better if my head is elevated above my feet).

Despite following these rules (as I can), and sometimes hunting for a good site for up to 45 minutes (sometimes, as night is falling!! Ugh.), I often wake up thinking: "I could have picked a better site," for various reasons. So my question is wide open: What does one look for, in site selection? What are the mistakes that noobs make, to avoid?

Edited by Bolster on 03/11/2014 10:38:13 MDT.

Marko Botsaris
(millonas) - F - MLife

Locale: Santa Cruz Mountains, CA
Re: Help Me Get Better @ Site Selection on 03/11/2014 11:30:05 MDT Print View

Wow, when you put them all together like that it seems hopeless! Probably you want to put at the end. with a bullet, "don't take things too seriously - if you can lie down and are reasonably comfortable, you are good to go".

Also you left out, "should have a beautiful view". :-)

One tip I got somewhere in the way back is that the #1 place where you will experience discomfort is your hip (especially if you are old-school UL with a thin pad). To the extent you can control this find (if on rock) or make a small concavity where you hip will be. If you can sleep comfortably you are %99 of the way there. What amounts to "comfort" will be unique to you, however.

One last thought though, if you are searching after the sun goes down that might be the source of some of your problems right there. If in a troublesome place like dense east coast forest maybe start looking AS you hike with plenty of daylight left as oppose to choosing a specific area and combing for a good spot.

Edited by millonas on 03/11/2014 11:32:11 MDT.

Dena Kelley
(EagleRiverDee) - M

Locale: Eagle River, Alaska
"Help Me Get Better @ Site Selection" on 03/11/2014 11:31:43 MDT Print View

Also- if you camp near water, you will have additional condensation in your tent. That's a trade off. Nice to have water near to camp, and sometimes there are better views and wildlife sightings. And- don't camp on game trails.

I hear ya, though. Finding a nice, flat spot with suitable drainage and wind protection can be hard. I often camp above treeline (which, in my area, isn't very high up- maybe 3500'-4000'?) so I don't have to contend with trees. If I'm in a valley, I'll seek out a "shelf" somewhere above the valley floor but not so high up that it's going to be prone to high wind. Our land here is often really uneven, so finding a flat spot can be really tough sometimes.

robert van putten
(Bawana) - F

Locale: Planet Bob
Lay down to test drive the site? on 03/11/2014 11:34:22 MDT Print View

I dunno, it sounds to me like you got it just about covered!

'Bout the only thing I might add is I sometimes pay attention to how the morning light will hit the site. If I'm gonna sleep in I want shade. If I want to get up early or I expect frost or heavy dew, I like early sun.

I also pay a little attention to exposure and wind direction, because I use a much breezier tarp tent than what you got. What I think the weather will be doing determines how much effort I put into this.

In fact, my estimation of the weather determines just about everything - Who cares about drainage if there is a zero chance of rain, and so forth.

Do you lay down on the ground to "test drive" the site before you pitch the tent?
Kinda hard in wet conditions, but if you use a ground cloth under the tent you can lie down on that.
I find I do this just about every time I select a spot without fail!
It is perhaps the most important to me, especially when sleeping on just 36" thin foam pad. Camping with my wife we use full length thermarest pads, but it is still important to find just the right spot.

Heh, just keep backpacking! The more sites you pick the better you get at it, like anything else.

I even do this when day hiking or even just walking around my 40 acres, and think " Hey, I could put a tent right there!" Everywhere I go, part of my mind scans for spots is seems!

Dena Kelley
(EagleRiverDee) - M

Locale: Eagle River, Alaska
"Help Me Get Better @ Site Selection" on 03/11/2014 12:35:53 MDT Print View

"I even do this when day hiking or even just walking around my 40 acres, and think " Hey, I could put a tent right there!" Everywhere I go, part of my mind scans for spots is seems!"
====
I do this exact same thing. I find when I'm hiking that I often look at a spot and think, "that'd be a good bivouac spot"..."that tree would make a good emergency shelter"..."that spot would be an awesome place to camp".

jeffrey armbruster
(book) - M

Locale: Northern California
"Help Me Get Better @ Site Selection" on 03/11/2014 13:36:12 MDT Print View

Drainage is not always obvious before it begins raining. For example, the trail itself can become a small creek which then overflows during heavy rains--perhaps right into your tent! Or a creek upstream of the trail will overflow into the trail with the same result. Or water will begin cascading down walls in unexpected ways...etc.

It's amazing, given the miles of open surround in the wilderness, how hard it is sometimes to find a small patch of ground to lie down on.

Delmar O'Donnell
(Bolster)

Locale: Between Jacinto & Gorgonio
Good Stuff. on 03/11/2014 14:21:21 MDT Print View

This is helpful, thanks. Couple comments:

>If I'm in a valley, I'll seek out a "shelf" somewhere above the valley floor but not so high up that it's going to be prone to high wind.

Ya, see, this is what I'm looking for, and don't find. I think this shelf may be mythical.

> Also you left out, "should have a beautiful view". :-)

...which, I've determined, means "big wind" at night. I've actually stopped looking for high scenic panoramas and go for nooks now. But I take your point. There are beautiful views that are not high windy panoramas.

> if you are searching after the sun goes down that might be the source of some of your problems right there

Agree 110%.

> Do you lay down on the ground to "test drive" the site before you pitch the tent?

Started to, and boy does that help. Previously "by eye" alone; now I lie down.

One of the things that motivated me to buy a "heavy" Hubba at 3 lb was how easy it was to relocate, being freestanding. And it seems I'm dicking around with the perfect placement, moving a few inches left and right, rotating slightly, a little more up or down the hill, for at least 15 minutes each time. Yes, I'm being fussy, but I am looking for the orientation where I won't be rolling off my pad. That's a problem that doesn't seem to show up for the first couple of hours of sleeping, and then for the rest of the night I'm extracting myself from a fold on the downside of the tent.

My hypothesis is that gravity gets more intense as the night wears on, becoming its most extreme around 3-4 am when I am the groggiest.

> Everywhere I go, part of my mind scans for spots is seems!

OK, this is good homework for me. I will start doing this.

Edited by Bolster on 03/11/2014 14:31:06 MDT.

D S
(smoke) - F
Ridge on 03/11/2014 14:30:33 MDT Print View

I don't exactly agree with dismissing the top of ridges per se. There are situations where I want all the breeze I can get. If there is not High Wind or Thunderstorms in the forecast, I'll take a ridge top to get some breeze and a view vs hot, muggy, and skeeters.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Help Me Get Better @ Site Selection on 03/11/2014 14:32:44 MDT Print View

I don't know about the areas where you operate, but I find myself at some backcountry lakes of Yosemite quite often. Too many beginners will try to camp within 200 feet of the lake shore so that they have a quick source of water. However, the mosquitos will be at maximum there for certain times of the season. Instead, I will camp someplace a hundred vertical feet above the lake level, and the flying population will be much less worrisome.

Obviously you are not going to camp right on a trail, but it is good to be far enough from the trail that you can find your tent, but anybody else on the trail will miss it.

If you start to pick a tent spot and you see a lot of shredded cords hanging from tree branches, that is a bad sign. It generally means that lots of people have camped there before you. Either they threw bear lines up into the branches and got them caught, or else the bears knew where to look for camps and they climbed up the trees to shred the lines and snatch the goodies.

Also, I try not to camp in the median strip of an interstate highway. It's too noisy.

--B.G.--

Dena Kelley
(EagleRiverDee) - M

Locale: Eagle River, Alaska
"Help Me Get Better @ Site Selection" on 03/11/2014 15:30:54 MDT Print View

"Ya, see, this is what I'm looking for, and don't find. I think this shelf may be mythical."
==

I will agree they are harder to find than a flat spot at the bottom of the valley. I've found 'em, but it's more common for the valley walls to be nothing but steep and have to camp at the bottom by the creek anyway.

John Myers
(dallas) - F - MLife

Locale: North Texas
Re: Good Stuff. on 03/11/2014 15:46:27 MDT Print View

Delmar,
Sounds like you know exactly what you're looking for.

The challenge is to find the right site at the right time.

Sometimes that's just either/or. Spot a great site but not ready to set up camp yet, or keep hiking until almost dark and not be able to find one.

That's one of the reasons I prefer a hammock. When hiking in wooded areas it's a lot easier to find 2 trees the right distance apart than finding a level spot for a tent. :)

Thomas Rayl
(trayl) - MLife

Locale: SE Tx
Campsite selection on 03/11/2014 15:57:35 MDT Print View

Are there (reliably) trees where you camp? Have you considered a hammock? (Hennessey's are awesome!) If that route works for you, it can eliminate many concerns about drainage, slope, rocks & roots, etc. You also won't need a pad for ground cushioning (might need under-insulation, though). Just an alternative...

Delmar O'Donnell
(Bolster)

Locale: Between Jacinto & Gorgonio
Re: Campsite selection on 03/11/2014 17:00:03 MDT Print View

> Are there (reliably) trees where you camp?

No, lots of desert between So Calif and Arizona, which is my main playground. My big concerns are (usually, not always) where are the least pointy rocks on a reasonably level surface. I will admit I'm extremely fond of a very small/narrow footprint tent. If I doubled the size of the tent I'd double my troubles finding good pitch locations.

Someday I will live near trees and then it will be time to learn hammock.

Clayton Mauritzen
(GlacierRambler) - F - M

Locale: NW Montana
Re: Re: Campsite selection on 03/11/2014 17:31:58 MDT Print View

Sounds to me like you need exactly what I need--practice. You clearly know what you can learn online. I'd say just keep at it and be a bit more intentional.

Pretty soon it'll just be intuitive.

peter vacco
(fluff@inreach.com) - M

Locale: no. california
Re: Help Me Get Better @ Site Selection on 03/11/2014 19:47:37 MDT Print View

- Don't select top of ridge, due to wind and possibly lightning.

unless it's going to get ugly, ohh goodness .. go for the views.

- Don't select hollows or low areas, as they'll be cooler.

but sometimes a gravel bar is the best place in the world. any gravel bar worth it's salt is going to be on the river.

- Don't camp in dry creek beds, due to flash flood.

forget not the slush flows that storm down springtime gullies if in alaska.
and Do consider the benefits of using the tundra bench above many northern rivers rather than the gravel bed.

- Don't camp under dead wood, which might fall on you.

pish tosh.

- Find a site with good drainage, preferably a little taller than the surrounding area.

well.. ya.

- Don't sleep on a slope that's left-right, as you'll struggle to stay on the mat.
- Try to find soft duff to camp on. (Ha! Virtually impossible in desert camping.)
I add to this:

peter's mantra ...
if you can't sleep on a short 1" pad .. walk farther.

- Sleep on a slight slope (because I just sleep better if my head is elevated above my feet).

this goes away if you give it a helping hand.

peter falls FIRMLY in the camp of morning sun. that is key beyond any status of gradient and turf configuration. morning sun can make literally hours of difference in start time ( = miles).

Delmar is going to be fine. do not forget that any campsite is vastly improved if you have something to drink.

cheers,
v.

Delmar O'Donnell
(Bolster)

Locale: Between Jacinto & Gorgonio
Re: Re: Help Me Get Better @ Site Selection on 03/11/2014 21:36:58 MDT Print View

> but sometimes a gravel bar is the best place in the world. any gravel bar worth it's salt is going to be on the river.

Please elaborate on this?

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Help Me Get Better @ Site Selection on 03/11/2014 22:38:22 MDT Print View

I think this is a good subject. All of us are going to have differing opinions and no one is right.

First, there are a few considerations

(1) Is it a hike, sleep, hike endeavor? If so, you just deal with where you end up -- so to speak.

(2) Is there a specific destination? If so, you again just deal with where you end up -- so to speak.

(3) Are you flexible to where you end your day or even willing to hike a ways from your route? This is often the best if you seek a view. Views are good, but you can't see them when you're sleeping.

Ridges and peaks are often great places. Decades ago one could camp on the peak of San Jacinto (with a permit). Awesome. Unless the weather was bad. I did this a lot.

DSC00462

The above site was great on a ridge with this view on the other side of the ridge (see below).

dsc00461

As noted, I like early morning sun too. But sometimes you can't get to the sunny side of a mountain or hill. And sometimes a river bed is great, just ignore the moisture. Below the sunny area was a cliff on the other side of the river. Prime consideration for this particular site was no neighbors. It was December and temps got down below freezing.

white rock canyon

Desert washes are great if it doesn't rain within 100 miles...

nite camp

On the other hand, washes with rain in the forecast can be difficult. On this trip I walked for 45 minutes trying to find a level spot above the wash that was level and not all boulders because I knew it was going to rain during the night...

img 0138

Sand can make the best beds as long as you keep the sand out of your gear and food. Plus you can dig out a little depression for your hips...

IMG 0165

When ever possible I try to sleep without a shelter. This requires the least amount of real estate. I am a side sleeper. But I find that if I start out on my back and watch the night sky I fall asleep the easiest. I know I will eventually end up on my side. I know some people really prefer a shelter. But experiment. It can open up many, many more options.

Often in wind, I will forgo a shelter. On this trip there were 5 of us. Wind gusts around 50 mph and flattened these two UL tents. Two guys had tarps which pretty much stayed in place with some nighttime adjustments.

cuben wedge

butler canyon bed

I was fine without a shelter, other than trying to find (successfully) several pieces of gear that blew away during the night...

Sometimes finding a small piece of real estate that is flat and void of rocks and plants can be daunting. Below I had to walk 1/2 mile from where I wanted to camp and even the poncho/tarp had to be pitched over rocks and plants. Good thing I didn't bring a tent, I would still be looking for a good site...

poncho tarp

You need to consider the soil and how much it might rain. Below is a playa, which is an indentation on a flat plain. I had to make sure the soil was real dry and could absorb some rain -- otherwise I would have awaken in a small lake. I did move to the upper edge of the playa...

playa

Sometimes what looks sloped, really isn't if you lay down and find a level place. Dead wood be damned, when wind is not in the forecast (not recommended)...

slope


And then there are the times you must stealth camp, where the regulations are too difficult and vague to figure out, especially when two government officials gave you two different answers over the phone. You think you are okay, but not 100% sure you understand all the rules. In this case you crash through brush until you find an open clearing, which almost always means there is no water nearby and you might have a bed of rocks and debris under you...

Cibola NF

Then there is the theory of using landmarks to shield you from high winds. Doesn't always work, so you (hopefully) brought a shelter that can withstand 70 mph gusts...

trailstar

So...

1. Level site.

2. Morning sun.

3. View if possible -- but I am sleeping so it isn't that critical. It does make camp chores around the campsite at night and in the morning more enjoyable.

Everything else is secondary unless weather conditions create a potential hazard. Hopefully, if I need a shelter, I brought the right one. But a shelter can limit my possible sites.

If skeeters might be a problem, I go up higher away from water, especially standing water. This usually isn't much of a problem because kids, dogs, adults, and skeeters generally don't like me.

A great site will have a rock to use as a back rest so you can cook dinner at night and sit in your sleeping bag to watch the stars, and then in the morning warm up catching the early morning sun while in your bag and cooking breakfast. The site below is what I seek whenever possible.

cowboy camping

One last thing. If I can put my hips in a depression with my feet AND my head slightly elevated I sleep the best and my legs recover a lot quicker if it has been a strenuous day. Sometimes I put my pack under my feet so they are slightly elevated.

To be honest, I really don't give site selection that much thought. I just plop down when I am ready to stop most of the time. If there is a big rain coming, then I pay attention to drainage.

Edited by ngatel on 03/11/2014 22:45:48 MDT.

Paul McLaughlin
(paul) - MLife
Re: Re: Re: Help Me Get Better @ Site Selection on 03/11/2014 22:44:25 MDT Print View

Don't know if this can be applied where you wander, but in the Sierra I often camp on nice granite slabs, for a variety of reasons. Good pad is essential to this idea. You get a nice clean campsite, the rock holds heat from the day and is thus warmer to sleep on; tends to be drier also, never have had any moisture on the underside of my groundsheet on a slab; midnight forays to answer the call do not result in pine needle perforations or dirty socks; and last but not least, minimal impact on the site.

Delmar O'Donnell
(Bolster)

Locale: Between Jacinto & Gorgonio
Excellent on 03/12/2014 10:46:07 MDT Print View

Excellent post, Nicky G! Very informative, and loved the photos of course. Think i'll be doing better from here out. Have a better idea now what to look for.

PS... Still puzzled about sand bars. I'd thought that the sand around a creek or river bed was strictly verboten, but some posters are hinting that sand bars are great.

Edited by Bolster on 03/12/2014 10:49:20 MDT.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: Excellent on 03/12/2014 11:11:48 MDT Print View

Yeah, good post Nick

I like to have rock "tables" to put stuff on

If it's windy, sand and dust can blow onto everything. Sometimes, brush will provide some protection. Sometimes I'll place some branches next to me to block the blowing sand.

A couple times I've camped on a flat area, then it rained and it turned into a puddle. You can see patterns of needles and leaves that show the perimiter of the puddle and avoid that.

Desert has a certain beauty. Trees and brush block the views and make it difficult to walk cross country. Eastern Oregon and Washington has a lot of desert, but the Mojave area is more wide open. Too bad it's so far away.