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Techniques for River Corridor Camping

Tarp camping is tricky enough. Couple that with unstable ground and strong winds and that perfect campsite can quickly become a nightmare. Learn all the tricks to stay dry and happy.

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by Ryan Jordan | 2013-10-08 00:00:00-06

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” - Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It


At some point in your wilderness travel career, you’ll want to pitch your shelter on a river bar. Maybe you’ve arrived by packraft or foot, or have been allured by the promise of fat trout caught only steps from the porch of your tarp. For others, snoozing next to a thrashing river or bubbling current provides the audio elixir required to detox from a weekday world of honking, text message notifications, and complaining.

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Tarp camping in a dry side channel on the Gallatin River in Southwest Montana. The two rear corners are tied to tiny willow bushes, the two front corners are tied to buried deadmen, and the front ridgeline is secured by a stow sack containing 50 pounds of cobbles.

Some river bars provide dry ground year-round (or, at least, dry ground most years), while others are washed clean of debris every spring. River bars can exist as vegetated cottonwood cathedrals, sandy willow groves, large cobbles, or fine gravel. Often, river bar ground is rocky, sandy, or otherwise unconsolidated, and in general, rather awful places for titanium skewer tent stakes and the like. Other river bars littered with cobbles or gravel whisper their laughter when you fight them with any sort of tent stake!

Table 1. Tent Stake Holding Power

Forest SoilWet River Sand0.5” River Gravel
6 in x 1/8 in Titanium Skewer2244
MSR Groundhog59910
Sand Anchor [1]n/a116137
Cobblesack (50 lb) [2]n/a6271

Reference: Test method is outlined in Tent Stake Holding Power. Notes: [1] The sand anchor consisted of an REI Snow and Sand Anchor wrapped around a 6 in diameter stone and buried 8 in below the ground surface. [2] The cobblesack contained approximately 50 lbs of mixed sand, gravel, and stones with the latter two averaging 0.5 in to 3 in diameter. These are representative values and are not meant to reflect all types of stakes in all types of riverbed soil.

The purpose of this article is to provide you with some insight into riverbed camping challenges, and some techniques to overcome those challenges.

Weather Protection, Campsite Location, and Shelter Orientation

Suffering an exposed camp in a tarp on a river bar during a driving rainstorm is less than pleasant. Buffeting winds, sideways blowing rain, and even spray blown in from the river’s surface is not what I usually equate with “cozy” and “protected”.

So, the first consideration about river bar camping is determining where to locate your shelter in context with the prevailing weather pattern.

Orienting Your Shelter With Respect to Wind Direction

Will wind blow up, or down a river corridor?

This question is best answered by legends and gamblers, but there is a bit of rationale that might explain some trends.

First and foremost, prevailing weather patterns and river corridor topography probably have the most influence on which direction the wind blows.

Where I live in Montana, prevailing winds generally come from the southwest and blow towards the northeast. During a storm, this means I’d rather be paddling the west-to-east trending river corridor of the Yellowstone below Livingston than the east-to-west trending river corridor of the Clark Fork below Missoula.

Narrow river corridors, especially deep gorges, will act as wind funnels. Regardless of their orientation, wind entering the top (or bottom) of a gorge is more than happy to make its way around the twists and turns in the gorge with no care at all about the prevailing wind direction on the flatlands above.

In the absence of the prevailing winds that come with storms, river corridors commonly experience winds as a result of the heating and cooling of the earth’s surface - so called thermal winds. Thermal winds are most common in mountain environments where significant topographic relief amplifies the effects of temperature change.

A common morning (on very hot days) and afternoon wind blows up a river corridor. These are called anabatic (Gr. anabatos, the verb form of anabainein = “moving upward”) winds. In calm, sunny weather, a hill (or a mountain, for you east coasters), heats up in response to the sun’s radiative warming rays. This heats the air at the surface of the hill. This hot air rises and travels up mountain slopes, so this effect causes a pressure differential that draws air from high-pressure lower elevation spots (downstream) to the low-pressure higher elevation spots (upstream). Anabatic winds can last nearly all day and are generally the bane of summer paddlers who have to face them for hours at a time. It’s the primary motivation for hot-weather paddlers to get as many miles as possible completed early in the morning.

Conversely, a common late evening wind blows down a river corridor. These are called katabatic (Gr. katabatikos = “going downhill”) winds. In calm, sunny weather, a hill’s radiative heat layer cools dramatically (especially after sunset) and then starts spilling down into the adjacent river corridors, creating a downstream breeze. Unlike anabatic winds, katabatic winds are relatively short-lived (they often last less than an hour or two in the northern Rockies), and are not as powerful.

The third type of wind worth noting is the Foehn wind. I’m well acquainted with Foehn winds during fall and winter packrafting trips in mountainous regions - because they require a bit of high elevation snow for them to form. Foehn winds form when a warm, dry wind blows down the leeward side of a mountain range. As the wind reaches the snow at the range’s higher elevations, the winds cool and roar their way down alpine valleys. Foehn winds occur during periods of dramatic temperature changes (fall and late winter/early spring), and can be powerful, dramatic, and destructive. They typically blow downstream in valleys that are narrowly confined by two adjacent mountain ranges.

Then, there are days when a wind blows in a direction that is completely unpredictable or unexplainable. So be it, I suppose.

Regardless, winds blow more in river corridors than back in the adjacent forests where trees might provide a wind break, and there are some predictable trends that you might consider when pitching your shelter.

If you are expecting strong Foehn winds, you might think twice about camping on the river beach, or even camping with a tarp. I remember one warm spring day on the Yellowstone River where a Foehn wind kicked up a violent sandstorm that was rather unpleasant for us tarp campers on the beach. In other words, find trees, pitch your tarp in a storm pitch (see Tarp Camping Techniques for Inclement Conditions for instructions) with the foot end of the shelter facing upstream, and hold on.

Otherwise, consider that in the absence of foul weather, especially in the summer, you’ll have a bit of downstream breeze in the evening, little or no wind in the morning, and an upstream breeze in the afternoon. Pitch your tarp accordingly and be prepared for swirling, reversals, and unpredictability. Like I said earlier, predicting wind direction is best left to legends and gamblers, but it’s fun to try nonetheless, and the science is interesting.

Where to Pitch Your Shelter in the River Corridor

Other considerations worth noting include the amount and type of vegetation you have access to and the quality of your guyline anchors.

In tree bottoms (usually found on the floodplain a few feet above the normal high water mark of a freestone stream), tying your tarp to, and using trees as stakeout points and wind breaks probably give you the most security in a river bottom. In addition, since tree stands typically occur a few feet above normal river levels, they provide some protection against the coldest katabatic flows, some overhead protection from falling rain and snow, and insurance from rising waters in response to heavy rains.

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Camping on the floodplain in a lodgepole pine stand. Slough Creek, Montana.

As you travel from tree stands towards the river, you might encounter river brush. Where I live, that river brush is almost exclusively comprised of willows. Willows have strong root systems and can grow very dense. They provide good tie-down points, and big willow bushes can provide meaningful wind breaks. Willow stands often grow in consolidated soil with grass that provides reasonable ground stake holding power, but just as often can grow in sand or gravel where stakes won’t hold.

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Taking advantage of willows as windbreaks on the Slough Creek floodplain during a fall storm, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

In wide, freestone rivers, willows usually give way to sand or gravel, and then cobbles. Special staking techniques are required for pitching in these areas (read further) and obviously, your opportunity for a wind break is gone as you approach the tempting “beach zone” of a beautiful river.

Staking a Tarp in a River Corridor

Once you’ve selected your campsite, and the direction that you want your shelter to face, it’s time to secure it. I’ve seen many novices pitch their freestanding popups in river corridors only to walk away for a doodie break to find their temporary home tumbling downstream towards the next set of rapids. The chase is on! Don’t do this with your pants down: cobbles are hard to stumble across when you’re doing the pants-around-the-ankle-shuffle.

In short, stake down your shelter very securely in a river corridor. It’s worth the time and effort, and provides an opportunity to engage your mind with a bit of problem solving! Also, you won’t lose your shelter, your shelter will handle wind loading better, and it will be quieter on a windy night.

Types of Stakes

Woe to the ultralighter who packs six inch titanium skewers for riverbed camping! Fine by me if you want to bring a few kiddie-stakes along for securing non-essential guylines if you’re camping in the forest near the riverbed, but don’t rely on them during a storm or are camping in the riverbed between its high water marks where holding power in unconsolidated terra-temporaria is suspect. Certainly an easily-offended ultralight guru will come forth and proclaim his success with skewers for riverbed camping and tell me that I’m cracked for pitching in gravel. To you I say: “Hyas klosh mamook mika!” The rest of you I refer to the valuable information found in Tent Stake Holding Power, as well as Table 1 presented in the beginning of this article.

The closer you get to the riverbed, the more creative you have to be with staking your guylines. Sand, gravel, and cobbles are the norm here, so conventional stakes are out. Long stakes are tempting (8 - 12 in) but can be heavy and difficult to insert into the cemented conglomerate that sometimes characterizes the beach of a freestone stream.

Thus, you should add a few options in your stakeout arsenal. I’d like to discuss three of them here: big rocks, deadmen and cobblesacks.

Big Rocks are big rocks to which you tie guylines (duh). Here, I define a Big Rock as a rock so big that it requires severe back strain to move it, and thus, it’s big enough to hold your shelter stake-out point immobile in a Real Storm (or if you’re a Scot, a “brisk breeze”). Big Rocks that anchor critical stake-out points, such as tarp ridgelines, are generally about the size of beer talus (see Techniques for Talus for a definition). Littler Rocks, which can be more easily picked up, or rolled around with one hand while the other snaps a selfie, don’t qualify. That some bit of pain is required to maneuver Big Rocks into position for shelter pitching should be obvious. The pain is magnified when you consider the number of guylines (which equals the number of Big Rocks required) on most tarps and tents pitched properly for windy environments. Therefore, I employ the use of Big Rocks as part of my arsenal, and seldom as the exclusive mechanism of staking out my shelter in a riverbed. Further, as the proud owner of an aging back, I no longer roll around Big Rocks, so I choose something slightly smaller and more manageable than a Big Rock, for staking out only those guylines that might not be subject to very high stresses during a wind.

Another riverbed staking tool, well known to the mountaineers and skiers who pitch their homes in snow, is the deadman anchor. A deadman is easily defined as “any convenient object to which a cord is tied, and then buried beneath the ground surface.” Living things don’t qualify. The idea behind the deadman is that relatively small (and light!) objects can be used, and one takes advantage of compacted soil between the shelter and the deadman to create the resistance required to keep the deadman in place when tension is applied to the guyline.

Virtually any available object can be used as a deadman anchor in river sand or cobble, but the most important part of seeing that it holds against a strong force is that it’s buried well beneath the surface of the bed. I’ve used tent stakes, sticks and small logs buried sideways, small stuff sacks filled with sand or a rock, and even Really Little Rocks (the size of a grapefuit) as deadmen for successful riverbed pitching.

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A variety of deadman anchors (top) useful for anchoring guylines in riverbed sand and gravel, including a snow/sand anchor (gray frabric with the orange cord), MSR Blizzard Snow Stake (large red stake), MSR Groundhog Stake (small red stake), an SMC Snow Picket (silver with yellow cord), a 1 in diameter stick, and a small stuff sack that can be filled with sand and gravel (green). Tying a guyline to a rock that will be buried as a deadman anchor (bottom left). Guyline leading to a buried deadman below the gravel surface (bottom right).

Snow and sand anchors are marketed various specialty outdoor accessory companies, and are easy and fun DYI projects on your mom’s sewing machine. They are comprised of a fabric patch about six inches square, with cords or thin straps of webbing attached at reinforced corners on the patch. Carabiners or rings then provide a transition point between the anchor’s cords/straps and the guyline. The fabric is wrapped around a cobble (or bundle of gravel or sand) and then buried beneath the ground surface.

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A fabric-and-cord style snow and sand anchor used as a deadman with cobbles (upper left), a single rock (upper right), a sand and gravel mixture (lower left). The deadman is buried at least six inches below the surface (lower right) with the opening of the anchor facing the guyline. The deeper the burial, the stronger the anchor. When buried at depths of six inches or more in loose river gravel, these types of anchors usually require more than 50 lbs of force along the guyline axis to fail.

I’ve made my own snow-and-sand anchors in the past from various lighter fabrics and materials, including Cuben Fiber and silnylon, and this can save a bit of weight if you are carrying several of them. However, be warned that light fabrics used on deadmen in this manner (being buried in rocks and sand) will suffer some abuse, and a little extra fabric weight can dramatically increase the durability of your anchor. I still use a set that I made in 2002 from 100% Spectra fabric, Samson 2.75 mm Dyneema line, and titanium rings, that are lighter than any commercially available sand/snow anchor I’ve used and far more durable. They are a core part of my stake kit for both wintertime and riverbed camping.

Deadmen anchors have the primary advantage of being able to provide a guyline attachment point very near (or even below) the ground surface, thus making them appropriate for ground-level stake-out points, such as those found attached to the floor of a tent. In addition, deadmen allow for the very low pitching of a floorless shelter, which reduces wind, spindrift, and sand entry into the shelter as sometimes happens in fiercer storms.

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I prefer small gravel, like this, for riverbed camping. It’s more comfortable to lay on than larger cobbles, easier to sculpt and dig anchor holes into, and cleaner than sand.

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A stout trowel is an invaluable tool for digging holes for deadmen on river bars. Heel boots and toy trowels, like the well-known orange or green plastic ones, won’t cut it. This one is marketed by a company that manufactures high quality composite garden trowels.

Cobblesacks (a.k.a. sandbags) are stow sacks that are large enough to hold several dozen pounds of rocky stuff. This generally equates to a stuff sack in the volume range of 800 to 1,500 cubic inches. Like Big Rocks, and unlike deadmen, cobblesacks are above-the-ground tent anchors. The concept is simple: fill a sack with sand, gravel, or cobbles; secure the drawstring; attach the drawstring to the end of the shelter guyline (via a knot, carabiner, or ring); tighten the guyline.

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The cobblesack in action. To use it properly, locate the “anchor position” first (you won’t want to try to move a delicate stow bag full of 50 lbs of rocks later!), then fill the sack with stones, gravel, or sand. Pull the drawstring and use the end of the drawstring loop as a guyline attachment point.

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I don’t usually pull the toggle and cinch the stow bag closure on a cobble sack - it places too much stress on the drawcord tunnel sewn into the sack fabric. Here, a small carabiner is affixed to the end of the drawcord, and the guyline tied to the carabiner with a tautline hitch, which provides the primary mechanism of guyline adjustment. I nearly always use a cobblesack over any other type of anchor for securing the ridge guylines of my tarp shelter, which require the highest tension forces (commonly, 20+ lbs) to ensure that the shelter is secure.

Cobblesacks have the distinct advantage over Big Rocks in that there is no heavy lifting involved, only the shuttling of small rocks or piles of sand between the riverbed and the sack. Cobblesacks have the additional advantage over both Big Rocks and deadmen in that larger volume cobblesacks can hold an enormous amount of weight (several hundred pounds!) and thus, can be used in the foulest weather conditions and/or for the largest shelters.

Other Attachment Points

Don’t neglect natural attachment points that are (supposedly!) immovable and thus, could provide secure anchors for guyline attachment points. The obvious example already discussed is that of the tree, which I’ve found to be readily available and completely reliable in the lowland river bottoms where I fish and packraft.

Nearer to the riverside, and a bit less robust, but even more ubiquitous than the cottonwood and pine trees in my local riverbeds, is the willow bush. Willows provide wind breaks, fish storage sticks, and skewers for bratwurst. As important, they are usually rooted strongly enough to serve as guyline anchors. Low-to-the-ground anchors can be wrapped at the base of the willow bush, with the guyline encircling several stalks to distribute stress. Higher elevation guylines, as those that might come out the middle of a tarp or tent panel and angle upward, can be wrapped around the more bendy upper willow branches, which serve as a bit of a shock absorber in high winds (perhaps at the expense of some shelter stability).

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Tying off a tarp corner around the base of a tiny willow bush. This single root bush had a root system less than 14 in deep and was able to withstand a static force along the guyline axis of 48 lbs before the roots pulled out of the gravel.

Driftwood is also common in the river corridors of freestone streams, and logs can be drug into place to provide useful guyline attachment points as well. Logs secured by a few Big Rocks between the log and the shelter provide a strong structure for securing one edge of a shelter.

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A piece of 10 in diameter by 8 ft long cottonwood does not provide enough anchor security on its own for anything but guylines subjected to very light tension forces. However, two Big Rocks placed on either side of the guyline attachment next to the wood (towards the tarp) can create an immovable structure suitable for any guyline.

Staking in a Wind Storm

One bitter and gusty January day many years ago, while trekking in Montana’s Bear Trap Wilderness in the Madison River corridor, I was preparing a pitch just off the riverbed in a stand of willows on a small, but landlocked island. I was a rookie back then, and I made a rookie mistake: I removed my tent from my pack, and knowing that it was light enough to blow all the way to Helena if I let go of it, I grabbed a single stout tent stake and secured one stake out loop into the ground firmly. Then, with the assurance that it was going nowhere, I let go of the flapping lot to retrieve gloves from my pack, and upon turning around, my tent, and the crossbow ammo that used to be my tent stake, was sailing down the river corridor.

The lesson I learned was twofold. First, that the force of wind on a large patch of fabric can be mighty (especially into the open door of a tent, which becomes something like a sail), and easily pull out even a few well-placed stakes. Second, and therefore, the first order of business when staking in a gale must be securing one of the shelter guylines to an immovable object (like your pack!) until several points are staked out and you are confident that the shelter is secure before untying it from your pack and continuing the pitch.

Other Considerations

In addition to the challenges of staking down a shelter on a river bar, you should also consider other aspects and challenges of river bar tarp camping, including sleeping comfort, conservation, river channel property ownership, and risks that must be considered so that you aren’t swept away by rising water in the middle of the night.

Sleeping Comfort

The ultralight ethic for creating a comfortable bed, at its minimalist core, depends on using a very thin and tiny patch of a closed cell foam pad in combination with a campsite located on fluffy forest duff or fresh cut pine boughs (leave no trace considerations aside). These types of pads are no longer used by me, but I know many young men with earth stains on their hearts that do.

The option of using such a spartan mattress does not really exist on river bars littered with gravel, sand, and cobbles. None of these surfaces approach anything remotely related to “soft” and although sand and gravel can be sculpted to provide little pockets for side-sleeper hips and such, sculpting the platform to a “just right” shape is sometimes an exercise in futility that begins with frustration at sunset and a backache by sunrise.

For river bar camping, I carry a Big Fat Pad - a 2.5 in inflatable air mat. This gives me the flexibility to sleep on gravel and small cobbles without actually having to worry about their presence enough to remove them, sculpt a bed, or drag a pack full of forest duff from the pines that grow beyond the cottonwoods. I find myself carrying this pad on nearly all of my trips now, just in case I see a gravel bar that I may want to camp on, think about camping on, dreaming about camping on, or simply camping near.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t prepare a bed, if camping on big cobbles. I do, and so should you! Other than (obviously) picking a reasonably level platform, cobbles can usually be removed in the bed area. On freestone streams, cobbles usually overlie a layer of sand, which tends to settle under the cobbles during springtime runoff. This process requires about ten minutes of effort if done intentionally, and is well worth the time investment.

On sand, a sleeping platform can be carved even from a slight incline, which gives you some flexibility in where you pitch your shelter. In addition, sand tends to accumulate small, poky sticks, so be wary of them before you set down your ultralight inflatable pad. Regardless, a ground cloth or bivy sack is useful for protecting inflatable pads from puncture, but are otherwise (usually) unnecessary for wet ground protection. River bars tend to drain very well and both closed cell and durable inflatable pads can be placed directly on the river bar without a ground cloth and provide plenty of protection from moisture. If using an inflatable pad, beware of camping on gravel in rivers that carve through limestone bedrock and other sharp rocks.

When river camping in a floorless shelter, I find bivy sacks to be particularly useful when the probability of Foehn winds is high. Being able to completely cocoon myself inside a bivy sack to protect my sanity during violent sandstorms is a tolerable reprieve.

Conservation Issues

There is controversy associated with river bar camping. Some leave no trace zealots believe that camping within ____ feet of any water body is irresponsible and shows a lack of respect for nature. They evidently believe that various forms of pollution emanate directly from the walls of a shelter, including litter, noise, visible humanity, urine, and poop.

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Gaining wind protection for the tarp by pitching it adjacent to a willow stand on the grassy-bottomed Slough Creek floodplain, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

I’m not one of those zealots. I like to camp by water. But I like to camp by water responsibly, carefully, and respectfully, and I do find myself adopting an increasingly stringent leave no trace ethic as I grow older, and become more practiced at minimum impact techniques. Here’s what to consider when camping in a river corridor with respect to camping, fires, liquid waste, and solid waste:

The sand and gravel of riverbeds may be the ultimate durable surfaces for pitching a shelter outside of the slickrock of the desert and the granite slabs of alpine places. River channels between the high water marks are mostly devoid of vegetation, and in freestone streams, are rototilled and recycled with each minor flood that occurs once or more per annum.

Fires built below the high water mark leave scars and traces only during the time between floods. And at least once a year, all signs of fires between the high water marks are completely vaporized, never, ever to be noticed again. Contrast this to the fire scars and semi-permanent rings found in the forest, which can remain for decades. In canyons where camping is limited, on tailwater rivers that don’t receive regular flood surges, or in very high traffic areas, fire pans are a useful tool for minimizing your impact. My favorite fire pan is a simple turkey roasting pan, which is light, foldable, and has high sidewalls to contain the ashes. I fill the pan with a few inches of sand, then build the fire on top of that. Ashes can be packed out in zip baggies if your’re hardcore, or mixed into nearby soils in an inconspicuous location away from camp if you are an intentional ultralighter.

Liquid waste can be dispersed directly into the fast-moving and/or turbulent currents of high volume rivers. The river flow will dilute it quickly (“the solution to pollution is dilution”). In low-volume river corridors, liquid waste can be dispersed on the ground above the high water mark, in the hopes that rain will dilute its pollution potential. Some notable exceptions are worth mentioning. In desert areas with little rainfall or in grizzly bear country, liquid waste should generally be catholed in a “sump” far away from camp, or dispersed directly into a river regardless of its flow. Consult with the land management agency to see what their preferences are, and honor them.

Solid waste (poop and food) should always be catholed above the high water mark at least 200 feet from the river’s edge, except in areas where that practice is prohibited (especially high traffic and/or some desert river or canyon corridors). Many land management agencies will require some type of human waste disposal system, such as groovers or wag bags. For the DIY’er interested in a lightweight solution, you can poop on the ground, pick it up with an inside-out quart sized ziplock (use it like a glove, then turn it back inside-in), sprinkle some waste gelation “bio-gel” powder into the bag, seal it, and then store it in a second, more durable zip closure bag - some type of tough, odor-proof bag is ideal.

River Channel Property Ownership

Different areas have different laws regulating camping in river corridors bordered by privately owned lands.

In some jurisdictions, the entire river is owned by the property owner and one cannot even float through. In others, the riverbed is owned by the property owner, but the water remains a public right-of-way. Obviously, floating is allowed, but camping (or even getting out of your boat for a shoreline rest) would not be. Finally, some places allow public use of the water and the riverbed between the high water marks of any navigable stream. This is the fortunate case where I live, in the State of Montana, which means there are a plethora of opportunities for river camping here.

One caveat to my local stream access law, however, is where I can locate my river camps. Some islands remain privately owned, so I have to pay careful attention to land ownership. It can be confusing, since islands technically lie between the high water marks of the main channel. In addition, some islands are large enough to harbor permanent tree groves, so they are considered to have their own high water marks. As you might imagine, determining where to camp when river levels are low, some side channels go dry, and various types of islands become exposed, can be confusing. Consult your local river management agency to become educated about stream access in your state.

In addition, Montana has an interesting law that minimizes landowner-river user conflict by requiring river campers to camp at least 500 yards away from (or out of sight of, whichever is shorter) any occupied dwelling.

In short, if you are river camping in a river corridor that is not bound by public lands, be very careful about respecting private property ownership and understand both the laws that protect your rights as a citizen, and that protect the interests of landowners. In the most beautiful and pristine river corridors of Montana and Wyoming, for example, one may find themselves encroaching upon the viewscape of drunken movie stars with guns hanging out on the porch of their trophy home. These encounters are unpredictable. Movie star or not, however, landowner conflict is seldom a reasonable option that ends well, and should generally be avoided.

Rising Water

If you have a desire to camp in a riverbed that is prone to dramatic fluctuations in water levels resulting from dam releases or floods triggered by significant rainfall, consider bringing along a water leak alarm. They weigh a few ounces, are usually powered by a 9-volt battery, and emit an outrageously loud noise when triggered. I find them useful, if not a little bit unnerving when triggered, when camping in desert slot canyons, in river corridors below dams, and in rivers prone to rapid flow increases in response to nightly rainfall. I place them just a few feet from the waterline, between my shelter and the river, so that any overnight rise in water level is triggered well before it reaches my shelter. The only time I had one triggered was while camping on a gravel bar on the Hoh River in Olympic National Park during a spring deluge. The alarm sounded at about 2:00 am as the river started to rise, so I packed up my gear and moved my camp into the trees. During the course of the next four hours, the river’s edge had moved more than 40 ft inland across the gravel bar, swallowing my old camp.


My two favorite types of camps are on open tundra in high alpine areas, and in riverbeds. Neither is particularly comfortable when the weather turns bad, and both lack the coziness of a forest camp in windy or cold conditions.

However, camping in a riverbed is immensely rewarding. It connects you to the land via the motion and sound of the river in a way that cannot be experienced anywhere else.

Being able to enjoy river camping with lightweight gear and techniques that allow me to leave the conventional river camping shelter - the freestanding dome tent - at home, means that river camping doesn’t require me to add a dramatic amount of weight to my pack.

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Packrafter’s camp using guylines tied to willows for all tie-down points. Fish Creek, Montana.


"Techniques for River Corridor Camping," by Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2013-10-08 00:00:00-06.


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Techniques for River Corridor Camping
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Maia Jordan
(maia) - MLife

Locale: Rocky Mountains
Techniques for River Corridor Camping on 10/08/2013 17:08:15 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Techniques for River Corridor Camping

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: Techniques for River Corridor Camping on 10/08/2013 17:23:08 MDT Print View

Good info

Great Montana pictures

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
What about... on 10/08/2013 17:30:17 MDT Print View

Two questions

1. I'd always heard it was best to stay away from river campsites in Alaska since bears travel up and down the river corridors. Is this not a concern in the northern rockies.

2. I'd love to see a similar article on high altitude camping. I enjoy it but I'd love to know how to do it more safely (I don't like getting struck by lighting for example.

Nice article, I had not seen the deadman bag idea before. I may have to share that with some friends of mine who do a lot of canoeing and camping on sandy beaches.

Edited by Cameron on 10/08/2013 17:32:18 MDT.

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: Techniques for River Corridor Camping on 10/08/2013 18:22:22 MDT Print View

For even more on staking technique, with groovy illustrations..

Ditch Those Stakes by Mike C!

Ditch Those Stakes

Tjaard Breeuwer
(Tjaard) - MLife

Locale: Minnesota, USA
Beaches too on 10/09/2013 06:51:44 MDT Print View

A lot of this applies to sea or lake beaches too.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
river camping and bears on 10/09/2013 08:25:47 MDT Print View

Luke, that's probably less a concern in the Northern Rockies because bears are more likely to use the faster nearby trails to go up or down river. It does bear (!) paying attention to side drainages, and evaluating whether your potential campsite is likely to be a popular ford for critters moving perpendicular to the river in question.

That said, sometimes there's only one practical place to pitch your shelter.


peter vacco

Locale: no. california
Re: Techniques for River Corridor Camping on 10/09/2013 08:56:14 MDT Print View

bears use rivers quite a bit, and if you look for it, one can normally see the tracks form this use. IF you are so lame (done it...) to set up directly on the track, they will wander right thru your camp (is scary ! ).
on those nice little bars inthe pics, with the brush breaking up the main paths, it's all good. is when you have a beautiful grassy bench above the water, possibly gently sloping and nice and soft, well THAT's where animals like to walk. and they walk quite a bit at night too. bears, muskox, caribou, you name it, they wander right on thru.

sometimes i hang dirty underwear and socks, all the stenchy stuff, at either ends of the camp to sort of warn them something is coming up.
that said ... woke up one morning in central alaska to find a nice steamer right behind the tent. i had filthy distributed all over, still, he pooped pretty much on top of me. oh well, at least i slept good.

all considered, gravel bars remain the sweetest spots to rest.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
bears on 10/09/2013 10:27:34 MDT Print View

go salmon fishing all the time in the rivers ...

something to keep in mind in BC


Thomas Brucia
Flash floods on 10/09/2013 11:53:03 MDT Print View

I wouldn't pitch a tent EVER in a limestone area (e.g. Texas Hill Country) or in desert areas in arroyos (dry creek beds). A wall of water hitting you while you're asleep is a death sentence. Do others remember what happened in the Albert Pike campground in Arkansas a few years back? A wall of water with tons of floating debris (limbs, tree trunks, litter, etc) can stand several feet high..... and hit in a second. If the water doesn't drown you, the impact of the debris may.

Mark Hurd
(markhurd) - M

Locale: South Texas
Flash Floods on 10/09/2013 13:04:57 MDT Print View

Totally agree. Camped up out of the shallow canyon above the low flowing Pecos River in west Texas on a river trip several years ago and woke to watch the river rise about 10 feet in less than ten minutes due to thunderstorms 30 miles to the north. We didn't get a drop of rain in our spot. The river bar we had eyed originally would have been death had we opted for it.

Edited by markhurd on 10/09/2013 13:07:00 MDT.

Derrick White
(miku) - MLife

Locale: Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada
Newfound Fondess for Woods Camping on 10/10/2013 11:58:16 MDT Print View

This is an interesting piece for me as someone who until a recent trip was an avid (almost exclusive) river corridor camper. Virtually all of my trips are solo and are river and\or lake based. Camping directly on a river or lake, as opposed to being set back in the woods, especially in a dense bear country, always felt more comfortable psychologically, even if irrationally. And so for years I have clung to the shoreline for security and peace of mind.

I just did a 12 day trip with a friend on an 80Km lake then up a 50Km river in Labrador. The first night out 50Km SW winds were forecast overnight and the next morning, so we set the tent up on the shoreline with the door to the NE, using large rocks for tieouts. 5:30 AM we awoke to 70Km easterly winds with the tie-outs slipping. 7:30 AM the tent came down in the pouring rain. This was also my first night in a mid (HMG Ultamid 2)!!

Being more woods friendly than me, my companion suggested we move into the alders where the baffling effect reduced the wind considerably. Fighting the gravity of the shoreline, I went one step further and moved us even deeper into the woods where there was almost no wind despite a storm raging in the open areas near the lake.

Each night thereafter we took pleasure in finding a comfortable wooded area to make camp. Never more than 2 or 3 minutes from the river, but always sheltered and protected regardless of which way the wind blew.

A lesson was learned: when hiking in river corridors, to the extent it is available, always avail of the shelter of woods or even small alders as Ryan suggested.

Of course this is not always possible.


Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: Newfound Fondess for Woods Camping on 10/10/2013 12:40:09 MDT Print View

It's cold down there by the river also. Then there is the LNT issue with camping as close to a water source as close as the photos show. tsk,tsk.

Life's good in the trees. Better for hammock too.

Rex Sanders
(Rex) - M

Locale: Central California Coast
Great article + more tips on 10/10/2013 15:29:28 MDT Print View

Great article. I learned some new tricks, and have a few more. I've slept hundreds of nights in river corridors on whitewater raft trips.

- I liked Table 1 Tent Stake Holding Power. Nice to see hard numbers attached to my "can I pull it out by hand" guesstimates.

- Another wind worth knowing about comes from the passage of high pressure systems. On the USA West Coast, high pressure moving inland often creates strong offshore winds, strongest near the coast and in passes leading to the coast. In Southern California, these "Santa Ana" winds in the fall and winter often push small fires into major wildfires, with 75 mph gusts. Check forecasts for high pressure moving onshore in B.C., Washington, Oregon, or Northern California. Probably similar patterns in other regions.

- Evening downstream winds sometimes are quite predictable. These winds start about the time you want to setup camp or cook dinner, an hour before sunset. Setup or cook before or after to avoid problems. Seems obvious, but some people never figure this out!

- Many rafters are superstitious about speaking the "W" word, so we have fun coming up with twisted euphemisms, e.g. "air moving not so gently up the stream".

- Sometimes you must sleep on the sand in a wind storm because you have no other options (e.g. Grand Canyon). Anchors will fail, poles will break, tents and tarps will shred, small objects will tumble. Best to take tents and tarps down; build short windbreak walls with gear, stones, and/or driftwood; and hunker down. Wrapping a bandana or towel over your face reduces the sand eating. Cots can raise you above the sand blasting (and rocks). LuxuryLite UltraLite might be the lightest cot (2.75 pounds) on the market. These nights are usually miserable regardless.

- You might be tempted to camp next to cliffs for shelter. Danger! Besides rock fall, we nearly had someone killed by a rotting cactus that fell off the cliff top into camp.

- Some riverside bushes are stronger than others. On one trip, we tied a raft to a sturdy looking bush, and went up river for lunch. Wind storm came up quickly, and we returned to see the raft towing the bush around the next bend. Luckily, we caught up to that raft with another before anything bad happened. Test critical tent and boat tie offs by pulling hard from multiple directions, wrapping the line around your butt and leaning with your body weight if possible.

- Many rivers have a mix of mud, sand, gravel, and cobbles, so you might be able to choose your surface by moving a few yards. Looks can be deceptive - you might have a thin layer of one over another, with no apparent pattern. Before you decide "this is the spot", dig a little.

- You need longer guy lines, or extra line to extend guy lines, compared to normal camping. You need longer lines for tying off to Big Rocks, trees, deadman anchors, etc.

- Tying off to Big Rocks is an art form. Don't assume your knot will hold - test! Pull hard from multiple directions.

- You can tie off to piles of rocks. Tie off to a stick or a rock, then pile more rocks on top of that. Not as bomber as Big Rocks, deadman anchors, etc., but sometimes the best you can do.

- Snow stakes are almost worthless when used as stakes in a river corridor, but they can work OK as deadman anchors. Larger found objects like rocks and branches work even better. We carry a large MYOG aluminum stake for tying off rafts on sandy beaches with no alternatives, and a small hammer for insertion and removal.

- I like Ryan's snow-and-sand anchors and cobblesacks, new to me!

- +1 on stouter digging instruments. Paddles dig OK in sand, not for anything bigger. Most of my river trips include a geologist hammer with pick, which works well for digging into gravel, but not practical for lightweight backpacking.

- Don't tie big loops around bushes! More convenient than tying close to the base of a bush, but much more likely to slip up and off when the winds get festive.

- For trees and bushes with trunk 2 inches or larger in diameter, it's worth knowing how to tie a "no knot", with an overhand knot finish for security. A "no knot" is just wrapping your line around the trunk several times without overlaps, openly spiraling around the trunk. Friction does all the work. Surprisingly strong, easy to tie and untie.

- +1 on logs + rocks as anchors. Test!

- +1 on big fat pads for riverside camping. For whitewater rafting, we use Paco Pads. Heavy, but very tough and comfortable. Mine is about 25 years old and still going strong.

- Avoid camping on mud. If it's not hard as a rock, it's holding moisture that will make life unpleasant.

- +1 on consulting with local land management agency for river camping etiquette. Some want you to pee in the river, some anywhere but the river. Some want you to carry ashes out of the river, some want you to disperse ashes in the river. And the rules can be different on different stretches of the same river.

- We use dry bleach (Clorox 2) to control poop odors. Relatively cheap and easy to find. A sprinkling per use is enough.

- If you don't trust Ziplocs or similar to hold poop for long (think gas expanding in warm sun), try MYOG "torpedo tubes", used by kayakers on groover-mandatory rivers. Instructions here after the Government shutdown ends: Basically PVC pipe with removable caps on both ends. Poop on a paper towel, sprinkle some Clorox 2, carefully fold and insert into tube. Back in civilization, easy to clean and reuse the tube, especially at RV dump stations.

- +1 on knowing private property rules and boundaries. Also: "Never argue with a shotgun, just apologize and slowly back away." Been there, done that.

- +1 on the water leak alarm, new one for me. Also useful: insert stick vertical in sand at river's edge and note the time. Check occasionally to see if the river is rising or falling. For an indication of potential high water line, look for debris caught in riverside bushes or deposited on tops of rocks, and "bathtub rings" on rocks and cliffs.

- Work hard to keep sand and mud out of your equipment, and out of body crevices. Sand and mud are incredibly abrasive in a short time. Take off and shake out shoes and socks outside your "clean space". Diligently remove sand and mud from between toes and other body crevices before you crawl into bed, and several times during the day. Otherwise, in a day or two, you will have raw open sores on your body. Hands and feet can dry out, crack, and bleed from constant exposure to water, sand, and mud. I have more tips on what to do after the damage is done, but this reply is too long already.

Again, great article, thanks.

-- Rex

Rex Sanders
(Rex) - M

Locale: Central California Coast
One more tip on 10/11/2013 14:35:10 MDT Print View

If no single bush is strong enough for that "can't fail" anchor -- tie off to multiple bushes.

You need lots of extra line, and knot-fu, ring, or carabiner to equalize the tension to each bush. Practice under less-than-dire conditions if possible. I've used this technique many times to tie off large rafts for the day or night.

-- Rex

Kenda Willey
Thanks for a great article! on 10/12/2013 13:14:09 MDT Print View

Very informative article! I've never done river corridor camping, but I just might try it after reading your article about the appeal of falling asleep to the sound of water.
A special thank you for the different staking alternatives: Living in the northern Chihuahuan Desert, there's hard-baked ground and few trees, and making a cobble would work here. The buried alternatives less so, but I've made a note of them for future use.

David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Right-sized, sturdy shovel, PIF water alarm on 10/12/2013 13:34:59 MDT Print View

Rex: "- +1 on stouter digging instruments. Paddles dig OK in sand, not for anything bigger."

+1 Here's what I use for digging in sand or gravel:

(although I can find them in any store in my town) partly because I'm often going for Razor Clams, but I don't want a wide-bladed, long-handled shovel in rock and sand. I'll be on my knees anyway and unable to scoop big shovelfuls in a rocky conditions.

Also, if you're allowed to dig cat holes, they are exactly the right width for that task and let you go deeper, more easily, displacing less dirt to do so.

Not UL at all, so those clam shovels are only for rafting.


I've got at least one extra high-water-level alarm lying around if there's a rafter who'd like to have that security blanket. They are about the volume and weight of a deck of cards.

Andrew Stow
(AndyS) - F - MLife

Locale: Midwest USA
Re: Great article + more tips on 10/12/2013 13:50:51 MDT Print View

"LuxuryLite UltraLite might be the lightest cot (2.75 pounds) on the market. These nights are usually miserable regardless."

Just watched the video on the website, as I'd been seeing this cot advertised for motorcycling by Aerostich for years. It's two pounds flat if you weigh 175 lb or less, as you can ditch several poles and feet.

Daniel Pittman
(pitsy) - M

Locale: Central Texas
Re: Right-sized, sturdy shovel, PIF water alarm on 10/13/2013 20:45:05 MDT Print View

"I've got at least one extra high-water-level alarm lying around if there's a rafter who'd like to have that security blanket. They are about the volume and weight of a deck of cards."

How loud is a deck of cards?

David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
PIF water alarm on 10/13/2013 21:55:52 MDT Print View

>How loud is a deck of cards?


About the audio volume of a deck of cards going through a Cuisinart.

And about the size of a deck of cards BEFORE going through said Cuisinart.

water level alarm

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
"Techniques for River Corridor Camping" on 10/14/2013 04:27:25 MDT Print View

Great article. As always, check with local laws about river camping.

I do quite a bit of canoeing in the ADK's and surrounding areas (Vermont, New Hampshire, Main, Canada) and understanding the difference between laws can make life a whole lot easier.

Generally, I search out an above high-water campsite. Beaches and sand bars usually get flooded with many of the strong storms. Unfortunatly, finding a campsite 20 yards off a water-way is not always possible, though. At one time or another I have used all the staking techniques mentioned. All work pretty well, depending on the soil.