Waking up in a shallow pool during a midnight mountain thunderstorm isn’t the most pleasant way to experience the outdoors, but it can be educational. I learned this lesson years ago while training for an upcoming trek on the Appalachian Trail. Seeing an inviting flat space and anticipating a night of listening to flowing water, I naively pitched my new tent on the bank of a creek in the wilderness of the Cherokee National Forest. I failed to notice how even a modest rain would send runoff through my tent and I awoke at my campsite to a soaked sleeping bag and a creek threatening to rise above its banks.
Later that summer, I spent two weeks studying survival and camping skills in southern Utah with the Boulder Outdoor Survival School. One of the most valuable insights they shared was what to consider when selecting a campsite, whether for a single night or for a month. These factors are worth noting in any camping situation and can be easily remembered as the Five W’s.
Every camper needs water. You can’t make coffee without it. Unless you’re at a developed campground or car camping and can bring as much as you want, having enough water for cooking, cleaning, and staying hydrated is a crucial consideration. So, think about how much water your group will need for the duration of your stay. A pothole with a few gallons in it might be enough for a one-night bivy in the desert backcountry, while two weeks at a high mountain hunting camp would warrant a flowing stream.
What’s a camp without a campfire? Again, consider how long you plan on camping in the location and if there is enough firewood to last the duration. Importantly, many public lands have regulations regarding if and how visitors can build fires. If the requirements specify only dead and downed wood be used, make sure there is enough within a reasonable distance. Often, popular sites have been scavenged clean of proper fuel, which is not an excuse to ignore regulations.
Also, does your camp require wood for shelters or other amenities? I’ve helped set up hunting camps with canvas wall tents that needed 20-foot poles for support. Obviously, things like that are better to find onsite than to try to carry in with you. Having seats of logs and stumps or a makeshift tripod holding stew over the fire can make the camp experience.
Consider this question when looking at any potential campsite: what will happen when (not if) the weather changes? A pleasantly shady spot one evening could be blisteringly hot the next morning so think about the movement of the sun. Would a mountain meadow location leave you exposed to an afternoon thunderstorm? Then stay clear of tall trees and open fields and move to a lower, more sheltered site. I would have been wise to reflect on the path that rainwater would take when pitching my tent on that soggy trip.
Additionally, think about temperature fluctuations and wind movement before committing to a setup. At night, colder air tends to settle in lower areas like valley bottoms. Move your camp up a bit to avoid the chill. However, steer clear of bare ridges and peaks if warmth is a priority. These areas are more exposed to wind, which can threaten more than your core body temperature.
A stout breeze can send dead trees and limbs headed right for your shelter. The sturdy-looking oak tree the camp kitchen tarp is tied to might have a decaying branch extending precariously over the dinner table. That’s why looking up for widow-makers, these potential falling hazards, is a critical step before settling in to your campsite. Likewise, loose boulders that can become dislodged and roll downhill are a potential threat, especially on mountain slopes or canyon floors.
Of course, bears. I spent a restless night in Grand Teton National Park surrounded by piles of bear scat and listening to every pop and creak after another less-than-wise campsite decision. It is certainly important to look for signs of these and other large predators. Though most such animals usually avoid people, fresh wolf tracks or a cougar’s food cache are a reason to relocate. Remember, the aromas of camp cooking or the hoisted rewards of a successful hunt can draw in hungry wildlife from quite a distance, so maintain safety discipline with food and game meat storage.
Importantly, it’s often the smaller critters that disrupt a camping trip. Look out for wasp nests and ant hills. Stagnant water could mean a concentration of mosquitos that will threaten sanity. Rodents often become habituated to people in high traffic locations. If they are prevalent, extra care has to be taken to protect the food and supplies from their scavenging.
For a night or a week, your campsite is your outdoor home, so choose it with care. Once learned and practiced, the Five W’s become a quick and practical way to review any location for your next wilderness sanctuary.