By Max Neale, a former Review Editor for Outdoor Gear Lab
A good campsite can make or break your wilderness experience. When traveling long distances or through remote areas, I break the campsite selection process into two steps. At the macro level I look at maps and identify–based on my average speed and the desired time I want to bed down for the night–a general area to sleep. Here, I look for an area that is: off trail, so you don’t interfere with other people’s wilderness experience; flat, where you’re most likely to find a level place to lay down; near resources such as water and firewood; not buggy, in a breezy area away from breeding grounds such as swamps and slow moving water; not in the bottom of a valley, where the air will be colder and the dew and frost will be greater; not near animal paths or their ideal habitat, which might lead to an unwelcome nighttime guest; and finally, away from natural hazards such as flash floods and avalanches.
Once I’ve identified a site at the macro level I zoom in and focus on the micro level details. Specifically, I look for a campsite that’s: dry, because wet ground is more thermally conductive and can promote condensation in your shelter; on a surface that’s not prone to being flooded by rising groundwater during rain; covered in soft materials like leaves, pine needles, sand or moss, which will be more comfortable and warmer than compact ground (note that it’s also important to camp and travel on durable surfaces. Weigh your comfort with your potential impacts: in a high use area camp in established sites); next to or under something that will act as a windbreak and reflect heat back to your shelter–trees, bushes and rocks can work well.
Once I identify a potential site I lie down and mark the location of my head and feet with a rock, and pitch the shelter above that spot.