Pitching your tent in the backwoods is a lot different from pitching it at a car-camping site. This might seem obvious to seasoned backpackers, but to those just getting their start, this is something worth covering.
I remember my first backpacking trip. We camped on a hilltop in the woods, in Red River Gorge. It hadn’t occurred to me at that time to look for the flattest possible ground, and I spend the entire night (the part of it where I was actually asleep) rolling into the side of my tent. Sometime later on that same trip, I was forced to bed down on sloping ground again, and this time I kept my head on the upward-angled portion of the tent. I found myself slipping down in the night. Level sleeping surfaces are things that most of us take for granted, especially if we’ve been car-camping. Most campsites provide flat, if a little hard, tent pads specifically designed for pitching a tent. Not so in the deep woods!
So what do you do? Depending on where you’re backpacking, you’ve either reserved a backcountry campsite sight-unseen, or you’re stumbling upon one on your own. You can usually identify campsites by firepits, if they aren’t explicitly marked. When my team enters a campsite of choice, we always take a few minutes to just get acclimated to the area. These are a few things we identify:
– Where’s the firepit?
– Where are the entrances to this campsite?
– Where’s the trail in proximity to this site? How about the water source?
– Where can we hang the bear sack?
– Which direction is the wind blowing?
– Where are the flat spots?
– Is there hardwood in this site?
Some of the reasons we address these issues are clear. It’s important to note the location of the firepit in conjuction to the flat spots of ground, and the direction of the wind, because a tiny spark from the campfire could easily singe a hole a tent, which is made of easily melting synthetic material. It’s also important to consider leaning trees or rocky ledges. You don’t want to set up your tent right below something precarious that could injure you in the night!
We have to address the bear sack issue, because it’s customary for a bear sack to hang from a high tree with a long branch hanging parallel to the ground. Campers also want their bear sack to hang from a tree that is on the opposite side of the campsite from the tents. (Remember a bear sack should hang at least 10 feet off the ground, so out of reach of a standing bear, and at least 4 feet from the trunk of the tree to deter a bear from climbing the tree and trying to reach out for the sack.) Since the goal of packing all garbage, edibles, and scented items in a bear sack is to keep bears from rummaging in our campsites while we sleep, it’s absolutely essential for our tents to be at least 20 feet away from the tree with the bear sack.
The other issues we address include location of the campsite in relation to the rest of the woods. You don’t want to be so close to the trail that people are looking at you while you eat breakfast or dig a cathole, and you don’t want to be so close to the water source that you have to stagger off into the woods just to dig a cathole (remember, waste is supposed to be about 150 feet from a water source). The consideration of whether hardwood is located in the campsite is slightly less important, since usually there will be hardwood at least nearby. (Remember, it’s important to cook over hardwood to avoid letting any strange pine-y smells seep into your food through burning pine, and to let your fire burn longer!)
In a few minutes, you should have decided how your campsite is laid out. Sometimes it becomes essential to place all the tents in close proximity to each other, and other times, far from each other, in order for each camper to get a decent night’s sleep on flat ground. When I backpacked a three night trip in the Smokies last summer, we spend one night in a campsite where our tents were so close to each other we could whisper together in the night, and another night in a site where our tents were so far from each other that without my contacts, I couldn’t even make out the other tents. It all depends on the site, and it shouldn’t matter which direction your tent doors face. The best idea is making sure that your head always lies on the uppermost ground.
Although it may seem complicated to a new backpacker, for me, setting up the campsite is one of the most fun parts of backpacking! I enjoy making this little clearing in the woodland into my temporary home, if just for a night.
We set up our tent on the flattest ground we found in that campsite