Thursday, February 10, 2011

Locating Backcountry Campsite: Science or Art?

At the end of a long day of bushwhacking the backcountry, including crawling over blow downs, thrashing through thick hobblebush and balancing over crumbling beaver dams, it is time to locate a camping site for the night. Unfortunately, finding an acceptable camp site can be one of the most frustrating aspects of the backcountry experience especially when bushwhacking through remote and wild areas within the Adirondacks.

One mistake to avoid is bushwhacking late into the early evening hours and not giving yourself enough time to adequately locate a good site to set up your camp. There is simply nothing worse than searching wildly about for an adequate campsite at the end of an exhausting day of bushwhacking as the sun slowly sinks below the horizon. Be sure to stop early enough in the late afternoon to find a nice site and give you enough time to set up and enjoy the early evening hours. Typically I plan on stopping around 5 PM while bushwhacking to give myself the appropriate amount of time without having the feeling of being rushed.

The most frustrating part of locating a good campsite is finding a level enough area for a shelter so as to avoid sliding to one corner and tossing and turning over a back-breaking tree root. Avoid areas appearing completely level as puddles can form there and waking up in a pool of water during a late night thunderstorm can place a real damper on a good night’s rest. A shelter should be placed on crowned site in such a way as to move any possible rain water away from, instead of under your shelter.

When bushwhacking through remote areas abandon the notion of finding one of those perfectly level and open areas typically found along an established trail system. These spacious camp sites near trail systems were artificially constructed from many years of human use and are almost non-existent in the remote backcountry. Even if such sites once existed in these remote areas during the bygone logging days they have long ago been reclaimed by vegetation.

When setting up your campsite try to do as little site modification as possible. Any shelters should be placed in areas devoid of any vegetation, if such a place can be located in the Adirondacks. Any sticks, logs and/or rocks removed from the site prior to setting up the camp site should be placed nearby where they can be retrieved and replaced when leaving the site. The leave no trace ethic should apply to one’s campsite as much as any other aspect of your outdoor experience.

Most people prefer camping near water for the awesome views and the ease of transporting water to their camping site. Regardless of being far away from a trail system or not, the rule of being 150 feet from any source of water is still in effect. Since few journey into the backcountry with a measuring tape, a rough estimate of this distance is necessary. In my experience, distance estimates have a reciprocal relationship to the beauty of the waterfront view. Unfortunately being near water also means being surrounded by hordes of biting insects.

Safety is always a concern in the backcountry and choosing a campsite is no exception. One should always scan the tree canopy for snags that could become a widow maker while you sleep. Do not forget to scan the canopy for dead branches that could come crashing down on you and turn a night’s sleep into a permanent slumber. This is a greater concern in mature forests where giant trees tower over your campsite can hide a few large dead or dying limbs.

Choosing a campsite in the backcountry is more of an art form than a science. In the Adirondacks, the rough terrain, thick vegetation and often soggy soils makes locating an acceptable campsite a challenge. Give yourself an adequate amount of time to search for a comfortable site where you will get a much needed night’s rest. And if the site turns out to be less-than-stellar, just remember, you are only visiting and there is always a chance you will do better next time.

Photos: Camping sites in the Pepperbox Wilderness.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.


Dan Crane

Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.




4 Responses

  1. wally@parks&trails says: