You’ve opened up your topographic map, located a nice big patch of green on it, and decided you want to go camping there. The problem is that “there” is a REALLY big area!
How are you supposed to find a camping spot in all of that nature?
Yes, Choosing a Camping Spot Matters!
I know a lot of thru-hikers who don’t bother to scout out a camping spot in advance. They just walk until they find a suitable spot. Or, if it is getting dark, they might even put their tent in the middle of the trail. But anyone who plans on spending more than a day or two in the same spot should carefully choose their camping spot.
Speaking from experience, it sucks to end up in the middle of the wilderness and not have:
- A source of water
- A flat place to pitch the tent
- An open area where your kid can run around freely
So take the time to scout out your camping spot in advance. If you do, you’ll enjoy your wild camping trip a lot more!
*Note that this post isn’t going to help you much if you are going camping in a National Park. They usually have strict rules about where you are allowed to camp. So, your options will be pretty limited to Campsite A or Campsite B.
Step 1: Figure Out Your Priorities
There is no one “right” way to camp. I am a semi-minimalist and have decent gear, so I prefer to go as far away from civilization as possible while still being accessible. Comforts like bathrooms are definitely NOT a priority! 😉
By “accessible,” I mean that my 5-year-old and I can walk there, it isn’t too steep, and that I can run her down the mountain within 4 hours in case of a snake bite or other emergency situation. Bear in mind that I don’t know how to drive or have a car, so this can be a bit limiting. It takes a LOT of looking to find a camping spot which is the perfect blend of seclusion and accessibility, but it is definitely possible.
Here is a list of questions to help you figure out your priorities for a camping spot:
- Accessibility: How will you get to the camping spot? Do you want to just drive up to it? Will you have to walk? If so, are you able to carry all of the gear you need to the camping spot?
- Distance and terrain: If you must hike to the camping spot, how far are you willing to walk? Are you in good enough shape for the terrain? Can you safely get there in one day?
- Water: This is a BIG one! If you have to hike to the camping spot, then you’ll need to have a water source there and a way to filter the water (I use the Sawyer Mini). Otherwise, you must be able to carry all the water you will need, and water is heavy!!!
- Bathroom: Do you want to camp somewhere with a proper bathroom? Do you want there to be a portapotty there? Or are you okay with digging a hole each time you poo?
- Food: Do you want there to be a restaurant nearby? Or are you going to bring all of the food you need?
- Closeness to Civilization: This is mostly a safety issue. For example, the first time I took Isabel camping (she was 3 years old then), it was to the mountains of Albania. You can wild camp anywhere there… but there are also mountains and two types of poisonous snakes! I decided to play it safe and camp somewhat near civilization. In that case, it meant near a small mountain lodge. If anything happened, I could run to the people who ran the lodge and have them rush us to the nearest clinic.
- Privacy and Seclusion: Do you want to be completley alone at the camping spot? Then you’ll probably have to walk a long distance. Or would you rather camp somewhere near other people so you can have company?
Step 2: Ask Real People Who’ve Been There
The best way to find a camping spot is always to ask real people. Asking people on online forums is fine, but you better be VERY specific about what your needs are. Otherwise, you’ll end up with suggestions ranging from glamping RV spots to insane distance hiking hideaways.
Google usually knows everything, but Google actually sucks when it comes to finding a wild camping spot. If you try typing in a search term like “best wild camping spots in ____” and you’ll get a lot of commercial results. After all, who is going to divulge the best wild camping spots online and then ruin it by making it popular?
Step 3: Map Time!
If you can’t get a good recommendation from a real person on where to camp, then it is time to get some maps.
By maps, I’m talking about the real deal: contour maps. If you don’t know how to read a contour map yet, then you probably shouldn’t be camping in the wild. 🙂 Remember, open circles on the map represent flat areas of land!
If you live in the United States or Canada, it will probably be easy to find a contour map. The same goes for popular tourist destinations. I live in Eastern Europe though and people here don’t usually go camping. It makes it really hard to find contour maps. When I really can’t find a map, then I turn to Google satellite.
Once again, Google fails us when it comes to camping. Satellite maps on Google are pretty unreliable because you can’t see the trails, cliffs, brush density, and other important map features. For example, when I went camping at Kozarnika Cave in Bulgaria, I used Google maps since I couldn’t find a contour map anywhere. Even though I had seen some photographs of the cave, Google Maps couldn’t inform me that there was lots of high grass in front of the cave – not something you want when you are in snake country!
If you are prepared to walk a long distance to find a camping spot, then going by Google Maps should be okay. But really you should have a contour map if you want to be sure of what the camping spot will be like.
Tip: Check the date on the map! Mountains might not change much, but trails and streams do! I made that big mistake once when backpacking in Montenegro and got really lost because of an outdated map!
Step 4: Reading the Map to Find a Camping Spot
- Get your map in front of you.
- Mark potential starting spots. This will probably be either parking spots or public transport spots.
- Draw a circle from your starting point(s) with the radius of the distance you are willing to travel. Read this post on how to calculate how long a hike will take.
- Eliminate any areas which don’t meet your needs. For example, I don’t do difficult terrain with my daughter yet. So, I eliminate any areas which are very steep.
- Look for water. It is smart to choose a campsite near water because you’ll be able to use it for drinking (I use the Sawyer Mini water filter), cleaning dishes, swimming, etc. Water can also mean mosquitos though, so keep that in mind.
- Look for Points of Interest. Is there a cool waterfall, lake, rock formations, or something else you’d like to camp near? Then choose these as your camping spot! Of course, this means that your campsite might be interrupted by day hikers or have other campers there. I don’t always mind this (it is fun to make new friends around the campfire!). But, if you’d rather have some privacy, then choose a spot away from the point of interest.
- Narrow Down the Options: Make circles around all of the places which seem suitable for camping based on steps 1-6.
- Check Out the Locations with Google Image Search. Did you choose a campsite near a point of interest? Here is where Google actually can come in handy with choosing a camping spot. Type the name of the point of interest into Google Image search (not Google regular search!). Unless you are going somewhere really remote that no one has ever been to before, chances are you will see a lot of images of the area. This will give you an idea of what the terrain is like and whether it is suitable for camping.
Here is an example…
This map is from Rugova Gorge in Kosovo. There is a bus which goes up the mountain (step 2), and I knew we could camp approximately 2-5 kilometers from the main road (step 3). After doing Steps 3, 4, 5, and 6, I was left with these circled areas.
I ultimately decided on the bottom left circle because it was the most secluded. The other areas had cabins by them. Also, the lake looked awesome when I checked it out on Google Image search.
Yes, this takes a long time…
Getting off the beaten path isn’t always easy. I spend hours upon hours (usually when I should be working 😉 ) analyzing contour lines and scrolling over zoomed-in satellite maps just to find the best camping spot. So while it takes a lot longer than going to a travel agency and plopping a wad of cash on the table for a pre-arranged vacation…
It is worth it!
Give it a try and you’ll find that the hardest part of finding a camping spot is choosing which one to go to when you want to visit them all!