Sunday 16 April 2023

Finding A Good Camp Site

A camp with a view.

Following my post on winds and tents here's a more general piece on how to select a good camp site I've dug out of my archives and revised.

My best memories of backpacking trips are as much to do with camping as with walking. A good camp in the wilds can be both relaxing and inspiring. It should be a place in which you feel secure and comfortable and can sleep in peace. In good weather this might be a high exposed site with spacious views. In stormy weather it might be a sheltered site where you can enjoy the storm whilst not fearing that your shelter is likely to be blown away. Most people think of the view as the prime feature for a good camp but actually comfort is more important. If rough ground, a gusty wind, biting insects or other environmental factors stop you sleeping and make your time in camp unpleasant the view won’t seem quite so wonderful. Also, whilst a wide vista of hills is undoubtedly wonderful, a rippling stream, grove of trees or tiny rock-girt pool can also be enjoyable and interesting. Looking at the details around you can make every camp in the wilds special.

A forest full of interest

How, then, do you choose a good pitch? Firstly I look for ground that is fairly flat and free of rocks and tussocks. Even the thickest insulating mat won’t iron out big lumps or stones and if there’s much of a slope you’ll find yourself fighting gravity as you try and stop yourself ending up crammed against the end of the tent, which doesn’t make for a good night’s rest. If it’s dry I test ground for comfort by lying on it before I pitch the tent. Often by shuffling round slightly I can find an ideal spot that I might miss when viewed from above. If it’s wet I walk round the site and assess it from different angles. I don’t always get it right but it’s many years since I had a badly sloping site.

Camp on a raised shelf above the boggy ground around the lochan

Obviously during and after rain the surface of the ground will be wet but if it oozes when you stand on it then your camp will be very damp and if it rains again you may find water overflowing into the tent. For the same reason camping in hollows and dips is inadvisable except during dry spells. Think about where water will gather in rain and camp above such areas. One camp I remember well was in the Lairig Eilde in Glencoe. I had traversed Bidean nam Bian on a day of heavy rain and thick cloud and descended into the Lairig Eilde looking for a site. Everywhere was sodden with hundreds of small streams bursting down the hillside in white torrents. Eventually I found a small knoll with just enough room to pitch my tent on its reasonably dry top. Once in the tent and in my warm sleeping bag with a hot drink in my hand I enjoyed watching the rain lash down outside and the white water pouring down the hillsides.

Finding a spot where the pegs would go in took time in this stony landscape

Soft ground is more comfortable than hard ground, but it is also often damper and may be covered with soft vegetation that could be damaged by camping on it. If you have a reasonable sleeping mat then hard ground shouldn’t be uncomfortable. You do need to be able to get tent pegs in the ground unless you’re sleeping under the stars though. If the ground is at all stony I try pegs in a few places before unpacking the tent. Sometimes it’s impossible to get pegs in securely and you just have to move on.

Closeness to water is useful but not essential. You can always carry water for the last few hours of the day. Indeed some of my favourite camps have been on waterless summits and ridges, superb sites that made lugging several litres up to them well worthwhile.

The only dry ground in this boggy glen was beside the river

In some areas below the summits the best sites are often beside water. Highland glens are often quite boggy and tussocky, the only dry ground being small patches of grass on the edges of streams and lochans. These can usually be seen from some distance when descending a hillside and I often head for a welcoming patch of fresh green amongst a morass of muddy brown knowing that it should provide a good site. In contrast sometimes the area around a lake or pool can be marshy with any dry sites lying on higher ground some distance away.

A fine lochside camp

In cold weather valley bottoms and low points act as cold sinks and can be much colder than the surrounding hillsides. Heading uphill to a terrace or flat knoll can mean a much warmer camp. In clear weather if you camp up on the west side of a valley or hill you’ll get the sun earlier in the morning too.

Heading uphill is also advisable when midges are a problem. Damp sheltered places are where they are most prevalent. I remember descending into a little valley during a walk along the spectacular Duirinish coast on the Isle of Skye one August. A tent was pitched there and the occupants told me what a sheltered site it was. Too sheltered, I thought, and, after filling my water containers in the stream, I climbed back up onto the cliffs and camped high above the sea with a wonderful view out to the Western Isles, which I was able to sit outside the tent and enjoy as the sun set. Next day I saw the other campers. It was bit too midgey, they told me. I hadn’t seen one.

The bank on the left gave some shelter on a very wet and windy day

Of course when the wind is very strong you don’t want to be camped in too exposed a place, unless you have a really strong tent. Even then a gusty wind can keep you awake. Shelter can be found on the lee side of even small banks as well as cliffs and forests. Often it’s easy to get out of the worst of the wind while still remaining high up by simply dropping down on the lee side of a slope or looking for a deep-cut stream valley with protective banks. I did this on the TGO Challenge one year, after abandoning my intention of camping beside an exposed lochan as soon as I saw the white waves rippling over its surface. The wind was from the south-west so I headed north, descending a short way beside the outlet stream until I found a reasonably sheltered site below a bank.

I descended this glen a short way to find shelter from the wind higher up

This last tale shows that to find the best site can require flexibility. If I’d been determined to camp by that lochan I’d have had a much more uncomfortable night. I ended up a mile or so off my route but it was worth it for a restful night. To be adaptable like this needs time so it’s best not to leave finding a site until shortly before dark, which is easy to do in June but rather harder in November.

The unexpected camp on Rum

In unfamiliar country I start looking for a site a couple of hours before dark and stop if I find a good one. It could be the last for several miles. Once on the island of Rum I unexpectedly found a grassy level shelf on a steep mountainside and realising what a good site it would make I camped earlier than I’d intended. It was one of the most spectacular sites I’d had in years.

You can’t rely on finding spectacular sites unexpectedly very often of course so I consult the map at the start of the day and look for clues as to where good sites might lie. Contour lines are the first indicator; anywhere these are packed together is not a good place to be at dusk. However careful study often shows spaces between contours that indicate terraces or places where a stream levels out. I also look for lakes and pools, as there is generally flat ground round these. Then during the day I keep an eye on my progress and the time so I know as the day draws on how close I am to any of these places.

The map suggeste this would be a good site. It was!

Allowing time means if a site turns out to be poor you can go on in daylight to look for a better one. This happened on a trip in the Moidart hills. The glen in which we’d planned camping was one great bog with no dry ground anywhere. Heading upwards we eventually found a tiny island in a stream that had just enough dry ground for our tents. It was a lovely site with splendid views, far better than anywhere in the glen below. On another occasion in the Canadian Rockies I was not so lucky. On the map I’d picked out an extensive flat area round a small lake as a likely place for a site. I arrived late in the day to find the whole area marshy. I walked right round the lake without finding any dry ground so continued on down into a forested valley. Eventually, just as it was growing dark, I found a tiny flat spot between two trees into which I could just squeeze my tent. There were no views but it was far more comfortable than camping in the marsh round the lake would have been.


Over time your eye for a good site improves and finding pitches becomes easier. It’s always an enjoyable activity though and I still feel delighted when I find a new place to camp. I always feel wild sites are special too, my home for a night, and I have fond memories of many. Indeed, for some trips it’s the camps that come first to mind rather than the walking.

Enjoying the view after a rainy night

Wild sites should be just that: wild. This means that good sites should be found and not made. Removing the odd rock or stick is okay (as long as you put it back when you leave) but if any more preparation of a site is needed then it shouldn’t be used. The idea is to leave a site as you would wish to find it – with no sign that anyone has camped there before. That means no rings of rocks on the pegs, no digging drainage trenches and no fires.

Camp below the stars

Wild camping is a way to really appreciate the hills. Learning how to find the best sites enhances and deepens the experience, making you look at the land more closely and study just how it’s put together. With confidence you’ll be able to avoid the obvious, well-used sites and find your own secret places in the hills.


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