It was a quiet night in the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Saxton Camp filled up with a Boy Scout troop, so we retreated a few hundred feet downhill in relatively flat clearing . Leary of camping near big groups, they actually were well-behaved and turned in at a respectable time. Surrounded by conifers, our home for the evening was barely visible from the trail. This would serve as our base camp for our hike up to the tallest peak in Southern California. We stowed our bear canisters and hung our packs from nearby trees, unzipping the pockets so the little vermin didn’t chew through them. Settling in for a decent sleep, I was awakened by a bright light shining into the side of the tent. What the heck? Thinking that someone was wandering around our site, I listened for the footsteps. Nothing. The light continued to shine, barely moving. Maybe I left a flashlight in my pack and it came on. A few minutes later, I gathered enough courage to unzip the door and peek out. The fullness of the moon lit up our tent as it crested the mountain to our east.
Terrain matters when it comes to pitching your tent. Setting it up in the wrong spot could be the difference between life and death. That beautiful spot near the lake could be where the water drains during a downpour.
If you are on a multi-day trip on an established trail, chances are you have a trail guidebook or maybe you’ve read a blog that provided mile markers and campsites. Those are valuable resources. Prior to our section hike of the JMT last year, I picked up John Muir Trail: The essential guide to hiking America’s most famous trail. It is an awesome resource. I was able to set waypoints on my Garmin 401 and get fairly close. Or you can live life on the edge, just hike until it’s dark and plop down near the trail.
Many locations in the national forest and parks require you to camp at least 100 ft. from the trail and 200 ft. from water sources. Most of us make half-hearted attempts at this rule. I mean, the sound of rushing water makes for a great night of sleep. Hikers are generally good stewards of the land and really try to minimize the impact. You do this by camping on established sites and avoid vegetation like grass. Rules vary in each area, so check online or with the local ranger if appropriate. Camp too close to water and the mosquitoes will torment you.
Once, I was solo hiking in the eastern Sierras and started looking for a site. I found a granite slab that was 25 ft. from a cliff that dropped off about 200 ft. into a lively creek. The view was amazing, but then I thought about getting up in the middle of the night when nature called and stepping off into the abyss. So, rocks are not a good idea for a tent unless it is far away from drop-offs and you have a way to stake the tent down. Rocks also are good lightning conductors!
When looking for a site, envision what it would look like in a raging downpour. Will the water funnel through your site like a drainage ditch? Will that Fiat sized boulder up the hill come loose and roll over you like a bowling ball? In the Sierras, those granite covered slopes shed water quickly during rain and can create flash flood conditions.
Widow-makers: Those dead trees that are still standing. Pitch your tent under those when a strong wind hits and you won’t know what hit you. If you do pick a site under trees, make sure it’s not under the tallest group of trees, nor the shortest. Go for the medium stand, you will be less likely to get struck by lightning.
Common sense, but find a site that is relatively flat without roots or rocks. A good sleeping pad helps knock the edge of those little rocks that feel like boulders at night. If you must sleep on an incline, your head should be at the highest point. Even the slightest hill may cause you to gravitate toward your tent-mate in the middle of the night. That may be good, or bad. If you have to pitch your tent on a hill, have your door on the downhill side so water doesn’t come rushing in.
Some other tips:
Don’t cook or eat within 50-100 ft. of your tent. Stow the bear canister or bag the same distance. If not you may get some late night company looking for food.
Align your tent so the smallest surface area is facing the prevailing wind. This isn’t always possible, especially if you have a square tent. 🙂 At a minimum, place your opening away from the wind to avoid the parachute effect.
For backcountry camping, shop around and spend the money on a quality tent. The $20 one in the discount store will not hold up during a gusher. Use a tent footprint. It’s like a light weight tarp that fits under your tent. It is slightly larger than the floor of your tent and will protect the floor from damage due to rocks and roots. I know, if you are a thru-hiker, ounces count.
Invest in a good set of tent stakes. Most low-end tents come with lousy stakes that bend easily. There are a couple of brands like MSR GroundHog Stake Kit that are light weight and sturdy. These are virtually indestructible. I usually find a rock and bang them in. I also carry extras in case they get damaged or if it’s really windy. Carry some extra para-cord or nylon line in your tent bag in case you need to tie on some extra guy lines.
Klingers: People who camp right next to you, even though there are other places to camp. Don’t be a Klinger.
Lightning: No tent can protect you from 150,000 volts, but it can keep you dry. During bad thunderstorms, you can do the following: If you believe in God, pray and minimize your body contact with the ground or sit on your pad, sleeping bag or backpack. If you are an atheist or agnostic, just curl up in the fetal position, put your headset in, crank up the volume and close your eyes.
In the morning, the tent may be wet from dew or the overnight shower. If you don’t have time to dry it out before hitting the trail, use your camp towel to wipe it down. If you are camping in Washington or Oregon, just resign yourself to the fact that it will never get dry. Never stow a wet tent at the end of your trip. It is guaranteed to ruin it with mold and mildew. It’s a good idea to vacuum out a tent and wipe it down with a mild soap. I treat mine along the seams with a waterproof sealant that I got here: Gear Aid Tent Sure floor sealant with foam brush, 8-Ounce.
I like positioning the door of our tent for easy access if you have to get up during the night. Hey, you’ll understand when you get old. But the most important thing is a site with a view. You will know it when you see it.
Do you have some tips or lessons learned about setting up your tent? Please share them in the comments! Most importantly, don’t be a Klinger.