Selecting a Camp Site
As promised, I have more camping topics to talk about, and this topic is about how to select a camp site. The first determinants of selecting a campsite are your destination and the type of camping you will be doing. For me, my destination is dictated by the amount of time I have. If it is a short, weekend camping trip, I want to get to where I am going with plenty of light left to set up camp. If I have more time, I will go farther into the wilderness.
When my son was younger, I went to places that would be easy for him, which I will talk more about later. Where I live there are many choices; from a state park with established camping spots, to National Forests where you can pull off a dirt road in your family vehicle, or four-wheel into a more remote area, and of course my favorite are wilderness areas where you either hike or ride a horse. Each camping experience requires different gear and different planning.
If you have young children you really need to think about the area you are going to. When Kyle was very young my first consideration was his safety, and then keeping him entertained. The last thing I wanted to do was constantly have to worry about him finding ways to hurt himself, and I wanted him to have fun. Once of my favorite places to take him back then was Jackson Lake on the northeast plains of Colorado. This state park has established camp grounds, flush toilets, showers, lots of sandy beaches, and warm water to swim and play in. They even had an outdoor amphitheater where park rangers would put on presentations about local wildlife at dusk.
From one extreme to the other, when Kyle was 6 I took him on his first trip to the Flat Tops Wilderness area where we rode horses 6 miles into camp and were left alone for the next four days. The terrain in the Flat Tops is mountainous, there were plenty of rocks to trip on, and I think Kyle found most of them. There was also a rushing stream 20 yards from camp, and I had to let Kyle find his comfort zone a little bit on his own. Of course I took him to the stream and taught him some things, like what areas to stay away from, how to wade in the stream, and what to do if he fell in. In no time Kyle was fishing on his own, and in 13 annual trips there we never had a serious accident except for me fracturing a bone in my leg and a run in with a bear that wanted what we had in camp. Once you can go to an area like that with a 6 year old, you can go pretty much anywhere.
Once you choose your destination and the type of camping you will be doing, at some point you will have to pick a camping spot. Even in a state park with established camp spots, there are things to look for to make your stay fun and pleasant. There is no ideal camp spot for every person; what appeals to one person may not appeal to another, but there are some things to look for.
The first thing to look for is well-drained ground, not only for your tent, but also where you will be spending time in camp. Avoid any area which is at the bottom of a depression or in the path of drainage, even if it is dry at the time. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was younger, and I spent more than a few nights inside a wet tent with a wet sleeping bag after a thunderstorm blew through.
Next, look at the vegetation surrounding the camp spot. You want some trees for shade, but avoid camping under a tree with large, dead limbs which can fall during high wind. I had this happen to me once; sometimes I am amazed I made it to this point in my life. Luckily I wasn’t hut too badly, just some cuts and scrapes, but it demolished my tent in the middle of a rain storm. Those big dead branches are called “widow makers” for a reason. You also want to avoid lush vegetation too close to camp as these are bug magnets, especially for mosquitoes and black flies. Standing water in puddles will also attract mosquitoes, in fact that is where there are usually born.
If you are camping near a lake, you want to make your camp 10 – 15 feet above the water level. This way you get the benefit of any cooling breeze that may blow, and you will also be above the fog and heavy dew that may form when the moist, warm air over the lake cools off during the night. While camping right on the beach is romantic, it is also an area that holds a lot of hatching midges and “no-see-ums,” which are annoying, tiny insects that you can’t see, but will definitely irritate you.
The next thing to look for is poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac, especially if you have young kids that are likely to be rummaging around on the ground. Remember the saying “Leaves of three, let it be.” This applies to poison ivy and poison oak, but poison sumac can have 7 or 13 leaf clusters of leaves. It can be an unpleasant experience for anyone coming in contact with one of these poisonous plants, but it can quickly end a camping trip if a child gets the poison. Be sure to have calamine lotion, an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream, or antihistamine on hand to treat the rash.
Another thing I always look for in a good camping spot is running water. While a running stream may not be pure to drink, you can boil it to drink, use it to wash dishes, or you can bathe yourself. It is best to do the bathing and washing away from the stream so you don’t contaminate the water with soap.
Finally, I like a camping area that has a good supply of wood, not only for firewood, but also for building things. I like to make things when I go camping, like tables, chairs, and obviously marshmallow sticks for the kids. When camping in the winter you will need a lot more firewood than you will in warmer months, and it is always a good idea to get your wood gathered, cut, and covered as one of your first camp chores.
There are some basics tips for selecting a good camp site. As I have written recently, I am anxious to get out camping myself, but we are supposed to get another blast of cold air and snow starting tomorrow night. It was 80 degrees today, and it is going to start snowing tomorrow night, that’s Colorado for you. But I will get out soon!