The Right Duff

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Camping Special, April 1997

The Right Duff

Are you sure you know what it takes to pick the perfect campsite?
By Brad Wetzler

In Plato's realm of ideals, you'd find the perfect campsite floating in the ether, next to a crystal mountain stream and a wheel of good Camembert. But in the here and now, landing a supreme home away from home takes planning--and some knowledge. Environmental concerns, of course, are extremely important, as are those of aesthetics. Here are a few rules to satisfy both.

There's nothing wrong with hand-me-downs. According to the National Outdoor Leadership School, the most environmentally friendly way to select a campsite is to move into an existing one, complete with downtrodden grass and a blackened stone fire ring. How is this low-impact? "The damage has already been done," says Tom Reed, an instructor at the Lander, Wyoming-based school. "Your waffle-stompers aren't going to kill dead grass, are they?"

If you must start from scratch, be sensitive. Pick a durable spot that shows no signs of previous use, and stay off fragile vegetation, such as alpine tundra and desert cryptobiotic soil. In the mountains, camp below timberline on decomposing forest litter. In the desert, look for slickrock instead of pitching camp in the sand; the tiny plant life will thank you, and you won't get grit in your sleeping bag. Finally, hide your campsite--preferably in a wooded area or behind a boulder--so your tent won't spoil the scene for others.

Build it, and they probably won't come. Wildlife, that is. To increase your chances of spotting game, and to keep water sources bacteria-free, camp at least 200 feet from lakes, ponds, and streams. If you're quiet, you'll see wildlife wending to the watering hole at dusk for a nightcap. Which raises the issue of what they do to the water: Before swimming or using the water to wash pots and pans, you should scout for droppings near the source. And, of course, even if none are apparent, you should always either boil the water or run it through a filter before drinking.

Positioning is everything. Pick a site that's far from stagnant water and its inevitable by-product, mosquitoes. A steady breeze will also keep the bugs at bay. Conventional wisdom says that you should choose a site with an eastern exposure if the prevailing winds are from the west, southern exposure if the winds are from the north, and so on. But a growing chorus of campers has begun to sing the praises of this method: Point the door of your tent straight into the wind, and leave an opening so that it inflates; stretching the nylon, they claim, keeps the tent quieter. If you're camping near a lake during the summer, pitch your tent on ground that's 10 to 20 feet higher than the water, which can keep you up to ten degrees cooler. Finally, take advantage of that natural air-conditioner, shade, by erecting your tent on the south or southeast side of trees. One caveat, though: Some trees are safer than others. For a reason that science has yet to determine, lightning favors oak, ash, pine, and poplar. Less likely to be hit are beech and fir. If you're canoe camping, islands make great sites. They tend to come equipped with meadows for your tents, groves of trees for shade, and sandbars or big rocks to stretch out on. Finally, to forestall a throbbing noggin in the morning, pitch your tent in a place where your feet can be level with or lower than your head while you sleep.

You'll need a roomy kitchen. If you can make it jibe with other concerns, try to find a spot with an efficient kitchen space--namely, a flat, roomy rock sheltered from the wind. But make sure it's at least 20 feet away and downwind from your tent. If you're going to cook on an open blaze, make sure the ground is composed of mineral soil, such as sand or stream gravel, which will keep fire from spreading underground through the root systems of trees.

Remember, you're spending the night, not starting a civilization. As important as finding that perfect patch of duff is knowing when enough's enough. With the exception of food and a few other essentials, the less equipment you bring, the more "outdoorsy" your campsite will feel. If possible, leave the tent at home. Bivouacking is easier on the environment in every way--and billions of twinkling stars are far more sleep-provoking than ripstop nylon.

Illustrations by Ross MacDonald

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