Base Camp 101: Pick Your Spot
Where to camp, how to navigate—and how not to get stuck
A friend and I once drove onto a beach to camp. The sign said it was legal, which was great, but the car got stuck in wet sand, which was not so great. The tide was coming in, and guess what? You can’t jack up a car in sand. We managed, in great haste, to get a tow from another driver, but it was a close call and we felt compelled to hand him a wad of cash, which put a major dent in the ramen budget for the rest of the road trip. And it could have ended far worse.
Just because it’s legal to camp somewhere doesn’t mean it’s advisable. Do your homework before you decide where to camp. Maybe you won’t get stuck in sand, but the site might be dirty, noisy, or like the area at one national monument site I once found myself stuck at with friends—beautiful but as tightly packed as a Japanese capsule hotel.
Here are two apps that will help you avoid the hassle and improve your car camping experience.
Campfinder ($2.99, iOS and Android) provides other campers’ ratings and reviews of campsites. You can search by current or other location and filter by price and amenities. Our recommendation is to start here, and then do some advance Web recon to confirm.
GPS Kit ($9.99, iOS only) is the very best tool we’ve seen for navigating to a site or trailhead via someone else’s GPX track (the digital breadcrumb trail that somebody else has recorded and shared). Not only does it simulate what a $400 GPS unit would do, it also navigates, even without a cell signal, using your iPhone’s built-in GPS capabilities. To do this right:
1. Download the area map at home over Wi-Fi. Do this for where you’re going as well as any adjacent map grids, just in case.
2. Get the GPX track you want to follow, or at least drop a pin for the location where you’re going ahead of your trip.
3. Make sure your phone is plugged into a power source during navigation! Mapping uses a lot of juice.
What to Look for in a Campsite
1. Read the ground. If there’s a nice, soft, hollow spot, that’s where a puddle used to be. Better to put your tent on a slope, rather than where water settles.
2. Use shade to your advantage. Use a cliff face or trees to cool your site in the afternoon. Ideally, position your tent where morning sun will warm and wake you.
3. Before pitching your tent, scout the site and poke a few tent stakes into the ground. You want to know if you can’t drive stakes before you’re halfway into the setup process.
4. Bugs bugging you? Seek a clearing. To find a breezier point, walk farther uphill. But remember: Unless there’s a snowfield, ascending usually takes you away from a ready water supply.
5. Always dry out your tent when you get home. (Hanging it upside down from a garage door works.) Even if the camping was dry, condensation funkifies your abode and will lead to permastink if you’re not careful. This rule goes double for sleeping pads and bags.
6. What broke or got grimy during the trip? Fix it as soon as you’re home, whether it’s a small tear in a down sleeping bag or your kid’s muddy footprints in the tent.
7. Once your tent is dry and repaired, stow it loosely in a large plastic bin or cardboard box. Keep it out of the light, which will age the synthetics and waterproofing. Do the same with your sleeping bag.