The Gear Guide: 4 Simple Steps to Setting Up Camp

Adventure Travel, Backpacking & Trekking, Cabins & Camping, Wildlife & Animals — By on February 18, 2011 at 12:00 pm

By Jessica Goldstein

Adventure Editor

The quest for the perfect campsite: it isn’t just about romantic views or the moment when your legs feel like Jell-o from hiking so far that you just collapse on the spot. Your choice of campsite is crucial to the quality of your great adventuring–you don’t want something like a bear attack/literal slippery slope/fire failure to stand between you and a night communing with nature. Read on for all the insight you’ll need to pick the just-right spot for sweet dreams under the stars.

1. Location, location, location

The three key words in spot selection are high, dry and flat. Sleeping on a hill means you’ll tumble while you slumber. You want to wake up in the same place where you went to sleep, don’t you? So stay away from slanted ground. Also, edges. Like of cliffs. Seriously, not a good idea.

Never underestimate the importance of hydration. You’re going to want to be close—just not too close—to a good water source. Speaking of water, scan the area for signs of water erosion. If you find them… camp somewhere else. That is, unless you enjoy waking up in the middle of the night to the rush of a flash flood. Fun! Like a pool party in your tent!

Another don’t: don’t camp under trees. First of all, that kills the romance of having the starry sky above you all night long. For practical purposes, though, a windy night could snap a branch off a tree, and that sucker could poke a hole right through the top of your tent and jab you in unwelcome places! (Use your imagination.)

2. Pitching a tent (like, literally)

Always, always, always set the tent up at your house before you go camping. Pitch that thing in the backyard. Make sure all the pieces are there. Is it too small? A zipper broken? Stakes MIA? That is not a discovery you want to be making when you’re on the trail in the middle of nowhere. Just remember that when setting up camp for real, use a ground cloth. Pretty much any durable tarp will do.

3. Let’s get fired up

You’ll want your campfire far away from your tent. One, food smells near the tent are like begging bears to nibble on your toes after midnight. Two, a lovely breeze blows in and before you know it, your tent is ablaze. Twenty feet is an ideal minimum distance between your tent and your campfire.

On to the nuts and bolts of fire building! Start by setting up a circle with rocks. This is called the “fire ring.” Really. Also be sure to keep a bucket of water nearby. I mean, I have faith in your ability to build a fire like a rockstar first time out. But it never hurts to be prepared for that worst-case scenario.

The sticks you want to use should be dry and not green. You’ll need tinder to start—the little twigs in the bottom that catch easily. Leaves are lame-o. This is an opportunity to be creative, campers. I’ve used everything from birch bark to ripped up cardboard from Kraft mac & cheese boxes. After you make a pile of tinder, you’re up to kindling, or small sticks, which you can set up teepee style or in a box. Both of these look exactly like they sound.

Last step: those big suckers that keep your fire burning. Think 1” diameter or bigger. Lean them around the teepee you made of smaller sticks or on top of your original box. Blowing on the base of the fire will make it bigger and help it catch on the larger sticks. Yes, this may clash with your idea that blowing a fire (like a candle) will put it out. But air will make the fire burn longer, promise. This is probably another skill, like tent-pitching, you should test out at a time and place where you don’t actually need it for warmth/food/survival.

4. …And bears, oh my!

Before you go anywhere, find out if that particular anywhere is in bear country. If not, you can skip this section. If so, read on, brave traveler!

You want to be absolutely sure that anything a bear might find tasty is never inside your tent. These delicious things include: food, cookware, utensils, toothpaste, deodorant, and soap. To be on the safe side (and honestly, who wouldn’t want to be on the safe side when the dangerous side involves coming face-to-face with a grizzly?) you should change out of the clothes you wore during the day, which still have the scent of the food you cooked and deodorant you wore clinging to them.

But what to do with all your tasty items? It’s all about the bear canisters. You get to suspend your food! Hopefully you brought rope for this express purpose. Hanging bear canisters is fun, like those cool multicolored paper lanterns you totally strung around your dorm room back in college. Hang the bear canisters far away from your tent and use a branch that is strong enough to hold the canister but not strong enough to hold an actual bear.

To avoid bears in the first place, here are some nifty tricks: tie your metal spoon and bowl to the outside of your pack, because the sound will scare the bear! (Aww, that’s precious). In the category of “things that should be obvious to you,” try not to sneak up on bears. They hate when you do that. Counterintuitive advice: do not run away from the bear. Back away slowly.

Happy camping! Stay tuned for the next installment in the Lost Girls Gear Guide. And please steer clear of bears.

Other sites to check out:

Camping for Beginners

Tent Care and Setup

Where to Set Up Camp

Hazards of Bears

How to Build a Campire

Thumbnails courtesy of Song of the Paddle and Susan Neal

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