Through my travels I do lots of camping. It’s not only a good way to save money on accommodations but is also the best way to interact with a landscape and it’s nature. The information below is based on my travel through the US. While I have done backcountry camping in other countries I don’t feel my exposure is sufficient to give advice on it. When that changes I’ll revise the information below.
Front Country Camping
Front Country Camping is particularly good for those that want to experience nature but don’t want to rough it as much. You simply drive your car up to your site and you have an area where you can pitch your tent. Ammenities vary from campsite to campsite but they generally have bathroom facilities, a table to eat on, water refill stations, and at many sites, showers. The fancier ones also have RV hookups. During busy seasons these campsites can fill up quickly so keep that in mind.
Backcountry camping comes in two varieties, designated campsites or open camping. There are pro’s and con’s to each from the perspective of the hiker and from it’s ecological impact. Generally, designated campsites offer some amenities (not always). Amenities such as a privy/pit toilet, bear pole, bear wires, bear boxes, cooking areas, tables, and fire pits. These vary from campsite to campsite as well as from park to park. Ecologically speaking designated campsites are better for the preservation of an area as a whole since they concentrate the damage to these selected zones and have facilities (privies, pit toilets) to deal with human waste. Designated campsites are usually well worn so you don’t have to worry about destroying vegetation while pitching a tent or finding a spot, it is obvious and sometimes even marked with numbers. Some of the negatives associated with designated sites are that the sights can be crowded, dirty, and critters may be conditioned to look for food at the site. This stems from poor backcountry practices such as feeding wildlife, and leaving food lying around. Finally there is the lack of flexibility in that you are assigned a specific sight. Even if you are tired and your campsite is 5 miles further, that is where you have to make it to.
In contrast, open camping sites are those you select in the wilderness. These offer no amenities other than the ones found in nature. One of the benefits to open camping is that if you have total flexibility. If you are tired and no longer wish to hike, you can stop off at a spot you deem appropriate. However, finding an adequate location is not always the easiest. It is as much skill as art and varies based on ones personal preference. For those looking for absolute solitude, open camping is your best option. Not all parks allow open camping and some expressly forbid it so check with the parks regulations. Aside from solitude, open camping generally provides you with a pristine location and critters will not have been conditioned to seek out food at your site. They will still obviously go to town on your stuff if you are not careful but I haven’t found them to be as aggressive as in designated sites. Still, open camping comes with additional work. Aside from selecting your site which I discuss below, you must either dig yourself some cat holes or carry out your excrement. I personally don’t have a problem digging cat holes but I don’t like carrying my waste out.
Selecting a Campsite
I think the most important advice I can give regarding the selection of a campsite is to be terrain aware. Every environment is different so there are no clear cut rules on how to select a site. There are also personal preferences that come into play. However that being said there are a few common things to be aware of.
Vegetation – Are there any dying or swaying trees around? This is particularly important as many parks in the US have been hit with the Asian Pine Beetle and there a lot of trees ready to fall. Also be weary of pitching your tent in an area where there is fire damage and dead trees still remain. Dying trees are not the only vegetation to stay clear of, poison ivy, cacti, or thorny bushes are not ideal neighbors when selecting a campsite. If you can avoid them do so.
Water – This is one that I’ve had intimate experiences with. There is nothing worse than having to move your campsite in the middle of the night as the river you camped next to swells from the thunderstorm. It is not pleasant at all. When selecting your site take the growth of a river into account. The same goes for coastal tides. This is irrespective of the weather you’re experiencing. Weather up stream can greatly affect volumes downstream. You may never have a drop fall on you but your neighboring river can still be several inches if not feet deeper in a few hours. Also from an ecological standpoint you shouldn’t pitch your tent by a river. It is something I no longer do now that I am much more educated about appropriate backcountry practices. Good practices dictate that one should be to be at least 200 feet away from water sources.
Landslides – Whether it’s a mudslide, rockslide, or and avalanche, it is key to stay away from zones where these perils exist. In the Tetons I was treated the a powerful sounds of a rock slide at 3:30 in morning. There’s that horrible feeling when you’re in your tent thinking am I in that path? I wrote about it here.
Other – Try and stay away from top predators food supplies if possible. Berry bushes in bear country come to mind.
Frontcountry Camping – Fees vary from park to park. My experience has been that a frontcountry site will charge anywhere between $7-20 per night for a non RV hookup site. They may tack on an additional fee for the use of the shower or include it in the price of the nightly stay. With rare exception frontcountry campsites are self pay and self registration. You first select a campsite and park your vehicle. You then return to the entrance area where there is usually a bulletin board with the price listed as well as a box with envelopes or registration forms. You fill out your form/envelope, enclose the money, and rip off the stub off of the form/envelope. What you do with this stub is to display it on the dash of your vehicle or a clip that is found on the campsite post number. Most parks accept cash and depending on the park, they will accept personal checks as well as credit cards.
Backcountry Camping – Permits for backcountry camping can range from free to a pricy $25 at the Grand Tetons. Usually you are charged around $5 a night per person. Backcountry permits are done one of three ways: advance reservation via phone or online (varies by park), showing in person to a backcountry office (availability is limited), or self registration and payment at the trailhead (the rarest).
Be a good steward of the land
- Camp at least 200 feet from water sources, and the trail.
- Don’t cut switchbacks – Why? Because cutting switchbacks creates unnecessary erosion and no one wants rocks falling on their heads as they are hiking up.
- Stay on trails – Why? Because some of the vegetation you are there to visit grows extremely slowly, is fragile and is older than your great grandparents. For instance the cushion plant found in alpine environments grows .02 inches a year. Don’t kill your great grandparents plants!
- If possible don’t camp on vegetation. Select a sandy, gravely or area that has solid ground.
- Dispose of human waste – If you don’t like to see toilet paper with human excrement on it don’t add to the pile. Animals dig up shallow cat holes. Make sure yours is 4-8 inches deep and 4-6 in diameter.
- Don’t make fires and if you must make one ensure it is in an area that’s allowed, you tend to it, and put it out before you walk away from it. You don’t want to be known as the person that burned down a quarter of a national park. It’s a sad fact but 90% of all national park fires are started by humans. Source: http://www.nps.gov/fire/wildland-fire/learning-center/fire-in-depth/wildfire-causes.cfm
- Don’t take artifacts home. Why? So that others may enjoy them. I have seen fossils, as well as numerous artifacts that I have left in place for others to enjoy. I have also seen ransacked monuments that have been stripped of their history by black market dealers. Don’t contribute to this by buying or taking artifacts.