How to Set Up a Campsite

Lisa Maloney
Looking for camping tips?

Setting up a campsite becomes easier with experience, and the best way to get good at it is to practice. In other words, go camping! You'll learn something new about what works best for you each time you set up a campsite, but there are also some pointers to keep in mind that will benefit any new camper.

Select Your Campsite Location

Selecting campsite location

The first thing you must decide is whether you're going to visit an established campground or camp in a primitive area off the beaten path. Once you have plans in place, it's time to select the best spot to set up.

Established Campgrounds

Choosing a good camping spot at an established campground is easy; just pull your trailer up to any of the designated campsites. If you're tent camping, you're also able to choose from "walk-in" sites within easy walking distance of the campsite road or parking lot, but they don't have direct vehicle access. No matter which sort of campsite you choose, it will at least have a flat area for your shelter and a fire ring. Campsites designed for trailer or RV use may or may not have electrical or water hookups, so always review the campground amenities before booking your spot.

Most established campgrounds also offer amenities like picnic tables, restrooms and sometimes even water pumps within easy strolling distance of any campsite. If you're at a campground in bear country, you'll also find designated bear poles for hanging your food or bear-proof boxes which look like heavy-duty metal cabinets.

Primitive Campsites

If you're camping at a primitive campsite in the backcountry, choosing your ideal location becomes a little more complex. You may find yourself looking at acres of virgin forest with a multitude of possible campsites. Here are some tips which will help you choose a good place to pitch your tent.

  • Choose a level area that seems to be high ground. If you are at the bottom of any slope, even a very gentle slope, your tent may flood if it rains.
  • If you're camping in an area that's prone to flash floods, make sure you aren't camping in an arroyo or wash that could flood. Look for water marks or signs of mud and runoff in the nearby terrain. These are all signs of previous flooding, which means it's not a safe place to camp.
  • Pitch your tent away from hiking trails and animal trails, or you'll likely be disturbed more than you would like during the night.
  • How is the view? The campsite you choose will be home for the duration of the trip, so make sure the view is one you will enjoy.

Pitch Your Tent

Pitching tent

Once you choose your site, it's time to set up camp. If you're trailer or RV camping, this is as simple as parking and then setting up house. If you're tent camping, the basic process is the same no matter where you are. Begin by setting up your tent, which will be the centerpiece of your campsite.

  1. Remove any rocks from the area where you plan to pitch your tent. Even small pebbles can be very uncomfortable under your sleeping bag. Look out for anthills, animal holes, or any other signs the patch of ground you're considering may be home to something else; these are signals you should choose another place for the tent.
  2. Lay a tarp or tent footprint on the ground where the tent will be. This is optional, and backcountry campers might not want to carry the extra weight. However, it helps protect the bottom of your tent. Make sure the edges of the tarp (or plastic sheeting) are turned under and do not extend past the tent's edges so they won't funnel rainwater underneath it.
  3. Arrange the tent so the door opens away from the prevailing wind direction. If the weather turns bad, you don't want rain blowing through the door.
  4. The exact pitching procedure for each tent is a little different. As a general rule, you can almost always count on staking the corners out first, then putting the poles together and placing their ends in grommets, or on hooks, around the edge of the tent. The grommets or hooks create tension that bends the poles into arcs and provide the structure for your tent. Depending on which sort of tent you own, you may need to either thread the poles through fabric sleeves before you insert them in the grommets or attach hooks to the poles after you've arranged them in the grommets.
  5. Most tents have two-part construction; there's the tent body, which you just assembled, and a waterproof rainfly that goes on top of it to keep the water out. Always put the rainfly on your tent unless the weather forecast guarantees no rain and you're planning to stay in camp where you can quickly add the fly if necessary. Most rainflies either buckle to the tent body or have grommets you can slide over the ends of the tent poles. Your rainfly might also have hooks or hook-and-loop straps on the underside which help hold it in place. Use those, and then tug on the nylon straps at the corners of the fly to make it taunt. A taunt rainfly is better able to shed water, and it won't flap in the wind.
  6. Once the tent is up, put your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, pillow, extra clothes, and anything else you want to keep dry inside it. Make sure nothing touches the inside walls of the tent. Moisture often condenses on the tent walls, and anything which comes in contact will get wet.
  7. Never put food inside the tent. It could attract bears if you're camping in bear country, and you could be hurt or killed. Even if you don't live in bear country, rodents may be attracted to food smells or even sweat soaked into your clothing, backpack or boots, and they will gnaw through the tent to reach whatever they're after.

Arrange the Rest of Your Campsite

Arranging campsite

Now that your shelter is up, it's time to think about organizing the rest of your campsite.

  1. Locate the bathroom. Most campgrounds have toilets of some sort within easy walking distance of all campsites. However, there's no guarantee that toilet paper or hand-washing facilities will be available, so bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer. If you are primitive camping, designate a toilet area that's about 200 feet away from your tent, away from trails and any water sources. If you have to defecate, follow area regulations. Typically, you must bury the waste several inches down and pack out any toilet paper or feminine hygiene items for later disposal in the trash.
  2. Check area regulations, which are often posted near the campsite entrance, fee station or ranger station. If campfires are allowed and you're allowed to gather deadwood, do so and then pile the wood near the designated fire pit, but keep it far enough away so stray sparks won't settle into it. If you are required to bring your own wood, take it out of the car and stack it near the fire pit.
  3. Set up your seating near the fire pit. This is also the time to bring out any camp lanterns or other lighting you have because you don't want to dig for them once it's dark. If you plan to use anti-mosquito coils or candles, now's a good time to light them.
  4. Set up your kitchen next. You should never leave food of any sort unattended in a campsite, so keep it safely stowed until you're ready to use it. In the meantime, you can arrange your dishes, your camp stove (if you're using one), and hygiene items -- like paper towels and a trash bag -- near the picnic table. If you're primitive camping and don't have a picnic table nearby, choose a kitchen area that's at least 200 feet downwind from your sleeping area.
  5. Think about food storage and trash disposal. If you're camping in an established campground, store your food in your vehicle or in designated food storage areas. Collect your trash in a bag and throw it in the campground dumpster if one is available. If there are no campground dumpsters, you'll have to dispose of your trash at home. If you're backcountry camping at a primitive site, plan to collect your trash and carry it out. Store food items and trash at least 200 feet away from your sleeping area, preferably downwind, in animal-proof containers or hung from a tree where animals cannot get to it.
  6. If you're using a primitive campground, your work is done at this point; it's time to cook dinner or explore the nearby area. If you're in an established campground, however, you have a few more options. Consider stringing a clothesline between two trees; this gives you a good place to hang wet bathing suits, towels or clothes. You might also visit the ranger station to see if you can rent recreational gear or participate in any campground activities.

Additional Campsite Tips

Camping practice in backyard

Following the basics is the best way to ensure you have a good camping experience. Here are a few more tips that may help.

  • Practice using your camping equipment at home before your trip. That way you'll know everything works, and you can double-check to make sure no pieces are missing.
  • If you're camping in a primitive site for the first time, do a dry run in your front yard first so you're sure you have all the equipment you'll need. Then choose a day with good weather and hike out early so you can pack up and going back before it's dark if you need to.
  • If you're camping in a sunny area, your tent can turn into an oven as the temperature rises. Choose an area where there is ample shade, but don't set your tent up directly under a tree because you could be injured if a limb falls.
  • Try to stay as far away from other campers as possible. Your campsite should be out of sight of any hiking trails and other campers.
  • When you leave your campsite, always let other people know where you're going, how you plan to get there, and when you'll be back. That way, they can alert the authorities you need help if something goes wrong.
  • Follow the seven principles of Leave No Trace to ensure you leave your campsite in pristine condition for the next visitors

Good Campsite, Good Trip

Camping is a wonderful way to experience the beauty of nature. By carefully choosing and setting up a campsite, you can keep the trip relaxed and fun for everyone.

How to Set Up a Campsite