hammock and tarp shelter

Get it right and sleep all night

Selecting a campsite is not as easy as you may think. We must consider a few issues to make our night’s sleep both safe, warm and dry. 

Over the years I have spent hundreds of nights outside. Both in tents, under tarps on the ground and in a hammock, bivi camping in the desert and mountains, in debris shelters in freezing temperatures, in quinzhees, snow holes and the back of a VW Passat in a recycling centre outside a small Welsh village. 

All of the above have been “interesting” in their own way with frozen water bottles and surprise rivers flowing under my hammock. I have learned a fair bit about where I rest my head. Below I will outline my thought process and top camping tips when selecting a camp location.

Widow Makers

Falling branches and trees are one of the biggest killers in the jungle, followed a close second by drowning in rivers.

When in a forest environment we must look up and identify any large dead branches that pose a risk to us. I will also have a look at the base of trees for any rotting stumps or areas where bark has fallen off. All of these can identify a very risky tree that may well kill you in your sleep. As beech and large oaks generally present a higher risk than other species, I also avoid sleeping under these if I can, and if the wind is above 30mph I will get out of the woods all together.

Wind

The first thing I do is identify wind direction. This will not only chill me through convection but will also identify where I will site my fire in conjunction with my shelter. Being smoked out all night is not fun, check where that smoke will be going!

Wind is also important in regards to insects. Sometimes finding a windy spot is preferred to a sheltered spot where the mosquitos will plague you.

This will also determine where I will put the door of my tent and also on which side of the mountain I may choose to camp. My route plan will always be dictated by the weather and its nuances.

Water

Water is our heaviest consumable so we must identify resupply locations. We will also need it to safely extinguish our fire. I am always near water if possible. Study your map, if no water is present on the ground you must plan around this.

Lastly, consider run off. Where will that water go when it rains? Are you in a dip or a drainage channel?

I once woke up in Scotland to find a small stream running under my hammock after a very wet night.

Wildlife

Look for game trails and identify what animals are in the area. In the UK this is seldom a concern, however, if I am seeing lots of pig tracks or red deer sign I may decide to move away from the game trail. You don’t want a group of boar or red deer stumbling into your camp. It would provide a good story though!

When abroad on trips I am a little more concerned. Consider water margins with extreme prejudice. Hippo, crocs, elephants etc all make interesting bedfellows.

Insects

Check the trees for nests. Both in the branches and at the base. I had an encounter with a bees nest in the UK that proved “educational” and a very scary encounter with some very large wasps in the jungle while leading a trip to Laos.

Consider being near stagnant water as the mozzies may well chew on you a bit.

I will always have a net and if needed a low smoky fire but insects can certainly ruin a trip.

hammock wild camping and bushcraft in the woods

People

Avoiding people is almost a rule for life, not just for camping. In all seriousness try to keep a low profile. People don’t want you pitching up wherever you feel like it. When abroad ask permission if you’re near a village and if you’re near a trail try to set up away from it.

Consider your affect on the water supply if washing etc. It may well be someone else’s drinking water and consider the same for yourself. What is upstream? Never trust that water is safe to drink, always process it and make sure you are going to the toilet at least 200m from water.

Lastly, consider security. Most of the time when away on expeditions or trips animals, insects and the environment are not our biggest threat. People, however, are.

Thermal issues

As we all know, warm air rises and cold air sinks. When pitching a camp I will always consider where the cold sink is. You can find it is literally degrees cooler down the hill or by the lake. I will try to be at half height and protected from the wind.

When wild camping in the hills, I have woken in the morning to see many commercial campsites in the valley with frosty tents, while our tents at a higher elevation were fine. The valley can be far colder, if not freezing, in comparison.

Tarps vs Tents

It is said “A tent is just a tent, a tarp is many things”. This is so true and I will always greatly consider my choice.

Wild camp set up with tarp

If I am in the mountains in winter it is an easy choice. I will go for a tent everytime. It provides fantastic shelter and is strong and stable in the most horrendous conditions. When in a group it also provides plenty of privacy, which at times, is essential!

It is, however, useless when used alongside fire or for enjoying being a part of nature as much as a tarp is.

I love a tarp camp. I can see out and feel a part of the landscape. It allows a breeze when hot, I can pitch it high and use a hammock. I can use fire to keep me warm and create a large area of cover for cooking and socialising as a group. It can be a stretcher, a water collection device, a boat, a sail on a canoe, a chair and alongside walking poles make a very good summer tent for lightweight hiking in the hills. 

It does however take a certain amount of knowledge and environmental consideration to be used successfully. Learn your knots and pitch with care. You will soon love the tarp as well!

Conduction

This is a little beyond site location, however, I feel it is the most underrated aspect when people sleep outside. You must insulate yourself from the ground. A top quality sleeping pad is far more effective at keeping you warm than a sleeping bag. Do not underestimate this, this is the secret to being warm!

I have spent countless nights on raised beds, leaf mattresses, woven bracken mats etc etc. They all work and at times combined with technology really add to a comfortable night’s sleep.

Select your campsite with care, look up, look down and look all around. Consider cold sinks, water, wind and widow makers and you will be thriving and not just surviving, now get out there and go for a camp!