How to Set Up a Campsite

Camping & Hiking expert Ronnie Silveira Jr. overviews how to camp like a champ, regardless of your backwoods prowess.

Three camping tents set up on a mountain at high elevation with clouds visible in the distance

Photo by Yong Xinz

The smell of bonfire smoke accompanied by a blanket of stars, such a call to nature is something to which most of us can relate. However, without the fundamental knowledge needed to embrace our inner wild, a relationship with the great wide open could end up a loveless affair. The key to a rewarding camping experience is simple. Be prepared. The motto of Scouting’s founding father, Robert Baden-Powell, still rings true today.

Fortunately, we have assembled a thorough guide to help you camp like a champ, regardless of your backwoods prowess. Follow these tips and tricks and in time, you likely will be giving Bear Grylls a run for his money.

Picking the Ultimate Location

Campsites & Campgrounds

Escaping the hustle and bustle of city life is a human necessity. Reconnecting with nature to clear the mind and find a backpacker’s zen seems like the ultimate goal. However, pursuing a woodsy home away from home takes some decision-making. Whether you are packing the fam up in the old swagger wagon or flying solo in a pup tent, you need to know what your options are when picking the perfect camping spot.

Basic Campsites

When one hears the word “basic”, echoes of trending insult vernacular may come to mind. Yet, among wilderness aficionados, getting back to basics is the catalyst needed for all of us to find our happy place. Basic campsites are exactly how they sound. More often than not, they consist of a parking space, a picnic table, and a grill or fire ring.

However, don’t be fooled into thinking that a basic campsite is a bare-bones experience. Many basic campsites are equipped with toilets, showers, and other water sources. To purists, such amenities may seem like glamping. But to families with kids, such assistance may prove vital and life-changing.

Group Campsites

If your camping trip includes a caravan or rag-tag group of tent pitchers, a group campsite may be right up your alley. Most of these sites can accommodate 12 to 50 people. Similar to the basic option, having a bathroom and shower a stone’s throw away is not too shabby.

It’s also worth noting that a clan of campers puts significant money back in your pocket when breaking down the per person cost on a nightly basis.

Family Campsites

So maybe you aren’t traveling with an entire platoon, but rather a super-sized family that doesn’t seem overjoyed at the thought of sleeping in a shelter under the night sky like human sardines. If this is the case, a family campsite is what you are looking for. Most family campsites are equipped to fit eight to 10 people, allowing two tents and two vehicles.

In most instances, the sites also prevent RVs from being party crashers. Because, as we all know, there’s nothing worse than getting out of dodge for fresh air and being blindsided by the aroma of generator exhaust.

A bright yellow tent set up at night in a desert plain

Photo by Mike Beck

Boondocking & Dry Camping

Backcountry/Dispersed Camping

What is backcountry? What in the heck is frontcountry for that matter? Many novice campers have posed this question over the years. If camping is a form of escapism in response to the noise of modern life, backcountry camping is a form of escapism in response to the noise of other campers.

Seriously, who wants to leave town for some peace and quiet only to be bombarded by a gaggle of campground neighbors with no mute button?

In a nutshell, frontcountry sites are within an ear shot from the road and usually are near running water and an outhouse. Backcountry sites steer clear from roads and typically are close to a trail for access. Additionally, a backcountry boondocking experience is free of picnic tables, showers, and running water.

These “wild” campsites are primitive, testing your expertise and self-sufficiency. However, don’t misconstrue such a definition to require MacGyver-esque wisdom. Simply put, the level of preparedness will need to increase with the fewer the modern conveniences at your campsite. This is bear country, not the Beverly Wilshire.

Two camping tents lit from within in a forest clearing with the starry night sky above

Photo by Lukas Bieri

Tent 101

Choosing a Tent

It is fairly easy to be overwhelmed when choosing the perfect tent. A simple Google search can provide a cacophony of tent solicitations that could leave you deaf and discouraged. Fret not. Instead, rely on the three W’s. When will you be using it? Who will be in the tent? Where will you be using it? If you follow this line of thinking, you will be able to focus on what truly matters with laser-like precision and not be swayed by advertising ballyhoo.

3-Season vs. 4-Season

While choosing your woodland abode, you must consider when you will use it. Generally, tents fall into two categories, three-season and four-season. Three-season tents are known for being lightweight and are relatively versatile. The primary seasons include spring, summer, and autumn. Designed for temperate climates, these tents allow airflow, preventing a sweat lodge hallucination. They also prevent bugs from using you as their main course.

Four-season tents are relatively self explanatory. They are durable, heavier, and designed to keep you safe when encountering Mother Nature’s wrath. Many of these models sacrifice mesh on the tent body to ensure its occupants stay as toasty as possible. Despite its resilience, these structures are engineered to balance ventilation and excessive condensation. We all know that tent condensation is the bane of a camper’s existence. However, these tents do their best to prevent you from turning into a wet beer can while trying to get a good night's sleep.

Flying Solo vs. Traveling Companions

When camping in a tent, one must always assume a close fit. This is why knowing the number and stature of residences is a crucial consideration. Shacking up with Shaq under the moonlight would definitely be memorable, but equally uncomfortable. This also includes pet lovers, unless the thought of crating yourself along with your pets is of interest. In order to enjoy everything nature has to offer, a person should have ample room for themselves and their potential guests.

Location, Location, Location

Where you pitch your tent is paramount, whether that be climate or terrain. Pitching a tent on a slope might result in a scene out of Indiana Jones. Remember, you're looking for flat ground. Deciding to set up under a tree in a rainstorm could put you on the receiving end of a woodland lightning rod. I don't care how much shade it provides. Take your time and use common sense.

An ideal spot to pitch your tent and set up camp will be level ground, free of rocks and other debris. If you are considering setting up at the bottom of a hill, do yourself a favor and don’t, unless mudslides or flash floods are your “thing”. Make sure the dirt is soft enough to drive pegs. That doesn’t mean staking your tent down in the middle of a marsh. Lastly, above all things, stay clear from the fire pit. The only thing roasting over the fire should be marshmallows.

Pitching a Tent

Pitching a tent does not have to be an arduous task. As long as you have done your homework, ensured you have everything needed, and have a safe spot selected, you will be well on your way. Prior to setting off on your adventure, you will need to check your tent and inspect its parts. This also includes having the instructions. Tent instructions are fairly easy to follow. You are not building the Statue of Liberty out of Legos. You are pitching a tent, hopefully, not for the first time.

It is a good idea to test drive your tent by setting up at home first. You want to arrive at your campsite, confident and ready for comfort. Nothing is worse than trying to wing it in the middle of a windstorm or in total darkness. After inspecting your tent location, spread out your ground cover before you begin your setup. Remember, respect the tarp. A cold and damp tent floor is a guaranteed way to put a sour taste in your mouth, not to mention those who share a tent with you. Just do it. You will thank me later.

Next, lay out your poles and place the tent on the ground cover with the door away from the wind, preferably towards the morning sun. Begin assembling the poles to create the tent skeleton and slip them through the tent sleeves or attach via hooks, if your tent requires it. Once completed, stake the tent in order for it to stand on its own. Otherwise, say goodbye to Auntie Em. Finally, tuck any exposed ground cover under the tent to prevent tripping as you witness your tent bask in all its glory.

Skewers of meat grilling over a campfire outdoors

Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh

Campfire Essentials

Fire Pits & Fire Rings

Now it’s time to take a moment and be proud of yourself. You did your research. You landed some prime camping real estate like a savvy Eagle Scout. Not to mention, now you can pitch a tent with your eyes closed. You were destined for this. Which leads us up to the reason you ventured into the wild from the get go: the sweet smell of bonfire, billowing over your temporary retreat like a smoke signal to heaven. The gloves are now off. It’s campfire time.

When starting your blaze of glory, you need to ensure that you have access to a fire pit or fire ring. Despite your new title of backwoods maestro, building a sustainable fire should always be treated with vigilance and respect. Many campers have a tendency to let their egos get the best of them when it comes to maintaining their fire, which, more often than not, leads to costly mistakes that have terrible consequences. Smokey the Bear wasn't joking about forest fire prevention and neither should you.

If you decide to stake your claim in a traditional campsite with all the bells and whistles, you most likely will have a fire pit or ring in place. However, before you bust out your strike-anywhere matches, remember that regulations change. Just because you are staring point blank at a beautiful fire pit, doesn’t mean that you can light it up. Temporary bans on campfires happen from time to time. Typically, this is done if the risk of wildfires is high. Do your due diligence before you head for the mountains and look for signs when you get there. Another useful resource includes talking with a ranger to ensure you don’t get your hand slapped when the powers that be see the smoke.

No Pit, No Problem

For those of you that decide to venture down the road not taken, you shouldn’t expect to see a premade fire pit waiting for you. Besides, you're roughing it. Wasn’t the whole idea to get your hands dirty? Well, now is your time. No pit, no problem. Begin digging a fire pit in an open area. Remember to do this safely. You don’t want to start a fire under overhanging branches that are begging to be burned, nor would you build a bonfire under a power line. Common sense, people.

After digging your pit, you will want to surround the space with rocks that you have gathered nearby. This will prevent anything undesirable from lighting up like a roman candle. Word to the wise, ensure there is a 10ft-area surrounding your newly built fire pit. You do not want a sudden gust of wind lighting up garbage or dry leaves, not to mention, yourself. To be on the safe side, it is advantageous to always have a shovel and a bucket filled with water nearby in case of an emergency.

This also applies to those of you who have the luxury of a preexisting fire pit within a traditional campground. When the time comes to extinguish your fire, you will already be well prepared to handle your business. Dump water on the blaze, stir up that ash, and repeat. You will want to ensure that fire is fully out and cold to the touch. That also includes burying coals that could wake up and smolder. Remember, insidious embers could be lying in wait, hoping to be born again.

A green tent with a canopy over it set against a dramatic night sky

Photo by Ben Frieden

Enjoy the View

Now, the time has come for us to go our separate ways. There is a whole world waiting for you. Being one with the outdoors is one of the richest experiences this planet has to offer. If you play your cards right, stay sharp, and leave no trace, you will be a better person for it. If you have any questions on finding the right gear for your next camping adventure, chat with me or one of my fellow Camping & Hiking experts here on Curated for free advice and recommendations. Now pack those sleeping bags, grab your gear, and hit the open road. Stay outdoorsy, my friend.

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Written By
Ronnie Silveira Jr
Ronnie Silveira Jr
Camping & Hiking Expert
Outdoorsman, Backwoods Foodie, Family Man and Destination Event Planner ​ I have been an avid backpacker all of my life. As a child, I grew up on a ranch in Northern California, surrounded by nature. I come from a family of outdoor enthusiasts. Whether it was hiking in Utah, hunting in Arizona or sw...
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