Finding the Perfect Campsite: How to Setup Camp

camp setup how to find the perfect campsite

Whether you’re tent camping, RV camping, or backcountry camping in a primitive site, a camping trip can be just what the doctor ordered when it comes to stepping away from every day life. Part of planning your next week or weekend away means picking the best campsite location, so we’ll take you through the steps of how we would decide on which campground and which site to choose.

How to Find the Right Campground

First, let’s start with your destination. Do you know where you want to go? Narrow it down to a city or area before diving too deep into researching specific campgrounds.

Next, we can start our research on specific campgrounds. We use The Dyrt, which is like Yelp for campgrounds. It has reviews, campground information, pictures, and a link to the booking website. We like how it has all the campgrounds in the area, so you can directly compare reviews and features.

Screenshot of The Dyrt’s map feature that shows all the campgrounds – this is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park area.

If you’re looking to dispersed camp not in designated campsites, we like using iOverlander (phone app) and filtering the map to Wild Camping. This will show you some places where people have previously dispersed camped and give you some ideas of where to start.

Some features to look for in a campground are:

  • The availability of restrooms and showers. Do you plan on showering that you would need access to clean facilities? Or would you just be happy with a restroom or even just a vault toilet at a more primitive site?
  • Privacy between sites. While some campgrounds are better at separating individual campsites with brush or natural features, some places are just wide open where you can see everyone around you. We prefer campgrounds that prioritize privacy.
  • How many sites are designated tent sites vs. RV sites? We find that a lot of bigger campgrounds are geared towards RVers, and we try to avoid those areas. We prefer campgrounds that are more tent based, or places that have areas that are designated tents only. We just don’t like sleeping next to rigs.
  • Location. How close is this campground to other things you would want to do? Is it set away from any loud areas like highways but close enough that you can access all that you want to do and see?
  • Water availability. Is there potable water available or do you need to bring your own?
  • Entertainment. We personally prefer quiet campgrounds, but if you have kids we could understand wanting something for them to do. Some larger campgrounds may offers pools and other on-site activities.

How to Find the Right Campsite

Now that you’ve done your research and selected your ideal campground, it’s time to reserve your specific camp spot. Use the provided map in the booking system (or a map from the Dyrt) to look at all the features in a campground before picking your spot.

Note: some campgrounds may not offer reservations and are instead first-come, first-serve. In these cases, make sure you don’t arrive between noon on Friday and Sunday morning, as your chances of getting a site are pretty low. Have several ideal sites in mind before arriving, and always have several backup options in case that campground is full.

An example of a campground map.

If you’re reserving a car camping site, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

– How close is the campsite to your car? The closer your campsite is to your car, the easier it will be to set up or pack up and leave when it’s time. Keep an eye out for ‘hike-in’ campsites – this means you have to walk short distances and cannot park directly next to the site. We typically try to avoid these unless they offer something special.

– How close are your neighbors? Coming from personal experience, this one is huge. Granted, most of us are out in the wilderness to find some peace and tranquility, but we have ran into a few circumstances where people weren’t necessarily looking for the same experience Ashley and I were. Having some personal space between campsites minimizes noise from your fellow campers, and decreases the chances of a surprise meet up if you are in the trees taking a potty break.

– How close is the campsite to natural water sources? We like camping near water and streams so we can hear the sound of running water at all times, which also helps drown out noise from any nearby campers or roadways. 

How flat is the ground at the campsite? Make sure that it will be as flat as possible so you aren’t feeling like you’re sliding downhill at night. If you’re booking ahead of time, you can look at the reviews and see if there’s any specific sites you should avoid. Otherwise, this applies more to dispersed campers who are actively searching for a flat area to camp on.

How many people will be camping at the site? It’s important to take into account how many people are camping with you and make sure that your campsite has enough room for everyone and their tents. 

– How close is it to any bathrooms/showers? Some places might have better amenities than others depending on what type of campground you’re staying at. If possible, choose a campsite that isn’t too far away from restrooms and showers so they don’t become an inconvenience to get to, but not too close that you get the joy of smelling the toilets.

Is there a group site nearby? In our experience, group sites are usually full of people and families, leading them to be louder. We go camping for quiet and tranquility, so we avoid setting up near group sites at all times.

Is there anything else nearby that could hinder your enjoyment? Look for things like nearby roads, construction sites, airports, multiple group sites, day use recreation areas, etc.

Is there any safety issues you should be aware of? Always look at the surrounding trees and look for widow makers, or dead standing trees that seem unstable. Any good established campground should maintain these, but always check to make sure. Never set up your tent below trees that have any sign or decay or rot at the base of the trunk.

Based on these questions, I’ve added stars to my favorite campsites and pink X’s on things I want to avoid being too close to.

Gear Check at Home

Before you head out on your camping trip, make sure you use a gear checklist to make sure you have everything you could possibly need, including all the right camping clothes. Take the time to examine your car camping equipment, especially if you haven’t used it in a while. Check that your tent stuff sack has stakes inside, that your first aid kit isn’t expired, and that you have everything on your list.

Camp Setup

After you’ve selected your destination and picked a campsite, we can get camp setup. Let’s go in order with what we usually do when we first arrive at camp.

  1. Set up your tent. First things first, get your tent setup, Even if it’s earlier in the day, it’s better to get your sleeping area figured out while you’re ready and able. Take the time to lay down your tent footprint, setup your tent poles, and just generally get your tent ready. Make sure you pick the right orientation for your tent door(s) so you can easily get in and out.
  2. Next, get everything ready for a good night’s sleep. This means putting your sleeping bag and sleeping pad in the tent, and pumping up any air mattresses. I get my HEST completely ready and lay my sleeping bag on top, along with my pillow.
  3. Once your tent is arranged, you can move on to the rest of your camping setup. We get out all our camping furniture, like camping chairs and our hammocks.
  4. We like to prepare the fire pit for the evening’s campfire. Most campgrounds will clean the fire ring regularly, but you should always check that there’s not too much ash left behind from previous campers. If there is, clear it out before use. Otherwise, we get out the firewood and begin to split it in preparation for later.
  5. Another key part of camping setup is your camp kitchen. If you’re near a mealtime and want to start setting up, then feel free to do so. Otherwise, we just like to make sure everything is readily accessible for when it is time to prepare food. Keep in mind that if you’re camping in bear country, there will be regulations for storing your kitchen gear. Most of it, including a camp stove and fuel or a charcoal grill, will need to be stored properly when not in use (see more below).
  6. Setup a place where you can easily dispose of your trash, such as tying a bag to a lantern post or the leg of a picnic table. This will need to be disposed of each evening before bed, but is super helpful to have throughout the day.
  7. Make sure all your camp lighting (e.g., headlamps and a propane lantern) are easily accessible for later in the day. It’s a lot harder to find light sources when it’s dark outside.
  8. If you use a portable shower tent or privacy shelter, now it’s time to get it setup. Make sure everything is rigged properly and that you have water available to use for your shower.
  9. If you didn’t already pack potable water, now’s the time to make sure you have plenty for everyone to drink for at least 24 hours. The feeling of being dehydrated can quickly lead to a crappy time, so make sure everyone’s needs are being met.

Camp Maintenance

When you’re all set up and have your camping gear organized, you will need to take the time to make sure you’re properly taking care of things for the duration of your trip.

Designate a Key Keeper

Whether it’s a person or a designated spot at camp, make sure everyone knows where the car keys are at all times. Avoid freak outs by keeping track of them throughout your trip and making sure they get put back (or given back) after each use.

Bear Country

If you’re camping in bear country, most established campgrounds will provide bear proof boxes. If there’s not a box, you should use a locked vehicle. Any time you’re not directly involved in food preparation, eating, washing dishes, or getting ready to eat, you should store your food and camp kitchen supplies in the designated area so you don’t attract bears. This is especially important at night, when bears and small animals are more active. Make sure you don’t store anything smelly in your tent, including snacks and toiletries.

Airing Out

If it’s not raining during the day, you should air out any sleeping bags that were used overnight. We open all the mesh windows on our tent, and invert our sleeping bags so the insides can dry completely. This will help will with smell long term and will prevent your sleeping bag from getting mildew-y.

You should also make sure to air out any hiking boots or shower shoes that may be wet.

Gear Maintenance

It’s essential that you take care of your outdoor gear, and in exchange it will take care of you. Regularly check your tent for holes that should be patched, make sure you have enough fuel for the rest of your trip, and check your sleeping pads and air mattress for leaks. It’s much better to deal with these during the day rather than finding them during the night.

Stay Tidy

Make sure everyone is picking up after themselves, properly disposing of trash, and showering. Also, make sure regularly used items, like toilet paper and headlamps, are readily accessible. As a general rule, make sure you follow the 7 Principles of Leave no Trace at all times.

Conclusion

Here are some key takeaways to remember for the perfect camp setup:

  1. Research campgrounds to find the one that’s right for you.
  2. Find the perfect site that’s flat, near water, and away from group sites.
  3. Set up your camping gear when you first arrive.
  4. Keep an organized kitchen area that is stored properly overnight.
  5. Build a campfire like a pro.
  6. Be respectful of other nearby campers.

FAQ

How do you set up a campsite?

First, take the time to set up your sleeping area, including your tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pad or air mattress, and any blankets. Next, get out the rest of your camp furniture and get it settled, including camping chairs, your kitchen setup, and a shower tent. Then you can follow the rest of our steps to get everything else settled.

What should you not do while setting up camp?

Don’t set up camp in the dark, especially if you can plan on arriving during the daytime. Don’t rush, and instead take the time to properly set up everything the first time around.

About the Author

Ashley Vitiello

Ashley is an adventurous soul who loves all things nature, especially warm sunshine, hiking, wildflowers, and mushrooms. If she isn’t writing content for Know Nothing Nomads, she’s probably in a forest looking at big mountain views and tiny pieces of moss on the side of the trail.

Hey there!

We are Derek and Ashley of Know Nothing Nomads. Whether it is hiking, camping, or just generally being outside, we love it. We are so happy that you have found our little blog and hope that you stick around a while. Feel free to contact us with any questions or get in touch with us on social media!

Safe Travels,

Derek and Ashley

Know Nothing Nomads