By Laura Waters
Do you ever lie in your tent at night and lament your choices on where you put it? Maybe the blood is rushing to your head because you’re on a slope, you’re copping a freezing breeze from that oh-so-scenic waterfall you just had to be near, or you’re continually being shaken from your slumber by wind. To save any camper regret, it’s best to put some thought into the options before you unpack everything and get comfy for the night.
Location, location, location
The easiest way to find campsites that work is to pick one that’s already established. Sometimes that’s obvious (tent pads, packed gravel), sometimes less so (a well-worn square of dirt, a clearing lined with the odd fallen log or rock ”table”). If it’s there, use it. Apart from being a tried and tested good bet, it also funnels camper traffic into select areas and avoids further degradation of the bush.
Avoid setting up right next to others. Most people are out there to commune with nature and get a little peace and quiet so don’t sit on top of them. You’ll also appreciate not sharing in their noises (snoring, talking, etc) The bigger the camping area, the more space you can afford to give.
Don’t block lines of access or passage around camping areas, and if there’s a fire pit, set up far enough away that floating embers can’t reach the flimsy walls of your tent. Also avoid camping too close to a toilet too where you might catch wafts of odour.
Wide open spaces aren’t ideal so opt for something with some kind of shelter. Wind is the first obvious challenge to combat so try to find a natural wind break like low bushes or large boulders to hide behind. Orient your tent to deflect any strong gusts and ensure the door faces away from the wind.
Mountain tops, cliff tops and high points can be tempting for their views but they’re rarely a good choice. You’re super exposed to the elements here, and remember that weather changes; what might seem like the perfect spot when you arrive can become a wind-battered nightmare a few hours later. Also, you don’t want to risk falling off a cliff or tripping over rocks when staggering to the loo in the middle of the night.
Avoid setting up in direct sunlight (unless it’s cold and you welcome the heat) because tents quickly turn into ovens with too much attention from that ball of fire in the sky.
Trees are another obvious source of shelter but there are factors to consider…
Dangers from above
A little natural tree canopy is good - it offers shelter from wind and rain and can reduce dew and condensation because the air is generally a little warmer here. Bushy kind of trees with thin branches and a low canopy are best. Avoid, however, pitching under big trees with massive branches. Gum trees are particularly prone to dropping limbs without warning (they’re not called widow-makers for nothing). Always look up and see if there is anything big and heavy hovering over your proposed site, from branches to basket ferns or unstable rocky cliffs that might become dislodged and crash down on you in the night. Look for tell-tale signs on the ground like lots of loose rock or fallen branches and give those areas a wide berth.
The lie of the land
A little slope is ok – it can help drain rainwater away from your tent - but if you are forced to settle for anything other than level, make sure you align yourself perpendicular to it with your head at the higher end. Any other angle and you risk you and your belongings sliding into a corner by 2am which is not only uncomfortable but you’ll also end up touching the sides of the tent which leaves you prone to moisture ingress. Also avoid pitching in a hollow or ‘bowl’ in the ground where water might accumulate after rain - you don’t want to wake up in a puddle.
The land beneath you
Pitch on dry, smooth and even ground if you can. Grass, sand and soft dirt makes the comfiest base. Sometimes you’ll have to work with what’s available and it might not be ideal but if you can avoid rocks and the ripples of tree roots, do so. Kick away any big sticks and rocks but you won’t need to get too precious about the smaller stuff unless you have a really thin mattress. Bear in mind that you need to be able to get your tent pegs comfortably in the dirt too so rock-hard earth isn’t ideal.
Give animals their space. You don’t want to worry or disturb them, or deter them from carrying out their usual lives. Don’t park up next to a wombat hole. If you’re wild camping in a place that doesn’t see many people, bear in mind that kangaroos can get quite territorial. It goes without saying that you want to avoid pitching your tent in places crawling with ants or buzzing with wasps, and in croc country, don’t camp too close to water. Consider what animals live where you are camping and give them space. It's their home.
We’ll always choose to camp near water if it’s an option – after all, lakes and rivers areas are beautiful plus they make sourcing water for drinking and washing easy. Bear in mind though that water acts like a natural air conditioner, cooling any air flowing across it, which is fine in hot weather but may be unwelcome in cold conditions. Also, don’t camp so close to water sources that you risk contaminating them.
Observe any ‘high tide’ marks around lakes or coastal areas and keep your tent well above them. Never camp in a riverbed unless it’s one of those that flows twice a year and there hasn’t been any rain anywhere near the place for months (such as you might encounter on the deserts of the Larapinta Trail).
Pitch wisely and sleep well.
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