The 4 W’s of Wilderness Campsite Selection

by Todd Walker

Ah, the smell of wood smoke on flannel shirts in the morning! You nurse a cup of joe as the campfire licks a pan of bacon. Your dog watches your every move hoping you’ll share. Tonight’s dinner will be rainbow trout from a mountain stream… thanks to your skills with a fly rod. The scene takes you back to days of classic camping!

The 4 W’s of Wilderness Campsite Selection |

Rainbow trout on a fly rod!

Pre-planning your camping trip was easy. You left a written itinerary with a trusted friend in case you don’t return on time. Everything is shaping up to be a trip of a lifetime!

But did you pick a safe spot for your shelter? Choose poorly, and your adventure could turn ugly.

Here are four tips to help you select the right spot to bed down.


A.) Wind

Set your shelter to take advantage of the prevailing wind direction for the area. In places that allow open fires, shelters should be set so as to allow wind to pass between your shelter and campfire. Check regulations at state and national parks before heading out.

For cold-weather camping, avoid ridges or hilltops. Remember that cold air settles and hot air rises. Ideally, you should locate your shelter somewhere between the ridge and bottom of a hill. Position your shelter door/opening in a southeastern direction to take advantage of radiant energy from the sun’s morning rays.

Somewhere in between a peek and valley, on as flat a piece of ground you can find, is what you’re after. Clear the ground of stick-ups and rocks if you plan to sleep on the ground. Avoid setting up over an indention. If it rains, you’ll understand why.

B.) Water

Choose a spot close to a water source. Not too close. Flash flooding can wash away your good times. Look for signs of previous flooding like debris in trees along side the stream or river bank. Creek bottoms tend to be soggy and insect magnets. Adjust your site accordingly.


C.) Wood

Look for an area with plenty of hanging dead limbs or fallen trees. Collect three times the amount of firewood you think you’ll need. It’s no fun at all to wake up cold in the middle of the night to scavenge for wood.

Living trees offer shade, canopy, and can serve as a natural wind break. Standing dead trees are to be avoided… always!

Which brings us to our last W…

D.) Widow Makers

Look up. Scan the tree canopy for dead limbs and trees. Your shelter is no match for a pine branch falling from 31 feet in the air. The same goes for loose rock ledges or possible rock slide paths. Be cautious about what Mother Nature has perched above you.

A local boy scout troop used my shelter last spring. Just up the creek, some of the boys set up camp in the dark under a dead pine tree. Fortunately, the rotting tree held firm. A few weeks later a minor wind storm snapped it in half and splattered the ground near where they had camped.

Paying attention to the 4 W’s will not only increase your safety and comfort, but will fill the family photo album with good memories. Now, get out there… and stay out!

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,


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Categories: Bushcraft, Camping, Preparedness, Self-reliance | Tags: , , | 18 Comments

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18 thoughts on “The 4 W’s of Wilderness Campsite Selection

  1. Pingback: The 4 W’s of Wilderness Campsite Selection | Modern Homesteader

  2. Susan Harnett

    Thanks Todd, nice one 🙂 best to DRG !


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  5. radarphos

    Once ran an outdoor, mountain top Camp in Blue Ridge Mtns on the Mason-Dixon Line (MD/PA), a mountain with significant copper type of mineralization in soil and rocks. When checking trails I would see large sections of the trees in the woods (between fifty to one-hundred feet in diameter) missing their tops. The trees included many small trunk diameter hardwood trees. It was like something came along and snapped off the tops of all these trees, leaving dead standing, but not deteriorated, tree trunks. That something was lightening strikes. Here is my hunch about why certain areas of the level-ground woods were struck by lightening. (1) Where the lightening struck had some underground ground-water feature that pooled water in that area, or that channeled ground water into an underground flowing run-off stream (and could be both an underground pond-pool with run-off). Running water underground creates a huge magnetic field that can reach hundreds of feet in diameter laterally as well as above the ground surface. This magnetic field can be a lightening magnet; and it is the basis that explains why some “water-witcher (dowsers)” were able to be successful finding underground water using two “L” shaped metal wires made from old clothes hangers, one held in each hand and pointing outward in a forward direction. They would walk along and wherever the two metal rods crossed (forming like an “X”), that is where they would dig a well for water (that is where the magnetic field caused by underground pooled or flowing water was significant. The rods indicated “the middle point” in the magnetic field that separates the two sides of the magnetic field. (2) These areas could also have had more copper-dust mineralization than other areas of the woods and especially where underground water might be moving. Several old timer campers (late 1800s, early 1900s) wrote at length, where to put a campsite to minimize the risk of a campsite being struck by lightening because lightening can strike and “run” along the ground (especially if wet), as well as bounce or ricochet off of boulders, etc. Its been known occasionally to travel down an open chimney and bounce off walls, seen by someone sitting on a couch in the fireplace room. CONCLUSION: an old metal clothes hanger now has 1 survival use (determining fi there is an underground spring under you tent. It could be bent and used to lift containers off a fire. Any more ideas?


    • radarphos

      I thought I would add that it was a rancher in Colorado that ‘tuned me in’ to underground magnetic fields. When I visited him he put two L rods (from old metal clothes hanger) into my hands (palming them) and had me walk forward twenty feet. Well, the crossed forming an “X”. He asked me if I knew why. I said, NO! He told me he had buried an old car under that spot years before. The rusting metal created a magnetic field and the rods remained X’d for ten steps.
      Now from a survival standpoint it could be beneficial to have way to find underground water (for drinking) and/or even metal (such as from a long-gone dumpsite) for finding anything usable (containers, dishware, material for tools, for arrow tips, maybe an old axe head, etc.). If you study history long enough, you can learn how very old timers (1700s, 1800s) found all sorts of things in the ground that were not evident by seeing the ground surface. This also pertains to early Spanish explorers in America searching for metallic rock deposits (gold, silver, lead, etc.)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. radarphos

    David Canterbury mentions using metal rod materials (of various sorts, like 1/16th inch thick, firm but bendable rod) for hanging snares above ground for trapping small game animals. So now there are at least three good and different uses for that old metal clothes hanger: (1) water-witching (dowsing for underground water), (2) trapping when using snares, (3) finding underground dump sites (that have metal in them) for resources materials. (4) Site selection for camping in the woods (to minimize lightening strikes), a matter of personal security and safety. I would add that I once dowsed the magnetic field of a swift moving Colorado Mountain stream (about 20′ wide) with “L-rods”. I was still picking up the magnetic field (evident by the rods crossing and forming an “X” for about 100 feet, which suggests don’t camp nearby any moving water stream IF rainstorms are expected. Moving underground water creates immense friction energy in the ground that I believe contributes to the magnetic field.


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