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General Camping Guidelines

Joe Kegley

Selecting a campsite

  • Site should be level - You need a level site to pitch your tent to avoid rain runoff from collecting underneath the tent.

  • Avoid low spots - Even if your site is level, if it is the low spot in the area you have the potential for the tent to be in and surrounded by water after a heavy rain.

  • Site should be free of ground obstruction - You want the area where you pitch your tent to be as smooth as possible, no roots, sticks, or rocks. Some campgrounds provide a sand or pea stone area for tents.

    A tent pad (tarp) plus the tent floor is not enough to make road gravel comfortable. If that is all you have to work with, then find some mulch or pine needles to cover the area where your tent will be.

  • Site should be buffered for privacy - Look for a campsite that has vegetation for buffers between your selection and the other campsites. Also pay attention to the distance campsites are from each other.

  • Avoid sites near bathrooms, bathhouses, and garbage receptacles - While bathrooms are convenient to have close by, the pedestrian traffic, noise (slamming spring-loaded doors), and possibly the lights at night, could be a distraction from your camping experience. Campsites close to the bathrooms sometimes have make shift trails going through them that other campers use as shortcuts.

    The same applies to garbage containers. You don't want to hear the lids slamming all day and night so avoid campsites close to garbage receptacles.

  • Outer Loop versus Inner Loop - Many campgrounds are designed around a loop configuration, with campsites located on the outer and inner portions of the loop. Usually the bathrooms are located on the inner side of the loop to give the best available access to all campers.

    For more privacy and less pedestrian traffic, select a site on the outer loop. Many times the outer loop sites will be bordered by forest on the backside, as opposed to the inner loop sites which will be bordered by another camper or a bathhouse on the backside.

  • Avoid RV areas - If you camp near a motorhome, you have the potential to hear a generator running or maybe even a television blasting. Some campgrounds offer "no generator" loops and/or a "tents only" area. Select those when possible.

  • Summer - If you wish to avoid children then don't camp at developed sites when the kids are out of school. Basically avoid the summer months.

  • Holidays - If you wish to avoid crowds then don't plan on camping during the holidays. If you don't have a problem with crowds then be sure to arrive very early if you are trying to obtain a "first come first serve" site. In fact I would suggest going the day before a holiday weekend starts. You are not the only one thinking about camping during the holiday. Reserve a site where possible.

Tent usage guidelines

  • Don't bring food in your tent - Food within your tent can lure uninvited guest into your living quarters. While most folks are concerned about attracting bears or raccoons, just wait until you have a swarm of ants in your tent.

  • Don't have any flame in the tent - Don't have any flame in your tent Including but not limited to: candles, lanterns, stoves, heaters. In addition to the fire danger there is also the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning.

  • Remove shoes before entering the tent - For cleanliness and tent life reasons, remove boots or shoes before entering the tent. Your boots, dirt, and small rock particles, can wear on the floor.

  • Outside the tent - Watch out for the tent pegs and/or guide lines when walking around the outside tent area.

Going Solo?

  • Ditch the hot meals - While outdoor cooking and the resulting camaraderie is one of the great pleasures of camping, if you are going solo then there's not much camaraderie to it. With no one else to help, food preparation/cooking can take time away from being in the field observing and photographing wildlife.

    The morning and evening meals are especially critical due to the fact that some of the best light for photography occurs during that time. As a photographer you will not want to miss the morning or evening light being stuck at the campsite preparing/cooking/cleaning up a meal.

    With that said, one way to avoid the time constraints is to avoid hot meals altogether. Take milk and cold cereal for breakfast, sandwiches (bread, luncheon meat, cheese, and condiments) for lunch and dinner. All my solo trips are planned with cold meals in mind.

    If you really want to get out the stove, then takes some canned stews or chili. Not much prep time for those. Avoid foods that take a lot of preparation or cooking time when going solo.


For most car campers in the Southeast, especially those camping at lower elevations during the late spring thru the early fall months, clothing will be more of a matter of comfort than survival as long as they have some rain gear. Those who choose to camp during colder seasons, or at higher altitudes, should pay more attention to their selection of dress. Realize even in the summer months one can get hypothermia.

Before we go further it will be good to note that the process of perspiration evaporating draws heat from your body into the air. This is a good thing when you are overheated and need to cool off.

If you are trying to stay warm and the layer of clothing against your body is wet from sweat or rain, the evaporation of the moisture will draw heat from your body into the air. In this case evaporation has an adverse effect on your temperature regulation and can be quite dangerous.

Types of fabric and their insulation characteristics include the following:

  • Cotton - Cotton is one of the most comfortable fabrics around. Since cotton fabric breathes so well and is a great moisture absorbent, cotton works very well cooling your body. Cotton is a good fabric for warm weather when you are trying to stay cool..

    Cotton is probably the worst fabric to have against your skin if you are trying to stay warm. The absorption of moisture from your skin into the cotton fabric takes heat away from your body. In addition, the process of evaporation of the moisture in the cotton also contributes to heat loss.

    During cold weather you want a material against your skin that will "wick" moisture away from your body into another layer, not an absorbent material like cotton.

  • Wool - Wool fibers conduct heat poorly making the fabric a great insulator for cold weather. Wool even insulates when it is wet. Wool is heavier than cotton and requires more care when laundering.

  • Polypropylene - This synthetic fabric is very popular for cold weather undergarments. Polypropylene will wick moisture away from your body, transporting the water to the next layer of clothing. This rids you of the concern of evaporation taken place against your skin. Polypropylene is relatively inexpensive and a good value.

  • Other Synthetics - Synthetic fabrics known as fleece, pile, and some blends, conduct even less heat than wool making them an ideal choice for thermal insulation. They are also much lighter than wool.

The key to managing your temperature during cold weather is to dress in layers with the appropriate fabric.

A three layer system consisting of a base layer, an insulation layer, and an outer protective layer, is standard protocol for outdoor activity in cold environments.

  • Base layer - The primary intent of this layer (undergarments) is to wick moisture away from your body. Snug fitting long sleeved tops and long pants made of polypropylene are popular.

  • Insulation layer - The insulation section may be made up of a single layer or a couple of layers of clothing. The goal here is to prevent heat loss by adding dead air space as well as aiding in the removal of moisture coming through the base layer.

    Wool, fleece, pile, down or synthetic fill, are common choices. One advantage of using multiple layers is that you can remove one at a time as the temperature warms, or add as the temperature cools.

  • Protective layer - This layer's job is to protect you from the outside elements. It should be windproof and water resistant. You want the material to breathe and allow your personal moisture to escape, but not let outside moisture in. Some Gore-Tex products can fulfill this role.

Don't forget your hat, gloves, socks and shoes. As with other cold weather clothing, socks, hats, and gloves, should be synthetic or wool (not cotton).


Having a campfire is not a necessity or a given right when camping. Unlike days gone by when a fire was necessary for providing warmth, light, and a means of cooking, those same functions can now be performed with the proper clothing and shelter, a lantern, and a stove.

With that said, nothing can beat the romantic atmosphere of sitting around a campfire, whether using it for cooking or a center piece for gathering. For some, it is an embedded tradition to the point of which they are not really camping unless there is a campfire.

Common campfire guidelines include:

  • Know the fire regulations and/or restrictions - Research before you take your trip to make sure they allow campfires. Some areas allow campfires at your discretion, other public lands put restrictions on where you can build a campfire, some areas may have seasonal restrictions depending on the weather or drought conditions, other areas may not allow a campfire under any conditions.

  • Use an existing fire ring or fire pit - There's no reason to scorch the ground or rock at a second location if a fire area already exist at the campsite.

  • Make sure fire is away from any shelter - If building your own fire ring, make sure the area is 10 - 20 ft from any shelter, depending on the desired size of the fire.

  • Choose a clear area - If building your own fire ring, choose a site that is clear from debris or vegetation, including overhanging branches.

  • No bonfires - There's no reason to make a teenage bonfire. You want something you can cook on and sit around, not have to stand 20 ft from.

  • Only burn wood products - Glass does not burn, aluminum foil does not burn, tin cans do not burn, and plastic does not burn or when it does it releases toxic chemicals. Don't use the fire as a garbage dump. The next camper will appreciate it.

  • Don't leave a fire unattended - Make sure the fire is extinguished before leaving the area or going to bed. When all the wood has burned down to coals or ash, spread out the coals and dash on enough water to extinguish the fire.

  • Firewood Sources

    • Downed Wood - If gathering wood at the campsite, use only wood already dead and lying on the ground. One should understand that most campgrounds are not going to have much downed wood, folks have already scavenged it.

      Proper etiquette would involve gathering wood away from the campsite or campground so an not to diminish the wilderness experience for others.

    • Bring your own wood - An alternative for car campers would be to bring your own wood.

      Realize a few campgrounds do not allow outside wood to be brought in due to the possibility of spreading diseases, fungus, or insects, that might be detrimental to the health of the trees in the area. For instance Cades Cove (Smoky Mountains National Park) bans firewood from the following states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin as well as the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

    • Purchase firewood at the campground - Some campgrounds furnish firewood for purchase (such as Cades Cove).

Food Storage

  • Dry goods - Boxed edibles should be removed from their boxes and stored in a Ziploc bag to conserve space prior to traveling. Typical items might include cereal, snack crackers, or even a box of granola bars. Basically anything that came in a box makes a good candidate for putting into a Ziploc bag. A Ziploc is also a good choice for powdered items like flour.

  • Cooler

    • Use Block Ice - In addition to (or instead of) crushed ice, be sure to include some block ice. Block ice takes longer to melt. Freeze plastic bottles of water from single serving up to gallon jug size to use as your block ice.

    • Pre-chill items - Refrigerate or freeze all items that will go into the cooler before the trip. In fact, it would be a good idea to pre-chill the cooler too, throw in some ice the night before the trip.

    • Keep the lid open only as long as necessary - When retrieving items for consumption be sure to close the cooler lid when done to preserve the cold.

    • Keep cooler in the shade - When possible keep the cooler in the shade at the campground. If you keep the cooler in your vehicle, then keep the vehicle in the shade.

    • Don't drain melted ice water - Don't drain melted ice water unless you are getting ready to refill with ice. The melted ice water will continue to keep items cold better than the empty air space.

  • Leave food in vehicle - When not actively preparing or eating food, store the cooler and dry goods in your vehicle. This is especially true for areas in the Southeast that have reasonable black bear and raccoon populations.

    Some campgrounds such as Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park require tent campers to store food in their vehicle. If food is found unattended then it is confiscated and a possible fine levied.

Insect Bite Prevention

The following are guidelines specific to mosquitoes, ticks, and flies (black flies/gnats/no-see-ums, deer flies, yellow flies, horse flies).

Ticks can carry Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. North Carolina has some of the highest occurrences of Rocky Mountain spotted fever in the US. Mosquitoes can transport West Nile virus.

  • Keep your body covered - Wear loose fitting long pants, a long sleeve short, socks, and a hat, to minimize areas that can be bitten. Realize that the fabric of a t-shirt can be bitten through by mosquitoes, especially at the area where it hangs against the shoulders and is close to the skin.

  • Tuck in shirt and stuff pant legs into socks - For added tick protect in areas with heavy infestation one should tuck their shirt into their pants and stuff pant legs into their socks.

  • Do frequent tick checks - Throughout the day check your clothing for ticks. Wearing light colored clothing makes spotting a tick easier.

  • Avoid setting up camp next to areas with stagnant water or close to a salt marsh - They are fine to visit, but you'll want your campsite to be a reprieve from the insect nuisance of mosquitoes or flies.

  • Treat clothing with permethrin - Permethrin is an insecticide/insect repellent that works well on clothing. The chemical is very effective killing ticks and mosquitoes. It does not work well on skin, contact causes it to become deactivated within a few minutes.

    Per the Center for Disease Control (CDC), permethrin-treated clothing is effective for up to 5 washings.

    Post-application exposure of permethrin treated clothing is considered below the EPA's non-cancer and cancer LOCs (Levels of Concern).

    Permethrin is highly toxic to both freshwater and estuarine aquatic organisms. Permethrin is also highly toxic to honeybees.

    I can't personally advocate the use of this product due to the environmental concerns. I might possibly consider it in an extreme environment heavily infested with mosquitoes, but not regular use.

  • Treat skin with DEET - From personal experience, DEET works great against mosquitoes and ticks. Deer flies and gnats are another story. I've only had limited success preventing molestation from deer flies or black flies/gnats using DEET.

    Recommended concentration for adults is 30 - 50%, which should be effective for several hours. Some adults wear higher concentrations. Children should use much lower concentrations.

    While DEET sprayed on cotton or nylon appears to be ok, one should be weary about using it on other synthetic fabrics. DEET is a solvent and may dissolve plastics, acetate, rayon, spandex, or leather.

  • Apply Sunscreen first, then insect repellent - Allow the sunscreen to soak into the skin before applying insect repellent.

  • Wash insect repellent from skin - At the end of the day be sure to bathe or shower to remove the insect repellent. Do you really want to keep a solvent such as DEET, which can melt some plastics/synthetics, on your skin for a long time?

  • Alternative Insect Repellents - Citronella has long been used as a mosquito repellent, though most would agree it is not as effective as DEET. Most "all natural" insect repellents I have tried are usually not as effective or don't work at all.

Bathroom Activities

  • Toilet Paper - Always bring some toilet paper on your camping adventures, even when staying at a full facility campground with flushing toilets. During peak seasons, staff may have problems keeping up with changing empty rolls. It's always better to be prepared for a situation like that.

  • Catholes - If you aren't staying at a developed campsite with flushing toilets or a primitive site with composting toilets, then you are going to need an alternative place to "go".

    Outside of packing your human waste to take with you, which some areas do require, catholes are the most widely accepted means of disposing human waste out in the wild.

    Catholes should be located at least 200 ft (70 adult steps) from the nearest water source, campsite, or trail. To create your cathole use a small shovel or trowel to dig a hole 6 - 8 inches deep and 4 - 6 inches wide. When finished, cover the hole with the extracted earth and disguise with natural materials.

  • Tampons and sanitary napkins - Tampons and sanitary napkins should never be buried. They should be placed in plastic bags and packed out if camping in wilderness areas.

  • Urine - Generally speaking urine has little effect on the environment, feel free to pee in the woods when appropriate.

  • Outdoor Bathing/Showering - When using biodegradable soap, shower 200 ft from the nearest water source. Do not bathe with any kind of soap in a stream or lake.

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