Mountain Camping Doesn’t Have To Be an Uphill Battle

Hiker enjying the view at his red tent in the mountains near Chamonix, France.

Key Points

  • Before trekking into the wilderness, learn some crucial tips for camping in the mountains such as looking for a flat area that is protected from the wind and free of obstacles.

  • To ensure comfort and safety while camping in the mountains, pack the right gear including a sturdy tent, a footprint, guylines, a sleeping pad, and a sleeping bag.

  • Practice setting up your tent at home, double-check your packing list and site access, and let someone know your location and plans when camping on a hill or in the mountains.

More than 8.3 million Americans had their first camping trip in 2021, according to the 2022 Camping Report. That means that roughly 20 percent of U.S. residents camped out that year. It’s invigorating and exciting to see more people pushing themselves to enjoy time outdoors and in the mountains. There are few things more cleansing and healing than a good, old-fashioned breath of fresh air. 

Spending time outside is also known to have a positive impact on your mental health. The Campspot Outdoor Almanac found that 96 percent of campers say that camping improves their mental health. Most people assume camping in the mountains means setting up camp at the bottom of a hill and staying there for the duration. That is certainly one option, but sometimes your ideal campsite may be on top of a hill or even on a slope. There may be a better view or greater access to water. Don't be deterred by the hill or slope. There's a lot you can do to level out your site and still have an amazing and memorable camping experience. The following tips for camping in the mountains will help you have the most fulfilling and fun trip possible.

Planning and Preparation

Much of an enjoyable camping experience comes down to planning and preparation. Double-check your packing list, the weather, and your site access. Most importantly, always, always let someone know where you’re going and for how long. This is the best and smartest safety measure you can take. 

When going to a new site, the terrain may not be as level or even as you might like, but part of being out in mother nature is adapting and rolling with the punches. Nature is unpredictable. That’s part of the appeal and beauty of it. If you wanted dull, drab, and mundane, you would've stayed home.

If you want a different "slant" on camping, consider following these tips on how to make camping on a hill or slope manageable, fun, and safe. 

Backcountry hiker crosses river in mountains

Practice Setting Up Your Tent

To make sure your time in the wild is everything you hoped it would be, try setting up your tent in your backyard or another flat surface. This gives you a chance to get familiar with how to put up your tent and make sure all the poles and stakes are in good condition before you head out for your trip. Doing this at home will save time and frustration when you’re on the hillside trying to set up camp. 

This practice session also guarantees you have all the gear you need to safely and efficiently set up your tent.

Choose Your Spot Wisely

The first step in successfully camping on a hill is choosing your spot wisely. When you're looking for the perfect place to pitch your tent, make sure you look at the terrain carefully. Look for rocks or roots that could create uncomfortable sleeping spots. Be alert to slopes or dips in the ground that might result in water runoff if it rains. Choose an area that is relatively flat and free of obstacles. Clear away any debris or sticks before pitching your tent.

You want a flat campsite that is protected from the wind and is not threatened by potential landslides or rockfalls. Don't set up your tent on a severe slope because it could be unstable and difficult to sleep on.

Pack the Right Gear

Being comfortable and safe when camping on a hill involves many things, but packing the right gear tops the list.

Your tent doesn’t need to be the most expensive or fanciest. It simply needs to protect you from the elements.

A sleeping pad provides insulation and cushioning between you and the ground, making it more comfortable to sleep on a slope. Look for a pad with a high R-value, which measures the pad's ability to insulate.

A sleeping bag with a hood keeps you warm by trapping body heat. This is especially important when sleeping on a hill, as the cold air may flow down the slope and chill you. You may need an air mattress or foam pad for extra comfort while sleeping on uneven terrain.

The bottom of your tent takes a beating when you go camping. This is true in the best of times and locations, and even more so in remote settings like a hillside. You can protect the bottom of your tent with either a tent footprint or a tarp.

A tent footprint fits directly and perfectly underneath your tent and acts as a waterproof ground cloth. It protects the tent from moisture and wear and tear and also helps keep it level on uneven terrain.

Backcountry hiker with trekking poles on mountain

There’s an age-old discussion about whether a footprint or tarp works best. It’s a personal preference. There's no right or wrong answer. Do what works best for you. 

Don’t forget your guylines. Guylines are cords that run from the tent to nearby anchor points and help keep the tent taut and stable. Use guylines to secure the tent to nearby trees, rocks, or other stable objects. These aren’t necessary when sleeping on a flat surface, but when setting up camp on a hill, they offer you that extra security you need. 

Double-check your bag for a first aid kit, a map, a headlamp, and a compass.

Mountain weather can be unpredictable, so it's important to be prepared for any conditions. Check the forecast before your trip and bring appropriate clothing and gear.

Other essentials include weather-ready clothing, a water bottle, food & water supplies, a solo camping stove, bug spray, several pairs of hiking socks, hiking boots, sunscreen, a toiletry kit, a map, and a quick-dry towel.

Some campers prefer a bivy sack to a tent. A bivy sack is a small, waterproof shelter that fits over your sleeping bag. This gives you some exposure to the great outdoors while still providing some level of warmth and protection from the elements. 

Using a bivy sack can make it easier to camp on a hill because there is less setup. However, this is not recommended for new and lesser-experienced campers.

Use Adjustable Stakes

Tent stakes will help anchor your tent to the ground and keep it from blowing away. Make sure to use enough stakes to secure all parts of the tent.

When setting up tents on uneven terrain like hillsides, adjustable stakes come in handy. You can adjust them by turning them clockwise or counterclockwise to get rid of any extra slack or tension in the guy lines. This keeps them tight against the ground even if there are small changes in elevation from one side of your tent to another. This also prevents wear and tear from the tent fabric flapping in the wind.

Group of campers enjoy a fire at a mountain campsite

Level Your Tent

Once you've chosen your spot and cleared away any debris, it's time to level your tent.

Follow the manufacturer's instructions when assembling the tent. Once fully assembled, use a small level to check for any unevenness.

If the tent is not level, adjust the tent stakes and guy lines as needed. Use additional tent stakes and guy lines to hold the tent in place and level it off. If necessary, use a small tarp or other material to create a level surface for the tent.

Test the level of the tent by lying inside and checking for any unevenness. Make any required adjustments to the stakes and guy lines.

Inside the tent, use sandbags or rocks around each corner of your tent to keep it securely in place. If there's more than one person in the tent, assign a camper to each corner for extra security!  

Be Prepared for Weather Changes

When camping in higher elevations, especially in cold weather, be prepared for sudden temperature drops and even snowfall. Have a plan in place on how you will handle any situation that may arise. For example, always have at least two sources of warmth — blankets, sleeping bags, thick socks — handy just in case temperatures drop unexpectedly overnight.

Don't forget to waterproof not just your tent but also all of your gear with either wax-based coatings or specialty sprays designed specifically for this purpose. If your gear gets wet, especially if it's cold, it's hard to dry it quickly.

Plan for what you know; prepare for what you don't.

Backcountry mountain campsite

Follow "Leave No Trace" Principles

Leave No Trace principles encourage responsible outdoor behavior by promoting conservation and minimizing impacts on the environment. Leave the land better than when you found it. This includes packing out all trash, respecting wildlife, and staying on designated trails to prevent erosion or destruction of natural species.

Don’t build a fire if you can’t do it safely, don’t leave trash behind, and don’t carve your initials into a tree. If you’re wondering whether it’s allowed or not, play it safe and don’t risk it. There's no Planet B, so it's important to protect the earth that exists.

Mountain environments are home to a variety of wildlife, so it's important to be respectful and avoid disturbing them. Keep a safe distance and do not feed the animals. This is also a good reason not to throw your food scraps in the woods. It disrupts the ecosystem. Pack up your trash and toss it when you get to a dumpster.

Building a Campfire

There’s nothing better than the warmth and crackle of a campfire. And there would be nothing worse than burning down a forest.

Before you build a campfire, make sure it's allowed in the area where you're camping. Some parks and forests have strict fire restrictions in place due to dry conditions or other factors.

Look for a flat, clear area away from any overhanging branches or other flammable materials. Make sure the fire pit is at least 15 feet away from your tent and any other structures. Clear away any leaves or twigs from around the fire pit.

You'll need dry, seasoned wood for fuel, as well as smaller twigs and kindling to help get the fire started. It's also a good idea to bring a small bucket of water and a shovel to extinguish the fire when you're done.

Start by arranging the smaller twigs and kindling in the center of the fire pit, and then build a small teepee structure around it using larger sticks and branches. Once the fire is lit, add logs as needed to keep it going, but be careful not to overcrowd the fire pit.

The most important part of making and enjoying a fire is to properly extinguish it. Use the bucket of water and shovel to completely douse the embers and ashes. Make sure the fire is completely out and cool to the touch before you leave the area.

Backcountry mountain campsite

Stay Safe

When camping in the mountains, always take necessary safety precautions. Bring enough supplies for the trip. Be aware of any potential hazards in the area, including wild animals. Remember, it doesn't have to be a bear, cougar, or wolf to be dangerous. Raccoons, possums, and other smaller critters might look cuddly, but they are also wild animals.

It's also important to stay hydrated and keep an eye out for signs of altitude sickness, such as nausea and dizziness. Camping in the mountains can be physically demanding, so it's important to be realistic about your abilities and take breaks as needed. Don't push yourself too hard. Always be prepared for emergencies. 

Pushing yourself too hard and lack of preparation are the two quickest ways to find yourself in trouble out in the wild. Prepare for your outing by building the right muscles and skills for all you want and need to do.

Have Fun!

After a long hike and hard work in setting up your tent and campsite, it's time for some fun.

One of the best ways to have fun while camping is to set out on a trail and discover what the area has to offer. Look for trails that lead to a scenic overlook or summit, where you can take in panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.

See if you can catch your dinner by fishing in a mountain stream. The clear, cold streams that flow through the mountains are home to a variety of fish, including trout, bass, and more. Be sure you have a fishing license for the area where you are camping.

Go birding. You’ll want to bring a pair of binoculars to get a closer look at the birds, as well as a field guide to help you identify them. You may also want to bring a camera to capture photos of the birds you see. Be patient. Birds can be tricky to spot, so keep your eyes and ears open. Look and listen for movement and sounds that might indicate the presence of a bird.

Thoughtfully observe the world around you with a nature walk. The mountains are home to an incredible variety of plant and animal life, so take some time to explore and observe the local flora and fauna. You might see birds, mammals, reptiles, and more, depending on where you're camping.

At night, you can (and should) stargaze. Away from the bright lights of the city, the mountains offer some of the best stargazing opportunities you'll find. On a clear night, lay on your back and look up at the sky. You'll be able to see constellations, shooting stars, and other celestial objects in greater detail than you would in more urban areas.

Backcountry campsite in the mountains

Embrace the Mountainous Adventure

Actor Michael Steger probably hit the nail on the head when he said, "A perfect day would be to get into the car, drive to Yosemite and go camping."

Create a perfect day for yourself by experiencing nature in the mountains. Camping on a hill doesn't have to be intimidating or scary. With proper preparation, packing, and safety measures in place, you can have an amazing experience.

Remember to test your gear before you go and check your route, gear list, and weather forecast so you can plan for everything you need. All you have to do now is grab some friends or family members and get ready for an unforgettable adventure in nature!

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