Backcountry campsite selection - opinions please

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McKee80

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Hi,

I was hoping for some opinions more experienced than mine. I'm working on a pet coding project. I wanted to create a mapping website that marks backcountry campsites and has a little information about them.

I haven't been backpacking very long, but when I backpacked in Glacier this year, it got me to thinking about campsite use. Glacier requires that you stay in designated areas (2-6 pads holding 2 tents each, a food prep area, and a pit toilet). It seems to me that as far as LNT principles of campsite selection goes, durable/impacted surfaces takes priority over distance from water, distance from the trail, etc. For example, a couple of the tent pads in Glacier that I stayed in were no more than 60 feet from a lake. The places I've been locally and a trip to the Sierras felt a lot less remote and wild (even though I typically see less people than I did in Glacier) and my theory is that is because in Glacier, outside of the mandatory campsites, there are very very few traces of humans.

So, I thought it would be a good thing (maybe it isn't, I don't know) to let people planning a trip know where already impacted sites are located. That way, they have other options before plopping down in some vegetation. Especially if they can download waypoints into their GPS. When they are done hiking for the day, they can see what is around. Sometimes the last thing people want to do after hiking 8 hours is to hunt around for a campsite. I know when I was at Thousand Island Lake, I ran into a guy who showed me a site I never would have found and it was aweseome. Basically, the goal would be to make it easier for people to use impacted sites rather than creating new ones. That seems to be a guiding principle for at least some national parks and public land.

Am I missing something? I don't want to encourage something that is a bad idea. And I know everyone on here is more knowledgeable than I am, so any opinions are welcome!

Thanks,
Sean
 

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Parma

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#2
The idea is good and I know I've tried to zoom in on google maps searching for sites and always ask people that have been to the area before to see where the good sites are located.
But don't expect people to give up their really good sites that are lesser known/off the beaten path.
 

Nick

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#3
I don't think it's a good idea to start marking sites that aren't actually designated sites by the land managers. Even if they aren't high use areas now, they'll be more likely to become it then. People will shoot for that spot because to them it will then be designated and sometimes people will already be there (possibly because of the designation), so it will start expanding and be worse than if you just plopped down in the grass somewhere. Different for every situation, but generally speaking I think it's not a good thing to do.
 
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#4
Especially in wilderness areas, if an area starts to suffer impacts due to concentrated use, the managers will close the area to camping. This does vary by wilderness area somewhat. Therefore, in wilderness areas, I think it's best to let people find their own spot to camp, rather than letting them know there's a great spot "ahead", and ending up with concentrated use and accelerated future impacts.
 

LarryBoy

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#5
That's an excellent and thoughtful question and I'm glad it's being raised! TL;DR - I'm with O'fool and Nick here. Probably not a good idea to concentrate impact where land managers haven't deemed it necessary. A brief anecdote as support:

Many long-distance hikers use a family of apps called "Atlas Guides" (popularly known as Guthook for reasons that escape me) on America's popular long-distance hiking trails. The Appalachian Trail has a Guthook app. So does the Pacific Crest Trail, the Arizona Trail, etc etc. On these mapping apps, hikers can leave comments on water sources, confusing trail junctions, and yes, even mark down where good campsites are.

Anyhoo, a couple years ago, at least one of the land managers along the Pacific Crest Trail actually reached out to the makers of the app - and asked them to disable the "tag a campsite" functionality. Long-distance hiking trails are increasing in popularity, and having everyone camp in the same places was causing too big of an impact on the land. The Atlas Guide folks are apparently pretty upstanding people and were happy to make the updates.

All of this to say: every speck of public land in the US is the responsibility of some local, state, or federal agency. And it's their perogative, not mine, to determine whether the area is best served by dispersed camping (say, random campsites in the High Uintas) or regulated backcountry sites (say, in Glacier NP). If we employ technology in a way that causes users to "bunch up" when the land managers have already determined that the best way to care for the land and for visitor experience is to have dispersed camping, we are short-circuiting their efforts.

On a more pragmatic note - the quickest way to get additional red tape and restrictions on backcountry usage? Increase visitor impact in beautiful places. If we don't spread out the impact in less-popular backcountry areas, those once-less-popular areas will become more popular, and lead to permits, quotas, camping zones, or even specific site restrictions.
 
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#6
One thing that I think would be cool is having comments on established backcountry campsites in the NPS system, e.g.

Yellowstone NP Backcountry Sites:

1G3 (Gardner River): Sheltered site tucked in the spruce trees. Cold site and heavily shaded, slow to warm up after cold nights. No view of surrounding area.

1G4 (Upper Gardner River): Next to dry meadow. It is open to the sunrise and warms up in a hurry. Good views.

1G2: Located on east side of Gardner River. Can be difficult to find cutoff to 1G2 as several trails exist at stream crossing. Trail north to 1G2 is ~100 yards east of Gardner River. If necessary, follow river upstream to site.

Maybe this exists already in book form? It would be nice to have something to refer to easily on the inter tubes.
 

LarryBoy

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#7
One thing that I think would be cool is having comments on established backcountry campsites in the NPS system, e.g.

Yellowstone NP Backcountry Sites:

1G3 (Gardner River): Sheltered site tucked in the spruce trees. Cold site and heavily shaded, slow to warm up after cold nights. No view of surrounding area.

1G4 (Upper Gardner River): Next to dry meadow. It is open to the sunrise and warms up in a hurry. Good views.

1G2: Located on east side of Gardner River. Can be difficult to find cutoff to 1G2 as several trails exist at stream crossing. Trail north to 1G2 is ~100 yards east of Gardner River. If necessary, follow river upstream to site.

Maybe this exists already in book form? It would be nice to have something to refer to easily on the inter tubes.
I think we just need to have an "Ask Outdoor Fool Hour". At the very least, I'm sure PBS would air it at 3am.
 
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#8
"Ask an Idiot" may be more appropriate. Might do well on AM radio.

I will accept pay for doing the ground research for this. :)
 

LarryBoy

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"Ask an Idiot" may be more appropriate. Might do well on AM radio.

I will accept pay for doing the ground research for this. :)
Here's a philosophical quandry for ya... if you're currently standing on the Continental Divide itself, do you dial into the "West of the Rockies" line or the "East of the Rockies" line on Coast to Coast AM? Or do you have to call the Wildcard line?
 

McKee80

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Excellent! Thank you. This is the kind of conversation I was hoping for. I based my assumptions on what I saw on the LNT page: https://lnt.org/blog/selecting-campsite. But different ecosystems probably have different policies that are best for them and I'm not trying to say land managers are doing it wrong. LNT is maybe more general than I was interpreting it. And I probably was assuming that the dramatic increase in backpackers out there was ahead of the management curve.

Dolly Sods is one of my (kind of) local areas. Last time I was there, I ran into a group walking out because they couldn't find a campsite. Some would say that is a good thing, but I look at how much I've enjoyed starting to backpack and what I was talking about would have been helpful to them. People on Dolly Sods pages are always complaining and I thought it might be easier to maintain if use was concentrated a little more than it is.

I know there are books that do the same thing (Elizabeth Wenk's book on the JMT comes to mind) and web pages specific to certain areas. But maybe having a centralized location for them would do more harm than good. Truthfully, I probably wouldn't have gotten into backpacking without the internet. Resources like this page, and access to the people that contribute to it is what made backpacking accessible to me. It's a fine line between encouraging people to have wonderful experiences and contributing to the overuse problem.

Like I said, I'm no expert. I'll find another way to contribute to an activity that has given me a lot, maybe @Outdoor_Fool 's suggestion :)

Sean
 

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#11
That's an excellent and thoughtful question and I'm glad it's being raised! TL;DR - I'm with O'fool and Nick here. Probably not a good idea to concentrate impact where land managers haven't deemed it necessary. A brief anecdote as support:

Many long-distance hikers use a family of apps called "Atlas Guides" (popularly known as Guthook for reasons that escape me) on America's popular long-distance hiking trails. The Appalachian Trail has a Guthook app. So does the Pacific Crest Trail, the Arizona Trail, etc etc. On these mapping apps, hikers can leave comments on water sources, confusing trail junctions, and yes, even mark down where good campsites are.

Anyhoo, a couple years ago, at least one of the land managers along the Pacific Crest Trail actually reached out to the makers of the app - and asked them to disable the "tag a campsite" functionality. Long-distance hiking trails are increasing in popularity, and having everyone camp in the same places was causing too big of an impact on the land. The Atlas Guide folks are apparently pretty upstanding people and were happy to make the updates.

All of this to say: every speck of public land in the US is the responsibility of some local, state, or federal agency. And it's their perogative, not mine, to determine whether the area is best served by dispersed camping (say, random campsites in the High Uintas) or regulated backcountry sites (say, in Glacier NP). If we employ technology in a way that causes users to "bunch up" when the land managers have already determined that the best way to care for the land and for visitor experience is to have dispersed camping, we are short-circuiting their efforts.

On a more pragmatic note - the quickest way to get additional red tape and restrictions on backcountry usage? Increase visitor impact in beautiful places. If we don't spread out the impact in less-popular backcountry areas, those once-less-popular areas will become more popular, and lead to permits, quotas, camping zones, or even specific site restrictions.
I think Guthook was the trail name of the guy who started the company. Pretty sure he did the AT app himself and it ended up being really popular and he started paying through hikers to for info/updates to keep it updated. And then spread to other "long trails". I could be completely off base with all this, but I think that is the basic story :)
 
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#12
Excellent! Thank you. This is the kind of conversation I was hoping for. I based my assumptions on what I saw on the LNT page: https://lnt.org/blog/selecting-campsite. But different ecosystems probably have different policies that are best for them and I'm not trying to say land managers are doing it wrong. LNT is maybe more general than I was interpreting it. And I probably was assuming that the dramatic increase in backpackers out there was ahead of the management curve.

Dolly Sods is one of my (kind of) local areas. Last time I was there, I ran into a group walking out because they couldn't find a campsite. Some would say that is a good thing, but I look at how much I've enjoyed starting to backpack and what I was talking about would have been helpful to them. People on Dolly Sods pages are always complaining and I thought it might be easier to maintain if use was concentrated a little more than it is.

I know there are books that do the same thing (Elizabeth Wenk's book on the JMT comes to mind) and web pages specific to certain areas. But maybe having a centralized location for them would do more harm than good. Truthfully, I probably wouldn't have gotten into backpacking without the internet. Resources like this page, and access to the people that contribute to it is what made backpacking accessible to me. It's a fine line between encouraging people to have wonderful experiences and contributing to the overuse problem.

Like I said, I'm no expert. I'll find another way to contribute to an activity that has given me a lot, maybe @Outdoor_Fool 's suggestion :)

Sean
The Dolly Sods is an interesting example (at least to me since I am sort of familiar with the area). There are a ton of established sites, but some of them are loved to death on a nice summer weekend (looking at you Forks of the Red) and others are equally great, but much less impacted. Part of me is really happy to have everyone concentrate at the Forks if that means I get solitude on the Big Stonecoal trail. But the first time I ever hiked at Dolly Sods, it was hard to find information online and the only obvious site from reading online was at the Forks, so I ended up there with about 50 other people on a Friday night, not very wilderness :)

I'm happy to share some info if it will help spread people out a bit to other established sites, but I don't want a troop of boy scouts setting up camp right next to me either :) Not really sure of the answer, but it probably depends on the park/wilderness area. The Smokies are like Glacier and you have to camp in specific sites, some of them suck and some of them are great. Something along @Outdoor_Fool's idea would be a good start if you are just looking for a fun coding project.
 

Nick

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#13
Good discussion. I think there's a difference between making information super accessible to the masses vs. having to do a little homework like you do perusing trip reports and the like. Sites and apps for car camping have become pretty widespread, especially with the van life/RV boom. It's funny to look at a map of the southwest and see where they say the sites are. Hell, you don't even need to look at the map really. Drive out to Muley Point and look at the dozen people camped within 100 feet of each other at the non-official 'official' spot, then drive a half mile and have the rest of the area to yourself. So I get the idea of concentrating use on some areas to keep the rest more wild. Still don't like those apps.
 

Parma

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#14
I guess what I really look for are descriptions like in the Uintas book by the Probsts.
"Good sites are available on the northwest side of the east lake, but the west lake has limited campsites."
So not really Xs marking the spot, but info saying if an area is suitable to setup camp.
But searching that info via books or talking to actual people is really the fun of planning trips.
 

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