Mountain climbers don't always set up camp in the most comfortable places. They may walk right past an idyllic spot in the forest in favor of a windy mountain ledge because that puts them closer to the summit. What other reasons might there be for picking a particular campsite? Because it's comfortable? Scenic? Environmentally sound? Sometimes you can have it all, but at other times you need to give a little to help preserve the wilderness.
Let's look at camps from the standpoint of the wilderness to see which sites are least damaging to the environment. From best to worst, they are:
Snow: The snow will melt and show no sign of your tenancy.
Rock slab: Solid rock resists most damaging effects of a campsite.
Sandy, dirt, or gravelly flat: This is the next-best choice.
Open, plant-sparse area in deep forest: This is less ideal than the first three choices.
Grass-covered meadow above timberline:
Meadows above timberline have a brief growing season and are the most fragile of mountain ecosystems. A tent left on a grass-covered meadow for a week can wipe out an entire growing season for the covered patch. Moving a long-term camp every few days reduces the harm to any one spot.
Plant-covered meadow above timberline: Alpine plants grow very slowly. Heathers, for example, have only a couple of months to bloom, seed, and add a fraction of an inch of growth. They could take years to recover from the damage of a brief encampment.
Waterfront: Waterside plant life is especially delicate and water pollution is a growing problem as more people head into the backcountry. A large proportion of long-established campsites in American mountains are on the banks of lakes and streams, but many areas now ban camping within 200 feet of the water.
In general, you want to honestly visualize the impact of any campsite. Camp away from water, meadows, trails, and other campers. Look for a resilient, naturally bare site. Try to find a spot that has just the right natural slope so you won't have to level it or dig channels for drainage. If there happens to be an established campsite far enough back from a water source, use it rather than setting up a new one.
From the standpoint of comfort, wind is a big consideration in choosing a campsite. You will find that alpine breezes are capricious. An up-slope afternoon breeze may reverse at night to an icy down-slope draft from snowfields. Cold air, heavier than warm air, flows downward during settled weather, following valleys and collecting in depressions. Thus there is often a chill breeze down a creek or dry wash and a pool of cold air in a basin. Night air is often several degrees cooler near a river or lake than on the knolls above.
Consider wind direction in pitching your tent. It can be a good idea to face an opening into the wind so that wind blowing in will distend the tent, equalizing interior and exterior pressure and minimizing tent flapping. But alpine winds are reversible without warning. One consolation of foul weather is that storm winds are fairly consistent.
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