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The Rule of 200 Feet and Other Campsite Tips

Posted by Loren Drummond at Jul 15, 2013 08:00 AM |

Here are some rules and tips to follow when selecting a site and setting up camp.

You've hiked all day and you're ready to create a pop-up home for the night. Maybe you have the perfect backcountry campsite in mind. Maybe not. Maybe it's already been snagged by other hikers.

If you have to set up camp at the end of a day on trail, do you know what you're looking for? How well do you know your Leave No Trace principles?

Tips for planning ahead

Sometimes it is easiest to choose a camp location from the comfort of home. Hiking guidebooks (like Backpacking Washington, from The Mountaineers Press), WTA trip reports and National Forest or National Park websites and maps often suggest good camp locations, and let you know where campsites are either not recommended or are prohibited.

Try to plan your route and your intended campsites before you go, and mark them on your map. It's also not a bad idea to have a few locations in mind, in case one is occupied.

The rule of 200 feet

When it’s not possible to camp in your intended location, use this easy rule to tips to help you choose a great campsite and set up your camp stations.

  • Tent: 200 feet from trail, water, food storage, dishwashing, toilet
  • Food Storage: 200 feet from tent, dishwashing, toilet
  • Dishwashing: 200 feet from tent, water, trail, food storage, toilet
  • Toilet: 200 feet from tent, trail, water, food storage, dishwashing
Diagram of camp and 200 Feet
The Rule of 200 Feet: setting up camp in the backcountry. Illustration by Whitney Maass.

More campsite tips

  • Choose an existing camp location, whenever possible. At a minimum, choose a campsite with a durable surface (sand, gravel, forest duff, pine needles). Avoid fragile areas like alpine meadows.
  • Check your location by placing your tent footprint or your sleeping pad on the ground to give the site a test before you set up your tent. Lie down and make sure it’s flat, that there isn’t an uncomfortable bump, and that there will be enough drainage in case of rain. Once you’re satisfied, make camp.
  • Do not cut vegetation or build windbreaks. Minimize your impact and leave no trace; rather, leave it better than you found it.
  • Have a campfire only if there is an established fire ring, if the managing agency permits campfires, and if conditions are safe. Most areas prohibit campfires above 5,000 feet in elevation or at certain times during the year, so check before you go. Keep backcountry fires small. Use wood that is smaller in diameter than your wrist; collect downfall and never cut live trees. Never burn garbage or food scraps.
  • When camping in bear country, it can be a good idea to take an early dinner break, and then continue hiking for a while before choosing a campsite. This keeps the potentially alluring scent of your dinner far away from your tent.

Keeping a clean camp kitchen

Proper food storage is essential any time you're in camp, as critters both big and small will be attracted to your food. If you are preparing a meal, you should always be within an arm’s length of your food, and it’s good practice to keep your container closed at all times.

When leaving camp to explore, or turning in at night, put all of your food, scented toiletries and trash into your container.

Find a place to store your food away from your tent site and dishwashing location:

  • Hang Bag: Find a tall tree with sturdy branches. Using a length of rope or cord, hang your bag at least 10 feet off the ground, and 6 feet out from the tree's trunk.
  • Canister: Find a place somewhere where it won't roll down a hill or into a river if a curious critter decides to poke it around.

Got questions? Ask us, and we'll answer

Rules aside, sometimes choosing the best location can be confusing. If there is an established site, but it's right on a lake, should you use it? Does "established" mean you can expect a fire ring and a privy?

If you have questions about setting up campsites, leave them in the comments below, and we'll get them answered.

This article originally appeared in the May+Jun 2013 issue of
Washington Trails magazine. Join WTA to get your one-year subscription.


By the lake

Actually, I would love to know the answer to the lake question. It's come up many times while backpacking. If there is a clearly established site near water, do you use it? Is that preferable to choosing another site that has not yet been impacted?

Posted by:

Jessi Loerch on Jul 17, 2013 12:46 PM

Established camps better than creating new ones

A great question about using an established site, if it's by a lake (or other water source). It's generally better to use an established camp rather than create a new one. But be extra sure to take your kitchen and toilet activities 200+ feet away from the lake.

Posted by:

Loren Drummond on Apr 24, 2015 06:04 PM

WonderSmash on The Rule of 200 Feet and Other Campsite Tips

So for those of us who aren't carrying a tape measure and aren't great at distances, what's an every day thing/place that is 200 feet that we can reference? That might sound dumb but without an actual measurement tool, 200 feet seems really abstract to me.

Posted by:

WonderSmash on Jun 01, 2015 07:38 PM

Tips for pacing out 200 feet

Great question, WonderSmash! In a navigation course, I had the opportunity to measure my stride-to-distance ratio over a couple of different terrains (trail, uphill, off-trail). I'm 5'1", and 200 feet comes in just under 50 walking paces for me. So, as long as you are taller than that, 50 solid paces is probably a reliable safe distance. It's sort of awesome (and occasionally handy) to know your own walking and running paces, though, so it's worth measuring if you're curious.

Posted by:

Loren Drummond on Jun 02, 2015 09:51 AM