How and Where to Park When Camping – And What Not to Do

Ever been stuck in a bad relationship? Stuck in an awkward conversation with a close-talker with bad breath? Stuck in a meeting wondering why you are even there?

Well we’re not talking about those kinds of stuck today, but getting your vehicle stuck while camping is equally shitty. So read up. We promise it will be more useful than your daily morning meeting.

Toyota 4Runner parked in beautiful snowy dispersed campsite
This site had muddy ground and received ~6″ of snow while I camped. I was able to get in and out easily by parking in the right spot. Others weren’t so lucky.

 

First, a poll. Would you rather get your vehicle stuck in:

a) A remote State Park camp site, with nobody around for miles

b) A remote Bureau of Land Management camp site, with nobody around for miles

c) A remote National Forest camp site, with nobody around for miles. Like this one:

Ruts in mud below snow where someone parked in a low spot
Low spots tend to collect water, which creates mud, which can still get you stuck in even when its hidden by snow. Someone parked here, got stuck, and spent a lot of time trying to get out.

 

If you answered “none of the above”, you get a gold star.

If you want to enjoy your camping excursion, getting your vehicle stuck worse than Tommy Boy in an airplane lavatory should be avoided. Getting stuck can ruin your day or even your week, and it will leave an ugly mark on your campground. It can even cause damage to your vehicle. Vehicle failure can ruin a whole trip, so getting your vehicle stuck up to the frame can turn a good trip bad very quickly.

When you camp, your priorities are weighted heavily towards fun, food, and friends or family. You spend the morning packing and driving, and when you get to your site, you just want to get your mother-effin camp on. You want to relax, set up camp, cook dinner, and roast some freakin’ marshmallows. Unless you have a huge rig, you’re not as worried about your parking job.

That’s why it is so easy to overlook it and make simple mistakes. Lots of people end up stranded when they don’t need to be, and I don’t want that to happen to you.

When you arrive at your site, you should look it over and observe a few things:

  1. The highest ground in the site
  2. The highest ground in the site, that connects to the road or trail you took getting in
  3. The lowest ground
  4. The softest ground
  5. The most solid, packed ground
  6. Combinations of 1-3 and 4-5

If you’re used to camping in improved sites, this may be new to you. Most improved and even some primitive sites have designated parking areas, tent areas, fire ring, and more.

If you’re getting outside the box and trying dispersed campsites, it’s all up to you. Luckily, you have this guide.

Parking:

You want to park in the highest ground that connects to the path you took coming in. If it’s a road or a trail, you want to be above that trail, preferably. If you have a choice between hard and soft ground, always go with hard.

Your vehicle is the hardest to move when it has no momentum. Therefore, the moment when  you first leave your space is the most difficult. You want to start on ground that gives you good traction. If you are leaving it there a while, you also have to think about how that ground could be after a bunch of rain or snow.

High ground with good drainage will have the best chance of staying dry and giving you traction when it is time to leave.

Snow covered ground with an SUV parked on the high side of the camp site
This picture was taken from the “stuck spot” seen in the first picture, using a leveled camera. You can see how this 4Runner is parked on much higher ground.

If the ground is muddy, be honest with yourself. Your crossover SUV was not made to handle a hill of mud. Most vehicles aren’t. You want to be able to use gravity to get down to the road or trail you need to use to leave. That way, even if rain comes and makes things soft, you shouldn’t have trouble getting out.

The same thing goes for snow-covered ground, loose rock, and sand. No matter what covers the ground and makes it harder for you to gain traction, you will have an easier time going downhill to exit the site. Climbing in loose terrain requires better tires, lower gears, and often four-wheel drive. Even if you have these things, stay high!

Tracks in snow leading out of a dispersed campsite
The level view from that 4Runner shows the downhill path to leave the campsite.

Tent Site:

Unless you like discomfort, the next site you should choose is your tent site. You can probably guess this, but you want soft, high, ground.

Why? Because the ground is hard enough, without picking rocky or packed-down dirt. And unless you’re part amphibian, you probably don’t want to wake up in a puddle, either. Or, switch to hammock camping and stop worrying about all that crap.

Most people look for a perfectly flat spot. When I sleep in a tent, I actually look for one with a little bit of slope. I like to know that rainwater will run off and away from me. I also like to sleep with my head slightly higher than my toes. Word to the wise: If you have acid reflux or get heartburn when camping, you should try it!

Fire Pit:

Your fire gets the spot nobody else wants. The low point of the camp site, preferably in a dugout bowl of some sort. See if the camp site already has a fire pit, so that you can reduce your impact by reusing it. If it’s in a good spot, use it. If not, find that low spot and get sparkin’

It shouldn’t be near trees, tall grass, or at the top of any hills or inclines. Avoiding trees and grass is pretty obvious, but lots of people make the mistake of building a fire on a slope or elevated terrain. Yes, it may look cool to have a fire on a  mound. Are forest fires cool?

A fire on a hill can spread easily. Embers are more easily carried by the wind, and burning logs or coals can roll away and quickly find dry brush to set ablaze. It is also more difficult to douse a fire in water, snow, or smother it with dirt, if it is on a hill. Since you have to put out a fire before you leave the site or go to bed, you want to make it easy on yourself.