Where not to camp: our guide to avoiding disaster with your tent

Where not to camp
A flood plain is a prime example of where not to camp (Image credit: Getty)

I’m sure you can conjure up a mental image of the perfect pitch for your tent – on a piece of grass as level as a pool table, beside a beautiful beach perhaps, or beneath a stunning mountain, or on a bend in a secluded serpentine river, shaded by trees. 

Well, sadly, those spots are often hard to find when you’re backpacking, and sometimes you need to compromise. 

But, like any compromise, you should only concede so much. In order to get any sleep whatsoever, you need to know that you’re safe from things that go bang in the night – like falling boulders, lightning bolts or moving cars. Staying out of the reach of incoming tides is also handy, if you want to avoid a surprise midnight swim. Your best camping tent won't thank you for that either.

So, where not to camp? Sounds like a challenge, doesn’t it? Where absolutely shouldn’t I pitch my tent…? 

We can think of loads of great places not to camp: like in a swimming pool or on top of a 5ft wobbling tower of blancmange, that’s been left out in the sun to conglomerate. 

They're exaggerations, of course. Even so, we can learn some useful pointers about where not to camp from these ridiculous ideas. You recognise them as mad in their extremes, but following are some locations and situations encountered all the time, which are sub-optimal for camping for precisely the same reasons as our silly suggestions.

1. Where it’s too wet

A swimming pool is an extreme example, but it’s not a good idea to camp anywhere that’s too wet. That might be in a very boggy or marshy area of ground (often instantly recognisable by the marsh grass that grows there). It might be too near to the edge of a river, or even on one of those inviting-looking tiny river islands. Yes it might look very Instagram-worthy. But if the water level rises in the night you are going to get very, very wet – and possibly end up swept downstream. The same goes for camping on a beach when the tide’s out. So no matter how waterproof your tent claims to be, don’t camp too near the water – even the best tents you can buy can't protect you from that.

2. Too close to the fire

Usually, you will need to make sure that you light a fire well away from your tent, but sometimes the fireplace is already in situ when you arrive. When this is the case, ensure that you pitch your tent a safe distance from the flames – this will depend on the size of the fire and direction of the wind (leaping sparks are the biggest danger), but as a rule, try and maintain 40-foot distance between fire and tent. Also, let the fire burn down before retiring for the night.

Where not to camp

Fire and tents are never happy bedfellows (Image credit: Getty)

3. Places you could get hit by a bolt from the blue

On the subject of weather, let’s address a whole group of others reasons not to camp somewhere because of the elements. In a lightning storm, you do not want to be the highest point on the landscape – especially for a prolonged period of time. When electrical storms are threatening to crackle into action, if you don’t have the option to just go home, position your tent somewhere low (but not in a spot that might become a stream after heavy rain). Stay out of the woods, too – trees and lightning are never a good mix.

4. Under bad boughs, rolling rocks or rotten ice

Another reason you might want to avoid camping under trees is that leaves and branches can fall off in high winds, and on extreme occasions, a whole tree might come down on your tent. Again, not something you want to wake up to. Best avoid trees unless you’re sleeping in a hammock. The same goes for cliffs, where rocks might fall, and avalanche plains, seracs… basically, it’s best to avoid camping in the fall line of anything that could crush you in your sleep. I have camped under the flank of a mountain that I could hear slowly falling down, so trust me when I say it doesn’t make for a cosy night.

Where not to camp

Always keep an eye on the tides (Image credit: Getty)

5. Where it’s illegal

Alright, alright, I know this is contentious. To adapt the famous adage about falling trees: if a tent is put up, slept in and put away without anyone knowing or any traces left to be seen, did anyone really sleep there? But there are some places where wild camping really isn’t a great idea, and not just because of the threat of grumpy landowners wielding blunderbusses. 

What looks like a quiet meadow under the cloak of darkness can turn out to be a booby trap waiting to catch you out. Some fields are sprayed with fertilizers at certain times in the early morning, or you might find that traffic uses the spot you have decided to pitch on. Equally, there might be a bull or some other easily annoyed beast in the field. If you’re really desperate, you can often ask the landowner for permission, or find somewhere very discreet and operate according to Leave No Trace principles. Whatever else you do, stay well away from live firing ranges.

6. On tent destroying objects

A less severe one, but something still worth considering. There is nothing more annoying than putting a hole in your tent. Many tents are quite delicate animals and it’s surprisingly easy to rip the groundsheet. Camping on top of spiky plants, sharp rocks and pointy sticks can all end badly. It’s well worth taking a minute to clear the site if you can. This will give you a chance to check for ant or wasp nests too, as putting a tent over (or too close to) either of these can really ruin the experience for everyone. 

Emily Woodhouse

An adventure writer based on Dartmoor, England, Emily is an active member of Mountain Rescue and a summer Mountain Leader, but loves all things adventure – before her third birthday she had lived on three continents. Founder of Intrepid magazine, she works to help break stereotypes about women in the outdoors. Her expeditions have included walking all Dartmoor’s 119 tors in a single two-week outing, cycling to Switzerland and back, and riding the Rhine from source to sea.