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Camping Skills

Selecting a Tent Site

Selecting a tent site is an important but often overlooked part of a good camping experience. If you don’t have a good tent site it’s hard to end up with a comfortable night’s sleep. Just like with selecting a good campsite there are things to keep in mind as you select your tent site.

  • At a minimum, you want a site that is level and relatively flat. Try to avoid a site that is slanted in any direction. If you must erect your tent on a slope, make sure you can set up the tent with your head uphill.
  • Try to avoid sites that have tree roots, rocks or other hard objects protruding from the ground. These hard objects make for a bad night’s sleep.
  • Avoid tent sites in areas where water collects. Don’t set your tent in the bottom of a low or hollow spot.
  • Make sure that your tent is not under a dead or damaged tree. While it is rare, every year there are accounts of people being seriously injured by falling trees.
  • Make sure the tent site is not in a pathway for humans or wildlife. This is something that a lot of new campers don’t recognize as often trail areas are flat and level and look like good tent sites.
  • Think about where the sun will be as you set up your tent. If you are an early riser it’s nice to have the morning sun get your tent early. However, if you hope to sleep late it is best to have morning shade on the tent. Of course, sunlight is also heat so keep this in mind as well.

Preparing Your Tent Site

Once you’ve selected the exact location for your tent, its a good idea to spend a few minutes preparing the site. Your goal is to make the ground as comfortable as possible while disturbing the soil as little as possible. In developed campgrounds the established tent sites will be obvious. However, if you are setting up in an undeveloped location make your imp[act as small as possible.

Look for any easily movable hard objects that will interfere with a good nights sleep. Things like sticks, pine cones and small rocks are easily moved and make a big difference. Sometimes a tree root or large rock sticks up and cannot be moved or worked around. The only options you have in this situation are to align tent so that the problem spot is in an place where you will not be sleeping directly on it. The other option is to find something to level the ground around the protruding obstacle.

If you want to try to level the ground look for leaves or loose soil. By covering the area around the protrusion with leaves or dirt you can help to smooth the spot so that it lessens the discomfort caused by lumps under the tent. Remember, the flatter and more level you can make the ground under your tent the better you will sleep at night.

A sandy location smoothed out for a good tent site
Taking a few minutes to prepare a good tent site can make a big difference. Here the sandy soils have been smoothed out to eliminate any slope and to provide a flat surface with no rocks, sticks or bumps.

Selecting a great tent site is something that you will learn to do as you gain experience camping. I often spend time looking at tent site possibilities before I select a camp site. In developed campgrounds there is a lot of variation in tent site quality between different sites. Make sure that you have a good tent site before you claim a campsite. There’s not much you can do to have nighttime comfort if your tent site is not a good one.

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Montana Campgrounds

Car campers in Montana have lots of choices for where to spend the night. There are many different types of campsites in Montana and public and private campgrounds are found throughout the state. In some places there are camping opportunities outside of designated campgrounds. However, most people find the wide range of developed campgrounds easily fills their needs.

Private Campgrounds

Private campgrounds are found all across Montana and they come in all shapes and sizes. They range from large modern facilities with full showers, laundry and other facilities to small campgrounds with just a site or two tucked in to a scenic spot. Most are located near roads for convenience and to attract attention

Most private campgrounds in Montana cater primarily to RVs and trailers. Although they have tent camping areas, tents are usually an afterthought and the car camping areas are often lacking in any form of natural ambiance. There are exceptions and some are excellent for car campers so be sure to check all your options.

Many private campgrounds have shower facilities which they will allow you to use for a fee. These are a great place to clean up when you’ve been camping without facilities. Be sure to check in with the campground operator and pay the shower fee.

Private campgrounds in Montana are operated to produce a profit and their camping fees are established by the owners. The State of Montana maintains a good searchable database of Lodging in Montana which will allow you to easily search for a private campground.

Public Campgrounds

Most car campers will spend part, if not most, of their time in public campgrounds. Public campgrounds in Montana are operated by a number of different agencies. The US Forest Service (USFS), US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Reclamation, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and others all operate campgrounds in the state.

Public campgrounds in Montana range from primitive to deluxe and from tiny to huge. Almost every identified public campground will have designated campsites with picnic tables and established fire areas. They will have rest room facilities of some sort – usually outhouses. Many, if not most, will have water available but don’t assume this without checking first.

Public campgrounds are generally located in areas that offer great outdoor recreation opportunities. Fishing areas, trail heads, scenically significant and other unique places are often found near public campgrounds in Montana. Some can be used as a base for exploring surrounding areas while others offer direct access to recreation. Some public campgrounds in Montana are rather remote so make sure you understand the roads you will drive before you head to any site.

There is almost always a nightly camping fee charged at public campgrounds. At some campgrounds there will be a host or a patrol individual who will collect the fees while at others you need to self register and pay at a kiosk. Some public campgrounds are operated by private companies under contract to the agency. Fees at public campgrounds are generally much lower than at private campgrounds. The State of Montana maintains an Internet index of Lodging in Montana which allows you to easily search for campgrounds.

Undeveloped Campsites

There are many places in Montana where it is possible to have a great car camping experience without using a developed campground. Unless otherwise designated, all undeveloped federal lands are open for free “dispersed camping”. This means that there are millions of acres of land open for campers.

These BLM and US Forest Service lands are scattered across the state so you always need good maps. In many places the federal lands are mixed in with private property. It is always your responsibility to know where you are! Consider a DeLorme Montana Atlas which is best for most public land explorers. Don’t just count on your phone!

Before you go camping in any particular area make sure you are aware of any local restrictions. Although the federal lands are generally open for camping there are many local exceptions so be sure to know camping is allowed before you set up camp!

While vast areas of land are open to camping, it is often difficult to find a great undeveloped campsite. One of the biggest problems is the rough terrain that is found in many wild areas. The road systems are often narrow with few spur roads or appropriate camping spots. However, in many other areas you will find delightful campsites that have been well used by many others. It’s common to find established fire rings in these sites but there are no other services – no picnic tables, no water and no outhouses. Of course, you will need to change the way you are camping in these areas to learn more read our suggestions for camping in undeveloped sites.

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Camping In Montana
Selecting a Campsite
Selecting a Tent Site

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Camping Skills

Selecting A Campsite

Wherever you are car camping in Montana selecting the right campsite makes a big difference in the enjoyment of your trip. Just like Selecting a Campground, selecting a campsite uses your personal preferences to determine what you are looking for. Remember that what one person finds desirable another might find uncomfortable.

That’s what’s great about looking for the perfect Montana campsite, trying to find a site that offers you the most of what you think is best in a site. Montana offers it all; just figure out what you like in a campsite and select the ones that are best for you.

The advice that follows presumes that you will have a number of sites to chose from. However, this is not always true. During peak season many campgrounds fill completely and the best time to find empty sites is mid-morning to mid-afternoon. It is often advisable to reserve in advance to insure that you will get a site.

Most private and many public campgrounds in Montana take advance reservations. In many cases you can tell a lot about a campground you have never visited by carefully examining the maps on the reservation web site. You can never really know what a particular campground or campsite will be like until you see it yourself but it is often better to reserve in advance and be sure of a site when you arrive.

Judging a Campsite

Bathrooms and water — the location of the facilities, bathrooms and water, are very important to your selection of a campsite some of us find it important to be as close as possible to these facilities while others will prefer a site that’s located further away. Note the locations of bathrooms and think about that as you select your site

 Sun and Shade — pay attention to the physical layout of the campsites. Typically, their kitchen and tent areas, picnic table and fire pit face in various directions meaning that each site has its own unique shading. A little bit of thought about sun and shade and where the sun may be at the times when you’re in the camp makes a big difference.

 A good tent site — one of the most important things is to select the site that has a good tent site. If you don’t have a good place to start from you cannot set up a tent that you will sleep well in. Look for a site that is level and flat make sure there are no roots or rocks poking up because they will bother you at night. Check to make sure the site you select is not on a main pathway or trail. Also, don’t set up in low spots or places where water runs during rain.  Learn more about selecting a tent site.

Campsite layout — most campsites include similar things – a picnic table, a fire ring, and usually a tent site. However, the way these are laid out makes a big difference in how you will enjoy your camp. Do you enjoy sitting around the campfire? If so, a primary concern should be the fire area and seating and fire pit. If there are prevailing winds at the campsite, be sure to account for them. Before selecting a site think about where you will set up your stove, where you will put your cooler. Will you be stringing a clothesline? Do you have kids who need access routes through various camp areas, etc. All of these things combine to determine whether the physical layout of the campsite is best for you.

Neighbors — what kind of person are you? Do you like to visit with others or do you prefer to be left alone? As you look for a good campsite look at the surrounding campsites as well what kind of neighbors are there right now. If the site are vacant imagine them occupied. Also, be sure to look for paths and trails. In many campgrounds foot paths are well traveled between sites. Sometimes a trail to the toilet will run through the center of a campsite.

Be Prepared! Searching for a great campsite is often not an option. If you are in a crowded campground or arrive after dark you will likely have to take whatever is available.

However, when you have time and the luxury of choices spend a few minutes making your selection. It is well worth the time it takes. When possible, secure your campsite early in the day and then go out to explore the local area.

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Camping in Montana

Camping is one of the best ways to experience Montana’s great outdoors. It gives you a direct connection to the outdoor world that’s not easily achieved through day visits and hotel stays. Cooking, eating, sleeping and living in the outdoors gives you a whole new perspective about our wild places. There are a lot of different ways to enjoy camping in Montana and we will discuss them more fully. 

Car Camping

Car camping is undoubtedly the most popular type of camping and Montana has great car camping opportunities in all parts of the state. With campsites ranging from totally undeveloped near-wilderness to fully developed deluxe campgrounds, Montana has something for everyone.

Car camping has a lot of advantages. You can drive to a new location every day or you can set up a base-camp. You can bring lots of gear and food which can make for a luxurious camp. Once you have your camping equipment it is much more economical than staying in hotels. Car campers can sleep in tents, trailers or even motor homes and all car campers enjoy the outdoor experience.

Even the smallest car provides enough room to pack gear that will allow you to camp in comfort. Car campers can usually pack coolers, chairs, fresh foods, liquid beverages and other large or heavy items that other types of campers cannot. This gives you a lot of freedom to take the items that make a very comfortable camp. Most of the content on this site is geared for car campers.

Photo of typical car camping camp
This camp is set up in a public campground with a picnic table and fire ring. The gear needed for car camping can be carried in most vehicles.

Back Packing

Back packing is both the simplest and most complicated method of going camping. It’s the simplest because you don’t have very much stuff. You can only take what you can carry and the reality is, that’s not very much.

For a typical trip you need a tent, sleeping bag, pad, cook stove, cooking gear, food, water, clothing, personal accessories and more. That’s what makes backpacking the most complicated way of going camping. You somehow have to figure out how to get all of the above into a small pack that you can reasonably carry.

Well, it can be done and lots of people love it. Successful backpacking requires skills and equipment that this site does not address. This site is primarily geared toward car camping but you will find a lot of practical backpacking advice mixed in throughout the site.

If you want to learn about backpacking there are a lot of excellent books, including: How to Survive Your First Trip in the Wild: Backpacking for Beginners

Float Camping

Float camping is a great way to experience Montana. From the wild and scenic Missouri to a wilderness float on the North Fork of the Flathead River there are fantastic opportunities on the major rivers and lakes all across the state. There are float camping opportunities for kayakers, canoeists and rafters.

The type of boat you are in will dictate what type of camping gear you need to take. Most kayaks have little if any space or gear and camping in these boats is similar to ultralight backpacking, unless they have a support boat that carries gear for them. Canoeists can take a fair amount of gear, somewhat more than a backpacker. A raft can often take as much gear as a car campers can, allowing for very comfortable float camping.

A young eagle sits on the river bank
Float camping in Montana often includes spotting birds and wildlife. Here a floater gets close-up with a young eagle.

There are a number of great float camping opportunities in Montana some of which are discussed in depth. Although most of our camping advice is aimed at car campers, much of what we discuss can be applied to float camping as well.

If you want to learn more about float camping in Montana Paddling Montana: A Guide to the State’s Best Rivers is a great place to begin.

Bicycle Camping

Montana’s wide open spaces and beautiful back roads provide great opportunities for bicycle campers. A lot of wind and a lot of hilly terrain, as well as roads with narrow to nonexistent shoulders, can make for some challenging conditions. However, the spectacular scenery and open vistas provide great rewards.

I’m not a bicycle camper myself so, rather than try to provide information that may or may not be accurate, I suggest you check out Basic Illustrated Bike Touring and Bikepacking

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