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I'm planning what will realistically be my first backpacking trip. It'll be in Yosemite this summer.

I've already been going through checklists of things we need, the trails we'll take, what we'll eat and different options if we decide we can't make the full 24 miles in 5 days.

However, the one thing I can't figure out how to plan is where we'll stop and call it a night.

I've already pulled 7.5' quadrangle maps of our trail, but even on them, I can't tell where a good place to pitch the tents would be. Ideally--in my mind--I'd have 2 or 3 different stopping places and around noon we could decide on which we think we're going to make.

Am I over-planning here? Is it as simple as "we're getting tired, let's head off the trail and find a clearing?" Or are there some better maps to help me plan this kind of thing?

  • No map will give you much of an idea about camping spots (well, if it is a cliff you are perhaps out of luck). That nice flat-looking valley could have a bunch of boulders that making putting up a tent a pain. But, have some ideas based on possible map locations, be prepared to be flexible, and enjoy it all. – Jon Custer Feb 22 at 15:06
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    Are you backpacking in Yosemite National Park proper? Be aware that there is a permitting system for trailheads that will affect where you can camp. This may feel intrusive, but so many people want to backpack in Yosemite that something had to be done to manage the crowds. lest the place be "loved to death". – Charles E. Grant Feb 22 at 18:21
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    @CharlesE.Grant thanks for the heads up Charles. We actually just got our permit last week! – scohe001 Feb 22 at 18:50
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Based on decades of camping in the Yosemite backcountry, I can promise you that there is never a real problem finding an acceptable place to camp when backpacking. Of course, you can't be ultra-picky about what is acceptable. You may not find an absolutely flat place, but a few degrees tilt is not going to prevent you from sleeping if you are tired enough.

My advice, in unpromising territory (e.g., steep) is to start looking for an acceptable place to camp about an hour, or a bit more, before dusk and either take the first OK one you find, or remember where it was, go on or scout around for another 20 minutes, and go back to it if you don't find anything better.

As @Charlie Brumbaugh said, contour maps will give you guidance, but even when the contour map says the territory is steep, you will find small flattish spaces. As for running water, to reinforce what Charlie said, the only time we have had a real problem finding running water was the summer of 2016, when the previous winter's snowpack was 5% of normal.

According to your question, you are planning to do 24 miles in 5 days -- or did I read that wrong? At that pace you will have plenty of time to explore.

Think of yourself as an explorer. Daniel Boone, John Muir, Lewis and Clark camped where they could. If the weather is good and the places to camp are small, consider not using the tent and sleep under the stars.

  • Thanks for your personal experience! 24 miles in 5 days is correct--or at least that's what I'm calling it. The trail is closer to 20 (Ten Lakes -> May Lake trailheads) but I figure we may do some 'splorin while we're out there. – scohe001 Feb 22 at 22:41
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    At a pace of 24 miles in 5 days, I'd start looking for a campsite around lunchtime, and spend the afternoon exploring the area around camp. – Mark Feb 28 at 1:12
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It's going to depend on you, the terrain and how long it takes to set up camp. If you can set up in the dark and don't need a lot of perfectly flat terrain then you can definitely keep walking until you get tired and then set up.

There have been plenty of times where I hiked into the night and then pulled just off the trail to sleep. The only times where I absolutely needed to keep hiking was when the terrain was too steep and full of switchbacks to find something.

Google Earth may be helpful as well because then you can see what the clearings will look like and where there are trees and so on before you go.

For the most part Yosemite has enough water for that not to be a problem, there will be some areas that are restricted from camping, there was an area where the bears were grabbing bear cans and chucking them off a cliff to break them open.

It's not a bad idea to have a couple of places marked in advance as potential campsites, but I wouldn't stress too much if you end up camping somewhere slightly different.

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    This answer works if you traveling on foot or by vehicle. Personally I like to be free to stop when I want; not when I have something scheduled, it is a vacation after all. The only issue is when you leave a mediocre or poor site one morning, then 5 minutes later find the perfect place, it can be kind of depressing, but it is all part of the adventure. If you have never been there before the pre-picked site might actually not be so good. Don't be overly reliant on pre-picked sites. – James Jenkins Feb 22 at 18:54
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After a while you get a feel for the country that comes through from the map.

E.g. In Willmore Wilderness, you will often find hunting camps that are clear and pretty well made, but are only used for a month a year. They will sit at the base of a pass, or the junction of two creeks (better grazing for horses)

Since I am blessed to be able to use a fire for cooking (low traffic) I look for places where the timberline comes into the meadow and is close to water. Failing that, where a ravine large enough to likely have water comes down to where my trail will cross it.

In a different context, when traveling by canoe in Northern Saskatchewan you learn that the top end of many rapids is a good place to camp. Some obstacle backed the water up, and so it's likely to at least be out of the bog. The bottom end of a portage is often boggy.

You also will look for points of land that catch the wind if the bugs are bad, and otherwise just look for places where the tree cover is less solid. (Upwind end of an island is great.)

My usual habit is to start looking in mid afternoon. If I'm seeing reasonable looking spots fairly frequently -- several per hour, then I will push on. However if good sites are scarce (Mirror River, SK, I'm talking to you.) then I may stop early.

The map will tell you what sort of country you are in. When you are in a new type of country start pretending you're looking for a spot right away. You'll pick up what features on the map give valid hints.

The gotchas are when the terrain changes. E.g. We had been doing puddle jumping and portaging from Cree Lake toward High Rock Lake, on a chain of winter roads. Would have been easy camping, (but not pretty) at any point where the winter road met a lake. (This is not always true. Winter roads are often frozen bogs, and terrible in summer) But we had to turn off that route and pick up Browne Creek. That was a mosquito farm. Browne Creek was 2 feet wide, had a corner every 6 feet. We portaged over a mattress of wet moss trying to keep from hitting the canoes on the bog spruce and tamarack. 2 km took us 4 hours. Yuck. Fortunately we only had lunch in there. Peanut butter and bugs.)

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