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While car camping (reaching a campsite by car vs backpacking), it’s not uncommon to encounter camping sites where all the spots are slightly uneven, making it a little uncomfortable to sleep. There are various solutions to this problem (such as cots with adjustable feet) but what if you take it a step further? Bring in a couple of big shovels and a long level, then move some dirt around and make a few flat spots for your group. As a bonus future campers will thank you as their stay will be a bit more enjoyable.

Is this a crazy idea or something that can actually work? I do understand it will involve a bit of manual labor but I dig holes/even out land all the time in my garden and I enjoy this type of activity.

I’m talking about spots that are on dirt rather than on grass or other vegetation

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  • 1
    Is this a dirt spot or a lawn?
    – henning
    Jul 6 at 11:27
  • 1
    @henning talking of dirt. Wouldn’t do it on a lawn of course :) Jul 6 at 14:15
  • 2
    How much dirt are you thinking of moving? I was imagining you tamping down the ground with a, well, tamper, instead of digging... Therefore, no dirt is moved an appreciable distance?
    – Malady
    Jul 6 at 17:39
  • 3
    I remember when Boy Scout manuals advised "trenching" a tent site- that is, digging a trench around your tent to direct rain water away. Of course, now that would be anathema.
    – user247327
    Jul 7 at 12:25
  • Your intro sentence is a little odd, IME backpacking sites are much more uneven than car camping haha Jul 7 at 20:13
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Not only is a bad idea, it wouldn't work anyway. Think about what happens when you've just turned over your garden and then you step out into it.

The first time you stepped onto your newly leveled tent pad you would immediately leave a gigantic footprint. If you don't want that, then you would have to compact it to level which is really, really hard to do. Even assuming you were crazy enough to take along all the tools to properly compact it (which is heavy equipment), you can't just level it uncompacted and then compact it and expect it to still be level in the end--the parts where the dirt is fluffier will compact more, so you need to make those parts higher originally so they are even after compacting. It is some kind of crazy magic to do this.

And on top of that, even if you do make it wonderfully flat and compacted evenly and just perfect, the first time it rains hard the water will make it lumpy again anyway, so it's not going to help many future campers.

If you're working with a non-compacting surface (like pea gravel or some kinds of sand) then even trying to compact it wouldn't help, it's always going to be squishy--although it's also easier to rake it to level temporarily, so there's that.

As a side note, you don't really want level anyway--you want a very slight slope so that water doesn't pool under your tent (see: completely level pool deck leading to horrible water problems, do not do this).

63

No, it's not your place to do this. The legal authority over the land belongs to someone else, such as a state park, a private land owner, or the US Forest Service. Doing this kind of digging may also be counterproductive in terms of making drainage worse. The simplest solution to this issue is usually just to orient yourself with your head uphill.

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    It’s also the antithesis of “Leave No Trace”, too Jul 6 at 1:36
  • 8
    I totally agree with the answer and with @fyrepenguin's comment. Fortunately, there is a sure cure for sleeping well on bumpy ground: get very, very tired. A long, hard hike is all you need, plus maybe an extra foam sleeping pad or an air mattress.
    – ab2
    Jul 6 at 2:45
  • 5
    One solution is to wriggle around and find hollows for your hip, shoulder etc to rest in. The body is not flat in itself. Jul 6 at 11:21
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    @ab2 “Leave No Trace”... the OP (original poster of the question) says that they are car camping, not backpacking. Have you ever been to a campground designed to be reachable by car? Each camping site has a large wooden post with the site number. Also, each camping spot has a steel fire-ring with a cooking grate on top. There are roads, and an outhouse. What do you mean “Leave No Trace?" It's like a hotel without a roof or walls. If the US forest service installs a picnic bench and steel fire-ring, you think that leveling out the campsite with a shovel would disrupt the natural landscape? Jul 6 at 20:15
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    @SamuelMuldoon It sounds like you are in North America, or in any case, not in (most of) Europe. In Europe, car camping means queueing at the reception to check in (in the noise of pool and pizzeria), manoeuvring your car to your spot, making sure you park it well enough to leave space for a tent (hopefully there's parking outside the campground). Your guylines will probably cross with the neighbours. The situation you describe is a scenario Europeans can only dream about. I don't think I've ever seen such luxury in Europe. Sadly, with COVID I might never see ones like you describe again.
    – gerrit
    Jul 7 at 7:25
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The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency constitution specifically forbids (translated from Swedish)

digging, excavating, filling in, drilling, chiseling, dredging, painting, blasting or otherwise damaging land and blocks

pull out ground

At least in Sweden your idea will be mostly impractical as the ground is usually very rocky

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    In most of Sweden you'd also have a hard time finding a spot that isn't either vegetated or bare rock. Only in Råsto do I remember larger surfaces of sand, mostly on river banks.
    – gerrit
    Jul 7 at 7:16
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In general, no

Most campsites are owned by someone, whether it's a private owner or some organisation. You can't just randomly dig up someone else's property without explicit permission from them.

Many campsites also are on grassed fields, especially in Europe. Covering grass with soil basically destroys the grass, leaving an area of bare soil which will be taken over by weeds. Future campers certainly will not thank you for turning a camping field into a thistle patch.

Yes I know top-dressing is a thing for lawns, but levelling a site is well past this. In any case, top-dressing normally uses a mix of sand and soil to improve drainage; you can only use plain soil if the soil is sandy or very light loam. Were you thinking of testing the soil structure before doing this levelling? I would seriously doubt it.

Competent gardeners who need to carry out levelling of a grassed site will cut away the turf, scrape off the topsoil, level the subsoil, then replace the topsoil (in an even layer), and finally replace the turf on top. This certainly is not a quick process. It also requires you to stay off the turf for some time after levelling, so that the grass can recover. It should be clear that this is not something you can do during a camping trip.

Maybe if you can guarantee no ill effects

If the ground is entirely bare (maybe in woods or in desert conditions), and you are camping informally on somewhere in the wilderness which does not have obvious owners/users, and you know that no-one else is likely to be camping there after you, then maybe you can get away with it. In that case, whatever you do is not going to adversely affect the area or other people.

But this is pretty unlikely. And even on bare ground (as @Yakk says in comments) you may find that you're hitting roots when you dig out soil for levelling.

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    In the forest, tree roots will be quite near the surface in my experience. Digging quickly becomes destroying tree roots more than moving dirt. Jul 6 at 13:20
  • If someone else is going to be camping after me, wouldn’t they be happy to find a nice flat spot to camp on? (Assuming I have permission to dig in the first place) Jul 6 at 15:28
  • 4
    @JonathanReez Like I said, "maybe if you can guarantee no ill effects". If you've replaced slightly uneven grass with "flat" soil full of exposed stones, or "flat" soil which has become colonised by waist-high thistles, not so much. Also not so much if you've caused damage to trees around it. And even then, what seems "flat" to you immediately after digging will settle over the next few weeks to become very not flat. When you're levelling out your garden, what do you do there?
    – Graham
    Jul 6 at 17:14
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    @JonathanReez, a flat spot is a spot that accumulates water when it rains. A good tent site is slightly sloped to provide natural drainage.
    – Mark
    Jul 7 at 1:16
  • 1
    If you are in a wild enough place that there are no owners/users, then you really should be aiming for “leave no trace”. There is little enough wilderness left in the world as it is. Jul 7 at 12:51
7

From a mechanical standpoint, it should certainly work. But, its not your camp site, so you probably shouldn't make changes to it without permission.

So you just need to ask whoever is in charge of the site for permission to move the dirt yourself.

And if they won't let you do it yourself, then try asking if they would have it done at some point for the benefit of the campers. In that case it may not happen during your stay, but it can still benefit anyone who uses the site in the future.

If they refuse both requests, or its not practical to make a request (due to the site being remote or other reasons) then I am afraid you will have to leave the site as is.

1

Even if it is allowed (other answers suggest it is not in a lot of places, but I am not aware of any general ban on digging in my native Bulgaria), it is QUITE inefficient. And it can be quite messy as well.

If the terrain is strong enough to support a car, it would be hard to dig.

On the other hand, 2 or 3 wedges made of wood or plastic can fix the inclination for you. Search for "campervan levelling wedge" if you want factory-made ones.

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    Car camping doesn't mean sleeping in the car but rather camping at a spot that can be reached by a car.
    – Gabriel
    Jul 6 at 12:49
  • If it is not about sleeping in the car, it is even more work
    – fraxinus
    Jul 6 at 14:54
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    @Gabriel I think most people sleeping in caravans still consider that they're camping. OP didn't specify exactly what they're sleeping in.
    – gerrit
    Jul 7 at 7:20
  • 3
    @gerrit I think we have to assume the OP isn't in a caravan or motorhome. Chocks to raise wheels to a level position are standard equipment for both, and caravans also have wind-down legs on each end for further stabilisation. Some motorhomes also have more sophisticated levelling systems too. There's no reason to level a site when you can just level your van.
    – Graham
    Jul 7 at 10:52
1

I think this really boils down to: How much? Re-arranging a few stones or fallen branches so they don’t poke through your tent floor and sleeping mat won’t bother anyone. On loose ground like dirt or sand, shuffling a bit of it around will be fine too. I guess it’s also fine to fill in depressions with leaves and small branches.

However, doing some serious grading, pulling out grass and so on is probably forbidden, regardless of location. I mean … you wouldn’t cut down grown trees to create a camping spot either, right?

On private property (like a campground) the owners won’t like it. In countries where you are allowed to camp in the wild, camping is usually only allowed if you leave no trace.

In the wild, don’t do anything which will be obvious and/or obviously man-made. On private property, ask the owners.

1

Maybe if you use a tamper instead? Or your car / vehicle, or your feet? Or even a shovel, if you're wedded to it.

Anything works so long as you can hit the ground hard with it, enough to even it out, instead of digging...

Less disturbance to the area this way, no creation of loose dirt, etc...

This is assuming that the dirt is not hard enough to resist tamping with however much force you can apply....

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    Not sure why you're getting downvoted. Jumping up and down on any particularly lumpy bits is a time-honoured and efficient pre-tent preparation method
    – JeffUK
    Jul 7 at 19:04
  • @JeffUK - Thanks! Hmm... to beef out this comment... I'll add some "Use your car, or your feet" as options...
    – Malady
    Jul 7 at 22:50
0

The exception, I would say, is camping at a non-wild site on very sandy soil (or I suppose gravel but I've never seen that). I've done this a few times, and if you can drive the car right to the pitch it will leave ruts that are annoying for subsequent users who may want to pitch in a slightly different spot. Even footprints may be visible. The surface material in this case moves around anyway, and a little more won't make a difference. Deeper would still be a bad idea.

The loose material on the surface can easily be smoothed down; I used my foot. Hopefully you've got pegs long enough to reach the more solid soil underneath.

In a very few cases on normal soil, you may be able (probably with permission) to repair damage caused by vehicles when it was muddy. In general though you can avoid sleeping or cooking on top of those, and I wouldn't carry any tools to deal with that, except in winter I have a folding shovel in my van.

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