By: Eli Shostak
When you hear a river guide say, “Now that is a great campsite!” what comes to mind?
You might be thinking, “Aren’t campsites all marked in guidebooks? Don’t they highlight the location of sites as well as what season, water level, and group size make these spots ideal? Aren’t they all five-star destinations? I mean, what else is there to know?”
Here’s the thing; rivers change with every season and so do the camps. A site worthy of a celebrity wedding one year might now be a six-foot-high pile of flotsam perched atop a quarter-mile-long mud flat. Not ideal.
Even guides who spend their time touring stretches of river charged with providing excellent lodging, picture postcard kitchen/dining areas, and perfect bathroom settings know that what they expect when they’re hoping to find a gorgeous place to pull over might not manifest. Besides environmental fluctuations, a busy weekend on the river can make locating even a one-star tie-up feel like trying to find bigfoot.
So, what’s really going through a boat person’s mind when picking a place to make memories? There are some non-negotiables; caring for people and the environment is always the first step. But once the simple stuff is covered, what magic transforms a campsite from just fine to far-out?
- EASILY ACCESSIBLE: Great campsites are easy to access. Sure, no one should go in the drink (un)loading boats, but we also want to make sure it’s simple to get around in light or dark. From boat to camp, tent to kitchen, anywhere to the groover (river speak for “toilet”), no matter where we go, we don’t have to worry about slipping, tripping, or getting lost.
- FLOOD INSURANCE: Even when it’s been a bluebird day, stormy conditions upstream can send biblical flood waters down calm canyons. While tucked in our tents, rivers might easily rise by multiple feet. A great camp means everyone and everything can be safely placed far above the river’s reach and boats are secured against storms.
- LEAVE NO TRACE: In any landscape we travel, river or otherwise, the best camps minimize visitor impacts. Durable surfaces like sand, Slickrock, or gravel won’t be damaged when we tromp, sit, and sleep on them. Wildflower meadows, green grasses, and those wonders of the desert, cryptobiotic crusts, respond poorly to being stomped.
- ANYONE LIVE(D) HERE?: Our favorite camps are vacant; we don’t want to barge in on anyone’s home. Perfect places lack animal burrows, game trails (where animals travel), and abundant ants, or scatters of scat. Additionally, no one has lived there before. A special part of traveling Southwestern waterways is visiting Ancestral Puebloan sites, many dating back 800-1200 years or more. While these places made great homes for those who came before, it’s essential that we visit with respect and never camp on them (not just a good idea, often it’s the law).
Once we’re sure our people and the environment are taken care of, we can start looking to score serious style points.
- SUNSET/SUNRISE DECKS: Watching a spectacular desert sunset or sunrise with your crew while enjoying the coffee or dinner someone else prepared is deeply luxurious. Distinguished camps have ideal perches to bask in the start or finish of a perfect day.
- GROOVER WITH A VIEW: Any great river camp will have a truly outstanding groover location. Some groover spots are so revered they’re practically legendary. A profound pooping place balances distance from camp and privacy with sweeping views and solace. No joke, ask any guide about their favorite groovers and you’ll surely get a loving and intricate description comparable to the work of John Muir.
- GAMEROOMS: Games are a big part of river fun and fantastic campsites have space for horseshoes, frisbee golf courses, capacity for cornhole, and even dance floors. Excellent sites include room to recreate.
- HIKING TRAILS: After a lovely day of lounging, it feels incredible to stretch those legs. Trails leaving right from camp and heading up canyons, leading along rocky ledges, or visiting archaeological sites are a perfect way to ensure no one skips leg day.
- BAR AND LOUNGE: If hiking doesn’t fit the vision of a relaxing adventure, know that great campsites offer beachside bars and lounges inviting us to kick back, relax and watch the river flow.
- HEATING AND COOLING SYSTEMS: Balancing light and dark, distinguished camps warm up in the morning sun and cool off in the afternoon shade. Knowing which camps offer just the right blend in any season is the secret knowledge of boat people.
Similar to purveyors of fine homes, guides at Holiday River Expeditions (HRE) are hardwired to consider all these factors (and more). In one quick glance, HRE leaders can evaluate the real estate’s value and know if it’s time to make a bid or keep looking. Like trying to find an Airbnb in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras, sometimes we have to settle for what’s available, but the good news is the river teaches us to go with the flow, and no matter where we camp, it’s going to be awesome!
Time to consider the options, book a trip, and experience spectacular river camps for yourself!
Eli Shostak is a Lecturer of Adventure Education at Fort Lewis College. A former river guide, NOLS Course Leader, and sea kayaking instructor, he is a firm believer in the power of shared experiences in wild places. Eli is dedicated to using his expertise in mindfulness, leadership, and expedition planning to facilitate journeys for finding the personal and interpersonal benefits of exploring diverse landscapes. His favorite game to play on trips is called “Knuck Tats,” something you’ll have to ask him about.