Four of us were floating Arkansas’ Buffalo River. It was our last night of a five-night trip. The temperatures were in the mid-70s and we were catching smallmouth bass throughout the day. That evening, as the sun sank below the horizon, we came upon a curve in the river. A spectacular bluff rose across the Buffalo, overlooking a huge, nearly level gravel bar. High water had left copious driftwood to warm us in the cool evening. We gently landed the canoes. My brother Mike proclaimed it the perfect campsite, and it was.
Despite the above story, finding a perfect backcountry campsite at the right moment can be as rare as an eclipse. Finding a campsite from water is not always as easy as it looks. When floating on water, you are at the lowest point and always looking up at the land.
In some places, such as Kentucky’s Cumberland River, you must get out of your boat and physically look for a suitable campsite. Be prepared to seek campsites along sloped and/or wooded shores. After traveling many rivers, patterns where campsites are located become clear. Camping flats can be at the confluence of two streams. Sandbars and gravel bars can often be found on the inside of sharp river bends. Therefore, perusing a map for sharp river bends or the confluence of streams will yield potential campsites.
When looking for a boat landing, find a moderate slope to land your craft. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough to hold your boat. Gravel bars and beaches make great landings. Also look for the mouth of a tributary flowing into the waterway upon which you are floating. The tributary mouth forms a break in the shoreline, allowing you to land your boat and access a campsite.
Sandbars look like great campsites from the water, and they can be. They are unencumbered by vegetation, can be easily leveled without damaging the environment and generally will have fewer insects. The downside is the sand itself. It can get in your sleeping bag, in your tent, in your food and just about everywhere else. And when it rains, the sand sticks to everything.
I prefer gravel bars to sandbars. Depending upon the size of the gravel, they can have the positive traits of a sandbar without all the particles of sand getting on everything. Gravel bars do not provide as good of a sleeping environment as do sandbars, but you can find places that can be leveled out and made into better sleeping areas.
Look at the downstream end of a gravel bar, as it will have the smallest granules, hence the best spots to pitch your tent. Gravel bars will also sometimes have trees growing from them to provide shade. Deliberate how these bars were formed — from flooding when the water is high. If heavy rain is likely there is a chance of flooding, do not camp on a gravel bar or sandbar.
Campsites don’t always appear at the precise moment we want to start camping. Allow yourself ample time to find a spot, especially if there are other boat campers nearby. Start with expecting Shangri-La, then modify your desires. Prepare to lower your expectations as the day gets late. Pick a campsite and stick with it. Sometimes a bad campsite starts looking better after you are settled in.
Johnny Molloy is the author of several outdoors guidebooks. Visit www.johnnymolloy.com.