Camping on Gravel

I just realized that I can’t remember ever camping on a gravel bar. Seems there may be some aspects to prepare for, such as sleeping, pitching a tarp, latrine, cooking, bear safety, and rising water. Any advice for comfortable camping on gravel bars?

Sleeping mattress. Tarp forget it… Willows are no help… The sand is loose… The wind funnels down the river. Small camp though water rise is not that big a deal on big rivers… There is usually driftwood in the willows so the latrine location is evident. hang out and bury it…
We just used barrels… It is not uncommon to see bear tracks on gravel bars. but they do like their own food better than yours for the most. part. You have to forget hanging food… This is for the Yukon rivers if you happen to have to gravel bar camp… We did but just once in 12 days because another party was rude and refused to share their big campsite.

For river camping on a gravel bar make sure there is an easy method of egress if the water rises suddenly. You don’t want to be launching into a rising river in the midnight darkness.

With a good inflatable pad, even coarse gravel can be quite tolerable to sleep on, I find. Consider how you will pitch your tent. You likely will not be able to drive stakes. I attach thin but strong lines to all the stake out points on my tent. These can be wrapped around larger rocks which can then be buried under more rocks. Sometimes a piece of driftwood can be used as a “deadman” to secure a tent guy by tying off to it and burying it. There are also small sacks available for purchase that can be attached to the tent tie outs, then filled with rocks and gravel and buried.

On sand bars and gravel bars, I use dollar store dog tie out augers instead of stakes. So far I have not found anything that holds better in wind.

I’d assume a good shovel would be key, unless digging is frowned upon as bad LNT? Used to camp on gravel beaches in Alaska and Patagonia, would dig a flat tent platform to get as level a sleeping surface as possible, made for a better night’s sleep rather than fight gravity all night. Would kick them apart before leaving in the morning, and whatever next big storm rolled through would totally reset the beach. The big shovel made cat holing really easy, just pop a big divot, and you’re good to go. Ditto the advice on extra p-cord on tent corners and guy out points, easy to bury a stick for a dead man, and no need to retrieve anything in the morning. Taking tarp poles if there’s not a lot of wood/trees around can save time. The old school military triangle shovels work great if you can find them, or cut down a regular shovel, and use part of the cut off handle for a T grip with a few wood screws. Have used fry pans to dig out a “hot tub” on beaches in Baja near hot springs.

Earplugs…“Ooch-ouch, ooch-ouch!” is almost as bad as listening to a paddling partner snore.

I read somewhere on a government site that cat holes are discouraged in the Yukon. Seems it retards decomposition in northern climes. Best to “scatter” the organic material and burn or pack the paper. Sounds messy.

There are some good reasons to camp on gravel bars and sand bars. On rivers with steep banks, big rocks, or cliffs along the shore, at medium to low water levels, gravel and sand bars may be one of the few horizontal surfaces available for camping. On rivers with a lot of mosquitoes, such as those in northern Canada and Alaska, camping far from vegetation and in areas with good breezes is desirable, and gravel bars and sand bars offer both of those. On rivers where the shores are lined with water-soaked bogs, such as sometimes occurs on rivers in northern Canada and Alaska, sand and gravel bars offer a dry and level place to camp. On rivers where the vegetation makes it difficult to find level areas for camp sites, such as the grass tussocks found in sections of the Owyhee River in Idaho, sand and gravel bars offer level areas for camping. On rivers where the shorelines are infested with head-high poison ivy, such as portions of the Jarbidge and Bruneau Rivers in Idaho, sand and gravel bars provide the only feasible camping spots.

Staking down tents and rain tarps on sand and gravel bars can be a challenge. It’s also important. A common camping mishap is that a camper fails to stake down his or her tent, the wind comes up, and the tent takes off like a box kite and is either damaged or lost in the river. I could provide a number of examples of this kind of mishap, but it has never happened to me, because I’m religious about attaching my tents and rain tarps firmly to the ground. Standard tent stakes don’t work at all in sand and gravel, and I don’t even bring them on trips such as the Grand Canyon. I attach extra long guy lines to the flies of my tents and to my rain tarps, and I bring a small bag of guy line extenders, for those many times where a good natural anchor is several feet from the end of your guy line. I also attach shorter guy lines to the stake-out loops at the corners of my tents, for those windy days when I really want to attach my tent to the ground. Always assume that the wind and weather may go from mild to lousy to seriously bad over the course of the evening and night.

In areas where there are rocks available, I tie a stick perhaps three feet long to each guy line, I pile rocks against and on top of each stick, and then I kick sand or gravel up against the rocks. If you use sufficient rocks, this provides a very secure anchor point. If there aren’t any sticks available, I tie my guy line around a long narrow rock and pile other rocks against that rock. Don’t tie a guy line to a single rock, because if the wind comes up the rock may rotate and the guy line may slip off of it; always stack some rocks against the rock your guy line is tied to. You’ll spend some time running around collecting sticks and rocks, but that is better than having to run around collecting pieces of your tent. If there aren’t any rocks available, you can dig a trench for each stick and bury it in the sand or gravel. This is called a “deadman,” but a more gender neutral term might be “deadperson.” Because it’s difficult to tighten or loosen guy lines once you have buried a deadman, if you anticipate having to use deadmen, bring sections of guy line about three feet long, tie a loop on each end, use one loop to attach the section of line to a stick, and then tie your tent’s guy lines to the loop which is sticking out above the sand. This will allow you to easily adjust the tension of the guy lines.

On some rivers up north, as the gradient and speed of the river decreases, the size of the gravel on gravel bars decreases, and there may be no rocks at all available on gravel bars. However, the gravel bars are often littered with various sizes of trees. If you tie a guy line to a tree which is lying at right angles to the guy line, the tree will tend to roll or skid under tension. However, if you point the tree in the same direction as your guy line and tie the guy line to the root ball, with the rest of the tree extending away from your tent or tarp, the root ball digs into the gravel and provides a secure anchor. Thus you will end up with trees used as anchors extending away from your tent and rain tarp in a starburst pattern.

I have made nylon pockets with cord attached which go over the top of a kayak paddle, so in areas with no trees, I can rig my rain fly over a pair of kayak paddles. I rig my rain fly low to the ground and sit under it when cooking, so it provides better protection against rain when the wind is blowing. If you rig a rain tarp high, you may end up with only a very small area protected from the rain. Here is an example of one of those pockets in use. My friend in this picture has back issues, and prefers to sit on his kayak, but usually everybody sits on the ground in “Crazy Creek” style camp chairs.

Some rivers are subject to sudden and large increases in volume, sometimes as the result of storms which are out of sight up the drainage. Remember that sand and gravel bars are created by moving water inside the high water line of the river, and set up camp as high as possible on the sand or gravel bar. Beach or anchor your boats so they won’t wash away if the water level increases at night. And be sure that some other member of the party is camping lower than you are, so you will have some warning if the water level increases at night! There are a lot of entertaining and educational stories about river parties which were hit by sudden increases in water level at night. You don’t want to contribute another example to those stories.

When camping on gravel bars up north, there may be no way to hang food. Bear proof containers are the way to go in these situations. Set the containers a distance away from your camp at night. Be sure to stash the bear proof containers in a location which is at least as high as your tent, so your food won’t wash away at night before you even realize that the river level is rising.

Camping on gravel bars is quite comfortable. If your sleeping pad can’t protect you from a bit of gravel, it’s completely inadequate.

Camping on sand bars is a pain in the butt, because the sand gets into and onto everything. I try to avoid camping on sand bars. Gravel bars are a lot tidier to camp on.

Push a stick into the mud at waterline so that you can monitor if the river is rising or falling - rivers all go up slightly at night when trees stop sucking up water for photosynthesis, and then mostly will start to drop a little in the morning - always has happened on every river I have camped on unless there was a rainstorm to raise the level - but putting in 2 or 3 marker sticks will tell you for sure if the river is rising - one at water edge, another a couple of feet higher up, a third even farther away. tarp poles can often be found in log piles and on washed up on gravel bars and those, along with brush have been sufficient so that I have almost always been able to rig a tarp on gravel bars when I’ve camped on them, and I for one have no qualms about cutting a few poles out of the thick brush that lines rivers if I need them, though I do try for dead stuff if possible. Should be needless to say, but I’ll say it anyways, always tie your canoe up to something solid, not to a log that could be washed away along with your canoe, and tie both ends down - I like to bring the canoe right next to the tent and often stake it down to act as a windbreak for the tent and or tarp. And don’t leave anything light enough to blow away out where the wind can take it - police your camp before you turn in so that everything is secured in some fashion so that it can’t blow away or wash away. That is especially important for your food if you are in remote area - don’t want it washing away or being dragged away if you can prevent it.

I realize the OP asked about gravel, but since some others touched on sand I’ll add this.

I used to (and still mostly) dislike camping on sand. However, I came to terms with it while paddling in Pukaskwa National Park. Not only did I rarely have a choice, but when I did have a choice it was usually the better decision.

The thing about sand, which is transferable to small gravel, is that you can readily landscape an area (without vegetation) to your liking. I’d never bother with a large shovel unless I had a very specific purpose for it, so a judiciously chosen piece of driftwood worked quite nicely as a caveman shovel. If you want it dead flat for sleeping, make it flat. If you want a slight uphill slope, you got it. When you’re done packing up and heading out you can easily make it look almost like you were never there. The elements (and maybe other foot traffic) will quickly finish the job for you.

There was plenty of heavy driftwood for anchoring to at the beaches in Pukaskwa, and many were at the mouth of a river.

With gravel you don’t have the mess that comes with sand. But if you’re a bit careful and a lot lucky sand isn’t so bad. Moisture (dew, rain, heavy fog, etc) combined with sand just plain sucks. It sticks to everything and all you can do is take some with you until you can finally dry it out and let it fall off. But dry sand is only a minor annoyance. I always put down a cheap ground sheet (cut-out from a blue poly tarp) and when possible I’d rinse the sand off in the water before leaving camp. I’d rather pack a clean and wet ground sheet than a slightly damp one with sand stuck to it.

One thing I did discover is that my new Helinox Ground Chair does not like sand. I’m sure it said something about this in the instruction manual, but really who reads those things anyway? It wasn’t so bad that the chair sunk into the sand a bit, but it only took once to learn that the grit in the leg couplers was absolutely not a good idea. A thorough wash in the lake fixed it nicely, and I ended up finding a piece of garbage in my travels - a stiff piece of plastic from the end of a tote - that worked well as a platform on the sand for my chair. If bringing a chair and planning to camp on soft ground, consider bringing something you can set it on. Ideally something multi-use.

Sparky, I camp on sand a lot. It’s fine beach sand, seldom with any gravel. You are right about wet sand being worse, but except in the rain, I hardly get any in my gear at all. You can get pretty good at keeping things sand free with some basic tricks like your cheap tarp on the ground. Another trick is to always wear tall boots, which stay outside the tent when not in use. Slip them off when you go in, and slip them on when you go out (slip your feet out of river shoes or sandals, and your feet are still covered in sand, and into the tent it all comes).

That adds a minute or two to the time spent on camp activities on any given evening, but prevents a huge amount of cleanup later.

A 2" thermarest has always served me well, but I’m not sure what size gravel we’re talking about here.

The Yukon River is mostly sandbars… The main thing is to find dry sand… often two inches down its wet… That said sandbars are more predominant below Carmacks…

We bring a ground sheet so the Helinox chair legs dont sink.

Dont worry about excrement… Sure you can bury it… it will get washed away in the next spring floods.

@Loon_Watcher said:
I just realized that I can’t remember ever camping on a gravel bar. Seems there may be some aspects to prepare for, such as sleeping, pitching a tarp, latrine, cooking, bear safety, and rising water. Any advice for comfortable camping on gravel bars?

I sure love my Travelchair Joey. It has no-sink feet. They work pretty well. At least I don’t post-hole in sand anymore. It’s the same kind of chair as the Helinox, but a touch taller, so it’s easier for me to get in & out of with a bum knee. The ground cloth idea also works. I also love my Exped pad.

So far I’ve had good luck with basic sand stakes on sand bars in the Colorado River. I try to pile some heavy stuff in the corners of my tent, but that’s no guarantee that it won’t blow away. That reminds me of a sad story from a kayak trip on the Colorado River last fall. We were camped at Spanish Bottom, the end of our trip, and our jet boat pick-up spot. Across the river there was a big group of college kids who were going on through Cataract Canyon on a whitewater rafting trip. Most of them pitched their tents back behind the Tamarisk bushes, but a couple put their tents out on the big sand beach. We got some pretty intense micro burst winds the next day. A group of them came across the river to day hike and when they went back to their camp, one poor gal’s tent was gone…like completely missing. All her clothes, gear, wallet, and phone were in the tent. They looked everywhere and came back over to ask if we had seen anything. We told them about the wind event and they figured the tent got blown into the river and was long gone. Bummer.

Stories about tents blowing away are way too common. And often pretty funny, if you weren’t the subject of the story. For example, on a Grand Canyon trip we had a stormy evening, but a group camping a mile or so downstream got hit by a microburst, and two tents full of gear blew into the river. They still had another week and a half on the river. Fortunately at that time of the year it’s usually comfortable to sleep without a tent, although in my experience it’s never comfortable to sleep without a pad. And shortly thereafter an older member of the group developed heart problems and had to be helicoptered off the river, so the group was able to pass out his gear to members of the group who lost theirs. I have quite a collection of lost or damaged tent stories just from among my friends and acquaintances. So attach your tent firmly to the ground when camping on sand and gravel bars!

I’ve been laughed at before for how many rocks, logs, trees, bushes, or whatever I’ve used to anchor my tent. It’s somehow satisfying when the same people who were laughing are the ones picking their gear out of the forest the next day. Kinda like when someone goes flying past you on the highway, and five minutes later you pass them on the side of the road with the cop. Oh, but I don’t believe in Karma…

I like camping in exposed places - less bugs, better view. But you can be sure that even if my tent is ripped to shreds, my anchors will not have failed!

Has anyone tried these? They look interesting.

Some hikers watched from the Doll House as the wind picked up a tent and sent it down toward Cataract Canyon… Complete with sleeping bag and mat… The stakes stayed put… the tent left the stakes. There was one more campsite at the mouth of the canyon but they could not intercept the impromptu tent raft.

It was a cold night that night… it snowed…

@kayamedic said:
Some hikers watched from the Doll House as the wind picked up a tent and sent it down toward Cataract Canyon… Complete with sleeping bag and mat… The stakes stayed put… the tent left the stakes. There was one more campsite at the mouth of the canyon but they could not intercept the impromptu tent raft.

It was a cold night that night… it snowed…

I felt so bad for that girl. They floated down from Potash & this was their second night on the river. They still had the rest of their trip through Cataract Canyon to go. We were hopeful that maybe they would find her stuff downriver, but the odds wouldn’t be good. They hiked down the river right trail as far as they could go and didn’t see anything. I’ve seen a tent run a rapid on the Main Salmon and survive with just a slightly bent pole. I would imagine a run away tent from a sand or gravel bar on a Yukon trip would be a major disaster.

Maybe some of those Orange Screws need to be added to my desert river kit?