What is a perfect campsite? This is a difficult question to answer since you can't always just find a flat piece of ground and take that as your space. Use area restrictions, terrain, water sources, and crowds, just to name a few, play a big part in selecting THE spot. But to make that selection just a tad easier, here are some tips.
One of my most memorable campsites was one I picked out in the Sangre de Christos outside of Santa Fe. Having backpacked up the trail late in the day, I arrived well after dark, finding the perfect site overlooking the lights of Santa Fe. Well, what seemed like the perfect site turned out to be more of a 10% incline than a flat surface on dirt that was a bit too hard to get the tent stakes all the way into the ground. Midway through the night when I had to get up to do my thing (pee), I noticed I had rolled just enough to be sleeping on the door of the tent. Which is my segue to the list and tip number one...
1) Avoid arriving at camp after dark! And while this is tough to do sometimes, do your best to find level ground if it is not obvious. Not that you would be carrying a level with you, maybe test the site with a roll of medical tape. If it rolls, you are on a slant. Not rolling still does not mean you are not on a slant - just saying.
2) Try to camp where others have before you. This is a Leave Not Trace principle to leave as little impact in the backcountry as possible. Instead of forging new ground, so to speak, select a space that someone else already cleared for camp before you. This keeps the area looking less used and trampled.
3) However, when camping in a "used" space, avoid a space that looks hollow - like where a puddle could form if you get rain. Tents are not water proof so if they are soaking in a puddle of water, they will leak and you will have a very wet sleeping bag. When camping in the desert, this is tough to avoid as the ground does not absorb water and even less so on ground that is well-trodden. Find something with a slight slope - contrary to the slope that will have you rolling down hill in the middle of the night.
4) Find a campsite near water - as apposed to in water like in tip 3. Of course this is easier said than done and when you research your backpacking route, do more than just look at a map. Maps will show water sources, but they do not tell you about source reliability. Hiking in the desert Southwest is a perfect example as springs are usually seasonal and most are charged in the spring. And even places where water is ample, like Yosemite National Park, drought can have a huge impact on the normal abundance of water. Conversely, be certain you are researching if there is too much water over a season as that can result in washed out trails, campsites and swollen, impassible waterways. And finally, be sure you know what you need to use to filter your water. Some water sources are very clean and easy to filter. Others, like the Colorado or Paria Rivers, are extremely silty and will clog your filter after the first liter.
5) Set up where you have shade in the afternoon and sun in the morning. This will provide you a cool space from the afternoon sun, but get you warmed up in the chilly mornings - this is especially handy when you are hiking in dry climates like in Arizona where you can be hiking during the day in 80 degrees but the nights drop to 40.
6) Before pitching a tent, test the ground with tent stakes. You will want to be certain you can actually drive the stakes into the ground before going through the hassle of putting up your tent and can;t secure it in place.
7) If you are expecting wind, set up your tent with the narrowest side of the tent into the wind and near something that can help break the wind like a cliff face, large, strong trees or large boulders. You will have a quieter night and lessen your change of causing some major damage to your tent.
8) For your own sanity, try to stay away from all the crowds. This is not always possible, expecially when camping in places like Grand Canyon National Park where campsites are designated in the more popular places like Bright Angel campground and can hild up to 90 people. When you opt to hike off the beaten path, you are granted more freedom of choice for camp spots and fewer folks.
9) And for some post tent care, take your tent out after every trip to allow it to dry out completely, clean it up and repack it losely. Store in a dry place out of direct light and in a loose container.
For more great camping tips, Grand Canyon hiking stories about people carrying their cats into the canyon, Yosemite trail advice, and more, check out our blog or our Expert Advice page on the JRI website.