You know, this is such an easy topic to discuss and such a difficult one at the same time. For someone like me who has been camping for almost 35 yrs, choosing a good campsite is something I don't even think about - you just do it automatically.
It is a lot like driving a car in that regard. I remember when I was learning to drive a manual car at 16 yrs of age. You had to put your foot on the brake, and let the clutch out slowly, and accelerate, all the while looking in your rear view mirror, turning your indicators on etc etc. There seemed to be so many things to do in exactly the right order and at the same time! But once you've been doing it a long time you don't even think about it anymore, it becomes automatic.
When I started jotting down ideas on how I would put together this post it occurred to me that before you start learning about what makes a good campsite there is a few other critical factors you need to look at first. For example, if I asked you what kind of clothes are best for hiking, what would you say? Well, that depends! Where are you? What is the weather like? What time of year is it? What conditions are you likely to experience? Rather than give you a list of what to do I think it would be more informative to ask you a lot of questions. Most people are good at answering questions and coming up with solutions to fix a problem and most of the skill of camping is really just common sense. The problem with inexperienced campers is they often forget to ask themselves the right questions.
A good campsite selection begins at home
A good trip anywhere will start with good planning. There are a lot of things you can do before you even set off that will greatly enhance your camping experience. The first thing you need to ask is what sort of camping are you going to be doing? Will it be a few days in the one spot or will you change location each day? The length of time you will camp at a spot will make a big difference in your decision making. How many people will there be? Who are they? What experience do they have in camping? Answering these questions will help make a decision on where to camp. If you are a family of two adults and two kids under 5 yrs old camping in a public campground next to your vehicle, your needs will be very different to a couple of 20 yr old college students through hiking a walking trail.
By this I mean geographic location. For example, I live in Australia. I read a lot of blogs from USA talking about the necessity of using bear canisters or bear bags to protect your food from bears. We don't have bears here, but we do have 9 of the 10 deadliest species of snakes on earth. So camping here will require different skills than in USA, or Patagonia. If you are camping in Australia and you are not a fan of snakes you might consider hanging yourself from the trees in a hammock rather than your food! If you are travelling to another country, ecosystem, culture or climate zone, find out as much local knowledge as you can before you go. You may have to learn some new skills when you arrive and it would be great if you could at least identify them before you go!
Will you be camping on the equator in a steamy humid jungle or above the tree line in the Rocky Mountains? You might be in the Australian outback where temperatures can soar to over 120 degrees F or in the vast tundra of Canada. This will play a big part in your decision to find a good camping location.
I love visiting North America it is so beautiful there and I will never get tired of it. One of the things I love about America is that in some areas the four different seasons are so pronounced. If I were to visit the White Mountains of New Hampshire I would get a completely different experience hiking there in summer and spring than I would in winter. Fall or Autumn is my favourite season in New Hampshire, It just explodes in the most vibrant colours on earth. Depending on which season you venture out in will also make a big difference, it's like it is a whole new world each time.
The weather plays a big role in your camping experience. Your attitude to the weather can also make a huge difference. This is something that you start researching before you leave home if you are going for a short duration. It is also helpful to look at the weather patterns for that area and time of the year. Just because it is sunny and warm now does not mean it will be tomorrow. Weather in the mountains can change very rapidly indeed. While you can plan diligently, one cannot guarantee the weather so you will need to come prepared for the worst that is likely for that area and time of year. Don't go overboard, there is no point packing a ski jacket for a summer holiday in Hawaii.
Get yourself a map of the area you are going into. Plan your trip on the map before you head out. Plan where you will be at the end of each day and identify some good locations for a campsite nearby. It is good if you can find at least a couple of different options in case your plans change.