THE SIMPLE ANSWER: THE BEST PLACE TO SET UP CAMP IS WHERE YOU BELIEVE YOU'LL LEAVE THE LEAST AMOUNT OF IMPACT IN THAT AREA.
It's very likely that you will not want to sleep right by the trail. Most people set up camp away from the trail for a few reasons: privacy, solitude, and safety. And depending on whether you're in a high-use or low-use area will determine how far you might wander off for a good camp spot.
Before I jump into a deeper dive, let me briefly touch on the safety note. As a woman, I'm not particularly interested in having random folks know where I'm sleeping. It's a vulnerable state so I like being tucked away sort of hidden somewhere. I've also noticed that sometimes wildlife will use trails. Makes sense, it's the path of least resistance. With that said, it's not like there's a line of wildlife on the trail, but it's not uncommon to come across a large pile of bear scat (aka: poop) in the middle of the trail in bear country. For those reasons, I'm not particularly keen on sleeping right next to a trail.
If you're in a high-use area...
It's best to camp where you can see someone else has already camped. These areas tend to be obvious because the ground has no vegetation and it's very impacted. If an area is high-use, you want to help by staying on those impacted areas instead of wandering off and impacting more of that environment.
Sometimes you need to get a backcountry camping permit, which means it could come with a designated campsite for a designated day. You'll need to know and follow these regulations.
If you're in a low-use remote area...
You want to find a durable campsite where you won't be crushing vegetation and where your impact will be minimal. Think of it like this: "Where can I camp so someone wouldn't even be able to tell I camped here?" Basically, you want to minimize your mark in that space. This even applies to the route you take to go to your water source, and the route you take to get back to camp. The less you walk on the same path, the less it looks like a trail, which equals more impact.
And before you leave camp in a remote area, you'll want to cover your tracks so that your campsite doesn't look like a campsite. This isn't just to hide your secret spot, but it's so that someone won't impact the same spot and cause further damage. It's the repeated use with little recovery time that causes harm.
- Wear soft camp shoes to avoid trampling all over vegetation
- Try to camp away from water's edge. The recommended distance is 200 feet (or 70 adult steps). This allows access for wild life.
- Keep your campsite clean and leave it better than you found it for the next camper.
- Choose to step on durable surfaces (a rock versus soft fragile vegetation).
Read more in depth info about Leave No Trace Principle 2: Traveling and camping on durable surfaces