What is Primitive Camping?
Modern camping trends are varied and vast, with many people choosing to opt-out of traditional tent camping in favor of glamping or using an RV. These allow for camping to be more accessible to everyone, but some people think the comforts and luxuries are excessive, and not what camping is about. More and more, campers are being drawn towards primitive camping for a new challenge. With no crowds, electric hookups, campsite reservations or bathrooms, it’s the perfect little escape from modern life. If you’re not sure, but your interest is piqued, read on to find out whether primitive camping is right for you.
Primitive camping defined
Often referred to as backcountry camping, primitive camping disregards traditional campsites with bathrooms, offices and running water. Instead, take a hike in the opposite direction and find a wilder and more secluded area of the state park to pitch your tent. The whole point of primitive camping is complete independence, and self-reliance. Everything you need, you have to bring with you on your back. This kind of separation from the modern world can do wonders for primitive campers, it’s a great time to reflect on the important things, and take in some beautiful scenery at the same time.
If you’re going primitive camping, preparedness is the name of the game. Food, water, and tent shelter are all basic requirements for your camping trip, and if you forget something, there’s no neighbor or site office to help. Primitive camping is usually free on public grounds. As well as relying solely on items you bring with you, authentic primitive camping requires making your way to the campsite without the use of technology either. This means you can hike on foot, ride a bike or horse, or row a boat. Driving your car right up to the campsite essentially defeats the point.
Note: Primitive camping is different from dry camping, where you have no access to water or electric hookups, but may still be on a campground.
Why go primitive camping?
There are many benefits to primitive camping and lots of different reasons you might choose to try it on your next adventure:
- It’s a new challenge: leaving behind all the amenities and luxuries we depend on in our day-to-day lives can be a struggle, but survival enthusiasts love the adventure.
- Get some peace: Being out in nature, with no man-made structures in sight, can be incredibly peaceful. Backcountry camping is a great way to de-stress and reconnect with the environment.
- It’s usually free: Primitive camping makes a great budget vacation. Of course, you will have had to pay for your camping gear, but with no booking fees, and plenty of free activities to be enjoyed in nature, you can get a lot for your dollar.
- There are no neighbors: Unlike regular campsites, there are no rules regarding noise, meaning you can play as much music or be as rowdy as you feel like, without disturbing other campers. Conversely, if your aim is peace and quiet, there are no other campers to disturb you, only the calming sounds of the state forest or park.
Before you go
If you’re planning to take a primitive camping trip, there are a few things you should know. Many people enjoy the loneliness and far-apart experience gained from camping away from campgrounds and other campers, but of course, it’s not for everyone, so the first thing to consider is whether you would enjoy being on your own.
It’s also a big responsibility to camp independently. You must always make sure to leave no trace when backcountry camping, meaning leaving the environment in the same state in which you found it. The whole idea of primitive camping is to do it in the most natural way possible, which means being responsible in the way you treat your campsite. Leave no litter or any other debris, and just generally be respectful to the environment and to those who may come after you. Another thing that can put off some campers is the lack of functioning toilets. Although a big part of primitive camping is having no access to plumbing, it is possible to find primitive camping areas with toilets.
Different ways to primitive camp
You have two options when deciding on a primitive camping trip; backpacking or organized primitive camping.
Backpacking generally refers to camping with only what will fit in your backpack. Usually, this consists of hiking for several days and setting up camp along the way. Unfortunately, only advanced campers can really experience this purest form of primitive camping. The amount of planning and preparation necessary, as well as an intimate knowledge of the craft, means it’s simply not safe for inexperienced campers. It requires heavy reliance on survival skills but can be incredibly rewarding if done successfully.
Organized Primitive Camping is a slightly less wild option. It entails camping in designated primitive camping areas. Usually, these are areas of state parks or forests situated far away from traditional campsites. They still require you to leave your vehicle and hike to a remote spot, but they make a great option for those who want to dabble in primitive camping. You should still get the experience of being alone in nature and self-reliant, but with a little more peace of mind if you aren’t 100% confident in your skills.
Pros and cons of primitive camping
- Avoids the hassles of reservation campgrounds, like overbooking, noisy neighbors and limited space.
- Enjoy nature without the distractions.
- Freedom to camp exactly wherever you want.
- Cheaper alternative; no site fees, lower fuel costs
- No luxuries like soft beds and fancy bathrooms.
- There’s unlikely to be cell phone service.
- It requires skills most people don’t have, like starting fires and basic first aid.
- No amenities like food refrigeration or clean water supply
There are plenty of both benefits and downsides to primitive camping, but at the end of the day, it comes down to your taste for adventure.
What you’ll need to pack
Planning a primitive camping expedition takes organization and strategy. Overpacking can lead to problems when hiking to your site, as you could easily be on the trails for a few days, so packing light is a must. On the other hand, it’s important to ensure you have all the essentials, as there will be no spare equipment available if you forget an important piece of gear.
- Tent: We would recommend using a small standard tent for primitive camping, with the most important thing to consider being the weight, remember you’ll need to carry it to your campsite. You’ll also need a hammer for the stakes.
- Food Supplies: This includes water or water purification tablets, food for meals and any equipment you need for cooking (for example a camping stove), if you plan to hunt or fish you’ll need your gear for this, but you should always take some food in case you’re unsuccessful.
- Backcountry Permit: Some national parks require permits to primitive camp on the grounds, so make sure to look this up before you go.
- Clothing: You’ll need climate-appropriate clothing and a decent pair of hiking boots.
- Camping Equipment: We recommend bringing a sleeping bag, map, sunscreen, first aid kit, pocket knife, and ax for firewood, as required, and anything else you may need if you’re planning to light a fire. We even have an up-to-date buying guide if you’re in the market for a new camping hatchet.
Picking a destination
Backcountry Camping is all about the location. With the whole premise being about going off the beaten track and into the wild, picking your camp trip destination is an important part of the process. The United States offers a whopping 59 national parks and state parks to choose from, each with their own unique natural features and attractions. For those who walk the path less traveled, here are three of our favorite primitive camping destinations:
- Great Sand Dunes, Colorado: At the foot of the Rocky Mountains lie North America’s highest sand dunes. Here you can hike up to an elevation of 7,500 feet, where you can pitch your tent in complete isolation and enjoy an unpolluted and stunning view of the night sky.
- Olympic National Park, Washington: For some quintessential beach camping, check out the Olympic Coast in Washington. This is one of the few locations with access to beach camping year-round, with rocket beaches featuring tide pools and plenty of driftwood for campfires.
- Canyonlands National Park, Utah: Chesler Park in the Canyonlands National Park is a great spot for primitive camping
Choosing a campsite
Choosing your campsite is an integral part of primitive camping. Unlike regular campgrounds, where your site would have been carefully chosen and prepared in advance, primitive camping requires you to find your own. Take into consideration the kind of cover you require, if you need any extra protection from the elements. Additionally, take note of water sources nearby and proximity to wildlife.
If you’re heading to a known primitive camping spot, you might be able to find a previously existing campsite. If possible, its much better to find one of these than pick out a whole new spot, as it minimizes the effect all campers have on the surrounding environment. Camping in an area affects the flora and fauna nearby, and even the soil, so using an existing campsite will minimize your negative impact. When in doubt, follow the “Leave No Trace” guidelines, explained later in this article.
Food and water
Many people’s first question when it comes to primitive camping is “What will I eat?” Many campers go hunting or catch fish, or else simply pack basic meals to bring along.
If you plan to hunt or fish, you’ll need to bring all the necessary equipment with you. Hunting gear including any tools needed to prepare any meat is essential, and for fishing, you’ll need rods, reels, and bait. Even if you are an experienced hunter or fisher, we do not recommend relying on this as your primary source of food. Even the most seasoned primitive campers can fail to catch their dinner sometimes, so always have a contingency plan. Once you know what your food source is going to be, you’ll need to consider how you’re going to cook it. Most campers opt for a small camping stove, and alternatively, you could use a campfire when appropriate.
Being the most vital part of our survival at human beings, locating a good quality water supply is a hugely important part of planning your trip. One option is to simply carry with you all the water needed for your excursion. This is the simplest solution, but not the most convenient. Not including water for other purposes, you’ll need at least 2 liters of clean drinking water every day. Even for short trips, this is a lot of extra weight to hike with on your back. Water purification tablets provide a water source much easier on your muscles, but if you decide to use them then your destination must be carefully planned to be near a good water source. In any case, we recommend to always take a few liters of clean emergency water, as camping in the wild can be uncertain.
Backcountry camping is closely associated with sitting around the campfire. Building one successfully is a quintessential joy of really feeling like you’re being self-sufficient in the wild, and you can bet there’ll be some s’mores involved. Unfortunately, there are wildfires in the National Forest every year, and some of these are campfires which campers lost control of. We all know the importance of fire safety, like Smokey the Bear says, “Only you can prevent wildfires.”
The first step in building a campfire in any situation is to know if it’s allowed. It’s your responsibility to learn about any fire restrictions around your campsite, which you can learn about from the Forest Service office. Only build campfires if the conditions are allowing, not when it’s dry or the environment is otherwise hazardous.
When picking your spot, always look for an existing fire ring first. Re-using a site where a campfire has been previously reducing new scarring of rocks, plants, and soil. Go at least 15 feet from tent walls, trees, or anything flammable, and be wary of low hanging branches. Choose an open and level location, away from any potential fuels, and finally make sure to check the wind level and direction before striking a match. Like your campsite itself, campfires should be at least 100 meters from any water source, in order to protect fragile vegetation. You should clean the area of grass at least 2 feet in diameter, before making a ring of rocks.
Think ahead about where your firewood is coming from. You can collect and use dead wood off the ground, never cut branches off living trees. If the availability of firewood is in question, just bring your own from home, or find an alternative to campfires altogether. Don’t forget that many animals, insects, and microorganisms living in the ground actually need some rotting wood to survive. In order to lessen environmental damage, try not to completely clear the floor of all deadwood.
Once you’ve had your fun, its imperative to properly put out your campfire every single time. You should be able to insert your whole hand into the ashes and remember to stir around the embers to make sure they’re all out. Many forest fires are caused by campfires abandoned before they’re completely out, so you want to avoid this at all costs. If you’re unsure in any way about campfire safety, or just feel like you need a refresher, please read the full Campfire Safety Guidelines.
Leave no trace
The last and arguably most important point to make is to leave no trace. Primitive campers even more than most should aim to preserve the land you camp on and leave it as you found it. The breathtaking scenery we can use primitive camping to appreciate won’t last if campers don’t treat it with respect. Always remove all garbage and take all your personal belongings when you leave, take a little satisfaction in leaving your campsite as if you were never there.
Primitive camping is a challenging and rewarding way to explore the great outdoors. There are new problems to overcome and satisfaction to be had over a completely independent trip. If you’re really looking to go the extra mile, read our guide on camping alone and consider is for your next excursion. All you need is a little bit of adventure in you, and there’s no reason you can’t enjoy our world’s beautiful nature exactly the way it was intended.