Primitive Camping for Hikers

Sometimes, when hiking, you may decide you want to camp nearby. This may be because the hike takes up most of the day and you want to settle nearby for the night. You may be backpacking and need to camp during the hike. Either way, there are some important things to know and some cool things you can do to make sure you have a great experience.

I personally am a huge fan of dispersed camping. Dispersed camping is camping in a place in which there are no bathrooms, running water, or hookups. In other words, it is wilderness camping. And it’s generally free. Also sometimes referred to as rustic camping, boondocking, or primitive camping, it’s a great way to avoid crowds, really get to camp in the wilderness, and generally avoid paying money. If you are on National Forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, chances are you can just pitch a tent where you want. Generally, you have to be situated some distance away from roads, bodies of water, and trails. Often, there are primitive sites already established, where others have created fire rings and cleared the ground for tents. It is preferable that you use these areas because it focuses the environmental impact of many campers on one place rather than spreading it out over several areas. There may be fire restrictions or other special regulations. But you can easily find out anything you need to know by calling the local BLM or National Forest office. Please note that dispersed camping is generally not allowed on National Park lands, except in certain areas with a permit. Contact the National Park for specific information. Please make sure you are not camping on private land without permission. I love dispersed camping because it really offers the opportunity for seclusion and it takes away the crutch of some modern conveniences. Make sure you plan out exactly where you will try to set up camp. I have made the mistake of winging it a few times with disastrous consequences. Once, while visiting Mesa Verde in Colorado, my companions and I nearly had to sleep in a sketchy motel because the road to our National Forest primitive campsite was closed during the month we were there. We ended up being lucky enough to be near a city with a KOA campsite and had to pay $30 to stay there (way too much). Now I always research to make sure I can camp where I want to and see whether I need a permit (all it takes is a phone call or two). And I always try to have a plan B in case something goes wrong.

Whether you are camping on the trail or car-camping after a hike, make sure you plan it out and get there before dark so you can check out the area and get set up. Know when sunset will happen. I would be there no less than an hour before sunset if you have to set up a tent and gather firewood, especially if it’s a place you have never been (which is frequently the case for me).

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I have even camped in shelters made from a tarp.

If you are camping in bear country, it is crucial that you make all food, toiletries (lip balm, shampoo, mouthwash, toothpaste), drinks, candy, and other such objects out of reach from bears. Bears have an amazing sense of smell and will come from long distances to the source of the smell. I have heard stories of campers taking candy in a tent just to have a bear tear into the tent in the night, looking for the candy. You should keep it away from your tent, either locked inside a car, in a bear canister, or in a bear hang. If you are out on a trail, chances are you will need to do a bear hang. Bring a strong bag (I use a cheap waterproof plastic bag from Outdoor Products that I got at Walmart. I use some rope (I like to use strong paracord), swing it over a strong branch in a tall tree, and hoist the bag up out of reach of bears. This requires it to be at least ten feet off the ground because a grizzly can reach fairly high. It also means it needs to be about four feet from the trunk. If it is any closer, a bear could climb the tree and reach it. I also cook my food at least a hundred feet away from my tent, and try to build the fire downwind, so a bear won’t pass by my tent on the way to the fire ring during the night. You are generally safe from bears in your campsite if you follow these protocols.

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Creating a bear hang. Source: http://www.princeton.edu/~oa/images/manual/14bearbag.gif

By dispersed or back-country-permit camping, you get to see areas rarely seen. You may discover a few favorite campsites. I have a favorite spot near Jackson Hole, Wyoming where I stay every time I visit the area. And it offers unmatched views of the valley and the Tetons. It is a place I will come back to again and again. I have a couple places in Utah and Idaho I can say the same thing about. It is less convenient than paying to stay in a developed site, but it can offer unparalleled experiences.

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