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What Does Primitive Camping Mean?

Primitive Camping means a style of remote, non-reservation camping where the camper lacks basic amenities such as running water, restrooms or electricity. Primitive campgrounds can be found in secluded areas of state or national parks (or other locations) where the camper must carry all sleeping gear, food and other supplies by foot to the campsite. 

Primitive Camping, or backcountry camping, is all about testing one’s independence, skillmanship and self-reliance in a remote, outdoor setting. It is a way to escape the growing crowds of popular campsites in favor of solitude and freedom from distraction. 


  • Primitive camping tests independence and self-reliance
  • Requires skills such as fire-starting, pitching a tent, understanding local wildlife and basic first aid (should something go wrong) 
  • More affordable alternative to RVing or cabin rental
  • Careful planning required to ensure adequate supplies  
  • Critical to be a steward of the environment and “leave no trace”


Understanding Primitive Camping

Sanctioned primitive campsites can be found in state and national parks (among other locations) where there are few or no amenities to assist with the camping experience. Primitive campsites lack running water, electrical hookups, restrooms and most other common amenities that can be found at paying campsites. 

Camping tent attached to tree
Primitive camping tests self-reliance skills

Primitive camping requires that the camper have a certain set of outdoor skills that will allow them to survive in the wild for a period of days with no outside assistance. These skills should include:

  • Fire Starting
  • Tent Pitching
  • Navigation
  • Understanding of local wildlife
  • How to source clean water

Not only a test of outdoor aptitude and self-reliance, camping is scientifically proven to improve problem-solving skills, foster self-confidence and enhance self-awareness.

Prior to embarking on a primitive camping excursion, campers are urged to check with local authorities that they are lawfully permitted to camp on the land. Many state and national parks maintain designated primitive camping areas that may be located near sources of fresh water such as ponds, lakes, streams or rivers. 

Prior to Leaving On The Primitive Camping Trip 

Primitive camping requires additional planning and preparation than the typical camping trip. Without running water, electricity, bathrooms or nearby first-aid, it is essential that the trip is well thought-out from both a supply and safety perspective prior to leaving. 

The key to a safe and successful backwoods camping excursion is planning. Below are the steps to consider prior to leaving on a primitive camping trip: 

Informing Family and/or Friends of Location

The most important step you can take prior to a primitive camping trip is to notify friends and family of the exact location where you will be camping. This means not only the park you will be staying in, but the exact location (or closest approximation) where you will be staying in the park. 

Most primitive camping sites will not have cellular or wifi service, and even if they do, power will quickly drain without a source of electricity. It is absolutely critical that others know your whereabouts in the case of emergency. 

Park Ranger Vehicle
It is critical to inform others of the planned camping location

In addition to notifying a close personal contact, it is wise to notify the park ranger or local authority of your whereabouts. Sometimes it is a requirement to first check in with the authority, but even if it is not, it is certainly best practice from a safety standpoint. 

Prior to leaving for your trip, provide your contact with the following: 

  • the location of the campsite; 
  • any personal health information or requirements in case of an emergency; and
  • exact dates and times you will be leaving and returning from your trip. 

Communication is critical during the planning stages and can mean the difference between life and death should something go wrong on your trip. 

Packing the Appropriate Provisions

While some primitive campsites can be accessed by vehicles, primitive camping typically requires that the camper carry his or her own supplies to the designated campsite. This means that supplies must be very carefully thought out to account for size, weight and other restrictions that would make it difficult to navigate in rough terrain. 

Girl Hiking Picture
Packing the right gear is essential for a safe and successful primitive camping trip  

When packing for a primitive camping trip one must account for factors such as:  

  • Length of trip
  • Weather forecast
  • Nutritional needs
  • Health needs
  • Essential supplies 

Packing for a primitive camping trip is more science than art, and it is critical to be able to estimate exactly what you need. Both over packing or under packing can lead to unanticipated consequences that can cut the trip short – or worse. 

A typical primitive camping supplies list will include: 

  • Shelter (tent, tarp, sleeping bag)
  • Light Source (flashlight, lantern, battery operated candles) 
  • Fire Starting Supplies (matches, lighter, firestarter) 
  • Light cookware (pot, pan, spatula, bowl) 
  • Fresh Water (gallon jugs, water bottle, water purification tablets) 
  • Non-perishable food sources
  • Clothing (including heavy-duty rain gear)
  • Miscellaneous Supplies (insect repellent, book, towel, thermos, etc.) 

A more complete list of packing supplies can be found at Sky Above Us

Know the Local Regulations

Prior to setting off on a backcountry camping trip, it is critical to know the rules and regulations for the camping spot. While it may feel like you are the only person for miles, state and federal laws govern the use of camping sites including what can and cannot be done on particular stretches of property. 

No Camping Here Sign
You must heed all rules and regulations for your safety

Some common regulations include: 

  • Areas that require a permit to camp; 
  • Areas that only allow camping during certain times of the year; 
  • Areas where campfires are not permitted; 
  • Areas where hunting and/or fishing are not permitted or not permitted without a valid license; 
  • Areas that have elevation requirements for camping during certain times a year; 
  • Areas that are designated as a state or national preserve where no camping is permitted. 

While it may seem intrusive to limit activities on wide-open land, rules and regulation are put in place both for the maintenance of the land and for personal safety reasons. Ignoring regulations may put you or someone else at harm and can also be a civil or criminal offense. 

Primitive Campsites: The Basics

If carefully planned, the camper should have the know-how, supplies and safety measures in place to enjoy a meaningful and safe trip. Once at the primitive campsite, there are a few other important pieces of information to ensure the trip goes off according to plan: 

Picking A Campsite

Tent In Forest
A flat, hard surface is best to set up camp

Once you have chosen the general area for your camping trip, one of the most important decisions to be made is where to pitch your campsite. Here are a few considerations that should factor in the decision: 

  1. Pick a flat site with hard soil. It will be difficult to stake a tent in loose, sandy soil; 
  2. Pick a site that provides shelter from the elements. While camping under the stars might be romantic, unprotected campsites will leave you exposed to weather extremes such as sun, wind and rain; 
  3. Pick a site clear of falling debris – falling branches from old trees present an unanticipated risk especially on windy or rainy days; 
  4. If you are camping near a body of water, make sure to set up camp a good distance away from the water source (150 feet is the minimum recommended); 
  5. Never camp downhill from large rocks or boulders; 
  6. Never camp in an area that is prone to flash flooding; 

Picking the right camp site should allow for a safe and reasonably comfortable shelter for the duration of the trip. Choosing the wrong site will require both extra time and physical exertion to take down and re-pitch a shelter – robbing you of valuable time on your trip. 

Fire Safety  

Providing warmth, light and a steady cooking source fires are a critical tool for outdoor survival. Most primitive camping trips will include a fire. It is incumbent on the camper to ensure that he/she safely knows how to light, maintain and put out a fire. 

Here are a few fire safety tips that all campers should be aware of courtesy of New York State Department of Environmental Conversation: [1]New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

  • Never build fires in an area where campfires are prohibited; 
  • Fires should be built in existing fire pits or fireplaces if provided; 
  • Ideally, campfires should be less than 3 feet in height and 4 feet wide in diameter;
  • Campfires should be built far away from dry leaves or grass, overhanging branches, steep slopes and rotten stumps or logs;
  • Rake away any burnable material within a 10 foot diameter prior to building the campfire; 
  • Pile any extra wood a good distance from the fire; and 
  • Extinguish fires with water and stir ashes until they are cold to the touch.

Leaving No Trace

Part of the ethos of primitive camping is leaving the land exactly how you found it. It is not only the right thing to do, but it ensures that local, state and federal bodies can keep these lands open for future generations. 

What does “Leave No Trace” mean? The Center for Outdoor Ethics provides 7 easily understood principles for campers to follow:  

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimize campfire impacts
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of other visitors. 

Trashed natural areas. Polluted waters. Raging campfires. These are all the result of negligent camping practices that damage Earth’s precious resources. Leaving no trace is essential to securing the continued viability of the beautiful primitive camping sites around the globe. 

Related RV Terms: 

For related RV terminology, please reference the RV definitions below:

  • Cowboy Camping: A form of minimalist camping where a person relies on basic gear and sleeps under the open sky.
  • Dry Camping: A style of RV camping, typically at a national or state park, with no hookups (sewer, water, electric).  
  • Walk-Up Camping: Where campers must physically show up at the campgrounds to reserve a site. At walk up campgrounds, sites are given to campers on a first-come, first serve basis.

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