Everything You Need To Know About Primitive Camping


I have been primitive camping many times and didn’t even know it. Just like with many other outdoor activities, there are many different terms and definitions to learn. When I first heard the phrase “primitive camping” I knew that I had to find out everything there was to know about what it meant.

So what is primitive camping? Generally, primitive camping is defined as camping without any amenities, often in a remote location with very little proximity to others. Primitive camping consists of having no running water, no toilet, no electricity, and often no cell service.

It is because you will have such a lack of amenities, that you will need to be even more prepared compared to regular camping. Primitive camping is a unique experience unlike that of traditional camping, and all campers should try it at least once.

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First Things First, What Is Primitive Camping?

The word primitive refers to an extremely basic level of comfort, convenience, or efficiency. That is exactly what you will have if you decide to go primitive camping. It is the lack of modern conveniences and creature comforts that make primitive camping so unique.

You might not have thought of camping as being comfortable and convenient, but it really is when compared to primitive camping. Camping today has mainly become close to a hotel stay. You make reservations months in advance, you sleep on an air mattress with regular blankets, you have a restroom with flush toilets and running water in the sinks. Some even have electrical outlets for powering all of your electronics. All of these things add up to being pretty luxurious when you stop to think about it.

Now, I’m not saying that all campsites offer these types of amenities, but for those that do, it just doesn’t feel like camping. When have we crossed the bridge from camping into glamping? How blurred has that line become? Primitive camping offers and escape. It offers a way for us to redefine what camping actually is.

Primitive camping can go by many things, but really what it means is to lose the amenities, lose the modern comforts and just get back to nature and the real outdoors. If you are going to go primitive camping then you need to give up electricity, flush toilets, running water, pavement, and in most cases, cell service.

Here’s Why You Should Try Primitive Camping.

On the surface level just from the description, you might be wondering why anyone would give up those amenities in favor of having nothing at all. It’s a good question, but to really answer it we must look deeper into the meaning for us wanting to camp in the first place.

It presents a challenge

The first and probably most notable reason why you should try primitive camping is that it presents a challenge. Going outside of your comfort level can build a lot of character. If it is something that interests you even a little bit, then you should give it a try. The challenge is living and adapting to not having what we take advantage of every day, even if it is just for a short while.

It is peaceful and quiet

Traditional campgrounds can be loud places. You have dogs barking, cars driving around, people playing music, etc. Sometimes it feels more like a parking lot than an outdoor camping experience. If you want to really get away then you should try primitive camping. There are far fewer people willing to camp in a primitive way. Just because of that you will find yourself with fewer people. You could even camp primitively somewhere where you are all alone. Fewer people means less noise, except for the sounds of nature, which you can actually hear.

You can unplug

Every day in our lives we are attached to electronics and always connected. If you are reading this right now then you are connected, as I am writing this, I am connected. Going primitive can allow you some time away from electronics and some time away from the internet. It is actually pretty fulfilling to take a break from all of the information and let your mind rest.

It’s very cheap, or even free!

Because you will have no amenities, there isn’t much upkeep. Primitive camping is usually just the cost of a permit or if you are dispersed camping then there is no fee beyond basic passes. For example, if you have an America The Beautiful Pass or similar annual pass then you can enjoy camping primitively in most federal lands across the United States. Regular camping can be a little expensive when you have access to amenities, so you can save some money and get a richer experience.

Keep These Things In Mind Before You Try Primitive Camping.

You might need a permit

There are some federal lands that require you to fill out a permit before venturing off into their wilderness. Often these permits are free and filled out at a visitor center nearby where you plan to go, but sometimes they require to be filled out and approved in advance. It is best to check online to see if the place you plan on visiting requires any kind of permit. Do your research in advance of your trip to make sure you will be good for going primitive camping.

You might not be able to have a campfire

Some places where you might want to go primitive camping do not allow campfires. Often times fires are heavily restricted because an accident could be disastrous. In developed campgrounds, there are usually easy access roads for first responders to use, but when you are primitive camping those roads and directions may be unclear. It is because of this and many more reasons that some federal lands place harsh restrictions on people dispersed camping. Do some research to see if there are any fire restrictions before you go primitive camping.

You won’t be comfortable

Although this is something you should keep in mind, you should also embrace it. Now, it’s not like you will be lying naked on the cold hard ground with no food, water, or shelter, but you won’t have the convenience and comfort that you may be used to at regular campgrounds. You probably won’t have the most comfortable bed, you won’t have a sink with running water, you won’t have a toilet that flushes everything away, there will be no trash disposal, etc. It will be uncomfortable at first, but it is worth finding out if primitive camping is right for you.

You probably won’t have cell service or WIFI!

Okay, I am mostly joking about the Wi-Fi but not having cell phone reception means that you will be cut off from the outside world. You won’t be able to call anyone in a pinch. Be prepared for that, which brings me to my next topic.

You must tell someone about your plans

You need to let someone know where you plan on going, how you plan on getting there, how long you plan to be there, and when you will contact them again. Often times, it is this person or persons who will then be responsible for altering the necessary people just in case. I’m not saying that primitive camping is inherently dangerous, what I am saying that if there is a small chance that something could go wrong and you need someone that can help you if things go wrong for any reason.

Leave no trace

Another really important thing to keep in mind is to leave no trace. This means that you need to be responsible for yourself. Ideally, no one would know that you ever camped in the location that you did. Lnt.org gives us 7 principles to live by when camping. It applies to more than just primitive camping, but it is especially important that we follow them when doing so since we will be closer to the wilderness.

The seven principles are:

1. Plan ahead and prepare

2. Travel and 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

Where Can You Try Out Primitive Camping?

There are many places that you can try out primitive camping. Probably the best places are to stick with National Parks, State Parks, National Forests, and Bureau of Land Management Land (BLM). Often times, primitive is referred to as dispersed camping under most of these organizations. Dispersed camping generally means away from developed areas and with a lack of amenities just like primitive camping does. They are very similar in meanings and are often blurred together in their terminology.

National Parks

National Parks are often the first thing that comes to mind in most people’s minds when they think of camping. The National Park Service manages over 85 million acres of land in all 50 United States. They have 419 different units that they manage, and yet only 61 one of them is actually designated as a National Park. There is probably a National Park near you that you could try primitive camping. All National Parks have their own rules so check out the National Park Service website and do a search for the National Park that interests you so that you can find out its rules and regulations for primitive camping.

State Parks

State Parks are another great resource for finding primitive camping. There are 50 U.S. States and that means 50 different government-run state park systems. So do some research on your own state’s website to see what the rules are for primitive camping or dispersed camping.

National Forests

National Forests are probably second to National Parks for popularity and for being recognized. The U.S. forest system manages approximately 193 million acres of National Forests and Grasslands. There are many different National Forests just like there are many different National Parks. They all have their own rules for primitive/dispersed camping. They do however do a great job at making their information easily accessible on the Forest Service website. Do a search for a National Forest you are interested in and you will most likely find everything that you need.

BLM Land

The Bureau of Land Management is a lesser-known federal entity that holds a lot of federal lands. They actually oversee over 247.3 million acres, the BLM governs one-eighth of the country’s landmass. That is more land than the National Forests or The National Parks, and yet not as many newer campers know about the BLM. Odds are that if you live in the west then you are near BLM land. They do hold smaller amounts of land in the east as well, but their presence in the west is enormous.

What Do You Need To Bring With You When You Try Primitive Camping?

If you want to do some primitive camping then in most cases you will be bringing less gear. Backpacking is considered primitive camping in most situations, but here I will be discussing primitive camping where you basically drive to or near the spot where you will be camping. You don’t need a lot of gear to do primitive camping, but you do need to be more prepared with some extra things that you don’t usually need when going to a regular campground.

As for the essentials, if you are tent camping primitively then you will need:

  • Tent
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Sleeping Pad
  • Water
  • Food
  • Light Source
  • Shovel
  • Map
  • Permit
  • First Aid Kit
  • Toiletries
  • Clothing
  • Anything else you want

Mostly what you bring will depend on your situation like how long you will be camping, and where. For the most part, you will bring everything that you would normally bring camping. The difference lies in preparedness. You will need to bring enough water not only for drinking but for washing and dishes, washing your hands, washing your body, brushing your teeth, etc.

You will also need to bring enough food as it will probably be very inconvenient for you if you forgot something since you will be located away from civilization. So it is imperative that you double-check and triple-check your camping gear list to make sure you have everything before you leave to go primitive camping.

Consider bringing more emergency items like a first aid kit, a paper map of the area, a lot more water, and food than what you will actually eat, and things like that. If it is your first time camping away from a regular campground then I would stay relatively close to where you live and keep the camping trip on the shorter side. I enjoy it, and I think you will too if you give it a try.

Related Questions

What Is A Walk Up Campsite?

Not to be confused with a walk-in campsite where you have to walk away from your car before setting up camp, a walk-up campsite is a campsite that does not take reservations. It is essentially the same as a first-come, first-serve campsite, which I discuss in more detail in this article.

What Is The Difference Between Primitive and Backcountry?

Primitive means no amenities, whereas backcountry means no amenities and away from any development. Backcountry is the wild, where primitive simply means no amenities. Backcountry is always primitive, but primitive is not always in the backcountry. Backcountry is a popular term for backpackers.

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Zachary Smith

Zach is an avid outdoorsman that loves going camping with his Prius every chance he gets. He also regularly enjoys hiking and fishing. When he's not outside you can probably find him writing about it on this website. See his full bio here

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