What is Primitive Camping?

Travel Inspiration

Camping today can run the gamut from luxurious glamping in a tent with twinkle lights and showers and possibly someone preparing your meals, to tent camping at a sociable campground with people on all sides (leaving you feeling like you never really left civilization!). Primitive camping, however, is on the complete other end of the spectrum. Primitive camping is done in the backcountry, with no facilities or electricity. You often don’t need reservations or have a campsite fee because you set up camp where you like. You likely won’t even have a vehicle at your site, since most backcountry areas are accessible only on foot, sometimes on horseback, or possibly by canoe or kayak.

What is primitive camping?

You’ll need to rely on yourself and your camping buddies to be a successful primitive camper since everything you need must be packed in (and back out when you’re finished!) You’ll need to bring your own food, water, and shelter, and you’re on your own if you need first aid or protection from animals and weather.

Why do people primitive camp?

Although it seems like primitive camping may be hard work for what is supposed to be a vacation, there are lots of reasons people enjoy secluded primitive camping. It’s the perfect antidote to a busy, noisy daily life in the city. Not surprisingly, areas that can only be reached by hiking are much quieter and more pristine than the crowded big city. Even a campground with reservations and a few amenities is likely to be more crowded than the backcountry. Once you get away from crowds, you’re also more likely to see wildlife, and star-strewn skies, and more of nature than you would otherwise.

Pros of Primitive Camping

Primitive camping is much cheaper than RV camping or renting a cabin and glamping. You simply need the basic survival gear you carry on your back. You don’t need to worry about motorhome maintenance or towing a trailer or paying for all the fuel that goes with either one. Since you bring everything with you in a backpack, you’re also not tethered to one spot – simply pack up your stuff in the morning and move on to another campsite when you wish.

Also, the feeling you get when you have survived a primitive camping trip with no help from the outside world is a great one. You and any camping companions are relying only on yourselves and each other to stay alive in the wilderness. It’s up to you to provide food and shelter, to take care of yourself, and to get back to civilization at the end of your trip. It’s a great boost in self-esteem to realize what you’re truly capable of.

Cons of Primitive Camping

The cons of primitive camping are fairly obvious – it’s not as comfortable as sleeping in your own bed. If you like modern plumbing and daily showers, this is a huge change. There likely won’t even be cell phone service.

You’ll need a basic set of skills to primitive camp as well. Make sure you can build a fire, know how to set up your tent, and have a knowledge of first aid in case you need it. You’ll also have to know how to keep your food cold if it needs it, how to filter water, how to protect your food from bears, and what to do in a sudden thunderstorm. If you’re new to backcountry camping, you may want to go with a more experienced friend or take a class at a local sporting goods store like REI to learn more before you go.

Primitive Camping Near Me

Once you’ve determined you have the skills for primitive camping comes the fun part – planning your trip! First, decide where you’d like to go. The mountains? Near a lake? Which part of the country?

RVshare has a comprehensive guide to camping at national parks across the country that could be a good source of inspiration for you. Or you could try a state park, either in your home state or one you’re interested in visiting. If you plan to camp in one of these parks, be sure to visit the website for that location so you can read advice from park rangers, and so you can check on any rules for backcountry campers. Many places require you to either have a permit, or to check in at a visitor’s center so officials know you’re out there. You may also have to submit your plans ahead of time, so be sure you know the requirements before you arrive for your trip.

What do you need for primitive camping?

Backpacking is always a delicate balance. You’ll want to make sure you have the essentials to survive, but don’t forget you’ll be carrying them all yourself! As a general rule, REI advises that your backpack should not weigh more than 20% of your overall body weight. A 150-lb person should carry a 30-lb pack. Fortunately, there are plenty of backpacking supplies that have been engineered to weigh as little as possible while still getting the job done. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Shelter: You either need a small tent you’ll be packing in, or a rooftop camper tent if you’re driving to your destination. You’ll also need a sleeping bag.
  • Food: If you’re concerned about pack weight, you may want to purchase dehydrated backpacking meals. If you’re an angler or hunter, you may survive off what you catch but you’ll want some food for backup just in case.
  • Water: Either pack in all the water you will use, or if you’re near a water source, pack a filter or purification tablets to keep from getting sick. A general rule for staying hydrated is to plan on a half-liter of water per hour of moderate activity in moderate temperatures. You’ll need more if you’re more active, or if it’s hotter, and you should bring extra.
  • Cooking: Consider how you’ll be preparing your meals. You’ll need either a small backpacking stove, along with fuel and matches, or a way to start a fire if those are allowed where you’re camping. You may want a small axe for firewood as well. Don’t forget pots, pans, or silverware – often a mess kit will include all the necessary items, or you may be able to purchase a small multi-purpose pot that you can use both to cook and eat.
  • Clothing and personal items: Lightweight, moisture-wicking clothing is best for backpacking. Be sure to pack layers as it will likely be colder in the morning than later in the day. Wool socks and sweaters are helpful because they provide warmth even after getting wet, but they can be bulky. Fortunately, there are many companies that now specialize in state-of-the-art hiking and backpacking clothing. You can purchase these items new, or try a site like eBay or Poshmark for gently used clothing that is still perfectly wearable and much cheaper!
  • Flashlight or headlamp: You’ll likely be in bed just after dark, but you’ll want a light source just in case
  • Compass and map: Be sure you know your route ahead of time if you’re backpacking. Have a compass (and learn how to use it!) and map in case you get lost
  • First aid: Have a simple first aid kit for bug bites, sprains, cuts, and other mishaps, and be sure you know the basics for treating these injuries.
  • Satellite phone or communication: Not everyone brings this, but it’s a good idea to have a way to communicate in an emergency. Check ahead of time to see if there is cell phone service, and if not, consider purchasing, renting, or borrowing a satellite phone.
  • Permits or other paperwork: Bring any backcountry permits or other papers required by the park where you’re camping.

Primitive camping isn’t necessarily the easiest way to vacation, but those who love it say the chance to unplug from society (and social media) for a while and to see nature in ways most of the country never will are well worth the effort!