What is Primitive Camping?

What we know as “primitive camping” today was once known by another name: camping. Before RVs, electric hook-ups, flush toilets, and running water, camping was simple and straightforward. (Though it could also be less comfortable and relaxing.) Decades ago, most campsites included room to pitch a tent, a fire ring, and little else. (And even the fire ring was optional.) Camping is an activity that has changed a lot over the years, but for some people, the appeal of this type of camping hasn’t diminished. In fact, in an increasingly busy and complex world, primitive camping offers simplicity and the chance to reconnect with the outdoors.

What is primitive camping?

primitive camping in the mountains

Today “primitive camping” usually refers to tent camping at sites that lack amenities like electricity, running water, fire rings, or picnic tables. Campgrounds—both public and private—often offer primitive campsites but they may refer to them as “tent sites.” It’s also possible to go primitive camping in areas that don’t have designated sites at all.

Backcountry camping and dispersed camping are types of primitive camping that take place in public lands or wilderness areas. State forests, national forests, national parks, and other types of public land often allow visitors to hike or drive to more remote areas where they can set up camp. (Sometimes at designated sites, sometimes not.) Each forest or park will have its own rules, so it’s best to check with rangers ahead of time so you know where and how to camp.

No matter where you camp, primitive camping usually requires you to be self-sufficient and have plans for things like food, water, fire, and trash disposal. (More on that below!)

Why go primitive camping?

One of the big draws of primitive camping is to go off the grid for a while. If you’re needing some peace and quiet and want to reconnect with nature, primitive camping may be the experience you’re looking for. It can also be a good way to challenge yourself and learn new outdoor skills.

Who should try primitive camping?

Everyone! Or at least, anyone who wants to do it. Because there are different types of primitive camping, you can choose your own adventure. New to camping in general? Get a tent site at a state park, national park, or private campground. Looking for more solitude—or adventure? Plan a trip to a more remote campsite that requires more effort to reach. Across the U.S. there are primitive campsites that are accessible by hiking trails, kayaks, canoes, boats, and 4-wheel-drive vehicles.

What gear do I need?

The gear you’ll need for primitive camping depends on where you plan to camp and whether you’ll be backpacking/paddling to your site or driving there. If you’re doing the former, you’ll want lightweight gear because you’ll be carrying all of it yourself.  Here are some common primitive camping items:

Tent

No matter where you camp, you’ll definitely need a shelter. If you’re hiking or paddling to your campsite, gear weight matters a lot so you’ll want to use a lightweight backpacking tent. If gear weight doesn’t matter, just choose a tent that’s weatherproof and large enough for your party. Here are some recommendations for the basics you’ll need:

Sleeping Pads

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm Ultralight Backpacking Air Mattress, WingLock Valve, Large - 25 x 77 Inches
  • The XTherm offers the most warmth-per-ounce of any ultralight sleeping pad for backcountry pursuits
  • Equipped with a dependable and rugged WingLock valve, the pad inflates 3 times faster than a classic valve and features lightning-fast deflation
  • 6.9 R-value means the XTherm can insulate campers in extreme cold
  • Patented Triangular Core Matrix delivers warmth using a continuous layer of thermal foam nestled between alternating ridges of air and foam
  • Measures 77x25x2.5 inflated, packs to 11x4.5 inches, and weighs 20 ounces; pump sack, stuff sack and repair kit included; made in the USA
Big Agnes Unisex's Air Core Ultra Sleeping Pads, Orange, 25x72 (Wide Regular)
  • COMFORT – The Insulated Air Core Ultra is a light and compact insulated pad with a smooth sleeping surface thanks to its vertical baffles. Larger outer chambers keep you comfortably cradled in the middle of the pad. The proprietary I-Beam construction reduces weight and provides consistent stability and comfort.
  • TOASTY WARM – R Value of 4.5, Three-Season - THERMOLITE insulation works with a heat reflective barrier to trap body heat and reflect it back, so you stay comfortable as the temperatures drop. Sleeping on frozen ground? Increase thermal insulation by adding the Big Agnes 3rd Degree Foam Pad.
  • LIGHT & DEPENDABLE - Built of durable, lightweight nylon double rip-stop fabric with aviation grade TPU lamination for extra durability. Despite its strength, the Insulated Air Core is remarkably lightweight and packable, with the Wide Regular size rolling down to 4” x 8.5” and weighing only 28 oz.
  • EASY TO INFLATE - High volume valves with micro adjustments make for fast inflation/deflation and easy fine tuning to your preferred firmness. A pad inflation sack is included. Protective storage sack, replacement valve seal and 3M patches also included with your pad.
  • WHAT IS AN R-VALUE? - An R-Value indicates a sleeping pad's ability to resist heat loss. Unlike temperature ratings, R-Values are standard across all pads and are assigned based on quantitative testing designed to give you a better idea of how warm a pad truly is. The higher the rating, the warmer the pad.

Sleeping Bags

Kelty Cosmic Synthetic Fill 20 Degree Backpacking Sleeping Bag, Dark Shadow, Long – Compression Straps, Stuff Sack Included
  • the dark night: limited run dark shadow colorway, 20 degree temp rating, long size: fits sleepers up to 6ft 6in, fill weight 33oz, total weight 3lbs, stuff size (non-compressed) 16x9. 5 inches
  • packability: integrated compression stuff sack, coupled with the premium packability of the synthetic fill allow the cosmic synthetic to reach minimalist standards of backpacking gear. trail weight varies by temp rating, from 2lbs 6oz to 4lbs 11oz.
  • insulation: cirroloft synthetic insulation provides reliable warmth in cold and damp conditions, maintains loft for even coverage with no cold spots. temperature ratings from 0 degrees to 40 degrees, to ensure your time on the trail is comfortable.
  • tailored fit: natural fit spacious footbox gives more room to wiggle your toes, and length options range to fit sleepers 5’8” to 6’6”. a handy stash pocket on the exterior of the bag for your overnight goodies and essentials in the tent.
  • kelty craftmanship: kelty is synonymous with quality in the outdoor community. kelty gear is built for play, and built to last. the cosmic synthetic bag is ready to be put through the ringer on the trail, campground, and everywhere in between.
Coleman Silverton 25 Degree Sleeping Bag
  • Made of the highest quality materials
  • Camping Outdoor Sleeping Gear
  • Another quality Coleman product

Table & Chairs

Since many primitive sites don’t have picnic tables, consider bringing your own table and chairs.

GSI Outdoors Multipurpose and Collapsible Micro Table for Backpacking or Family Camping
  • CRAFTED FOR CONVENIENCE: Collapsing to less than 0.07 cubic feet, the GSI Micro Table combines mobility and practicality. Compact, it can be easily slipped into your backpack or be packed in your car.
  • FEAST IN THE FOREST: Ideal for backing and family camping, this sturdy Micro Table can serve as a stove deck or off the ground eating service, supporting up to 20 pounds. Family dinners amidst nature have never been easier!
  • WEATHERS AGAINST THE ELEMENTS: Constructed from anodized aluminum, the Micro Table is flame, heat, and water resistant, perfect for all your outdoor cooking needs.
  • HEIGHTENED PRACTICALITY: With adjustable leg heights of 4.1" and 6.1”, the Micro Table is multipurpose - perfect for a variety of camp-related activities such as hiking, picnics, BBQ, and fishing.
  • LIFETIME GUARANTEE: GSI Outdoors spent over 30 years building quality, performance products and stands behind them 100%. GSI Outdoors warranties all products for the original owner against manufacturing defects for the lifetime of the product.
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Coleman Outdoor Folding Table | Ultra Compact Aluminum Camping Table
  • Ultra-compact aluminum folding table ideal for camping and outdoor cookouts
  • Aluminum slat top and strong steel frame offer ample support and surface area
  • Snap-together design assembles and folds up with ease
  • Fits into an included lightweight carrying bag for easy carrying and storage
  • Offers enough seating room for 4 people
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Amazon Basics Mesh Folding Outdoor Camping Chair With Bag - 34 x 20 x 36 Inches, Black
  • Portable camping chair with nylon mesh fabric for cooling ventilation; sleek black color
  • Built-in beverage-cooler pouch (hangs from armrest) for up to 4 12-ounce cans
  • Integrated cup holder for holding an open beverage; storage pocket for magazines and personal items
  • Heavy-duty steel frame provides reliable strength; collapsible, folding design; compact; folds up to fit inside most car trunks
  • Carry bag included for easy transport and storage; backed by an Amazon Basics limited 1-year warranty

Stove

  • For backpacking: 
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Coleman Gas Camping Stove | Classic Propane Stove, 2 Burner, 4.1 x 21.9 x 13.7 Inches
  • Cooking power: Up to 20,000 total BTUs. Fits a 12-inch and 10-inch pan at the same time
  • 2 adjustable burners: For precise temperature control
  • Wind-blocking panels: Shield burners from wind
  • Pressure regulator: Pressure-control technology for consistent performance, even in extreme conditions
  • Runtime: Up to 1 hour on high on one 16.4 oz. Propane cylinder (sold separately)

Toilet

Whether or not you need to bring your own toilet depends on where you’re camping. Some backcountry campgrounds and primitive sites have vault toilets. If you’re camping in a place that doesn’t have toilets, check out REI’s advice about how to go to the bathroom in the woods (or anywhere outdoors). If the “dig your own toilet” method doesn’t appeal to you (and you’re not backpacking), check out our post on how to make a DIY camping toilet.

Trash Disposal

This isn’t a gear item but just something to know when you go primitive camping. Unless you’re at a campground that offers trash disposal, you’ll have to “pack out what you pack in” and take your trash home with you. All you’ll need for this is some trash bags (that you can close and keep away from curious wildlife).

what it primitive camping - lake camping

Where should I go primitive camping?

Primitive campsites aren’t hard to find. It makes the most sense to pick your geographic location first (close to home, in the mountains, in a particular state) and then research parks and campgrounds in that area. If you need some travel inspiration, here are some U.S. destinations that offers tent sites or backcountry options:

Maroon Bells Wilderness: Colorado

Just outside Aspen, the Maroon Bells Wilderness in the White River National Forest is usually packed with tourists during the summer season and its small campgrounds fill up quickly. No matter. If you want to see these stunning mountains but avoid the crowds, the national forest allows dispersed camping in designated areas.

Padre Island National Seashore: Texas

Padre Island National Seashore includes 70-miles of shoreline on North Padre Island. It has three primitive campgrounds that allow you to camp right on the beach. All sites are first-come, first-serve, so be sure to have a back-up plan if you can’t snag a site.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area: Arizona and Utah

Within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, there are several primitive camping areas and campgrounds, including sites that let you set up camp on the shores of Lake Powell. Available amenities depend on the camping area, some have vault toilets and potable water while others don’t.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore: Michigan

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was America’s first national lakeshore. It includes 42 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and 14 small backcountry campgrounds with multiple sites each.

Baxter State Park: Maine

Maine’s scenic Baxter State Park covers more than 200,000 acres and include Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest peak and the end (or beginning) of the Appalachian Trail. The park has two backcountry campgrounds plus backcountry camping areas.

Want more camping destination ideas? Check out our rundown of America’s national parks. National parks often have plenty of primitive camping opportunities.