What Is Primitive Camping? (Full Guide)

Camping has been a popular outdoor activity for decades. People have taken to the outdoors for many reasons, from fishing and hunting expeditions to glamping and boondocking. In recent years, primitive camping has seen an increase in popularity, but many avid campers may not know what it is.

Primitive camping typically takes place in more remote areas outside of designated camping grounds. It sacrifices modern-day amenities and forfeits the luxuries of electricity, potable water, and basic plumbing. Primitive campers take only the bare-bone essentials to survive in the wilderness.

Outdoors enthusiasts choose primitive camping for a variety of reasons. Some enjoy a more peaceful and secluded environment in which to escape. Others seek to learn more skills in the area of independence and self-reliance. Whatever their reasons, primitive camping requires a unique skill set.

What Exactly Is Primitive Camping?

Primitive camping includes a wide spectrum of ideas and means different things to different people. By definition, it’s simply the act of having only the basic comfort, convenience, or efficiency when camping. Some people call it dry camping, while others refer to it as ‘roughing it.’ But primitive camping can come in many forms and in many places.

State And National Parks

It is not uncommon to find primitive camping sites in state or national parks. These parks usually set aside several dry camping areas that are away from high traffic locations. They typically don’t include the same amenities that the civilized campers have. Some view this as luxurious primitive camping since you still have access to your car and campground amenities if you need to access them.

The Backcountry

Other people view primitive camping as hiking through the backcountry and finding an off-grid location to spend a night or two. Popular among hikers, they only carry basic shelter, clothing, and a small amount of food. Some would rather depend on their own foraging skills to acquire food. This is a popular choice among hunters and fishermen that partake in primitive expeditions.

The ideology of primitive camping relies on independence, self-sufficiency, and self-reliance. Not only having, obtaining, or producing the resources that you need, but also having the skill and fortitude to survive with only the minimum supplies and equipment.

Is Primitive Camping Safe?

Primitive camping is safe as long as you know what to expect, bring the necessary gear to survive, and have some basic knowledge of simple survival skills. While your safety will largely depend on where you choose to camp, primitive camping doesn’t have to be any more dangerous than normal camping.

Know Who Is In Charge

Different states have different laws. It’s your responsibility to know the laws for the state in which you plan on camping. Knowing who is in charge provides an essential resource for acquiring the information that you need.

Some states have Bureaus of Land Management; some have Parks and Wildlife divisions; others have National Forestry Services. Depending on the state and the organization(s) involved, the rules will be different from place to place. Knowing who to contact will keep you out of trouble with any legal authorities.  

Know And Follow The Rules

Once you’ve figured out who to contact, you’ll then need to figure out what their rules are. Special regulations apply in certain areas. Some places require permits and some don’t. If you plan on fishing or hunting, make sure you have the necessary licenses and know any limits that are in place. 

The laws for camping next to waterways and how and where you can build fires will also vary. Be aware of any drought, high winds, or flood warnings that might be in your zone. Make sure you also abide by any hiking safety signs in the area. Far too often hikers and campers cross those forbidden boundaries and sometimes lose their lives as a result. Stay clear of areas that are marked as dangerous.

Know Your Geographical Area

You’ll also need to research the terrain if you are not familiar with it. Terrain greatly impacts the type of gear and equipment that you will need to bring. Make sure you know if and where any bodies of water are located and make sure you have an adequate amount with you for your adventure. 

It would also be wise to be aware of the particular wildlife that inhabits the area and become familiar with anything that could pose a hazard to your life, such as snakes, mountain lions, bears, or wild boars. You should also be equipped to deal with these types of encounters when traversing the wilderness. Know that you should avoid any contact with wildlife as much as possible.

Leave No Trace

Even the outdoors has a code of ethics. Make sure you know it and abide by it. When you enter the backcountry, you are entering the natural environment for so many other living things. You therefore have a duty to minimize any damage to natural resources and keep things safe for those that live there. 

Have a plan to deal with your waste, even your excrement. Have sufficient supplies to pack out your toilet paper, any feminine hygiene products, and other garbage that you accumulate along the way. If you’re digging a cat-hole, make sure you keep a sufficient distance from waterways to avoid contamination (usually 200 feet). Know the best places to urinate to avoid attracting wildlife.

Where possible, stay on the trail to minimize destruction to natural vegetation and wildlife habitats. Use good judgement when selecting your campsite and make sure you stay on durable surfaces. Do your best to leave the area as you found it, undisturbed. Restrain from damaging any trees or plants.

Fire Safety

It is your responsibility to minimize the impact of campfires. It’s important to consider any potential damage that campfires may have on any given area. Know the fire dangers for the area and time of year.

Know the agency that manages the area and the rules for whether you may or may not use wood in the area for building fires. Make sure you leave no trace of your campfire when you leave and ensure that it is completely extinguished. Use a fire ring when possible. Only use a fire for the amount of time you need it or consider not having a fire at all.

Pros And Cons Of Primitive Camping

As with any choice made in life, there’s good and bad consequences. Careful consideration should be given when deciding whether or not to try primitive camping versus using a designated camping ground. This is really a personal preference, and depends on what you hope to obtain from your excursion. But below we outline the key pros and cons of primitive camping to help you make your decision.

Pros Of Primitive Camping

No Crowds

Some enjoy the experience of a more peaceful, tranquil environment without the commotion. If you’ve spent any time in maintained camping grounds, you know there’s always the risk of the annoying neighbors who play loud music or run their generator into the wee hours of the morning while you’re trying to sleep!

No Reservations

You don’t need to mess with reservations for camping in the backcountry. There are no designated sites, so you don’t have to worry about overcrowding or making your reservations six months in advance for a holiday weekend. With primitive camping, this isn’t an issue.

Less Gear

With primitive camping, you don’t have to pack everything but the kitchen sink. You only pack what you need. Some adventurers keep a loaded pack so they can grab and go at a moment’s notice. Just make sure you’ve got the important stuff covered.

It’s Cheap

State and national parks can get pricey if you’re staying for any extended period of time. In addition to site and parking fees, you have the occasional additional fees of ice, wood, and paid recreational activities. The only expenses required for primitive camping are permits and licenses, and that’s only if you need them. In many cases, primitive camping can be entirely free.

Cons Of Primitive Camping

Lack Of Basic Amenities

Doing without power, water, and plumbing can be a bit much for some people. Most of us aren’t used to going without, so it’s very different when you have to. It’s an entirely different thought process when camping off grid. For some, the inconvenience is too much, especially if you are one that has to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night or relies on charged mobile devices!

Fear Factor

Some people are simply too afraid to do primitive camping. It takes a bit of courage to brave the outdoors and risk encounters with poor weather, rough terrain, and maybe even wild animals. The intensity of the darkness, hearing every little crack of the forest, or the wild calls of animals in the middle of the night can be a bit unbearable for some. 

No Help

In the event of an emergency, there’s no one to help you out. You have to rely on your own skills to withstand any adverse scenarios. You can’t just call 911 and have an ambulance come to the rescue, at least without a long wait! It’s imperative that you have adequate knowledge and skills, or at least be with someone who does, before you attempt primitive camping.

No Technology

Some folks go through technology withdrawals and prefer the amenities of designated camping areas that offer electricity. If you’re not used to being without your phone or tablet, then this could take some getting used to. Chances are you also won’t have any cell service, so you won’t be able to call anyone for assistance should you run into any difficulties.

12 Things You Need For Primitive Camping

1. Tent/Shelter

You need some form of protection from the elements and environment. Not only will a shelter protect you from the rain, but it will also deter the wildlife from mistaking you for their evening dinner!

2. Sleeping Bag/Bivvy

This is your primary source of warmth. At the very least, you need an emergency bivvy. Many also include foot-pads and ground-pads for additional protection and comfort. 

3. Light Source

The ability to see in the dark is an absolute must. Have a variety of headlamps, flashlights, and chem-lights with you. Don’t forget extra batteries!

4. Fire Source

Whether you plan to use one or not, you need to have the ability to start a fire. Pack a variety of waterproof matches, lighters, and flint striker sets, in addition to fire starters.

5. Clothing

You need an extra layer of clothing for dryness and protection from rain and cold. Have at least one extra set of clothes, extra socks, and something to keep you dry.

6. Cook Set & Eatery

You need a way to cook your food, and a way to eat it. So bring a stove, fuel, camp dishes, and cutlery.

7. Water

You need drinkable water, and a way to filter and purify more of it from nearby water sources. Remember that water is essential to survival!

8. Food

Bring whatever rations you plan on eating, and/or the tools necessary to acquire your own food.

9. Waste Contamination

You need something to put your garbage in so you can pack it out, and a poop tube or bags for your feces.

10. First Aid

You need a way to treat wounds, burns, and traumatic injuries in the event of an emergency. 

11. Tools

You need the necessary tools to accomplish basic tasks in the bush including cordage, knives, multi-tools, etc.

12. Map/Compass

Bring a map of the area and a compass to keep you from getting lost, or a GPS app with downloaded maps for your phone (as you probably won’t get cell service).

Final Thoughts

Primitive camping is camping that takes place in more remote, off-grid areas. You won’t have any amenities like plumbing or electricity, and while to many this may just seem like normal camping, it can be quite tough for those that are not used to being completely out on their own in the wilderness.