Primitive Camping Tips for the Less Experienced

The call of the “true wild” is hard to ignore. Camping & Hiking expert David Diet shares his top pointers for making your next excursion your best one yet.

Photo by Dominik Jirovsky

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Primitive camping is a phrase that can either incite museful longings or impending dread. For some, the appeal of being miles away from the rush, hustle, and bustle of civilization is a call that hits the soul in a way that gives you a sense of freedom. For others, a set campground with all the bells and whistles is best. Regardless, the call of the “true wild” is hard to ignore and here are a few helpful pointers to make your next excursion your best excursion yet!

First things first, what is primitive camping? It is not necessarily as primitive as the name implies. Briefly, primitive camping is camping without set facilities. It is camping with no running water, no electricity, no latrine or bathrooms, possibly not even a fire ring. Rather, it is camping with what you brought with you. It is you versus nature, just with the right camping gear to make things more comfortable.

Most primitive campsites are on public land in a state or national park, a national forest, or wilderness area. Some of these areas have designated primitive campsites, others are more open to where you make camp, if you follow the regulations. This leads to the first tip.

Make a Plan

Planning is the most essential phase. The best resource for primitive camping rules and regulations is the U.S National Park Service. There is an interactive map that allows you to choose your park and do the initial research in planning your excursion into the woods. This will also allow you to set up where and when your trek into the countryside is taking place. Developing a well-measured plan will help make your time in the wild exciting, and more importantly, safe.

Make a camping checklist, a list of what gear you currently own from most essential to least. Are you car camping? Are you backpacking? What do you really need versus what makes you comfortable. Try to find a happy medium, and if an item does not have at least two uses, carefully consider whether to take it along. What gear do you not have, what is that piece of gear’s primary use, what are any added uses?

Now to the fun part! What do I need to take with me? First thing, do you have the five survival basics covered? They are, in no order, first aid, shelter, fire, water, and food.

First Aid: More than Bandages

Your kit should hold items to handle a variety of scenarios. Be prepared for the worst-case scenario, so that all surprises will be pleasant. Items in your kit should include:

  • Calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream to handle bug bites
  • An antibiotic ointment for cuts and scrapes with several different sizes of bandages or dressings
  • A splint in case of a broken bone or the materials to make a field expedient splint
  • A topical salve for the inevitable burn
  • Aspirin to cover headaches, body pain, reduce unexpected fevers, and help in the case of a heart attack
  • An emergency poncho and emergency blanket to mitigate against hyperthermia
  • An antihistamine to cover any allergic reactions and moleskin for blister care
  • Any medication that you may consume daily, plus an added three days

I recommend Adventure Medical Kits' Mountain Explorer Kit. This kit is for four people over seven days, but buying a larger kit allows you to tailor the size to your party size. One other helpful item to add to your emergency first aid kit is the U.S. Army First Aid Manual. Download a copy to your phone or print a physical copy and place it inside your kit. In an emergency, having a detailed easy to use first aid manual will help give you the knowledge on how to handle a variety of predicaments.

Shelter: Tent, or Tarp & Hammock?

A hammock hanging on a tree next to a tent outside

Photo by Laura Pluth

Start with your needs. Is it you and one other, or do you have a group staying in the tent with you? Do you want a tent in which you can stand, or do you just want to crawl in and go to sleep? What is the temperature range and general weather conditions in the area you are camping? For most, a good three-season tent with a rain fly and double-wall construction is the best choice. Do not forget to pack your tent stakes! Being caught in even mildly high winds can cause you, your tent, and all your gear to lift from the ground and tumble or collapse.

What about hammocks? As great as they are, hammocks do have their drawbacks. The first and biggest burden is that you need trees to suspend the hammock. Then, you will need a rain fly or canvas to cover, and depending on the time of year, an underquilt to help keep you warm. Do not forget your hanging kit!

Before you leave, take the time to set up your tent or hammock. Look for tears, pin holes, unusual wear, and make sure to inspect the floor! A universal tent repair kit is a necessity to put in your pack for life’s unexpected rainstorm. Better to be prepared than miserable. Look for any lingering moisture, and use a gentle, all-natural cleaner that is safe to use on the tent or hammock’s fabric. This will help with mold and the sometimes-unpleasant moist canvas smell.

Fire: Marshmallows Optional

Fire, man’s first step in leaving the primal times. Ancient and dangerous, yet comforting. Mastering the ability to make a fire, and the seven different campfires, is a skill any outdoor enthusiast should possess. Familiarize yourself with separate ways to start a fire without matches or a lighter. Like a Scout, “Always be prepared!” But make it easy on yourself, a lighter and matches, a ferro rod, or a homemade fire starter should be packed in your kit.

In the absence of a fire ring, make your own! Dig a shallow hole and surround with rocks. Do not use rocks directly out of a river or stream. These are holding water even though they might seem dry, and as the rock will invariably heat up, it can pop, crack, or even explode. Mind what’s overhead, no need to catch something on fire that should not be on fire. Only build fires where allowed and be sure to clear plenty of ground. Also keep water close by to drown any cinders that happen to catch outside of the ring and for whenever you leave camp. Remember, if it looks like it could catch fire, it will.

A campfire outside in a forest clearing

Photo by David Dieter

Water: Where & How to Pull from a Non-Treated Source

Throughout history, dirty water has been the bane of many people’s stomachs and health. Knowing where to source water and how to properly filter or treat it has been a hard-fought struggle. Obviously, carry as much as you can in with you. Chances are that at some point you will run out. Avoid stagnant water. Ponds and lakes are not the best source. Stagnant water has a higher chance of harboring parasites, disease, and festering animal feces. Look for water that has a good amount of flow. Regardless of where you secure water from, you should always filter it!

The Sawyer Squeeze is a perfect water filter for one to two people. If you have a larger group, Platypus GravityWorks is a top water filter choice. Both have high(er) flow rates, filter out the nasty, and are lightweight and easy to use. Boiling water and using water purification tablets are also fair options. If neither are available, use the materials around to improvise one. Remember to boil any water that you use with an improvised filter! There are few things worse than a bad case of the bubble guts while camping, especially without the proper facilities. Make sure regular hydration is prioritized. You are going to be spending a lot more energy and burning through your body’s water at a greater pace than normal.

Food: What Grub should I Bring?

This one is dependent upon the style of camping. If you are car camping, a well-insulated cooler with a good seal is recommended. Freeze meat and other items that can be frozen before your trip. They will naturally and slowly defrost and help keep down on the amount of ice needed to keep your items cool and prevent spoiling.

Backpacking? Freeze-dried meals are a valuable lightweight source of energy. Snacks are the best part of camping, so go wild with your jerky, granola bars, fruit snacks, trail mix, or whatever else you like to munch. You will be burning more calories. Do not underestimate the amount of food to take with you. Pack extra food. You might be hungrier than expected or might decide to stay out a few extra days. Remember to store your food at night, away from where the woodland critters can get to it. I found out the hard way one night when a raccoon got into my fig bars. The aftermath was decidedly unpleasant. Place it high in a tough bag, or for a cooler, place it in your car.

Campfire Cooking: A Taste Like No Other!

Your camp kitchen is not only important, it is often the most satisfactory beginning and end of a splendid day in the brush. The “kitchen” should consist of a few basics.

In some locations, due to fire risk levels, campfires are prohibited. In that case, depending on the party size, either a single-burner backpacking stove, or for larger groups, a dual-burner camp stove is necessary. The same holds true for the cookware. Match the pots, pans, cups, and utensils to your group size. Find a pan set that is rated for cooking over fire or on a stove. Try for all-metal cookware, whether stainless steel, aluminum, or any other alloy. Collapsible bowls and cups can save space plus are easily stowed within your pan set. Do not forget the utensils! A medium-sized spoon, fork, and a spatula or tongs are best.

Cooking a frying pan of vegetables and meat on a grill over a campfire with two campers resting on a hammock in the background

Photo by Myles Tan

If able to use a fire for your tasty bush culinary delicacies, use the resources available to craft toasting sticks and pot hangers. A half an inch difference can be the difference between perfectly fire-kissed food and having a burnt mess and empty stomach.

Other Essential Gear: No Need to Overpack!

Now that the five basics are covered, on to the essential items to keep you comfortable!

Sleeping Bag

Let’s begin with your sleeping bag and sleeping pad or inflatable mattress. When choosing your sleeping bag, take into account your physical stature and the temperature ranges in which you will be camping. Take note of how you sleep. Do you kick covers off or do you turn yourself into a blanket burrito? Are you a proto giant or pocket sized, or somewhere decidedly average? Sleeping bags come in all sizes, shapes, and insulation R-values. Understanding these small, but significant variables will allow you to purchase the best sleeping bag for you.

Sleeping Pads

Sleeping pads do more than supply a dash of comfort. They are essential in raising your body slightly off the cold ground. The small gap between the earth and the sleeping bag keeps the ground from leeching body heat essential to maintaining warmth. Some sleeping pads are foam, others are inflatable. Foam pads often isolate better and are less noisy, while inflatable pads provide more cushion, but with potentially annoying sounds as you turn in your sleep.

I recommend a high R-value pad regardless of temperature ranges and time of year. Mother Nature will suck your body heat regardless of whether it is 100°F or -50°F. Do not forget a trail-sized pillow! These little beauties are infinitely more comfortable than bunching up a jacket or clothing. An ounce of prevention in this instance is worth the avoidance of pain in the morning.

Apparel

Next, let's cover apparel. Ideally, avoid fully cotton clothing. Cotton, while soft and comfortable, holds moisture and takes an extended period to dry. Moisture can lead to mildew and a funky odor in addition to hyperthermia. Instead, aim for wool or a moisture-wicking fabric. I suggest one change of clothing, including underwear, undershirt, and pants/shorts for every three to four days out. If inexperienced, pack an additional layer beyond what you think is needed. You can always shed layers if it’s too warm, and it is nice to add an additional layer if too cold.

Rain gear, either a good rainproof shell or a poncho, should always be carried because let's be honest, the weather person is not always able to accurately predict rain and other foul weather. In the winter months, a fleece and a puffy (natural or synthetic) down jacket keeps you at the right temperature. With all clothing items, you should strive for form fitting, but loose enough to allow full, unchecked range of motion. Too loose and you are susceptible to catches on branches and brush, too tight and you’ll look like the rusty tin man traversing the woods. Most of all, dress comfortably yet aware of potential weather variances.

Boots or Trail Runners, and Extra Socks

Consider the terrain you are traversing. Is it worn paths, loose rocks, or thick jungle-like forest? Which season are you heading out? Are there water crossings? Boots are ideal for loose soil, mud, or overly rocky conditions, and also potentially thick, uneven brush. Trail runners are best for covering miles of worn trail in sneaker-like comfort, but often lack the ankle support. In the summer months waterproof shoes are not as needed, just make sure your footwear is well vented to allow rapid drying. Also, consider packing a pair of flip flops for deeper water crossings and to allow your feet to breath while lounging around your camp.

Socks are one of those items where more is better. As with your clothing, either wool or a synthetic sock is preferred. If hiking, a good rule of thumb is to take a break every 5-10 miles, kick off your boots, pull off your socks and let your feet breath for a few minutes. When doing this, inspect for any blisters that may form and change your socks. You can tie your recently used ones to your pack to allow them to dry, and to make a great trail fashion statement!

Hygiene

What do you need to keep clean? Your hygiene kit should be assembled with biodegradable soap, compostable toilet paper, a plastic garden trowel to cover bodily waste, biodegradable wipes, toothbrush, toothpaste, sunscreen, a bandana, wash cloth, a comb or travel-sized hairbrush, and hand sanitizer. Essentially, bring items that will keep you at a reasonable level of sanitation without a bathing facility, while leaving as minimal of an impact as possible on the surrounding environment. Remember, when taking care of business, stay well away from water sources to help keep contamination and bacteria down.

Lighting, Knife, and other Small Items

A headlamp, lantern, or flashlight and two extra sets of batteries at minimum are needed for night navigation around the camp, or for making trail repairs to your gear. A fixed-blade knife or a multi-tool should also be carried. Axes, saws, or entrenching shovels can make camp life easier, and if going deep into the backcountry, they are necessary for harvesting wood for fires or to bushcraft a shelter. Binoculars and a camera are also great additions. Use binoculars to scout ahead or to see the interesting, and a camera to document all the fun! A few paper towels, a couple of trash bags, paracord, some duct tape wrapped around a lighter, and sunglasses are all other items not to forget.

Your Pack

Two blue backpacks with red sleeping pads attached to the outside of them, sitting in a grassy field with rolling hills beyond

Photo by S&B Vonlanthen

Finally, how are you going to carry everything on your journey? If car camping, sealed plastic totes make storage and organization a breeze. A daypack for random car camping based adventures is needed for maximum fun. If backpacking, choose the correct size pack for you, and how many days you’ll be out. Know how much weight you are carrying, do not exceed what is recommended. For an overnight to three-day trip, a 30L to 45L pack should be more than enough space. For longer stays, a 50L plus pack is recommended.

Decide what style of pack is most comfortable—frameless, internal framed, or external framed. Learn the differences between the three, their strengths and weaknesses, and how much each can carry. Load your pack and do a small test hike to sort out your loading method. The trail is not the place to completely unpack and repack your ruck.

Primitive Camping is not rocket science. Simple little steps that use a grain of common sense will save a pound of pain and discomfort down the road. Do your research, use your checklists, and consult the wonderful Curated Camping and Hiking experts for the best advice for your camping gear needs. But most of all, have fun while embracing your primitive side.

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Written By
David Diet
Camping & Hiking Expert
Based out of Cleveland, but raised in Appalachia smack dab in the middle of 15,000 acres of woods and strip mines. A deep love of the woods and valleys was instilled by years of mushroom hunting, gathering wild herbs, berries, and harvesting other delicious ingredients. Plus fort and tree house buil...
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