Camping in Wilderness

Girls in a tent

Camping in wilderness, sometimes called backcountry camping, is a great way to enjoy the multiple benefits wilderness has to offer--whether you're wanting to commune with friends or enjoy some solitude and digital detox. What do you need to know to camp in wilderness?

  • Planning: Whether you're camping for one night or many nights, make sure you select the right destination for your skill level, climate, and time of year. Be sure to check out our information on wilderness and COVID-19 as part of your trip planning.
  • Gear: Know what to bring, how to package your food, filter water, and deal with common injuries.
  • Campsites: Pick a good campsite and understand regulations for wilderness travel, camping, and permits (if needed).
  • Campfires: Understand the alternatives to wood campfires, as well as how and where to build a campfire safely.
  • Pooping: Knows the best practices for dealing with human waste and feminine hygiene in the wilderness.
  • Behavior: Understand Leave No Trace principles including being considerate of other campers and keeping a clean campsite, leave drones at home, be a responsible dog owner, and help to make wilderness an inclusive public space.

Planning Your Wilderness Camping Trip

Women looking at a wilderness map

From fresh air to dark night skies, wilderness camping has many amenities. Making sure you're prepared to enjoy these amenities means you need to plan ahead:

Selecting a Choice Destination

Know your limits when choosing a location. This includes evaluating: physical strength and stamina (of yourself, kids, pets and others in your party), time available, difficulty of terrain, time of year (summer vs. winter camping), and safety.

Consult Maps and Weather Forecasts

Online wilderness maps are great for advance planning and research, but there's no substitute for having paper maps in the backcountry. Paper map sources include: MyTopoNational Forest Map Store,USGS quads, and at your local sporting good store. Check the weather in advance and when you begin your trip, and know how to interpret weather in the backcountry.

Gear for Wilderness Camping

Rangers cooking

Although there are many outdoor brands, in general, for wilderness camping you'll need:

  • Clothing and footwear: Dress in layers but avoid cotton; choose shoes for hiking, water, and lounging at camp; and plan for inclement weather from snow and rain to intense heat and humidity. Break in your shoes beforehand to avoid blisters.
  • Shelter and bedding: Choose a tent that fits your family size and needs and consider the right combination of sleeping bag, sleeping bag liner, sleeping pad(s), and pillow to keep you warm enough at night. If your gear is new, spend the night "camping" in your backyard to ensure your sleep system is waterproof, warm, and comfortable.
  • Food preparation and cooking: Consider both commercial freeze-dried meals and creating your own meals from locally-obtained bulk foods (see the Wilderness Ranger Cookbook for recipe ideas). Reduce packaging beforehand to minimize garbage you will have to pack out of the wilderness. Test your stove by cooking a backcountry meal at home. If using a fuel-powered stove, verify your estimates of fuel needed for your trip. 
  • Food storage: Know the regulations regarding food storage, which may include knowing how to hang a food bag properly (make sure you have a bag and rope) or using a bearproof canister (test to make sure you have enough room for both food and garbage).
  • Water filtration: Clean and test your filtration system at home and consider bringing a backup filtration method (ex. Iodine tablets) in case your primary one fails in the field.
  • Supplies for human waste, hygiene, and first aid: Read more about pooping in the wilderness below, but overall make sure you have adequate human waste and hygiene supplies for your trip and be prepared to pack out toilet paper, feminine hygiene products and human waste (if required by regulations in WAG-type bags). Stock your first aid kit and know how to use the items in it for minor injuries like cuts, scratches, burns, bug bites, sunburns, and ankle sprains.
  • Specialized recreation: If you're hunting, fishing, climbing, backcountry skiing etc. in addition to camping, make sure you include any specialized recreational gear along with the basics above.

While recommendations on specific types of gear are not provided here, outdoor brand websites and media provide helpful advice on how to choose the best gear for you. Test your new and used gear at home before any camping trip to identify:

  • What's missing?
  • What's broken?
  • How do I use/operate X?

Where to Camp

Camping in the snow

Designated Campsites

Some wilderness areas require you to camp at designated sites that you may need to choose in advance when obtaining a permit. Make sure you stick to your itinerary and camp at any sites you have chosen.

Non-Designated Campsites

In wildernesses where you are not required to camp in designated sites, be sure to choose durable surfaces on which to camp. This often means camping in a site that's already well-used to avoid creating new impacts elsewhere. Be sure to observe camping setbacks when choosing a campsite. While 200 feet (or about 70 adult paces) is a good rule of thumb, check the regulations on how far away from lakes, rivers, trails, and other campsites your campsite needs to be.

Campfires?

Today, there are great alternatives to campfires that provide warmth, light, and ambience.

Consider the following when deciding whether to build a campfire:

Regulations and weather: Know where campfire restrictions are in place beforehand. Even if campfires are allowed, think twice about starting a campfire during hot, dry, and/or windy conditions or in places where you do not have access to enough water to put your fire completely out.

Wood and fuel: Cutting down live trees is prohibited in wilderness area, so any wood used for campfires should be on the ground, dead, and breakable by hand. Don't break dead lower branches off live trees. Don't bushwhacking for long distances to gather wood, as this tramples vegetation. Avoid having a campfire in places where wood is scarce or visibly picked over since decaying sticks, twigs, and other burnable materials provide essential and unique nutrients for new trees. Don't burn garbage in your fire since it rarely burns fully.

Fire size and location: If an existing fire grate or ring is available, use it. Avoid creating new fire rings using rocks or logs. Instead, use a fire pan or fire blanket to prevent your fire from damaging the underlying soil. After your fire is fully extinguished, spread the ashes or pack them out. Keep wilderness fires small and put them out entirely with water.

Pooping, Peeing, and Feminine Hygiene in the Wilderness

Knowing how to poop in the wilderness properly is an essential part of camping:

Leave your poop or pack it out?

Depending on the area, you may be required to pack all your human waste out of the wilderness. Check the regulations, but assume that waste removal is required in high use areas, high altitude areas where waste does not readily decompose, in slot canyons where you may be hiking in water (ex. along the Virgin River in the Zion Wilderness), and in areas such as river valleys where runoff may wash waste into water sources. Use WAG bags or other waste packing systems under these conditions.

For other areas, make sure you know how to properly dig a cathole and ensure catholes are at least 200 feet (about 70 adult paces) from trails, campsites, and water. You should always pack used toilet paper out of the wilderness, so make sure you have a dedicated ziplock garbage back for this purpose. Don't burn used toilet paper, as this is a public health hazard for you, subsequent visitors, and rangers.

Peeing in the Wilderness

Do not urinate in lakes, rivers, or other bodies of water unless regulations recommend it (ex. such as on wilderness river trips in a river corridor). Avoid urinating near campsites or in the same place multiple times. Areas where people have repeatedly urinated will often smell later in the summer.

Feminine Hygiene in the Wilderness

There are several options for managing feminine hygiene in the backcountry. In wilderness, make sure you pack out all feminine hygiene products and wipes, just as you would used toilet paper. Be sure to store these along with other odorous garbage to ensure they are not bothered by wildlife.

How to Behave While Wilderness Camping

Backpacker in the desert

Many people go into the wilderness to seek solitude. To ensure that you and others have positive wilderness experiences, consider how your behavior impacts other campers:

  • Proximity: Where possible, avoid camping within sight or sound of other groups. Adhere to camping setbacks from lakes, in particular, to ensure that campers across the lake don't see your campfire or hear your conversations (noise travels really well over water). 
  • Noise: Keep your group size small and within regulations. If you are near others, talk softly and avoid yelling. Leave your music at home or bring headphones. While music can provide great ambience at camp or on the trail, it drowns out natural sounds and can be offensive to other nearby or passing wilderness visitors. Unless you're hunting, leave firearms and fireworks at home. Recreational shooting as well as fireworks are prohibited in most wilderness areas.
  • Light: Keep campfires small and avoid overusing flashlights or other light sources if you are camping near other groups. Instead, enjoy the stars in a dark night sky.
  • Dogs: If you bring your dog, keep your dog leashed and quiet while at camp so it does hot harass other campers and hikers.
  • Cleanliness: Keep your camp clean and pack out all garbage, including micro-trash, from your campsite. See somebody else's garbage? Pack that out too. A clean camp ensures that others who use the same camp after you don't see evidence of your visit.
  • Privacy and Technology: Leave drones at home, as these are prohibited in all wilderness areas and fines apply. While most wilderness areas don't have cell service, in areas where you might have a signal turn your phone ringer and alerts off so that other visitors don't hear them.
  • Inclusion: People of different ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds all value and experience wilderness differently. As awareness of racism, sexism and other prejudices increases in our society, take stock of your impressions, thoughts and reactions towards other visitors you encounter in the wilderness. Be aware of how seemingly innocent comments, micro-aggressions and blatant discrimination can affect their right to enjoy our public lands.