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Primitive Camping

backpackers carry their tents and gear walking on a narrow path between the side of a hill and water's edge

Watch a clip about backwoods camping and how to leave no trace while enjoying the outdoors on DEC's YouTube Channel.

Primitive or backcountry camping involves camping in a tent or lean-to deep in the woods away from civilization. This type of camping offers few or no amenities such as running water, electricity, picnic tables, or restrooms. Primitive camping also requires you to backpack or paddle all of your equipment, food, clothing, toiletries and sleeping gear (sleeping bag, tent and pad) that you will need during your stay.

On this page:

State Lands that Allow Primitive Camping

Primitive camping is allowed on many DEC lands, including Forest Preserve lands in the Catskills and Adirondacks, as well as on State Forest lands outside the Preserve. Primitive camping is prohibited on Unique Areas, Wildlife Management Areas, and a few other categories of state land.

For information about a specific property, visit the individual property's DEC webpage or contact a DEC Regional Office near the land unit. See our section on Finding a Destination for more information.

Where to Set Up Camp

The best place to camp is at designated primitive tent sites. These sites are typically flatter than other areas and have deeper, harder soils more resistant to heavy use and erosion, minimizing the impacts of camping. Many sites have nearby pit privies and rock fire rings.

Yellow and black camp here marker attached to a tree
"Camp Here"

Campers are encouraged to use designated tent sites. They are often close to trails and provide views of ponds, lakes, streams or rivers. These can be a source of water when properly treated.

All designated primitive tent sites have yellow and black "Camp Here" markers. Many sites on lakes and ponds are identified by a yellow number against a dark brown wooden plaque typically attached to a tree near the water's edge.

Rules and Guidelines

Please note: specific land units in the Forest Preserve may have regulations that differ from the rules and guidelines listed below. For information about specific properties, visit our regulations page or contact the Regional DEC Office nearest the area of interest.

Campsite Selection

  • Tents at a primitive campsite
    Primitive tent sites and lean-tos are available on a first-come, first-served basis and cannot be reserved. If you find a tent site or lean-to with no people or gear, then you can camp there.
  • If not using a designated primitive tent site, your tent must be at least 150 feet from a water body, road, or trail. Do not camp in areas posted with "Camping Prohibited."
  • Camping for more than three nights or with 10 or more people requires a permit from a Forest Ranger. Call 518-897-1300 to get the name and contact information for the local ranger. Please observe all State Land Camping and Hiking Rules.
  • Black bears are present throughout the Adirondacks and Catskills. Campers should store all food, garbage and toiletries in a bear-resistant canister or food hang. Bear-resistant canisters are required in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness.

Lean-To Use

  • Tents are not allowed inside lean-tos and must be at least 150 feet from the lean-to.
  • Lean-tos are available on a first-come, first-served basis and cannot be reserved.
  • It is proper etiquette to share your tent site for one night if a second camper or group of campers arrives after dark, especially when it is raining, cold or windy. In the morning, the second group should pack up and leave to look for another location.
  • Lean-tos should be shared by multiple parties until filled to capacity (normally 8 people). These situations are rare, but can happen in heavily used areas, such as the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness.

Fire Safety at Campsites

  • Campfire on an island camp site
    Photo by Michael Pantusco
    Check out a short video about how to build a safe campfire on DEC's YouTube channel (leaves DEC website).
  • Fires should be built in existing fire pits or fireplaces if provided.
  • Do not build fires in areas marked by a "No Fires" disk.
  • Campfires must be less than 3 feet in height and 4 feet in diameter.
  • Only charcoal or untreated wood can be used as fuel.
  • Build campfires away from overhanging branches, steep slopes, dry leaves and grass, and rotten stumps or logs.
  • Scrape away litter, duff, and any burnable material within a 10 foot diameter circle.
  • Pile extra wood away from the fire.
  • Cutting standing trees is prohibited. Use only dead and down wood for fires.
  • Extinguish all fires with water and stir ashes until they are cold to the touch.
  • View more tips on minimizing campfire impacts on DEC's YouTube channel (leaves DEC website).

Tips to Leave No Trace

  • Removing plants, rocks, fossils, or artifacts from state lands without a permit is illegal.
  • Observe and enjoy wildlife and plants but do not disturb.
  • Carry out what you carry in.
  • Use pit privies provided near popular camping areas and trailheads. If none are available, dispose of human waste by digging a hole 6"-8" deep at least 150 feet from water or campsites. Cover with leaves and soil. View a how-to video DEC's YouTube channel (leaves DEC website).
  • Collect and bury pet waste away from water, trails, and camp sites.
  • Keep your pet under control and restrain it on a leash when others approach.
  • If using soap, make sure you are more than 150 feet from water such as a river or lake.

Additional Rules for the Adirondack and Catskill Preserves

  • Camping is prohibited above an elevation of 4,000 feet in the Adirondacks (except in an emergency).
  • Camping is prohibited above an elevation of 3,500 feet in the Catskills between March 22 and December 20 (except in an emergency).
  • Fires are prohibited above 4,000 feet in the Adirondacks and 3,500 feet in the Catskills (except in an emergency).
  • There are many bears in the Adirondack and Catskill mountains. Learn what to do if you encounter a bear, how to cook and store food at your campsite, and other useful bear-related information on the Black Bears in New York's Back Country web page.

Finding a Place to Camp Before You Go

Check out the DECinfo Locator to browse state lands with primitive campsites. Use the "Outdoor Activity" tab to find other recreational opportunities available at these destinations.

If you have a particular region in mind, try the Places To Go pages, which provide descriptions of individual properties. For recommendations, you may also contact the forester or Lands and Forests staff person in the regional DEC office nearest to where you'd like to go.

New York State Firewood Regulation

New York State has a regulation that prohibits importing firewood into New York (leaves DEC website) unless is has been heat-treated to kill pests. The regulation also limits the transportation of untreated firewood to less than 50 miles from its source or origin.

By transporting firewood, you could be spreading diseases and invasive insects that can quickly kill large numbers of trees. Help protect our forests by following the Firewood Regulation:

  • Get your firewood from a local vendor (within 50 miles of your destination) and ask for a receipt or label that lists the firewood's local source.
  • If you choose to transport firewood within New York State:
    • It must have a receipt or label that has the firewood's source or origin listed and it must stay within 50 miles (linear distance) or that source/origin.
    • For firewood cut from your own property, you must have a Self-Issued Certificate of Origin (PDF) and it must be sourced within 50 miles of your destination.
    • Only firewood labeled as meeting New York's heat treatment standards to kill pests may be transported into the state and further than 50 miles from the firewood's source. This wood should be labeled "certified heat-treated".

For more information on the regulation, see our webpage on firewood and invasive pests. For additional questions regarding the regulation, please email [email protected] or call 1-866-640-0652.

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