Primitive or Dispersed Tent Camping

The Primitive Camper Checklist

While we all enjoy a weekend car camping trip with the family, those of us who are more experienced in the outdoors yearn for a challenging adventure. Dispersed camping or primitive camping is the ideal way to break off from the crowd and experience nature uninterrupted.  

What is Dispersed Camping and Primitive Camping?

Backpacking to a camping site
Backpacking to a camping site

Dispersed camping is also known as rustic camping or primitive camping so they are one in the same. It is effectively camping away from any established campsite. It is completely free and available on National Forest land, state parks and areas owned by the Bureau of Land Management. These areas lack the normal facilities and amenities like, bathrooms, running water and trash removal. The benefit of primitive camping is that you get to be outdoors and closer to nature.

Primitive Camping Skills

While most camping lists only focus on the latest gear or coolest equipment to bring, it is important to think about camping skills that are essential when you are all alone in the wild. These critical survival skills include:

Building a shelter – you will most likely have a tent with you, but what if you get lost away from your base camp while hiking? Knowing how to build a makeshift shelter like a lean-to will keep you out of the elements during an emergency situation.

Fire starting – starting a fire is perhaps the most important survival skill. It will keep you warm, keep predators (including bugs) away and allow you to cook meals.

Finding and purifying water – if you are out in the wilderness and don’t know how to find and purify water you won’t last very long. There is only so much water you can pack with you and at some point you will need to replenish your sources.

Hunting and foraging for food – another basic survival skill that should be learned is how to find food. Obviously almost all campers will bring food, but learning how to hunt or forage for food is an essential skill that anyone who spends time in the outdoors should know. 

First aid – while we all know how to put on a band aid or basic first aid, learning more extensive skills like stopping blood loss or what to do if you are bitten by a snake are essential primitive camping skills.

Primitive Camping Checklist

While there are certainly more items you can bring if you have the space available, here are some of the essential items you need to bring on a primitive camping trip:

  • Backpack
  • Tent
  • Sleeping Bag / Hammock
  • Cot or Sleeping Pad
  • Compact Mess Kit
  • Compact Butane Stove
  • Food
  • Knife
  • Backpack Saw
  • Signaling Items, such as a whistle
  • Fire Starting Materials
  • Water Purification, like Lifestraw, chemical tablets or filtering device

Backpack: A backpack should be the absolute first item on your primitive camping list. While most primitive campers will backpack to their camping site, even if you are driving to a disbursed site you will still need one for day hikes. 

Tent: The proper tent will largely depend on the climate, and how many people are in your party. If the weather is warm and you are going solo, a pair of trekking poles a large tarp might do the trick. Alternatively, you can opt for a hammock to bring on your primitive camping adventure. It can alleviate the extra weight and storage requirements of a tent and is quicker to get set up. However, if you have a large group and you’re driving to a disbursed camping site then a large canvas tent might make sense. 

Sleeping Bag: A sleeping bag is an absolute necessity and should be durable and lightweight. Make sure it is temperature rated for the area where you are camping

Knife: This is absolutely the most important tool for any primitive camper. Knifes should be fixed blade so they are more durable and can be used for almost any outdoor task.

Fire Starting materials: While matches are obvious, be sure to bring a lighter, magnesium fire starter and a small amount of kindling. You always want to be able to start a fire to keep you warm, deter predators (including bugs) and have the ability to prepare a meal.

If you have never tried primitive camping, give it a try this summer. The peace and tranquility you experience are unparalleled to any other outdoor experience you’ve ever had. Pack all of the essential items, learn some of the important survival skills and you’ll be all set for a great adventure.

Additional Information

For more reading on this topic, check out our article on dispersed camping for some resources about where to camp on state and federal lands. We have a great primer on hammock camping. If you’re into minimalist camping, you may be interested in our articles on kayak camping and bike packing. And if you want more information on tents and tent camping, check out our tent buying guide and what you need to know before your first tent campout.

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