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Primitive Camping in State Forests and Parks

Primitive camping, also sometimes referred to as backpacking, is a true wilderness camping experience. There are no modern conveniences such as bathroom and shower facilities. You pack in what you need to camp for the night.

To primitive camp in state forests or parks, you must:

  • Obtain a camping permit if staying more than one night in an area in a state forest
  • Make a reservation for a trail shelter in a state park

While primitive camping in state forests and parks, please practice the Leave No Trace guidelines.

Primitive Camping in State Forests

Primitive camping can take different forms but is always a true wilderness camping experience. Enjoy the solitude and tranquility of staying overnight in a state forest; and with 2.2-million acres of land and more than 5,000 miles of trails, outdoor enthusiasts find endless opportunities for this activity.

There are no modern conveniences and no vehicle access, so all equipment is carried by you.

Trailside Camping in State Forests

Trailside camping (backpacking) is the most popular form of primitive camping and is often done along one of the 18 State Forest Hiking TrailsMany other local trails can also be used to form unique and adventurous routes.

Many State Forest Hiking Trails require multiple nights, hiking from campsite to campsite in order to complete, but the abundance of connector trails also offer shorter hikes for overnight trips.

Trailside camping is part of an overall backcountry travel experience. It involves hiking far from nearby buildings, roads, and trailheads where you will find no modern conveniences or campsite improvements.

Those who are trailside camping are often referred to as backpackers, many of whom utilize tents; however, hammocks, bivy sacks, and other equipment are becoming increasingly popular. No matter your preference, be sure to be fully prepared with everything you’ll need to spend a night in the woods away from your vehicle.

Beyond just the traditional, trailside backpacking, primitive camping includes overnight camping where all equipment is transported by other non-motorized vehicle methods, including watercraft, bicycle, or horse.

A motorized vehicle is not located near or part of the camping experience. Bicycle users and horseback riders may not be permitted on some trails; and there may be unique camping regulations for these uses, so remember to check with the state forest district office.

Primitive Camping Guidelines in State Forests

Backpack campers are permitted to camp in most areas of the forest without a permit if staying no more than one night in any location. Backpackers may camp overnight anywhere except:

  • In designated Natural Areas
  • Within 200 feet of a forest road
  • Within 25 feet of a trail
  • Within 100 feet of a stream or any open water

See the DCNR Bureau of Forestry’s Motorized and Primitive Camping Guidelines and Ethics (PDF) for additional requirements when camping in state forests.

Primitive Group Camping in State Forests

If you would like to camp in a group of more than 10 people, a Letter of Authorization must first be obtained from the state forest district office where your group would like to stay. There are some sensitive areas in state forests where the landscape cannot sustain larger groups.

Primitive Camping Permits in State Forests

Remember, if you are camping close enough to your vehicle to access it to store gear and supplies, you are not primitive camping, but are motorized, roadside camping.

A permit and fee is always required for motorized, roadside camping and can only be done at designated sites. Please plan appropriately.

There is no fee for a state forest primitive camping permit. Primitive campers spending no more than one night at a campsite do not need a camping permit; however, a free camping permit is required if:

  • You desire an emergency point-of-contact.
  • You stay at a campsite more than one night.
  • You stay at a campsite designated permit required.”
  • A campfire is desired during spring wildfire season -- you must obtain permission from the state forest to have a campfire from March 1 through May 25; no campfires are permitted when the state forest district forester determines the forest fire danger to be high, very high, or extreme.
  • You camp using a vehicle for storage or transportation.
  • You camp within the Pine Creek Gorge along the Pine Creek Rail Trail in Tiadaghton or Tioga State Forests.

To request a free, state forest primitive camping permit, please contact the state forest district office for where you are planning to camp.

Primitive Camping in State Parks

Hiking in and putting up a tent where you choose, is NOT permitted in Pennsylvania state parks. All camping must be in a designated camping area and on designated sites. Many Pennsylvania state park campgrounds have walk-in sites which are for tents only and are more private than campsites with a paved camping pad.

Some parks have backpacking trailside shelters or sites, which can be in very remote areas, but visitors still must camp in designated areas.

Currently, there are five state parks that allow backpacking and overnight hikes:

These parks provide backpacking trails with overnight trailside shelters or sites. You must pre-register to hike and camp overnight at these state parks.

Backpacking Reservations at State Parks

Backpackers can obtain a camping permit for these parks at the Pennsylvania state parks reservation website or by calling the specific park office during business hours. 

If making an online backpacking reservation, in the “Where” field, enter the name of the state park you are interested in. In the “Interested in” field, select “Permits & Wilderness” from the dropdown menu.

Laurel Ridge State Park, Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail

  • Trail mileage within park: 70 miles
  • Total trail mileage: 70 miles
  • Number of overnight sites: 8
  • Number of shelters per site: 5
  • Number of tent spaces per site: 25
  • Amenities available: firewood, fireplaces, fire rings, and pit toilets
  • Amenities not available: check in at park office for availability of water
  • Pets allowed: Yes
  • Reserve sites: up to 11 months in advance

Ohiopyle State Park, Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail

Ohiopyle is the southern entrance to the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail

Moraine State Park, North Country National Scenic Trail

  • Trail mileage within McConnells Mill, Moraine, and Jennings: 25.9 miles
  • Trail mileage within Moraine: 13.9 miles
  • Total trail mileage: 4,600 miles
  • Number of overnight sites: 1 (Moraine State Park)
  • Number of shelters per site: 3
  • Number of tent spaces per site: 0
  • Amenities available: restroom and fire ring
  • Amenities not available: firewood and water
  • Pets allowed: Yes
  • Reserve sites: up to 11 months in advance

Oil Creek State Park, Oil Creek/Gerard Hiking Trail

  • Trail mileage within park: 36 miles
  • Total trail mileage: 36 miles
  • Number of overnight sites: 2
  • Number of shelters per site: 6
  • Number of tent spaces per site: spaces are available
  • Amenities available: water (Seasonal April 1 to November 1), firewood (when available), restrooms, picnic table, and fireplaces
  • Pets allowed: Yes
  • Reserve sites: up to 11 months in advance

Raccoon Creek State Park

  • Backpacking trail loop mileage within park: 44 miles
  • Number of overnight sites: 2
  • Number of shelters per site: 5
  • Number of tent spaces per site: 5
  • Amenities available: water and pit latrines/port-a-johns available 1/4-mile from campsite, fire ring
  • Amenities not available: firewood (may be purchased at park office)
  • Pets allowed: Yes
  • Reserve sites: up to 11 months in advance

Reservation Changes and Cancellations

Cancellations and changes can be handled online under “My Account” or by calling the call center. Any cancellation or change on the day of arrival must be made through the state park where the reservation occurs.

Please see state park’s reservation cancellation and change policy for additional information about cancelling or changing reservations and associated fees.