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

Primitive and Motorized Camping in State Forests

Enjoy the solitude and tranquility of spending a few nights in a state forest. With more than 2,500 miles of trails, outdoor enthusiasts find endless opportunities for hiking and camping. There are no modern facilities, water, dump stations, or utility hook-ups on state forest lands.

Camping on state forest lands is defined as overnight lodging using standard camping equipment, and is categorized into two different types:

  • Primitive camping
  • Motorized camping

All camping must be at least 200 feet from any stream or other open water source. All campsites must be at least 25 feet from the nearest edge of a trail, and the camp should be out of sight of the trail where possible. See the DCNR Bureau of Forestry’s Motorized and Primitive Camping Guidelines and Ethics (PDF) for additional requirements when camping in state forests.

If you would like to camp in a group of 10 or more people, a letter of authorization must first be obtained from a state forest district office where your group would like to stay. A camping permit and letter of authorization are issued to the group.

Primitive Camping

Primitive camping is defined as overnight camping where all equipment is transported in limited trips by non-motorized vehicle methods, including watercraft, bicycle, or horse, and where a motorized vehicle is not located near or part of the camping experience.

You must obtain a camping permit if you plan to camp at a location more than one night.

Motorized Camping

Motorized camping is defined as overnight camping in or near a vehicle where the vehicle is used for storage or transportation. If you wish to camp in or near your vehicle in a state forest, you must:

  • Check with the forest district office to determine where to camp or if designated dispersed campsites are available -- in some forest districts, you must camp at designated dispersed campsites; acquire a camping permit; have knowledge of the rules and regulations; and tell someone of your trip plans.
  • Camp within 300 feet of a road open to public travel or a trail designated for motorized use (if the state forest does not have designated dispersed campsites). Vehicles may not be driven off of the traveled portion of the road or trail. Make sure it is a well-drained area and where you don’t meet to clear vegetation. Keep your campsite small.
  • Acquire written authorization from the state forest district office and a camping permit if camping within 300 feet from any building, natural area, or state forest picnic area.
  • Be more than one road-mile from an entrance to a state park having camping facilities or from a commercial campground.

Obtain a State Forest Camping Permit

There is no fee for a state forest camping permit. Primitive campers spending no more than one night at a campsite do not need a camping permit.

However, a 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 fire season -- you must obtain permission from the district forester to have a campfire from March 1 through May 25; no campfires are permitted when the 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.

If you are interested in camping in state forests lands, contact the state forest you would like to camp in to determine where to camp or if designated campsites are available. The state forest district office will issue a camping permit, if needed.

State Forest Camping Permit Guidelines

  • A camping permit will not be issued to anyone under the age of 18.
  • A camping permit will be valid for no more than seven consecutive nights.
  • Individuals must vacate a site for at least 48 hours before reapplying.
  • Camping permits will not be issued for individuals staying more than 30 days in a calendar year.
  • A camping permit will be issued no more than 90 days in advance on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • The camping permit holder must notify the state forest district office of any changes in their arrival or departure dates.
  • The permit holder must occupy the site listed on the camping permit within 24 hours of the arrival date listed on the camping permit.

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.