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Total Noob Question about Backpacking -- Setting up Camp
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Mr. Jared
(PA_packer) - F

Locale: SEPA
Total Noob Question about Backpacking -- Setting up Camp on 07/14/2010 09:01:48 MDT Print View

I've always thought with backpacking that you just picked a trail, took off, and set up camp when you felt like it. However, I looked up backpacking in Pennsylvania and it said there were only 4 places you could do it:

And each of these places seem to have rules about where you can camp, they have toilets and fire rings, it sounds like regularly car camping but you hike to get to your spot.

Am I misunderstanding this whole backpacking thing? I've been daydreaming about setting up camp along a babbling creek, getting a fire going, and enjoying some solitude. Is this not possible in Pennsylvania?

By the way, great forum and site. Love the articles and the user posts here. Thanks in advance for any help you can give to this noob!

Daniel Fosse
(magillagorilla) - F

Locale: Southwest Ohio
not all parks are the same on 07/14/2010 09:25:10 MDT Print View

I have never hiked in Penn. I have hiked all around Mammouth Cave in KY and they have the same rules, designated sites, many of which have steel fire rings. It is still good hiking and the sites are very far apart. Other parks have a no camp within 300 feet of a trail, which means you can camp pretty much anywhere.

Depending on where you live, there are several big NPs you could drive to. If you want total isolation head to big NP.

Good luck.

James Patsalides
( - MLife

Locale: New England
re: Total Noob Question about Backpacking -- Setting up Camp on 07/14/2010 09:36:12 MDT Print View

Hi Mr. J & welcome to the site... A big part of the issue with campsites is trying to concentrate impact in heavily used land.

This is a basic premise of Leave No Trace (check out for more info on this). What you'll find is that in heavily used areas the trail managers will concentrate impact by constructing designated sites often with privies, shelters, tent spaces, fire rings etc. This is really important to protect the resource for folks who follow us.

In less impacted areas, such as some of the larger NPs, the LNT approach is to disperse impact - essentially select your own site, but make sure it is on durable surfaces, make sure you protect the land from camp fire impacts and clean up properly after yourself. You want NO-ONE to be able to tell that you were there. The issue here is if you leave something that looks a bit like a camp site, other less responsible campers will use your site and it will quickly become impacted. The more impacted sites in an area, the more likely the trail managers will have to intervene to protect the resource for the rest of us.

LNT principles are not hard rules, but are really about protecting the resources. Make sure you read up on LNT before you head into the backcountry, maybe take an awareness course locally? It is definitely worth it!

Happy trails!

Peace, James.

Kevin Babione
(KBabione) - MLife

Locale: Pennsylvania
PA Backpacking on 07/14/2010 09:47:29 MDT Print View

Mr. Jared,

The website you found lists the backpacking trails that are entirely within Pennsylvania State Parks. I've never hiked any of them because of the reasons you mentioned...You have to prepay for the right to stay in a shelter and you MUST stay in one of those shelters. No flexibility on mileage or companions.

Contrary to what you've found, there is a lot of backpacking available in PA. PA Backpacking Trails is a good place to start with trails that run through either PA State Forests, PA Game Lands (no camping on state Game Lands), and private property (usually no camping). On any of these trails you can camp pretty much whereever you choose because most of them are on State Forest land. There are, for the most part, established campsites already near water that many use.

I don't know where you live in PA but I'd be happy to help you if you have questions about backpacking in PA. Please feel free to PM me.

Mr. Jared
(PA_packer) - F

Locale: SEPA
thanks on 07/14/2010 10:41:35 MDT Print View

Appreciate the advice, folks.

@James: I will definitely not leave any trace. Great advice. Nothing irritates me more than garbage or remnants of people's recreation in otherwise pristine locations.

@Kevin: I took you up on your offer and sent you a PM. Glad to hear there are other backpacking options in PA.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: thanks on 07/14/2010 15:21:16 MDT Print View

I think this is a more common issue than people think. I mean, we see all these great images of the backcountry, awesome trip reports of people out in the middle of nowhere, and so forth.

I actually had a similar experience when I decided to go for the first time. What do you mean I need a permit for this, and a permit for that, and I can only camp here and not there, and, and, and.....I just want to GO!

Once you really delve into it, you can find some pretty awesome places to go. Remember though, if you want a sweet mountaintop view, or a secluded canyon, or a hidden waterfall, you have to get there first, and many people, myself included, aren't equipped with the knowledge to go find these places off trail. Unless, of course, you follow established trails--and then we're back into the realm of the issue at hand.

Like anything else, its a learning process. I'm still going through it! National forests and grasslands are places where you can camp wherever you want--like next to that babbling brook. Other wilderness places allow it also, but you just have to research the rules and regulations. Heck, even in Wisconsin, nice trails with dispersed camping are few and far between.

Good luck!

Edited by T.L. on 07/14/2010 15:23:44 MDT.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
re permits etc on 07/15/2010 02:19:34 MDT Print View

It's an American thing.
Most other countries don't have the concept of permits.


Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: re permits etc on 07/15/2010 02:43:29 MDT Print View

There are some pretty wilderness areas, especially in some of the national parks of California. I hear so many people screaming about how terrible the wilderness permit system is in Yosemite, and how crowded... yada yada.

Yosemite National Park is just trying to avoid getting wrecked like some other wilderness areas were 30 years ago. Desolation Wilderness (near Lake Tahoe) had developed the nickname Devastation Wilderness, because too many backpackers operated unhampered by permits or quotas for too long. Now, last time I was there, Desolation had come back a long way. But Yosemite doesn't want to get into that situation in the first place. Therefore, Yosemite has a lot of safeguards to spread out the foot traffic, modulate the use, especially near the roads, and to try to move the people deeper into the backcountry. If you think about it, that's probably a better place to be.

In a place like Yosemite, permits are free, but you must have one to stay legal.

I know lakes in Yosemite that are so hidden that even the park rangers have never heard of some of them. A few weeks ago, I asked for a permit to go to -THE OLD SECRET LAKE-, and the ranger looked at me for a second and then asked where that was. Hovering over the park map, I placed my finger down on a nondescript lake. Then the ranger asked me which trailhead I was using. I said, "None." What's up with that? No trailhead, because there is no trail. It's all cross-country to the lake. Oh! The ranger had to get a supervisor to help fill out the permit form. Then I signed it and off I went. No hassles. You just have to get off the beaten path. A buddy and I got to the lake in a few hours and saw nobody for the three days.


Kier Selinsky
(Kieran) - F

Locale: Seattle, WA
Re: Total Noob Question about Backpacking -- Setting up Camp on 07/15/2010 08:09:15 MDT Print View

You've got TONS of opportunities in PA. As another poster mentioned, just stay out of the parks. Parks are nice places for the crowds to go to for a day or two to get in touch with "nature" (usually overcrowded campgrounds).

Look to the state forests, national forests, and other wilderness areas (every state calls them differently).

In Allegheny national forest (gorgeous!), you can camp anywhere you want so long as you're something like 200 yards from water, roads, or trails. And 2 weeks ago I got to do an overnighter out and back on the Quehanna trail (75 mile loop if you do the whole thing), which was a very satisfying trail with nice streams, and very very secluded, and you can camp anywhere off the trail. There's also the Grand Canyon of PA, which is a great hike.

Just keep your leave no trace ethic with you, and read up on the regs of any particular place you're going first, and you'll be good. Usually there's no fees (sometimes there's a $5 parking fee), and usually the restrictions are reasonable (like not camping right next to water, roads, or trails).

Sometimes I wish I lived 40 miles east just so I could continue to enjoy PA nature and not have to pay exorbitant out of state fishing and hunting license fees.

Will Webster
Re: Total Noob Question about Backpacking -- Setting up Camp on 07/15/2010 09:50:01 MDT Print View

The Keystone Trails Association ( has a wealth of information on where to hike and backpack in PA, including books and maps for sale and links to local hiking clubs.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Roger.... on 07/15/2010 11:32:33 MDT Print View

Does that also mean that dispersed camping is usually allowed as well? In many parts of this country it IS hard to find a place where you can simply drive to a trailhead, park, and camp wherever your little heart desires.