Backcountry vs Primitive/Dispersed Camping

Difference Between Backcountry and Primitive Camping
Alexander Moliski

"There is no Wi-fi in the forest, but I promise you will find a better connection." - Anonymous

Primitive, Dispersed, Backountry? Which do I use?

Well, that depends entirely on what experience you wish to have, how prepared you are, and what equipment you have available.

Distinguishing between backcountry campsites and primitive/dispersed camping can be confusing - especially because almost all of the terms are interchangeable (or at least frequently used interchangeably).

Knowing the difference can help when preparing a trip and following the rules of the area you are visiting. Some parks are very strict, and will enforce the camping rules for conservations purposes.

It is always best practice to check with the rangers before heading out, but sometimes that is not an option. When preparing for trips, always check online at the specific park for rules. Even if it is a familiar park, they might have closed campsites or changed guidelines since the last time you visited. Protect yourself and the park by knowing where to camp.


By far the most common of all camping areas is the campground. These sites are generally extremely accessible, close to the visitor's center, sometimes have amenities (such as water, bathrooms and showers), and are almost always completely booked.

Looking at Acadia National Park's map, you can see two campgrounds: the Blackwoods and Seawall campgrounds. Notice, that those are the only two areas in the park you can camp - Acadia is one of the few National Parks that do not allow primitive camping or even have backcountry campsites available. As you can imagine, these sites fill fast. Additionally, they are usually expensive (in backpacking terms), the sites at Acadia were $35 a night, not including the park entrance fee. To reserve these sites, you usually have to look online, or talk to a ranger at the park.

I'm not condemning traditional campsites. I think they are amazingly convenience for young families and people that aren't just ready to plunge into backcountry camping. They are comfortable, and still cheaper than a hotel. Campsites also usually give direct access to the park's hiking trails, as well as keeping the visitors immersed in nature.

Despite not having backcountry sites, Acadia National Park is definitely still worth a visit. For those of you (like me) looking to save as much money as possible for more backpacking adventures, there is a Walmart 20-30 minutes from the park.

Backcountry/Primitive Sites

Backcountry sites are usually selective spots designated for one (sometimes two) single, or double person tents. These sites are usually spread throughout the wilderness areas of the park on popular multi-day trails. There are many reasons for this, but it is primarily used for conservation purposes. In heavily trafficked areas, the rangers want to limit the damage done to the environment. Making semi-permanent camping areas stops campers from setting up anywhere and everywhere.

You can clearly see the designated camping area.

Take a look at Big Bend National Park. Looking at the overall map of the park, you can see multiple campgrounds, including: the Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, and Castolon. These campgrounds are similar to the ones mentioned above in Acadia National Park.

However, if you look closely at the map above, you can see other tent symbols. These, are backcountry sites. To get a better idea, Let's look at another map of the Chisos Mountain area of Big Bend.

As you can see below. There are nearly 40 extra campsites along the Chisos Mountain Loop Trail. So if campgrounds are full, always remember to check for backcountry sites. These sites require a little more process to reserve than campgrounds. While some parks allow reserving backcountry sites ahead of time, almost all parks leave at least half of the sites to be reserved in person.

To reserve these sites, you must go to the ranger's station/visitor's center, and ask for a backcountry site. Some bigger parks, such as Big Bend, even have wilderness permit offices. You will then sit down with a ranger and tell them of your plans. They will be glad to help plan an overnight hike and make sure you'll be able to get to your site and complete your miles for the day.

Once you have a site selected. The range will then ask you to hill out a LNT (Leave No Trace) form stating you will take out everything you take in. Additionally, there will be a small fee, I have seen fees for backcountry sites range from $5-$15, it all depends on the park and the season. Once you pay your fee and take your permit, you are free to explore and camp in that spot for the night!

Dispersed/Wilderness Camping

Wilderness camping, or dispersed camping, generally mean the same thing. You walk out into a wilderness and set up (almost) wherever you decide. Dispersed camping, to me, is the most free and fun. It is the definition of true nature immersion. That being said, you still have to be careful. Fewer and fewer national parks are allowing dispersed camping due to the side effects - mostly people leaving messes, destroying the land, or starting fires.

True wilderness camping.

Dispersed camping is often the most confusing as well - as far as planning goes. Some parks still require campers to carry a wilderness hiking permit, some areas have self-register sites, and some areas have no regulations. If you can't decide what the procedures are for the area you intend to stay, talk to a ranger, or call the ranger's station, they'll be able to explain what you need to do.

Looking one more time at Big Bend, you can see that most of the massive park is open to dispersed/wilderness camping - a stark difference from Acadia, yet they are both national parks. In fact, it looks like the only areas you can't primitive camp in Big Bend is the Chisos area where you need backcountry permits and reservations.

Although it seems like anything goes, there are still some rules that must be followed for primitive camping. Most parks require that camps need to be at least a half a mile away from any park road. Campers are also required (in almost all places) to camp at least 100 yards away from any historical site, trail, water source, or cliff edge. Additionally group sizes usually can't be more than 8 although some places allow 15 or more. Finally, most areas don't allow visitors to stay more than 14 days.

Walmart Campsites

So what happens if you are roadtripping far away from home. Your destination is still hours away and you can't keep your eyes open. The next rest stop is 50 miles away, or further, and you don't think you can make it? Open Google Maps and look for the nearest Walmart, chances are it's not far away.

Walmart is open 24 hours a day, they have huge parking lots, and it is well lit. I have spent many, many nights in the parking lot of a Walmart and no one has ever come out and said anything. It seems to be an unspoken rule (or oversight?) on Walmart where they know we are likely going to wander in and spend money so they let us stay.

I have even walked in with toothpaste and toothbrush in hand and cleaned up for the morning. The main point is to not let the type of campsite intimidate you. There are always options when backpacking and roadtripping, you just have to be willing to give them a chance.

An eye-level double rainbow in the Colorado wilerness.

And who knows, you may set your temporary home up in a magical spot. This was a primitive site in the Never Summer Wilderness in Colorado. No permit other than a self-registration at the beginning of the hike was necessary.