Primitive Camps in California
Free camping outside of a developed campground, for a self-contained camper who wants seclusion and privacy. Real relaxation in total peace and quiet. More nature, less people and minimal vehicles.
Free Campsites • Dispersed Camps • Open Camping • Boondocking
primitive camp sites – the bare minimum. a clearing for a tent, maybe a fire ring. no toilet, no fees; dirt road access.
campfire permits required. And it is up to you to know the current fire restrictions in the area you seek to camp overnight.
Back Roads to Secluded Camps –
The further out you are willing to drive, the more remote you can be. Good topo maps of the region help you to find these ultimate, secret camping spots. National Forests & BLM Lands require a free camp fire permit to have a campfire.
Fire safety is always a big concern in wildfire prone areas like California. Additional Permits & Passes may be needed in some forests or parks; each location is different. Check with the local ranger station for up to date restrictions.
Many dirt roads lead avid campers to the best out-of-the-way camp sites. Camps may have picnic tables or just a fire ring, but usually NO toilets. Have the “No Bathroom Blues”? Don’t sweat it. check out the page on Camp Potty
Some camp sites are as bare as a small clearing, a rock fire ring if you’re lucky. A detailed backcountry map is always advised. If you count on your digital mobile device and online access for mapping, you could find yourself very lost. GoogleMaps is known for mislabeling the smallest of back roads – and they do not feature dirt roads either.
A high clearance vehicle may be needed to reach certain camp spots, but many can be accessed with a standard passenger car. Low riders will likely bottom out and motorcycle riders will get dusty.
Know your vehicles limitations for any off-road use and don’t get stuck in a bad situation. Soft sand is quite common in deserts and 4×4 might be needed. There aren’t any tow trucks out in the boonies and if you do find one, it’ll cost you something fierce. Watch for large rocks, deep ruts or tree limbs in the road (at any time) and watch low overhanging branches when driving a motorhome in to such spots. Some dedicated, hard-core RV campers prefer to camp in remote locations.
Southern California has something called yellow post camps, but we’ve really ONLY seen them inside San Bernardino National Forest areas, which includes Idyllwild and Mount San Jacinto, plus all the Big Bear Lake Mountains.
YELLOW STICK? These are fire safe spots w/ picnic table; secluded in the forest, some accessible by passenger cars, while other camps require a 4×4 to reach. Yellow post sites campfires are often off limits during fire restrictions, when only fires are allowed inside the larger developed campgrounds.
dirt road and trailheads
Backpackers trailheads often have a few camp sites near the parking lot, but these may be busy during summer months. Dirt roads leading to trailheads can have primitive camp sites along them as well. Long, big creeks in the forests are notorious for having awesome camp sites. Big river camp sites are sometimes free, if you know where to look. Sometimes the smallest of California campgrounds have no charge, first come, first serve (BLM, National Forest, or State run).
Before it got labeled BOONDOCKING: Primitive Camping in remote spots was what we lived for. Camp outside of developed campgrounds, for free. Campfires will usually be banned on these back roads during the driest part of the year. Check with local ranger stations for current fire restrictions.
pros and cons
possible dirt road access, seclusion, privacy, darker skies, no fees, no crowds, real peace & quiet
no toilet, no picnic tables, no pavement, no hospital, a long hike out, no cell phone service?
always be prepared to hike out (if need be). a giant tree can come down and block your exit road. landslides often happen on dirt back roads. the vehicle could break down or become disabled. get a topographic map and know how to read the terrain, without your device/phone.
PAY extra close attention when driving in (visually with terrain and your eyes and your map). You never know when you may need to back track – or turn around to find a PLAN B campsite.
Avid camper people are indeed known to GPS waypoint their favorite pick campsites (way on the back roads), so they can arrive after work, in the dark, on a Thursday night. Now that’s planning ahead!