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INTRODUCTION: Seattle Recreation and the North Cascades

Primitive Camping in the North Cascades

Mt. Baker Wilderness
Glacier Peak Wilderness
U.S. Forest Service Roads

Primitive camping is about camping in areas that are not designated camp sites in national forest lands. (National Parks may have restrictions regarding this kind of camping, so be sure to check with the park.) If you're hiking along a trail and pitching a tent at a convenient spot not designated as a campground, that is primitive camping. Another example would be driving on a forest service road and pulling over off the road and then setting up a campsite along a river. As in the first example, this would also be an area not designated as a campground.

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Please note that for the purpose of this article, "primitive camping" is not the same thing as a "primitive campsite" as used on the Washington State Parks website. The Parks website states: "Campsite does not include a nearby flush comfort station. Primitive campsites may not have any amenities of a standard campsite." In this case, a "primitive campsite" is a less expensive lot at a public campground with fewer "amenities". However, for this article, a primitive campsite refers to a trek into the wilderness and creation of a campsite where one before may not have previously existed.

Primitive camping -- to date -- seems to be the type of camping that I enjoy the most. Typically, there's no one else around, and you get to feel the solitude of being out in the wilderness, and it's a lot like feeling like a person who has found themselves shipwrecked on an island, and now it's just you and your companions, creating life out in God's country. Of course, in the case of most people reading this, you don't feel like you've been shipwrecked, and in fact you want to be there. Also, you know you're only out there for a few days. When it's time to go, you've got a schedule and a life back at home you can leave for.

Depending on how far you are from where you park you car will be a factor in what kind of supplies you pack for this camping trip. If you have to hike into the wilderness more than 100 yards, toting things like a cooler, pillow, radio and cans of soda may not be something you want to undertake. In this case this is when packing "light" comes into play. No cooler, no radio, no pillows and cans of soda, etc. Instead, perhaps freeze-dried food, and other non-perishable items: Granola bars, pancake mix, instant soups, oatmeal, etc.

Nowadays, when I take on primitive camping, it's with my wife, little girl, and other kids who may come along with us. I like to pick spots where I can just pull off the forest service road, have room to park the car (so it's off the road) and an area close by where we can set up camp. I like areas along side large creeks / small rivers... this is where the the water is moving, but there are areas to swim (natural pools that form along the creek / river banks), and a bonus is small cliffs or large rocks for jumping into pools (where the water is deep enough). One place I like to camp the water is too swift for children to cross safely, but for adults it's a great area to jump in and swim and let the current carry you downstream a short distance. The depth is just right, where it's easy to stand up and walk out of the water to the bank.

If you choose an area alongside a creek or river, be careful of any dogs you bring along. We brought along my wife's small dog who almost got himself washed away in the river, when he jumped in and tried to cross and catch up to "mom" on the other side of the river. God was looking out for him though, and he got rescued -- just barely.

There are dangers with primitive camping, depending on where you set up camp. One is if you're camping alongside a creek or river, be sure to talk to the forest service or park rangers (locate an office phone number and make your calls before hand) and ask about the creek / river, and whether or not the water levels rises or falls significantly in a specific area, at a specific time of year. If you have any doubts, choose higher ground for your camp. There's no sense in getting washed away at 4am in the morning because the water rose unexpectedly, right into your tents. Another danger may be your campfire, and whether or not there is adequate space overhead to reduce the risk of a spark catching a tree on fire. So look around, gauge the wind, gauge the tree types, and of course know if there's any fire danger currently for the area that you're in.

Essential Items for primitive camping

Grill - A metal grill for cooking over a fire is the first item that I recommend. The second would be a sleeping pad (if you have room), as you're most likely to pitch a tent in an area not previously smoothed out or cleared of small rocks.

Water - There is no water available, other than what you bring in, and what you are able to procure from a nearby creek, river, or lake, which then of course needs to be brought to a boil in order to make the water safe for drinking. In the past I heard that boiling for ten minutes ensured that the water was safe, however I recently read from a major source that simply bringing the water to a boil is sufficient for making water safe to drink.

Toilet Paper - There is no outhouse here, so finding 2 or 3 areas away from the camp where people can go to the bathroom is a necessity. Bringing a shovel along would be wise, as it's easy to dig a hole, and bury any waste, including toilet paper.

Bear Pepper Spray - Are you in grizzly country? It would be very smart to have a couple cans of Bear Pepper Spray handy, kept in each tent, or kept with each group should some of you venture away while others hang out back at camp.

Whistles - Did you bring your children along? Give them each a whistle, that they can blow if they venture out of site, and run into trouble.

Bonus Items - Primitive camping doesn't have to be about testing your survival skills -- unless that's why you're out there. I like to have a good time with the family, and help the kids enjoy themselves also. Don't forget the marshmallows, mosquito repellant, first aid kit, and water sandals. If you're into music, bring some songs on paper that you can sing around the campfire late at night. Are you a coffee drinker? A "French Press" is an essential for camping, and allows for an easy brewing of a small pot of coffee. If you have a large group, consider 2 or 3 of these French Presses, or a large one, with a large pot (if you happen to come across one.) Another great item is a tea-pot, which allows for the easy boiling of water, for coffee, cocoa, tea and for cooking.

Bring plenty of garbage bags --- there's no garbage can here, so everything you pack in be sure to pack out, and do a great job of cleaning up after yourselves, and making sure that campfire is "dead out" before you go. As much as possible, you should erase as much evidence as possible that you were there, though leaving a fire ring may be ok, offering the next traveler a place to camp should he or she or "they" come across your campsite.

Why aren't there any specific places mentioned for primitive camping? These are places you're going to have to find on your own. Talk to the forest service in different areas about which areas you're likely to find creeks, or rivers, or lakes, with opportunities for primitive camping. In the Washington State National Parks, camping is only allowed at public campgrounds.

One of the things that is going to keep places "primitive" is if they're not marked down on a map, or announced on the internet to thousands of people. So, you are on your own, here. Do your research, make some phone calls to forest service offices, explore forest service roads, creeks and rivers, and get out and camp!

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Primitive Camping in the North Cascades
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