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I want to ease into backpacking gradually. Can I camp at a trailhead?

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I want to ease into backpacking gradually. Can I camp at a trailhead?

A "no camping sign." I imagine the bullet holes are there for extra emphasis.

Photo © Lisa Maloney
Question: I want to ease into backpacking gradually. Can I camp at a trailhead?
Answer:

This kind of dry run is a great way to get comfortable with the idea of backpacking and your new backpacking gear -- good for you! However, I discourage camping at trailheads for several reasons. The good news is that there are other places you can safely and easily hone your backpacking skills.

Before I get into those, though, camping is usually not allowed at trailheads. In fact, many public lands organizations forbid camping within a certain distance of a trailhead. Once you're clear of that distance, however, you can pitch your tent just about anywhere.

Signs that camping is forbidden are usually just that -- obvious signs that say "no camping" or have the picture of a tent with a diagonal line across it. How far you're supposed to be from the trailhead before pitching your tent without fear of getting a ticket, however, isn't always as obvious. The best way to be sure is by calling whichever public land organization maintains that trailhead (or owns the land it's on).

A comprehensive list of campgrounds

Still determined to camp at a trailhead? Rules aside, here's why I don't recommend it:

  • Road noise
  • People noise -- you're going to hear the comings and goings of every other person at the trailhead
  • Trailheads may be scenes for illicit activity at night

Now for the good news: Some trailheads have a dedicated campground right there -- if that's the case where you are, you're good to go as long as you obey that particular campground's rules regarding fees, reservations, etc. The campsites are usually set far enough back to avoid road noise and people pulling up for non-camping purposes. You can pitch your tent, get used to the idea of sleeping in it, then get a feel for what it's like to actually carry all your camping gear on a hike the next day.

The manual for going without indoor plumbing

If you don't have access to a campground trailhead, other options include camping in your own backyard (comes with complimentary access to indoor plumbing!), camping in a campground somewhere else, or hiking the minimum allowed distance along the trail before pitching your tent.

Got a hiking-related question of your own? Drop me a line!

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