The Best Places To Camp Off-Trail

True wilderness is hard to come by in the 21st century.

Nearly everything has been mapped, and almost as much has been developed. For most, outdoor adventures will involve reading guidebooks for recommendations, hunting for permits to camp in predetermined spots, and hiking on established trails. Most of the time, it’s important to stay on the trail and camp in designated locations (both for your safety and the health of the environment), but in a few select places, you can step off the beaten path and strike out on your own. 

Exploring away from charted trails and campsites is one of the best ways to really immerse yourself in the wild. To do it, you’ll have to make your route through the landscape, find your own campsite, and deal with the environment in its raw, natural state. 

Who Should Do This?

First things first: Going off-trail isn’t for everyone. Trails make it easier to travel and navigate, and they make it easier for rescuers to find you in an emergency. To bushwhack, you’ll need to be able to navigate in all types of terrain and weather (with GPS as well as a map and compass), find food, water, and shelter on your own, and handle any first-aid issues or other emergencies that might arise.

Not sure if you’re up to the task? Work on these skills at home and on established trails before venturing into the wilderness destinations below. Regardless of your experience level, exploring off-trail requires a lot of pre-trip preparation and planning. Before you set off, get as familiar as possible with your destination from maps, satellite imagery, and other relevant information on the area (notably regarding weather forecasts and hazards). 

1. Denali National Park

Land managers build trails and encourage people to stay on them in order to limit the damage humans do to the backcountry. But Denali is different. The park is massive, it sees relatively few visitors, and it’s not dominated by a handful of “must-see” destinations—meaning that land managers can best preserve the landscape by encouraging visitors to spread out, no trails required. 

Denali National Park has very few established trails, and none are viable backpacking routes. Anyone backpacking in the park must come prepared to make their own route. If you visit, don’t expect to find bridges over glacial rivers, paths cut through alder groves, or much beyond animal herd trails to follow. And you won’t find much information online, either: The Park Service discourages visitors from sharing detailed information after their hikes.

Instead, expect to spend a lot of time in front of a map imagining your route, and even more time picking your way through it. The end result: a true wilderness trek where you’re a whole lot more likely to see a bear than another person. 

Start Here: The national park is huge and options are basically limitless, but for a good intro to backpacking in Denali, consider exploring Unit 26 and Primrose Ridge from the Savage River Gate for open tundra and accessible alpine views. 

2. Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier National Park is a little different than Denali. The park is a popular destination with many well-known hiking trails. But it’s also quite large and has significant swaths that trails don’t touch. While backpacking permits for certain zones can be hard to snag, permits for these trailless areas are pretty easy to pick up—even last-minute on a weekend. The Park Service does limit the number of permits available, but the quota is rarely filled.

The catch: You’ll need to plan your route carefully, and you won’t find any established campsites. On the plus side, you’ll usually have these gorgeous wilderness areas—like Seattle Park on the northwest face of iconic Mount Rainier—to yourself, or at least feel like you do.

Start Here: Mount Rainier is more forested than Denali, so if you’re looking for an open spot to set up camp with mountain views, look toward open areas known as “parks.” Seattle Park, accessed from the Carbon River Entrance is a good bet. 

3. The Bisti Wilderness

The roughly 43,000-acre Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area in northwestern New Mexico is an otherworldly landscape of unique rock formations, hoodoos, pinnacles and badlands, all of which feel like they came from another planet. While this reserve has a collection of trailheads around its edges, there are no trails leading from them. Instead, you’ll have to pick one and then create your own route from there.

Overland travel in parts of the badlands is best done through washes and drainages. Insider tip: Many of the washes descend to the west, which can help you orient yourself if you happen to get lost. 

Start Here: Find some of the Bisti’s strangest rock formations at the eastern end of Alamo Wash, accessed from County Road 7290. 

4. Great Sand Dunes National Park

This 30-square-mile dunefield in southern Colorado is essentially one big, beautiful sandbox. The sands are ever-changing, so you won’t find any permanent trails crisscrossing the park. In fact, the whole landscape—everything from yesterday’s footprints to entire dunes—is constantly being reshaped by the wind (satellite images and maps may not be as accurate as you’d like). That unsettled state makes it a great place for avoiding other people and experiencing a wilderness without signs of human presence. 

Start Here: Though identifying landmarks in the Sand Dunes is difficult because of the constant sand shifts, head northwest from the Sand Ramp Trailhead until you find a place you like. The farther you get from the trailhead, the better the views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.