Backpacking in Pennsylvania State Parks and Forests

Looking for more information about backpacking in the Pennsylvania state park system? Keep reading!

Table of Contents

What is Primitive Camping or Backpacking?
Backpacking in PA State Parks
Backpacking in PA State Forests
Summary of Differences between Backpacking in State Parks vs State Forests
Setting up my tent in the Quebec Run Wild Area

Most of the best places to backpack in Pennsylvania are part of the PA State Park and State Forest system. However, there are different rules whether sites are located in the state parks or state forests. To make sure you’re following the rules, learn more about backpacking in the DCNR system!

As always, follow the principles of leave no trace when you're out exploring! Pack out all trash, leave wildlife alone, and generally leave it better than you found it - for more information visit the Leave No Trace Center.

What is Primitive Camping or Backpacking?

Primitive camping, or backpacking, is a wilderness camping experience – no modern conveniences! You pack in what you need to camp for the night. If this doesn’t appeal to you, check out the PA DCNR camping reservation system to find a campsite with showers, running water, or toilets. Additionally, if you’re close enough to your car/motor home to access supplies, that’s not considered primitive camping. (That’s considered motorized, roadside camping and you’ll need to follow different rules!)

Looking for backpacking gear tips? Check out my comprehensive guide to backpacking gear here!

Backpacking in PA State Parks

Backpacking is a great way to experience the wonderful state park system in Pennsylvania. However, there are rules to follow when backpacking in the parks!

There are only five Pennsylvania state parks that allow backpacking and overnight hikes:

Permits and site reservations are required for all backpacking in the state parks. These reservations cost a nominal fee and can be reserved through the PA Reserve America website or by calling the specific state park during office hours. I have had rangers check my reservations while backpacking in the state parks, so make sure that you follow the rules and reserve your spot properly!

Fall is an incredible time to backpack in Moraine State Park
Interested in learning about the best places to backpack in Western Pennsylvania? Check out my guide to my favorite places!

Backpacking in PA State Forests

Backpacking in the Pennsylvania State Forest system is different than backpacking in the state parks. It is a more relaxed system and does not require paid reservations.

All State Forests except William Penn allow primitive camping! I have only backpacked in Forbes State Forest in the Quebec Run Wild Area so far, but am planning future trips to other wonderful state forests!

Backpackers may camp overnight anywhere except:

  • In designated natural areas
  • Within 200 feet of a forest road
  • Within 25 feet of a trail
  • Within 100 feet of a stream or any open water

Backpack campers are permitted to camp in most areas of the forest without a permit as long as they are staying only one night in any location or have less than ten people in the group. Staying multiple nights in a row at the same site requires a free permit. If your group has ten people or more, you need to get a Letter of Authorization from the specific forest district where you want to camp. (This is because certain areas can’t sustain large groups without impacting the natural environment!)

To request a free, state forest primitive camping permit, you’ll need to contact the state forest district office for where you are planning to camp. For more guidance on primitive camping, check out the PA DCNR Camping Ethics Brochure.

While there are no “designated sites” in Quebec Run, it was easy to tell where people had camped before because of fire rings
Trying to figure out what clothing to take backpacking? Check out my backpacking clothing guide here!

Summary of Differences between Backpacking in State Parks vs State Forests

PA State ParksPA State Forests
Permits or Reservations Required?Yes – ReservationsPermits only if >1 day
Permits/Reservations Cost a Fee?YesNo
Can put a tent down anywhere*NoYes
Shelters AvailableYesNo
*following proper Leave No Trace and DCNR guidelines

Have you backpacked in the Pennsylvania state parks or forests? What was your favorite place? Let me know in the comments below!

Updated November 26, 2023

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