Secluded camping in the Catskills is an awesome experience and the Catskills offer some of the best primitive and lean-to camping in New York State. However, being only two and a half hours from millions of people it can be crowded. Following some basic tips can make your experience richer and also preserve the sensitive environment that the Catskills has to offer.
- Plan, plan and plan again
- Make sure you have what you need!
- Camp below 3500’
- Camp at a lean-to or designated campsite
- Watch your group size
- Use a camp stove
- Store your food safely
- Go in the off-season/Walk the less used path
- Watch the weather
- Leave No Trace
Plan, plan and plan again
This is a simple but critical skill. You can never “over-plan”. In fact, there is great joy in planning and anticipating your trip. Use trail guides, maps, the advice in forums, websites, even call Rangers, or hiking clubs. If you’re new to backcountry camping find someone who has experience or join a group.
Maps and Trail Guides
The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference has a 6 map set with different regions of the Catskills. The maps are used for navigation and highlight all the trails with milage, major peaks, and many lesser peaks. The map set shows all lean-tos, designated (aka primitive) campsites, water/springs, campgrounds, trailheads, and more.
Avenza Maps App is a nice phone app that uses the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference maps. Great for hikers who like gadgets and GPS. It doesn’t take the place of your map set as it is only as good as your battery life.
Adirondack Mountain Club Trails of the Catskills. A comprehensive guide to the Catskills which includes good overview information about the Catskills and nice descriptions of all trails and also trail-less peaks associated with the Catskill 3500 Club membership.
The are other resources such as the Catskill NatGeo Map and numerous day hiking guides some of which are listed in the footer of the page.
Getting to the Catskills
Certainly driving to the Catskills is an option. Trailheads are often on backcountry roads and you’ll need to make sure your car is in good working order and gassed up! Even though we have never had anything stolen from our vehicle we strongly recommend that you do not leave anything that you value in your car. Some of the trailheads are not plowed in the winter, and one has an in-season parking fee (e.g., Woodland Valley). In some combination; Trains, buses, and taxi services can get you to where you need to go. There are no official hiking shuttles like in the White Mountains.
Lodging in the Catskills
For the hiker who would like the comfort of hotels, motels, or bed and breakfasts as part of your trip, the Catskills has plenty. In fact, some small resorts are making a comeback. As you planning your camping/hiking outings visit the county tourism websites and look for lodging. The four main counties that the Catskill Park covers are Ulster, Delaware, Greene, and Sullivan.
Make sure you have what you need!
There’s nothing worse than not having what you need for your trip AND the season. This comes from not planning and preparing well. One common reason rangers are called to rescue people is that they have left their flashlight at home on day hikes and the hike took longer than expected. In other words, it got dark and they were not prepared. You don’t need to run out and buy everything if you’re just getting started. If you don’t have an item you can borrow or rent! Just don’t leave home without essential items.
Use checklists, check your gear to make sure it works, check your first aid kit, do pre-trip shakedowns with people you’re camping with to make sure everyone has what they need, and split up group gear at that time. Always start with the 10-essentials.
Camp below 3500’
Camping at high elevation is attractive and exciting! Having said that, even though the DEC allows camping above 3500’ in the Winter, it is brutal and unforgiving as you can read about in a link in the resources section of this page.. All other times of the year it is illegal to camp above 3500’.
The high elevation ecosystem of the Catskills lives a precarious existence and with repeated insults is easily destroyed – taking decades to return, if at all. It is a personal choice whether to camp at high elevation in the Winter, we have decided not to. The exception to this is designated sites that are near the 3500’ mark. By the way, there are NO fires allowed above 3500’ any time of the year, except during an emergency.
Camp at a lean-to or designated campsite
The Catskill trail system is maintained by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation also known as the DEC (see links in resources). With hundreds of miles of trails, they depend on volunteers to do much of the maintenance of trails, lean-tos, and designated campsites! The trails are marked with plastic disks as are the designated campsites. A trail may be marked with two markers as parts of the Catskill trail system is used by the Long Path and Finger Lakes Trail. To the new hiker this may be confusing. There are nice options for loop and point-to-point backpacking trips.
At-large camping has its allure and is allowed in most places in the Catskills, but check as there are areas that MAY have special regulations (see #1). Having said this, at-large camping requires the knowledge on how to pick a proper campsite which at times may be harder then it sounds. Remember this, camping is prohibited within 150 feet of any road, trail, spring, stream, pond or other body of water except at areas designated by a “Camp Here” disk.
Camping at a lean-to or designated campsite takes out the uncertainty of whether you’ll get a proper spot to camp. These spots are cleared and level. If you are used to backcountry campsites in other states, there are no designated sites with tent platforms and it is illegal to pitch a tent in a lean-to in New York. At a lean-to or designated campsite, there are usually good water sources nearby (but not always) and if the designated campsite is close by a lean-to there is probably a privy. You can’t reserve a lean-to or campsite and can only occupy a lean-to or campsite for 3-days. Staying for longer requires a permit. See the lean-tos and designated campsites.
Additionally, at every designated campsite we’ve been at there is a fire ring for a campfire. When camping at-large we opted out of the nightly campfire unless we can find the materials to build a proper mound fire, and even then we may not. Do not build fires in areas marked by a “No Fires” disk.
Finally, if one is not inclined to stay in the backcountry, the Catskills has fine state campgrounds which can be found here.
Watch your group size
In New York State there are regulations regarding group size for camping and hiking! We have seen a busload of people drive up to a trailhead get dropped off and head off for a day hike or backpacking trip.
Here are the rules for backpacking:
- No more than 9 in a group
If you want to backpack with 10 or more people you’ll need to secure a permit from the NYSDEC.
Yes, you can bring your dog. But, according to NYS Law, keep your pet under control. Restrain it on a leash when others approach. Collect and bury droppings away from water, trails and camp sites. Keep your pet away from drinking water sources.
Use a camp stove
Cooking on an open fire is fun. But it is also impractical as at many designated campsites, lean-tos, and even spots that would be great at-large campsites firewood may be hard to find. In rainy weather, it is our experience that many people have a hard time starting and maintaining a fire!
You don’t have such problems with a camp stove. A camp stove will allow you to cook meals faster and it is more friendly to the environment while in the backcountry and works well in almost every condition mother nature can throw at you.
Store your food safely
Assume that every animal in the woods wants your food (oh and toothpaste, deodorant, etc.). There is about 1,800-2,100 black bear in the Catskills! The best way to secure your food is with a bear canister (which is required in parts of the Adirondack High Peaks). But using other products such as a Ursack Bear Bag, which we have been using for 10-years without losing an ounce of food. It has been ripped on by everything from a chipmunk to bears and has not been penetrated and you may find to be a good option. Just be meticulous with knot tying. There is also the age-old method of hanging your food and if done properly is good for most areas in the Catskills.
ONE of the most important things to keep in mind is DO NOT store your food, prepare your food, and eat your food at your sleeping location. Have a separate area about 150-200’ away. TAKE only what you need for the current meal and re-secure your remaining food. Also, make sure you pack your garbage in an “airtight” bag and secure it with your food. Wash your cooking gear.
A note on water: Drinking and cooking water should be boiled for 5 minutes, treated with purifying tablets, or filtered through filtration device to prevent instances of giardia infection.
Go in the off-season/Walk the less used path
Backpacking has seen a resurgence as a pastime. This is great! It does come with more trail use which means less solitude and more strain on resources.
A way to avoid the crowds and decrease the impact on the environment is to go in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall or look for less-traveled spots. There are many places to hike that are quiet and peaceful but also have outstanding backcountry scenery. Maybe save the high peaks for the day hikes in the mid-week Spring and Fall or in the beauty of winter, but backpack some of the lesser walked trails in the busy season!
Watch the weather
We all hope for the cool breezy days with brilliant sunshine. But cloudy, drizzly or snowy conditions can all be fun in the backwoods. What’s not reasonable is to head out knowing there will be a major blizzard or tropical storm in the forecast. Mountains make their own weather and our joke is a 5% chance of rain in the Catskills is a sure thing!
The picture below was taken in December of 2017, Chris is walking back to the car at the Slide Mountain trailhead on a day in which we started in the sun with NO snow forecasted.
Our rule of thumb is to never rely on a forecast if it is 3-days out in summer and 24-hours in winter! Read about resources we use here.
Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace is both a philosophy and a program. The philosophy can be summed up in the following sayings:
- Leave only footprints take only pictures
- Pack it in, pack it out
- Tread lightly
- Leave it better than you find it
Although it is impossible to leave NO trace, the ethos, in our opinion, is really like medicine. Do no harm. For example, by planning well and making sure we have what we need we lower our risk for invasive rescue.
By camping below 3500′ and at designated campsites we stress the environment less in heavily used areas. If we learn how to pick and manage at-large campsites well we can limit our impact.
Obviously, for groups, two people will have less impact than 20 people (hopefully). Thus, again, for groups, keeping in mind that maybe a good group size is four or less. A good balance between companionship and safety with limited impact on the environment.
There are many ways to highlight how we act and stand by the core idea of Leave No Trace, but it is a mindset before it is a list of rules to follow. For us, the mindset is to always want your experience to be one in which you didn’t know we were there. Simple. No garbage, no cut trees, well-dug catholes, not trampling vegetation, dowsing our fire until its cold out, being quiet, keeping pets under control, respecting wildlife so you can experience it too, and much more.
EVERY hiker or backpacker should become aware of the principles of Leave No Trace. It will make your experience in the backcountry richer!