Tips for Camping in the Catskills

Lean-to and Camp Here sign
Average read time 11 min

Secluded camping in the Catskills is a fantastic 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 essential tips can make your experience richer and also preserve the sensitive environment that the Catskills has to offer.

Plan, plan and plan again

Planning is a simple but critical skill. You can never “over-plan.” There is great joy in planning and anticipating your trip. Use trail guides, maps, 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.

Related post: Why Trail Guides Should Make You Question Everything

Avenza Maps App is an excellent 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 includes good overview information about the Catskills and excellent descriptions of all trails and 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

Indeed, 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 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. Some small resorts are making a comeback. As you plan your camping/hiking outings, visit the county tourism websites and look for lodging. The four 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. Not having what you need comes from not planning and preparing well. One common reason rangers rescue people is that they have left their flashlights at home on day hikes, and the hike took longer than expected. In other words, it got dark, and they got caught unprepared. 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.

Gear in order on pad waiting to be packed
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Gear in order on pad waiting to be packed

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, make sure everyone has what they need, and split up group gear at that time. Always start with the 10-essentials.

Related post: The 10-essentials a system of survival

Camp below 3500’

Camping at high elevations 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’.

3500 foot elevation sign in the Catskills
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking 3500 foot elevation sign in the Catskills

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 maintain trails, lean-tos, and designated campsites! The trails are marked with plastic disks, as are the designated campsites.

A route may be marked with two markers as parts of the Catskill trail system are used by the Long Path and Finger Lakes Trail. To the new hiker, this may not be very clear. There are excellent options for loop and point-to-point backpacking trips.

Double blaze on the Escarpment Trail
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Double blaze on the Escarpment Trail

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). At-large camping requires knowledge on picking a proper campsite, which may be more challenging than 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.

Related post: Finding five-star backpacking campsites

At-large campsite up the herd path
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking At-large campsite up the herd path

Related post: What To Think About Before Using a Lean-To or Back-Country Shelter

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. There are usually good water sources nearby (but not always) at a lean-to or designated campsite, 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.

Related post: See the Catskill’s lean-tos and designated campsites.

Chris at a designated campsite on the Batavia Kill Trail, getting the fire going!
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Chris at a designated campsite on the Batavia Kill Trail, getting the fire going!
Approaching Devil's Kitchen lean-to
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Approaching Devil’s Kitchen lean-to

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 campsites. 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!

Chris getting a meal ready using a mini camp stove
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Chris getting a meal ready using a mini camp stove

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 are about 1,800-2,100 black bears in the Catskills! The best way to secure your food is with a bear canister (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 it 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 correctly, is suitable for most areas in the Catskills.

Cook gear with bear container in its case
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Cook gear with bear container in its case

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.

Related post: Dreaded Backpacker Diarrhea and Vomiting. How do you manage it?

A note on water: Drinking and cooking water should be boiled for 5 minutes, treated with purifying tablets, or filtered through a filtration device to prevent giardia infection instances.

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. 

The quiet Huntersfield Mountain Lean-to
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking The quiet Huntersfield Mountain Lean-to

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 the beauty of winter, but backpack some of the lesser walked trails in the busy season!

Related post: 5 Winter Hiking Tips for Your First Time Out & So You’ll Want to Go Back

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! 

I took the picture below 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. 

Chris at the Slide Mountain trailhead
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Chris at the Slide Mountain trailhead

Our rule of thumb is to never rely on a forecast if it is 3-days out in summer and 24-hours in winter!

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, we lower our invasive rescue risk by planning well and making sure we have what we need.

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.

An illegal campsite on the Escarpment Trail in the Catskills, NO camping disk on tree
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking An illegal campsite on the Escarpment Trail in the Catskills, NO camping disk on tree

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 fewer—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 a list of rules to follow. For us, the attitude is always to 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 it’s 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!

Resources

NYSDEC primitive camping information page

NYSDEC Catskill backcountry conditions

New York – New Jersey Trail Conference

Catskill trail conditions

New York State Campgrounds

New York-New Jersey Trail Conference has a 6 map set

Avenza Maps App is an excellent phone app that uses the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference

Adirondack Mountain Club Trails of the Catskills

Catskill NatGeo Map

Leave-no-Trace

Some really good stuff at Mountain Hiking

Analysis of climber, Seth Lyons, death on Blackhead Mountain