New York State has lots of space for backcountry camping and is very friendly to backpackers, but the rules vary from place to place, and it is important to know them.
Planning ahead and knowing the status of your intended destination is a basic tenet of safe hiking programs. It is also the first principle of Leave No Trace: “Plan Ahead and Prepare: Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit”.
The following is a summary of some of the key backcountry camping rules covering public lands in New York State.
DEC Managed Lands in NY
New York State Forest Preserve
Most backcountry camping opportunities in New York State are on the nearly 5 million acres of land managed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The backcountry camping opportunities are primarily on the 3 million acres of land considered part of the New York “Forest Preserve”. Forest Preserve refers to lands within the Adirondack and Catskill parks. Most of these lands are designated as either “Wilderness” or “Wild Forest” which have slightly different regulations for backcountry camping and other uses. In general, Wilderness and Wild Forest areas have these backcountry camping regulations in common:
- Campsites must be at least 150 feet from any road, trail, water body, or waterway.
- No camping over 3500 feet elevation (except for during winter outside of the Adirondack High Peaks)
- The maximum group size without a permit is 9 persons (groups of 10 or more must get a permit in advance from the forest ranger responsible for the area).
- Whenever possible, camp in designated sites. In many areas, the DEC has designated specific campsites marked with a yellow disk to limit the disturbance of surrounding lands by campers. These are often some of the best spots around, on level grounds and next to streams where camping would otherwise be illegal.
- Camping legally means that your tent must be within 15 feet of the yellow disk.
- Fire rings should not be within this 15-foot radius or there won’t be any room for tents. Where campfires are legal, use existing fire rings whenever possible and do not build new fire rings.
- There are numerous 3-sided shelters (lean-tos) available to backpackers on state lands. Shelters are first come, first served up to the capacity of the shelter. You cannot claim one for yourself and may have to share the shelter with strangers .
- You cannot erect a tent inside of a shelter.
- Certain areas are marked with “No Camping” signs. The meaning is obvious. These signs usually include the universal “No” sign, i.e., a red circle with a slash over a yellow disk. They are placed to limit specific areas to camping for a variety of reasons.
- Carry out what you carry in. Properly dispose of waste and pack out all gear and garbage. Do not leave waste at trailheads.
Special Backcountry Camping Regulations in the Adirondack High Peaks
The Adirondack High Peaks region, comprised of several wilderness areas, has some special regulations which differ from wilderness areas in other parts of the state:
- No campfires in the Eastern Zone of the High Peaks Wilderness
- Group Size Maximum is 8. Larger groups are not permitted.
- No camping above 3,500 feet (except at lean-to)
- Bear canisters are required for all overnight campers in the Eastern High Peaks.
Other DEC Managed Lands
DEC Managed lands outside of the Forest Preserve (Catskills and Adirondacks) are mostly classified as either State Forests or as Wildlife management areas. Backcountry camping opportunities on these lands are more limited. Some State Forest areas allow primitive camping and some do not. As always, do your research when planning a trip and find out the rules for the area you intend to visit.
New York State Parks
NY has 180 State Parks totaling nearly 350,000 acres. They are managed by the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP). The State Parks are actively managed for a wider range of recreational usage than DEC lands. Many have developed campgrounds, but very few allow “dispersed” or “primitive” camping (i.e., backcountry camping). If you are not sure, check with the park before your visit. One of the exceptions is Harriman State Park, which has shelters on and near the Appalachian Trail. See the Appalachian Trail section below for Harriman backcountry camping rules.
Appalachian Trail in New York
In New York State there are more than 90 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) that pass in a corridor through a mix of APPA (Appalachian Scenic Trail / National Park Service), NY State Parks and some private lands. Backcountry camping along the AT in New York is only allowed at shelters and designated campsites.
Appalachian Trail Backcountry Camping Regulations
This is a summary of regulations along the AT in New York. Whether thru-hiking, section hiking, or just planning a night or two, you should plan where you will stay and confirm the regulations for backcountry camping in those places, as well as where you can legally park a vehicle.
- Camping is permitted only at shelters and designated sites. There is no at-large camping permitted along the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in New York State.
- Campfires are only allowed in fireplaces and rings provided at shelters and designated campsites.
New Jersey line to Harriman State Park
- Most of this 18-mile section passes through National Park Service land and Sterling Forest State Park.
- There is only one designated shelter (Wildcat) located approximately 8 miles from the New Jersey State Line. There is no camping in Sterling Forest.
- Campfires are not allowed in this section.
Harriman State Park to the Bear Mountain Bridge / Hudson River
- This 19-mile section has 3 shelters in Harriman State Park along or a short distance from the AT.
- Tent camping is allowed within 300 feet of each shelter.
- There are a total of 9 shelters in Harriman that are available to campers. Ssome are quite far from the AT.
- The same camping rules apply at all 9 shelters. These are the only places where at-large backcountry camping is permitted on over 200 miles of trails that cross Harriman’s 45,000 acres.
Hudson River to NY/CT border
- This section covers over 50 miles and passes through APPA/ NPS corridor, NY State Parks, and private lands.
- Backcountry camping is permitted only at shelters and designated sites.
- Clarence Fahnestock State Park has a public campground requiring reservations a good distance off the AT, but they have other areas where they will direct thru-hikers for camping. You should confirm details with the park as part of your planning.
Backcountry Camping Resources for New York State:
- State Land Camping Rules (NY State Department of Environmental Conservation)
- Primitive Camping Rules and Guidelines (NY State Department of Environmental Conservation)
- AT Camping Regulations (Appalachian Trail Conservancy)
- Camping in New York State Parks (NYS Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation)
Long Distance Hiking Trails in NY
There are a number of long distance hiking trails in New York State. Here are some suggestions / links to get you started. Camping on some of them can be hard to come by, so do your homework before going.
- Finger Lakes Trail
- Northville-Placid Trail – Adirondack.net
- Northville-Placid Trail – Guide Book – Adirondack Mountain Club
- Backpacking the Long Path- New York-New Jersey Trail Conference
- Empire State Trail
- Cranberry Lake 50 (multiple trails)
- Taconic Crest Trail
- Shawangunk Ridge Trail
- Paumanok Path
- Exploring Long Island’s Long-distance Trail (publiclands.com)