Crawling out of the tent first thing in the morning, it was all right there: the most beautiful, blissful, peaceful kind of nothing.
There were hemlocks — lots of them. Tents were pitched among them, with effort to avoid the gnarliest roots, and next to the stream where so many stocked trout — an eclectic combination of brooks, browns and rainbows — were caught the afternoon before.
Birds sang and flitted about, including a couple of chickadees and a blue jay. Chipmunks darted here and there in their usual way, periods of nervous repose interrupted by frequent short but frenetic squeaky dashes.
The gurgling stream murmured wild tales while the sunlight filtered through the canopy, turning liquid pools of dark shade into shrinking black puddles on the forest floor.
That was it. You couldn’t hear a radio or a car or a mower or even a neighbor. That’s what made it perfect.
There are many kinds of camping, and all have their place, but what’s called “dispersed camping” by those who manage such things often is wonderful.
It’s not a wilderness experience per se. A truck, in fact, was just yards away on a pullout along the dead-end dirt road, close enough that the tailgate could be used for a breakfast table.
But the lack of a developed campground meant solitude.
“For people who are hunting or fishing, who like to be near a stream, who like to be individualistic, alone all by themselves, it’s a neat way to camp,” said Julie Moyer, recreation team leader with Allegheny National Forest. “You’d be amazed at the number of people you see camping that way when you’re traveling around the forest.”
There’s plenty of opportunities.
On the Allegheny, you can camp pretty much anywhere within its 514,000 acres, with a few exceptions. No permits are required, and stay limits are liberal: up to 14 consecutive days at any one site, Moyer said.
State forests cover 2.2 million acres, and dispersed camping is available on much of them. Some forests limit you to designated “motorized camping” spots, with a fee to camp, but others are more open and require only free permits.
The privacy comes with a price.
“Out in the middle of nowhere, there are no facilities,” Moyer said.
That means no bathrooms, no showers, no water. A few, on state forests, may have fire rings. A handful may have a picnic table.
Those are the exceptions. Usually you have to make do.
That’s unlike developed campgrounds, where each site is numbered and laid out. You have to decide where to pitch your tent. There are several factors to consider, said Joe Triebsch, a field instructor with REI Pittsburgh on the South Side.
“You’re going to take a look at what’s around you,” he said. “Safety is number one. Number two is concern for the environment. And number three is going to be the kind of picturesque aspect to it.”
Safety involves looking up, he said. You want to make sure there are no dead limbs above you that could come crashing down at night.
Water is another consideration. There’s little worse than waking to a flooded tent, he said. And then there’s access to water.
You can always pack it in, but that can be rough if your group is large or your vehicle is far from your campsite, Triebsch said.
He prefers to treat it on site chemically or use a water purifier or filter, collecting from an area with good flow and little sediment.
There’s also the issue of creating a bathroom.
As a general rule, if you have to dig a “cat hole” to dispose of waste, it’s best to choose a spot at least 100 feet from your campsite and 200 feet from any water source, Triebsch said. The wet soils common to Western Pennsylvania will break down most waste pretty quickly, but no one wants to see it in the meantime, so be sure to bury it.
“Roughing it” can be rewarding, said Robin McKee of Ontario, author and creator of camping-expert.com.
But going rustic, especially if you’re bringing someone new to it, still needs to be fun, she said.
That can mean bringing a few comforts. She’s found the fresh air and exercise she gets on campouts helps her to sleep better than at home, for example. But others may need more to get the right rest.
“If you are drive-in/car camping, bring what you need to sleep. If you need a pillow, bring one.
“If you don’t, then don’t worry about it,” she said.
She also recommends preparing to do things you enjoy while there.
“I love hiking, so I spend much of my time hiking, but I’ve also brought paint to paint the scenery. Some people prefer to swim or write,” she said. “These activities make camping more fun.”
That’s what dispersed camping is supposed to be. Just be sure to minimize your impact, Triebsch said.
A lot of the “classic” campsites in Western Pennsylvania, be they accessible by car, foot or canoe, have been used for years. It’s important to help maintain what it is that makes them so attractive.
“Leave the area in better shape than you found it, basically,” Triebsch said.
Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors. ___
This article was written by Bob Frye from The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.