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There’s nothing quite like the crunch of leaves under hiking boots. A crackling fire under the open sky. The morning sun through the open door of your tent. An endless sea of trees far from any road. It’s East coast backcountry camping at its finest.
From the ancient slopes of the Appalachian Mountains to the windswept beaches of the Atlantic coast, some of America’s most stunning landscapes are in the Southeast. It’s a great place to fill a backpack with essentials and hit the trail deep into the backcountry.
The Southeastern U.S. offers ample opportunities for backcountry camping, with thousands of miles of backpacking trails, and backcountry campsites beyond counting. For those of us who enjoy getting off the grid and living out of a backpack for a few days (or weeks… or months) that equals endless possibilities.
Best East Coast Backcountry Camping – Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)
One of Virginia’s most sublime landscapes, Shenandoah National Park offers 196,000 acres of open backcountry, and more than 500 miles of trails waiting for you to explore. The park provides an incredible backcountry experience, with dense forests and sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The centerpiece of the park is a 101-mile section of the Appalachian Trail, which follows the crest of the Blue Ridge through the length of the park from north to south.
Three sided lean-to shelters (referred to locally as “huts”) are located all along the Appalachian Trail and many other hiking trails within the park. Backpackers may also tent camp in the general vicinity of each hut. The huts are usually located near a privy and a reliable water source. Dispersed backcountry camping is also possible throughout most of the park, but be sure to acquaint yourself with Shenandoah’s backcountry camping rules.
There are a couple things to know before you go. First, black bears are very common in Shenandoah National Park, and they are very accustomed to people. That makes proper food storage in the backcountry essential. Bear-proof lockers or “bear poles” for hanging packs are available at most of the trailside huts within the park.
You also need to get a backcountry permit, which is free of charge and easy to obtain. Permits are available at all entry points to Shenandoah National Park, including visitors centers as well as the kiosks that mark the Appalachian Trail’s entry into the north and south ends of the park.
Best East Coast Backcountry Camping -Chattooga River Trail (Georgia/South Carolina)
Zig-zagging along the banks of its namesake stream as it hugs the Georgia/South Carolina state line, the Chattooga River Trail offers picturesque scenery and ample opportunities for backcountry camping. It’s sometimes referred to as the Waterfall Trail for the numerous falls you get to see along the way.
The Chattooga River Trail offers a seemingly endless array of beautiful scenery. From dense mountain forests and towering riverside cliffs to secluded pools and rocky outcroppings, the landscape is fascinating and ever-changing. The five waterfalls along the Chattooga River are just the icing on the cake. It also helps that the area is so secluded. Boats are not permitted on this section of the river. In addition, motorized vehicles are prohibited within ¼ mile of the water.
Backcountry camping is possible in areas all along the trail, which mostly traverses National Forest land. But most backpackers on the Chattooga River Trail choose to spend the night at the Burrell’s Ford Campground, which is located at roughly the midpoint of the trail and makes it easy to break the hike up into a two-day trip. The campground offers only the most basic amenities (vault toilet, picnic tables, fire rigs) and is open year-round, free of charge, on a first-come, first-served basis.
The Chattooga River Trail is a 37.5-mile path with numerous access points, so if you’re looking for a shorter hike, you really can choose the adventure that best suits your schedule. It also offers a lot of opportunities to hop onto other trails that connect with it, including the spectacular Foothills Trail, which extends through 76 miles of North and South Carolina.The northern end of the Chattooga River Trail is right at the point where Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina all meet.
Best East Coast Backcountry Camping – Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area (South Carolina)
Encompassing 11,000 wild acres in the mountainous northern corner of South Carolina, Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area is the perfect setting for backcountry adventures of all kinds. The wilderness area includes two state parks (Jones Gap State Park and Caesar’s Head State Park). In addition, there are many crystal-clear trout streams and more than 50 miles of trails. It’s the most extensive network of footpaths in the state.
There are a wide range of landscapes and habitats within the wilderness area. These include landmarks like Rainbow Falls and Bald Rock. The Middle Saluda River is the centerpiece of Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, and some of the most popular backcountry campsites are along the river.
The trailside backcountry campsites in Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area are easy to get to and clearly marked, with tent platforms and fire pits. That makes this a great jumping-off point for anyone who is more used to car camping, but is ready to test the waters of backcountry camping in a safe environment. You should plan on reserving trailside campsites in advance through Carolina State Parks.
The only downside of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area is that it’s very popular, and can get crowded on prime summer weekends. Having to reserve a backcountry campsite may seem strange to backpackers accustomed to a more traditional first-come, first-served system, but considering how many visitors come here, there’s a real advantage to locking down a site in advance.
Cape Lookout National Seashore (North Carolina)
One of North Carolina’s best backcountry camping destinations is far from the nearest forest or trail. Cape Lookout National Seashore offers 56 miles of undeveloped beach stretching across several barrier islands just off the mainland. Camping is possible along most of that shoreline. However, there are no developed facilities or designated campsites. You simply choose a good-looking spot and pitch your tent wherever you like.
There’s nothing quite like beach camping out under the stars. The beaches of Cape Lookout National Seashore are home to wild ponies and more than 250 bird species. They offer amazing fishing, bird watching and stargazing opportunities, and no permits are necessary to pitch your tent on the beach. However, there is a 14 day limit in one spot.
Amenities out on the islands are limited. Like any backcountry camping experience, it’s best to plan on bringing anything you need, including food and drinking water. Always leave no trace. Tenting on the beach also involves a few extra considerations. For example, 12-inch tent stakes to keep your tent anchored in the sand. Another good idea is a good tarp for protection from the wind.
The only way to get out to the barrier islands is by boat. Ferry service is available from the mainland, and many points are also close enough that you can paddle out by sea kayak. The protected waters between the islands and the mainland offer great recreational paddling opportunities as well.
Florida Trail (Florida)
When it gets a little chilly for backpacking up north, it’s the Florida Trail’s time to shine. First established in 1966, the Florida Trail is a designated National Scenic Trail. The trail traverses 1,500 miles of the Sunshine State. It runs from the western tip of the Panhandle all the way to the Everglades. Along this trail, there are many opportunities for backcountry camping are available along the way.
The cooler months are definitely the best time to tackle the Florida Trail. This is not only because the weather is more mild, but also because the mosquitoes are less abundant. The best way to camp along the Florida Trail is in a hammock with a good mosquito net.
For long-distance backpackers interested in thru-hiking the Florida Trail, it can be done, but it’s not easy. The trail is, in many ways, still in development. There’s a 30-mile road walk necessary to get around Orlando. In addition, at present there are only seven shelters along the entire trail. There are numerous designated backcountry campsites, but even so, you’ll almost certainly have to ‘stealth camp’ at times.
That being said, there are some well-managed sections of the Florida Trail that are perfect for a weekend backpacking trip. The 11-mile stretch from Clearwater Lake to Alexander Springs is a fun hike. It includes a picturesque pine forest that includes a primitive campground. Seminole State Forest has a popular section of the trail through beautiful woods and wetlands, with several established backcountry campsites.
Richard CorriganRichard Corrigan has been writing about outdoor adventures, gear and travel for more than 10 years. His work has been featured by USA Today, 10Best.com, Next Luxury, and Gone Outdoors. He lives in Upstate New York, and If he isn't at his writing desk, you can probably find him out in the woods somewhere.
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