California is one of the largest states in America, with massive, expansive wildernesses and towering peaks. From Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous US, to Death Valley, the lowest point in North America, to the beautiful Golden Coast, this state is an all-in-one package for outdoor adventures.
This state is so big that it has several major wildernesses, each with thousands of square miles of undisturbed wild. There are hundreds of amazing camping and backpacking spots, and you have some of the most well-known natural parks in the world, like Yosemite.
Any outdoorsman worth their salt has made a trek out to the Golden State to participate in this bountiful natural playground. California camping and bushcraft can provide something for anyone, from snow-survival in the Sierra Nevadas to desert training in the Mojave.
Eco-tourism is a massive part of California’s appeal, which is why places like Yosemite and Lake Tahoe attract millions of people each year. Or you can take the back roads and hike the rugged terrain of the Lost Coast, or find hot springs in Big Sur. No matter what your preference is, you’ll want to try making it to California for your next big adventure.
Major Wilderness Regions in California
California is a huge state with dozens of independent climate and wilderness regions. There are entire books dedicated to explaining the wide ranging topography of this state, so we’ll only cover a few of the largest ones.
So despite the fact that you can find excellent camping in the central valley, the fact that the California coastline is actually 3 major mountain ranges, or the massive forests that make up all of the northern quarter of the state, we’ll break down CA into 4 major regions.
Each of these wilderness regions has dozens of great spots to get out and camp. You can find plenty of through-hikes, mountaintops, and rivers here, and we’ll go over the basics of each one.
The Sierra Nevadas and Shasta
The Sierra Nevada mountain range occupies the eastern border of California, hugging along Nevada. These dense mountains are tough to navigate, with only a few major roads cutting straight through.
Mount Shasta is a dormant volcano in Northern California, and is a part of the vast wilderness of Northern CA. Between these two mountain ranges, you have a lifetime’s worth of camping, hiking, backpacking, and outdoor adventure.
These regions are filled with dense coniferous forests, breathtaking vistas, and some of the most renowned natural attractions in America. Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Mount Shasta, are just a few of the major areas of interest here.
The weather here is harsh in the winter, with much of it being inaccessible from snow, while the sumers can get above 100 degrees. But you can cool yourself off with some of the hundreds of crystal-clear lakes that you can find all over the mountains.
This region is perfect for any outdoor adventure. There are hundreds of great camping spots, and the clear, alpine air will mesmerize anyone.
The Mojave Desert
The Mojave Desert takes up the south-eastern corner of California, bordering Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico. This hot, harsh desert is home to Death valley and Bitterwater, the lowest and hottest places in North America.
Many people love coming out here for off-road adventures with ATVs and Dirtbikes, while others love the surreal desert night. Camping in the desert can be rough, but it’s incredibly rewarding, especially if you’re practicing your survival skills.
This region is the easiest wilderness area to get to, since most of the dense, urban sprawl of Southern California is nearby. If you’re flying in, you’ll have several major airports within a couple hours of this wilderness region.
While you may be picturing a flat, vast expanse of dirt and cacti, there’s actually plenty of mountains to hike. Just 80 miles from Death Valley, the lowest spot in the US, you can hike Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous US.
The Coastal Mountains
The california coastline is nearly 1000 miles of the most stunning coast you’ll ever see. From the jagged cliff faces of Big Sur to the calm shorse of Santa Cruz up to the untamed wilderness of the Lost Coast, you can find an unbelievable amount to do in the coastal mountains.
The coast of California is so long that it’s actually several major regions. The southern mountain range, the northern mountain range, the San Francisco and Monterey Bays, the Klamath wilderness. But for the sake of time, we’ll just talk about the entire coastline.
The most impressive part about the coast is that there’s a single road going up the entire thing, Highway 1, better known as the Golden Highway. This makes accessing some even the most remote coastlines much easier.
Expect massive breakers across most of the coastline, with the majority of the coast being mountains headed straight into the water. You’ll be able to find a few beaches for coastal camping, but the majority of your outdoor adventures here will be mountain hiking.
The ocean water in California is actually pretty cold, since the currents generally bring water south from Alaska. But in Southern California, it’ll be warm enough to swim in, making it a great spot to relax in the middle of a hike.
The Transverse and Peninsular Ranges
Southern California is home to a mix of mountain ranges. Aside from the coastal mountains and the southern tip of the Sierra Nevadas, You also have the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges. These mountain ranges aren’t as expansive as the other regions, but still give some of the best outdoor experiences in the state.
The Transverse ranges are the only mountains in California that run east-to-west. While every other mountain range runs north-to-south, this range skirts California’s bend in the coastline. These mountains make up some of the southernmost peaks, giving them a distinct desert landscape.
The Peninsular Range is the very peak of the mountain range that stretches all the way down Baja California. It’s located South of the Transverse ranges, making them the southernmost mountains in the state.
While the Sierra Nevadas and the Coastal Ranges give you snowy alpine winters and green, lush summers, these mountains have a distinct look. Because their more arid and hot, you have more desert-like terrain, which can be truly captivating during a hike or camping trip.
What You Need to Bring
If you’re going to be camping in the Golden State, you’ll need to bring a few things with you. Depending on where you’re going to be headed, you’ll want to bring a solid set of gear and/or different types of axes. Also, how much survival you’ll be doing is another huge factor.
This guide won’t cover basic things like hiking boots, jackets, gloves, sunscreen, and other essentials. Make sure you know what the weather is like where you’re going and make sure to bring some of these important pieces of gear to make sure you have the best experience.
Camping is the simplest way to enjoy the great outdoors. You typically bring all of the gear you need in your car and do day hiking, so you’ll want to make sure to bring a reliable tent. This option from Coleman is great, and has room for 4 people.
Also make sure to bring a sleeping bag that’s lightweight and comfortable for those cold nights. Winner Outfitters makes an excellent sub-zero sleeping bag, which is important for those frigid mountain nights
When you’re backpacking, things get a little tougher. Assuming you already have your backpack, tent, and sleeping gear, you’re going to need a water filter. You can carry a couple days of water, but having a filter makes it much easier to find your own source, and this AquaStiq filter(availible here) is one of my favorite ways to do it.
Having a lighter is a must, but you want to have something that’s waterproof. The Everstryke Pro is a powerful, useful tool that lets you start a fire even after getting it wet.
In an emergency, you need to have the right equipment. Having an emergency firestarter like this cool Optic Firestarter (availible here) i picked up a while ago is a great way to keep yourself warm in the worst case situation. Check out this baby in action:
Last but not least, I always recommend having a flashlight like the Hybeam Flashlight to find your way around at night. This tactical flashlight is pretty cool, small and powerful, letting you find your way back to camp.
Top Camping Spots in California
We’ve covered a handful of the major regions in California, and we’ve gone over the gear you need. Now let’s talk about specific places you can go to in the state to get a real taste of California camping and bushcraft.
Just like with the major wilderness regions, California has too many fantastic camping spots to cover. So we’re just going to go over the absolute best of the best. Even then, there are dozens more places that easily could have made this list. These are just a couple of the hundreds of spots out there.
Most of these places are actually huge areas with dozens of camping spots in their own right. They each have a unique biome, and all of them are a must for any outdoor enthusiast. If you’re new to CA camping, these are just a couple of the best camping spots in this state.
Yosemite is probably the most well-known nature park in the world. It’s what kick-started the US forestry system under Roosevelt, and for good reason. One look at this absolutely breathtaking valley and you’ll want to spend weeks hiking through the forests, climbing the mountains, and enjoying the tranquility.
This park is home to several major stops, including the famed Half-Dome, El Capitan, glaciers, countless valleys, and forests. The park is so popular that you actually have to compete to get permits to hike Half Dome.
Yosemite is one of the best places to backpack in California. You’ll have plenty to see and do in the region, and you can easily take a day or two to hike some mountains while you’re on your backpacking adventure. The only major drawback here is that there’s going to be a lot of other people, so make sure you really go off the beaten path.
The Lost Coast
The Lost Coast is not nearly as famous as the rest of the areas on this list, but it’s definitely worth talking about. It’s probably one of the most unique, isolated places in California. Highway 1 hugs the coast of California, except for a 60 mile stretch of the coast that’s so rugged and mountainous that it became known as the Lost Coast.
This area is densely forested with mangrove trees, teeming with wildlife like Elk. It’s unbelievably remote, but has some of the most captivating views, with massive cliff faces heading straight into the water.
There’s a well-established hike that runs from north-to-south along this coastline. You’ll be camping in the forest at night, and walking along the shore during the day. Watching the sun set over the pacific is absolutely stunning, and makes this camping spot one of the best in California.
Death Valley is the hottest, lowest point in California and North America. If you want extreme survival camping, this is the way to do it. While you won’t get that crisp alpine air, you’ll get a rugged experience that has an unrivalled, surreal beauty that can only come from the desert.
You’ll have to check out Badwater basin, the lowest point in North America. Hike Golden Canyon for a truly unforgettable experience, or check out the mesmerizing devil’s golf course. These experiences are truly some of the most memorable out there, all in the heat of the mojave desert.
This desert region will have blistering heat in the day, sometimes relieved by high-speed winds. But as the sun sets and touches the land with pink and purple light, you can expect a warm, cozy night. Whether you’re camping or backpacking, this is an experience to be had.
The last spot we’ll be recommending is the most exact place on this list. Mount Shasta is one of the 2 major volcanoes in California. It’s currently dormant, and offers one of the most absolutely breathtaking views in the state.
It goes without saying that you should definitely try to hike this mountain if you’re in the region. It takes at least 2 days, and the mountain is covered in snow year round, so be prepared for icy weather. Once you’re at the top, you’ll be treated to one of the most stunning views on earth.
Of course, Mount Shasta is located in the much larger Shasta-Trinity wilderness, so you can easily swing by shasta for a few days as part of a larger camping trip. This northern wilderness has dozens of smaller spots for camping, hunting, and backpacking. So make sure to check this area out.
Laws and Regulations for Camping and Bushcraft in California
Now that we’ve covered the fun stuff, let’s start talking about the laws about California camping and bushcraft. There are 3 general rules you always want to check out, which are hiking permits, fire permits, and wood cutting permits.
These rules vary between different state parks, and then even more for national forests. The only time you really need to care about hiking permits is with high-traffic areas like Yosemite. Check their website for laws about hiking and backpacking, since they may have restrictions. But places like the Lost Coast are open game.
Most forests allow fires during most of the year, but you see lots of fire warnings in California, since the state is prone to wildfires. You’ll want to check the rules regarding the specific forest or park that you’ll be in for more details.
Lastly, you need to get a woodcutting permit. This lets you legally disrupt the vegetation for fuel and clearing trails. It’s affordable and pretty easy to get ahold of. Then, you’ll be able to explore the wilderness of California responsibly and lawfully.
Enjoying the Wilderness of California
California is a true gift when it comes to the great outdoors. The state is just so massive that you can endlessly explore and never cover the same ground twice. There are dozens of different regions and climates, making sure that everyone will have something to suit their needs.
From the towering alpine mountains of the Sierra Nevadas to the desolate desert of the Mojave, to the warm clear waters of the south to the raging waves of the north, there’s a huge range of things to do here.
Anyone who is trying to find a new, exciting outdoor adventure, or even just to practice survival skills, California is a great place to look. There’s enough here to keep you occupied for the rest of your life, so don’t be afraid to jump into the wilderness of the Golden State.
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