“I’m sorry, what do you mean by fire ring?”
“The primitive camp sites have a fire ring that you must keep your fire in.”
This was the exchange I had with a state park ranger, my introduction to “primitive camping” in Florida. In Florida’s state parks, a primitive camp is usually a designated site without electric or water, but you do get a fire ring and picnic table. Works for some folks.
To me, primitive camping means just that. Nothing but nature in the wilderness. It means loading your pack with all that you need, hiking into the woods until you found a nice spot and set up camp. I grew up in the northeast, went to college in Florida and spent 15 years working and traveling through Asia. I would go camping whenever I could. In Australia, you were a wimp if you even brought a tent, let alone enjoy the luxury of a picnic table.
Fast forward to Ocala National Forest
You don’t need a reservation to camp in the back country, you won’t see a fire ring or a picnic table, and I guarantee that you could be camping in a spot where no one has ever camped before.
Ocala National Forest is a broad swath of 400,000 acres of sand-pine scrub forest with 600 lakes, rivers and springs, many wrapped in glorious subtropical vegetation like an oasis in the middle of the dry scrub desert.
There are 14 groomed campgrounds, although only one — Salt Springs Campground — has full hookups for recreation vehicles. The others have varying levels of amenities, such as showers and rest rooms. (Visit Ocala National Forest campground listings.)
But the real appeal to this forest are the endless trails and endless places to camp along those trails. The forest service calls it “dispersed camping.” I call it primitive.
Finding your special place in Ocala National Forest
The southern boundary of Ocala National Forest is about 45 miles north of Orlando, accessible via State Road 19 North from Altoona and Umatilla or State Road 40, the east-west bisect connecting Ocala on the west and Astor in the east. Inside the forest boundaries, there is a grid of forest roads, designed to provide access to forest rangers but available to explorers and campers.
In reality, you can throw a dart at a map of Ocala National Forest, then find a forest road that gets there. One excellent resource is the Florida Atlas & Gazetteer, available from Amazon for $13.50. (You’ll find this map book invaluable for any exploration of Florida, not just Ocala National Park.)
On my latest adventure, I turned off SR 40 onto Forest Road 65, which is less than a mile west of the Juniper Spring Recreation Area and Campground. (Take note that Juniper Springs Run is an excellent 7-mile-long paddling trail for kayaks and canoes, ranked among the best in the country.)
Forest Road 65, like most of the forest’s service roads, is hard-pack sand. My Honda Civic was adequate, although I could hear sand scraping the bottom of the car from time to time. I imagine there are times you may need 4-wheel drive, but the unpaved roads were not especially rough.
About 3.5 miles north on FR 65, you will come to a “T” where Forest Road 76 meets 65, and that’s where I parked my car, at a marked trail entrance.
A nice sandy trail runs east from there and you will encounter numerous opportunities to stray from the trail and find a great camping spot. The more adventurous can follow any one of the smaller trails that criss-cross the area.
If you do stray off the main trails, you will want to have a GPS. What appears to be an easy trail to follow can fade away quickly. I followed one trail that seemed obvious enough when I started, but it slowly disappeared as I followed it until it was nearly invisible. I was only able to recognize it because of depressions in the bushes.
Primitive camping is not just a walk in the park
You have to carry everything with you — food, water, all your gear, everything. And you should never leave anything behind when you leave. Take it in, take it out.
The reward is peace and quiet, something you won’t get in a campground filled with Winnebagos. The loudest noise you hear at night will be the wind rustling through the trees and a few coyotes. And, of course, songbirds in this migration haven.
Over the years, I have tried to balance weight against cost. I love camping, but I’m not going to buy a $400 tent to save one pound. I have recently switched from a tent to a hammock, which is half the weight of a tent. I love it. Of course, the hammock sleeps just one so when my wife joins me, we bring the tent.
My cooking gear is simple. An alcohol penny stove can be made from a couple of soda cans. A quick search on the internet will give you about 100 different designs you can make. I carry the alcohol for fuel in a plastic flask. A Swiss canteen/cup/stove holder I bought for $10 makes up the rest of cooking gear, and a collapsible bowl and stainless steel cup complete my backpack “kitchen.”
I don’t take a lot of food and try to keep it simple. Either ready to eat foods or something to which I can just add boiling water. Good examples are Knorr side dishes, which serve as a full meal for one person. If the directions call for milk, use powdered milk.
A trip to your local Asian food store will also give you a variety of choices. Instant noodle choices are endless, and I’m not just talking about Ramen. I found the best way to prepare noodles is to break them up in the package and pour them into my cup. Otherwise, I would need a larger bowl. Just add boiling water and wait a few minutes.
All manner of beef jerky products are available, and I sometimes break the jerky into smaller pieces and add to the noodles. By the time the noodles are ready, the jerky has softened nicely. You can also buy tuna in packets, and tuna on crackers in the afternoon is a great snack.
If you are a coffee drinker, Asian markets also carry all-in-one coffee products with powdered milk, coffee and sugar in a single packet. Just add hot water.
I never was a Spam fan until I traveled to Japan. The Japanese developed an addiction to Spam, courtesy of American soldiers in World War II. I’ve had some incredible dishes based on this oft-scorned canned meat. You can also get it in foil pouches, and it is a great addition to rice while camping.
Water is a core requirement for your adventure. You need 1-2 liters of water per day, more if you are hiking a good distance on a hot day. On a recent three-day hike, I carried 6 liters of water, weighing about 13 pounds.
If you are camping near one of the lakes the forest has to offer, a good filter system will help you avoid some of that weight.
You should note, however, that the forest can get quite dry in spring, and many of the small ponds or lakes are dry. If you look at the forest on Google Earth, remember the images are old — what used to be a pond may now be just a grassy depression.
It can get cold at night – even in Florida!
Keep in mind that even though it may be hot during the day, the forest can be a cold desert environment at night. I’ve been hiking during the day with temperatures as high as 95 F degrees, only to see it drop to 50 F at night. Add a slight breeze, and it will feel like 40 F. A quality sleeping bag and long underwear are a good idea. If you’re using a tent, a sleeping pad helps keep out the chill.
Half the time I don’t build a campfire, opting to cook on my stove, though there is nothing quite like tending a campfire in the wilderness on a clear, star-filled night. Be careful, though, especially during the dry season. One moment of carelessness could result in thousands of acres of damage.
Brush away leaves and pine needles until you have a clear dirt area, then dig a shallow pit to contain the fire, and burn small pieces of wood. This allows it to burn out should you to leave the fire for a few minutes. Keep water close by to douse the fire if it gets out of hand.
When you leave, place your hand over the coals to detect warmth. The fire may be out, but the coals may still be going. Lastly, cover the pit with dirt so you don’t leave a mess for the next person.
You will also want to bring a lightweight garden trowel to dig a hole away from camp for hygiene needs. About 8 inches deep should suffice. Use biodegradable toilet tissue, or pack the tissue out with your trash.
Hand sanitizer is great to have on hand, and I‘ve certainly taken my share of “Wet Nap” showers to freshen up. If you are near a lake, make sure your soap is biodegradable.
There are endless videos on YouTube about camping and backpacking that will provide answers you need to get started. Florida Rambler also has several articles on packing light for kayak and boat camping.
Start small, one night here or there, and soon you’ll start stretching it out to a whole weekend.
It’s great fun and give you a sense of achievement to know that you don’t need cable TV to survive the weekend.
The answer to the most frequent question I hear is — YES, you can get cell phone service in many areas of the forest!