Backcountry Camping (What is it, Dangers, Packing)

backcountryThe term backcountry is becoming more popular than ever in the outdoor and camping sphere and has commonly been used to refer to camping.  However, it is also used for many different outdoor sports and activities.  It usually conjures up images of remoteness and isolation out in the wilderness.  But what exactly does it mean?

The backcountry is a geographic area that is in a remote, often undeveloped and rural area, that is isolated or difficult to access.

No matter if you are new to backcountry camping and wanting to know more or an avid backcountry camper wanting to learn something new, be sure to keep reading.

Here’s what will cover to make sure you are in the know on backcountry camping.

  • What types of backcountry camping can I do?
  • Activities in the backcountry
  • What is backcountry?
  • Dangers of backcountry camping
  • Preparing to camp in the backcountry
  • Packing for backcountry camping
  • More articles you will love

What types of backcountry camping can I do?

The term backcountry is most often used in reference to camping or hiking.  Many people are drawn to activities in isolated areas because of the solitude it provides while exploring the natural beauty.  Spending time in remote places offers plenty of open space, beautiful night skies full of stars, natural sounds, and views of wildlife in their natural habitat.

Depending on the geographic locale, you may also have access to pristine lakes and rivers, lush forests, fresh air, open coastlines, mountains, and other stunning geology.  Because few people travel to the backcountry, chances are high that you will have the entire place to yourself and can engage with nature in a meaningful way.

The main feature of backcountry locations is their lack of amenities and how difficult they are to access.  Although there may be established trails and signs, there will be no running water or toilets along the way.  Other areas may require that you hike for several miles or hours to reach them and the trails may not be accessible unless you are in good shape.

Some paths into the backcountry will not be accessible with any kind of vehicle, including bicycles or 4x4s, while others may require a boat to reach.  There definitely won’t be any roads nearby.  Backcountry camping usually lacks tent pitches or fire pits as well.  Usually, the only amenities you’ll have are the ones you’ve brought with you in your backpack and there may not be any pre-made shelters such as huts either.

In certain locations there are backcountry campsites called designated campsites.  These do have specific spaces to camp and are in remote areas without amenities.  The benefit of these sites is that they reduce the impact of camping on the environment because each camper uses the same space over and over.  However, it is not usually possible to reserve these spots and the sites are not always marked on maps, making them hard to find.

There are also lodging options such as the 10th Mountain Division Huts located in the Colorado Rocky Mountains which can be rented.  These huts are connected via several hundred miles of routes and do provide a comfortable shelter while participating in hiking, skiing, or mountain biking.  To access these huts, you will need to hike or ski in for several miles and many of them are located at higher elevations.

Other places offer backcountry huts, sometimes referred to as a wilderness hut or backcountry shelter.  These are free, simple shelters that are built for temporary accommodation for hikers and are life-saving in emergency situations.  The amenities vary depending on the location but may not include running water or many furnishings.  Some very remote huts might provide emergency food supplies though.

However, backcountry camping can be extreme in the sense that you hike an entire day (or several days) and camp there.  Or, you can simply spend the night away from the trail without having access to any amenities and getting a similar feeling of isolation.  There are definitely varying levels of backcountry camping depending on how far you are from the road, how long it would take to reach the amenities, and if a town is nearby.

The same goes for hiking and the various levels of trail remoteness.  Backcountry hiking means you are far from the road and developed areas.  However, that could only be a few miles from a parking lot in a place like a national park or forest where you could park your car and hike into the backcountry within a few hours.  There you can enjoy the isolation for a while but be back to civilization for a hearty dinner at the end of the day.  Alternately, long trails like the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails can take you into remote areas where you won’t see anyone for miles.

Activities in the Backcountry


In addition to camping and hiking, anything done in the backcountry can be referred to in this way to identify the location.  Some winter activities include backcountry skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing which often takes place away from ski resorts.  Where allowed, snowmobiles can traverse remote paths and transport campers to backcountry huts.

Backcountry skiing can mean many things, including a lack of commercial maintenance such as cutting trails and there will be no groomed trails for the cross-country skier.  In addition, the area will not be patrolled by ski patrol and there are no ski lifts either.  During the winter, those entering backcountry areas will have to be especially cautious regarding avalanches.

Hunting and fishing often take place in the backcountry in locations where it is permitted and only during the appropriate season.  Some remote trails allow horseback riding for equestrians and water activities such as canoeing, boating, and rafting are also popular.  Many climbing enthusiasts enjoy traveling to remote areas for rock, ice, and mountain climbing.

For any backcountry activity, be prepared to find areas that are wild and overgrown, a lack of trails, and difficulty accessing the location.  Some areas may be easier to reach, depending on the popularity and the season.  However, allow some extra time to reach your destination and expect the worst conditions so you aren’t ill-prepared.

What is backcountry?


Some additional terminology that is closely associated with the backcountry include words like backwoods, brush, backwater, hinterland, outback, backland, and wilderness.  Different locations use the word backcountry to mean different things so you’ll have to check before you embark on a camping trip.

The United States National Park Services uses the term “backcountry” to refer to different areas of the parks which are primitive or undeveloped.  These portions may feature trails, unpaved roads, and limited facilities used by campers and hikers.  In New York state, for example, outback camping may be referred to as primitive camping.

The Park Service also uses the term “wilderness” as a portion of the backcountry which has been designated as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.  These are parcels of federal land set aside for scientific study and motorized recreation is forbidden.  Several countries term a place as a wilderness to mean land where any development is illegal.

Other countries also use the term “backcountry” but it can have different meanings.  For example, in New Zealand, it refers to parts of the land which don’t have public access.  It isn’t uncommon for farmer’s to own land that is remote and undeveloped.

wolf in backcountry

Dangers of Backcountry Camping


When engaging in any kind of backcountry camping or hiking, it is important to have knowledge of safety and survival skills.  Make sure to bring enough food and water as well as the ten essentials so you have adequate shelter and navigation tools to find your way.  A method of purifying water is also highly recommended because potable water will not be available along the way.

Because the backcountry is so remote, it can be difficult and time-consuming to reach.  There is a great sense of satisfaction from exploring these areas.  However, if you or someone in your party is injured or becomes ill, it is almost impossible to get help quickly.  You may run the risk of having to hike back out, split up in order to go for help or be rescued by Search and Rescue.

Many locations will not have cell phone service either so you may want to consider bringing GPS or another device for communications.  Definitely pack a small first aid kit to treat any minor injuries that could arise.  If you are camping with pets, take any necessary medications or equipment that would be needed if they were injured too.

Some locations may require permits or passes to enter and you should always let the rangers or other staff know where you’ll be and leave your emergency contact information with them.  It is also recommended to take a companion with you instead of going it alone in the backcountry unless you are very experienced.

Packing navigation tools is always necessary but they are not useful unless you are trained in how to use them.  Make sure to practice in advance or travel only with someone who can read maps and navigate using a compass.  Be sure to bring extra supplies and any necessary medications in case you get lost and your trip ends up lasting longer than planned.

Another danger of camping in the backcountry is wildlife, especially animals which do not come into contact with humans very often.  Because wildlife in remote areas may be unfamiliar with people due to the lack of campers in the region, they may react strangely should you encounter them.  They will also be attracted to smells of food cooking and you will have to take precautions to store food securely.

Research the types of wildlife that are in the area and plan accordingly, bringing bear spray if necessary.  While hiking, make noise or have a conversation with a companion so you don’t disturb wildlife that may not be able to see you.  Although most animals will not attack humans unless provoked, they may feel threatened if they are startled by hikers coming upon them unexpectedly.

In addition to the larger wild animals like bears, mountain lions, and elk, the backcountry could be home to poisonous snakes and spiders or other insects unique to that locale.  Be cautious when sitting down or pitching your tent or putting on hiking boots in the morning.  Bring along first aid equipment to deal with stings and bites as well as a spray to ward off mosquitos.

Environmental dangers such as extreme temperatures, flooding, lightning, and falling rocks can also be hazardous in the backcountry.  However, advance planning and mindfulness can often prevent accidents and injuries.  Make sure to dress appropriately, never pitch camp near a river, and retreat below the treeline during storms.

Anytime you are spending time in the backcountry, your behavior may be restricted in an effort to preserve the natural environment and ecosystems.  This means no littering, packing everything out, disposing of waste in the proper way, and refraining from feeding any wildlife.  Some places may not allow gathering sticks to build fires or taking leaves, flowers, or other plants out with you.

Many backcountry regions are enjoyable because they are still wild and nature has been preserved for others to enjoy.  In order to keep these places preserved for future visitors, it is important to treat the surroundings with respect and follow the principles of Leave No Trace. Or, to put it simply, leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but pictures.

Preparing to Camp in the Backcountry


Depending on the location and season, you may want to do some additional preparations before taking a camping trip into the backcountry.  If you have never camped before, starting in the backcountry isn’t the best idea.  Instead, take a short trip and stay in an established campground with plenty of amenities and comforts.  Then you can start branching out and trying campsites that are a little more remote.

It is also not recommended to camp in the winter unless you have extensive experience already and are thoroughly prepared for colder temperatures.  Learning about avalanche warnings and other winter hiking considerations would also be beneficial for winter backcountry camping. In the summer, heatstroke can be a concern so make sure you can handle extreme temperatures before setting out.

If the terrain to reach the campsite is difficult, rocky, or has a high change in elevation, make sure your fitness levels are up to the challenge.  You may want to spend time getting into better shape, running, strengthening your legs, and working on balance in advance.  Carrying a heavy pack will put additional strain on the body and can throw off your center of gravity.

For campers spending time in the mountains, altitude sickness is a real threat.  Try to arrive at the location a few days in advance and get acclimatized while staying somewhere more comfortable.  Then take a few hikes at elevation to see how your body responds to exertion before setting off into the backcountry on your own.

Another helpful tip is to research the location you are going very thoroughly.  If you know someone who has camped in the same location or followed the same route, talk to them and ask their advice.  Otherwise, do a quick internet search and see if you can find any camping or hiking forums and blogs.

Learn from the mistakes of those who came before and get to know any pitfalls or quirks of the particular location.

hiking backpack

Packing for Backcountry Camping


Because backcountry camping means a lack of amenities, you will only have the items you bring with you.  Also, you will be carrying everything with you in a backpack so it is important to pack strategically and consider weight.  A heavy backpack will slow you down and over packing puts unnecessary stress on the body to carry the additional load.

In addition to the ten essentials (navigation, headlamp, sun protection, first aid, knife, fire, shelter, extra food, water, and clothes), you will need to pack anything specific to the location and duration of the trip.  If it’s not possible to carry enough water, bring a method of water purification with you.

When planning to cook food, bring a small portable stove if you won’t be able to build a fire.  In bear country, a bear-proof container may be necessary to store food overnight.  Other basic comforts such as a handkerchief, toilet paper, and chapstick will make things more comfortable.

Don’t forget personal items such as toiletries, including toothbrush, toothpaste, and deodorant.  If the weather calls for rain, pack waterproof clothing or a tarp to stay dry.

Although a tent is the bare minimum needed, if the terrain will be rocky or uncomfortable and there are no designated sites, pack a lightweight sleeping pad too.  Some camp shoes may also be appreciated to wear around the campsite and give feet a rest from hiking boots.

Lightweight garbage bags can easily be stuffed into a pack and will be essential for storing food, separating wet clothes and gear, or packing out trash.

Backcountry camping comes with its own set of challenges and lacks a lot of creature comforts but more than makes up for that in the enjoyment and satisfaction of time spent outdoors.  Being able to leave modern life behind and become self-sufficient is extremely gratifying for many people.

While you shouldn’t ignore the possibilities of danger, mindfulness and planning can prevent many mishaps from occurring.  Take your time, be smart, and you will have the trip of a lifetime!

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Rickie Arms

Hi, I'm Rickie Arms, owner of Glampingorcamping.com. I am so invested in writing the best and most informative articles for you that I went out and bought a travel trailer just so I could write about it for you. I spend just about all of my off time both camping and glamping so I can share everything I have learned and will learn with you. I have spent my whole life camping and over the last 10 years, I have spent a large amount of time checking out glamping experiences with my wife and kids as well. Thank you for coming by and we hope to see you back here getting great information in the future. Rick Arms-

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