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Backcountry Camping: The Beginner’s Essential Guide

Backcountry Camping: The Beginner’s Essential Guide

Backcountry camping is an excellent opportunity for adventurers to get away from the crowds and connect with nature. You can find epic options for camping in national parks and other incredible locations. If you’re looking for a unique experience that tests your survival skills, you should consider backcountry camping. However, you’ll need the right gear and knowledge before heading out.

Today, we’re sharing everything beginners need to know about backcountry camping. Let’s dive in!

What Is Backcountry Camping?

Backcountry camping is a primitive style of camping that is common in remote wilderness areas. You won’t have access to amenities like bathrooms, running water, or first aid supplies. You’ll need to be self-reliant and independent for the duration of your excursion.

Backcountry Camping Basics

What this type of camping lacks in amenities, it often makes up for in privacy, space, and the endless possibilities of adventure. You can enjoy backcountry camping in locations that provide epic views from your campsite. However, due to the skills required and potential dangers, it’s not a camping style for everyone.

➡ Don’t worry if backcountry camping is not for you! You’ve got plenty of other options: Do You Know the 15 Types of Camping?

What Is the Difference Between Frontcountry and Backcountry Camping?

While backcountry and frontcountry camping can sound similar, they’re very different. Frontcountry campsites are often reservable sites with access to amenities and may even allow RVs. This is the typical experience that comes to mind when most people think about camping. Policies vary regarding whether sites are reservable or first-come, first-served.

On the other hand, backcountry camping is a bit more rugged and adventurous. Those choosing this type of camping will usually be in remote sections of forests or parks. Due to the remote location of many backcountry camping options, you’ll likely need to hike or even kayak to access some of these sites. These sites are often on a first-come, first-served system. Additionally, these sites can be in amazing, pristine locations.

backcountry camping
Expect to be in a remote area away from civilization and amenities if you choose to backcountry camp.

Is Backcountry Camping Safe?

Safety should always be a significant concern, no matter what type of camping you do. Backcountry camping can be safe if you take precautions, have the proper tools, and know how to use them. However, it’s not the safest camping option due to the remote nature and increased potential for danger.

Depending on where you’re camping, you’ll have to consider various dangers in that area. You don’t want to attract attention from wildlife, especially if you’re camping in bear country. Knowing how to camp safely in these areas is essential for your safety and the wildlife.

As with any camping style, it’s best to pack and move on your way if you ever feel unsafe. Have a plan to protect yourself and be aware that there’s no guarantee of cell service during an emergency. If you have service, it may take emergency responders a considerable time to reach you.

tent camping in the wilderness
Although generally safe, you should always take necessary precautions when backcountry camping.

What Supplies Do You Need for Backcountry Camping?

If you’re planning a backcountry camping trip, there are some things you’ll want to bring with you. Having the right tools and equipment will help you have a smooth and enjoyable camping experience.

Attempting backcountry camping without the proper tools or knowledge may end with you cutting your trip short with your tail between your legs. Let’s get started!

Food and Cooking Supplies

It’s easy to work up an appetite when hiking or paddling to a backcountry campsite. You want to find foods that are portable and lightweight. However, you also want to consider how many calories you’ll need to consume, especially if you’re doing overly strenuous activities during the day.

You can dehydrate some of your favorite meals at home or buy ready-to-eat freeze-dried meals online or from your local outdoor sports store. All you need to do is add hot water and these meals are ready to go. Whatever you bring, make sure you’ll enjoy eating it and that you get plenty of it. You don’t want to call it quits because you’re running low on food.

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Navigational Tools

You may use your smartphone for navigating roads and on everyday hiking adventures. However, cellular service in many backcountry camping locations can be practically nonexistent. Your phone could be useless when navigating, so you’ll want to have other options.

navigating with a compass
Learning how to navigate with a compass is a useful skill for camping in the wilderness.

It would be best to have a compass and know how to use it. Make sure you pick up any necessary paper maps of the area. You can also use a handheld GPS unit.

However, as you’ve likely experienced at some point, technology isn’t perfect, and sometimes going the old-school route is the best option (or at least have it as a back-up). You don’t want to get lost in the wilderness during your adventures.

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Shelter

Whether you’re trying to escape biting bugs or the weather, you’ll need shelter. Many backcountry camping enthusiasts will use small tents or hammocks. They’re lightweight, easy to set up, and maintain a minimal footprint.

You probably aren’t spending much time in your shelter beyond sleeping, so you only need enough space to hunker down when the weather doesn’t cooperate and to sleep at night.

Ensure there’s enough space for you and your gear to fit in your shelter comfortably. If you’re planning to camp with friends or loved ones, you’ll also need to consider space for them and their belongings.

backcountry camping with friends
Adequate shelter is critical when backcountry camping.

Proper Clothing

Depending on where and when you’re camping, proper clothing is essential. Many backcountry campers will dress in layers to quickly adapt to the conditions. Don’t get caught off guard when camping at higher elevations. You should expect cooler temperatures any time your adventures take you to higher elevations. 

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Make sure you research the weather leading up to your trip so you can plan your clothing. In some instances, it’s best to bring rain gear even if there’s no rain in the forecast. Don’t let an unexpected change in the weather catch you off guard! You want to ensure clothes are comfortable, can dry quickly, and won’t cause any chaffing or rubbing.

Bear Canister or Ursack

If you’re camping in bear country, a bear canister or Ursack is essential. You want to keep your food and items safe from bears and other wildlife.

In some national parks and backcountry camping locations, you can find yourself in significant trouble not storing your food correctly. You’ll want to brush up on the requirements for storing your food and other essential practices that can keep you safe in bear country.

What Skills Do You Need to Know for Backcountry Camping?

It would be best if you had specific tools for backcountry camping, but you also need to have knowledge. Heading into the woods with all the right gear and no knowledge of using them can be foolhardy or even dangerous. Let’s look at a handful of skills you need to ensure you have before you head for a backcountry camping trip!

person backpacking
You’ll need the right gear and the right skills to backcountry camp safely.

First Aid

Anyone who spends time in the wilderness needs to know first aid. Knowing how to treat everything from minor cuts and scrapes to significant burns or broken bones can be helpful. Rendering first aid when in remote areas can buy time for you or a fellow camper until they can get professional medical care.

The more experienced you are in first aid, the better. However, having a basic understanding of first aid can go a long way in some situations. Make sure you bring a small first aid kit with a few basic items like bandages, pain medicine, and other essentials for treating wounds and other minor injuries.

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Water Purification

No matter how clean the water in the bubbling brook may look, you’re risking nasty stomach bugs if you don’t filter it. Getting a bug in the middle of the wilderness is not an ideal scenario.

There are several options for purifying your water, including UV purifiers, straw-style filters, and chemicals. However, if you don’t have any of these resources on hand, you can always boil your water over a campfire. Whichever method you choose, it’s essential to ensure you’re doing it correctly and that any water you’re consuming or using for cooking is safe.

boiling water in a kettle over a fire
Make sure to purify any water you collect. Boiling is an easy option if you have a campfire built.

➡ Water purification is an essential survival skill. If you’ve never had to purify your water while camping, read this: 5 Ways to Purify Water for Survival in the Wilderness.

Starting a Fire

A campfire is often crucial for anyone camping in backcountry areas. A fire can keep you warm, allow you to heat food, sanitize water, and provide a source of light after the sun goes down. However, you must ensure there are no active fire bans in the area and that you build a proper fire pit to contain the fire. Starting a fire during a fire ban can result in costly fines and potentially begin a dangerous forest fire.

Starting a fire will require you to gather firewood from around your campsite and small pieces of tinder and kindling. You should practice various methods for building your campfires, such as the cone, log cabin, and pyramid. All are effective ways to start a fire but can take practice.

You’ll likely want to carry waterproof matches or a striker to create a spark to light your fire. You may even want to pack fire starters to help you get things going quickly, especially if conditions are wet.

building a campfire
You may need to practice building a fire a few times before your camping trip.

We highly recommend that you practice building a fire before your first backcountry camping excursion as well. Building a fire can be stressful, especially if you’re not confident in your skills. You don’t want the added stress of your first time building a fire to mess up your camping trip. However, if you’re relying on a fire to cook your food, hunger can be a great motivator to get your fire going.

Navigation

One of the most dangerous situations when backcountry camping is to get lost. Due to the remote location of many of these areas, you shouldn’t count on having cellular service. You can use high-tech GPS devices to help ensure you don’t get lost. However, we strongly suggest having access to low-tech paper maps of the area. Technology can be your best friend until it isn’t, and then you’ll wish you hadn’t trusted it.

Before heading out on your backcountry camping trip, visit a nearby ranger station or visitor center. You may need to get permits or let them know where you plan to camp. This can be extremely helpful if you end up lost and they come looking for you.

"Pack it in. Pack it out" sign
Whether camping in the backcountry or at a campground, always aim to leave your site as good or better than you found it.

Leave No Trace

Parents spend a tremendous amount of time teaching their children to pick up after themselves. However, some learn it faster than others, and some adults still try to grasp the concept. To leave no trace when camping means not only picking up after yourself but also avoiding unnecessarily disturbing vegetation in the area.

When backcountry camping, you should do everything to limit the impact you have on where you are traversing and camping. You should ensure you take all your trash and belongings with you when you leave. The campsite should look like you were never there.

Is Backcountry Camping Worth It?

Backcountry camping is one of the most exciting and unpredictable styles of camping. It tests your self-sufficiency abilities and allows you to enjoy parts of forests and parks that many other visitors will never know.

Backcountry camping can be rough at first, but once you get the hang of it and develop your skills, it’s unlike any other type of camping. We recommend all of our adventurous friends give it a shot!

backcountry camping

Looking for a more domesticated experience? Try glamping! Learn more about this camping style here: What It Means (and Doesn’t) When Someone Calls You a Glamper.

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Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
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