Tips for Backcountry Camping
While I love pulling up in a vehicle to a campsite and unloading right there, there’s something extra rewarding and enjoyable about backcountry camping where you have to park at a trailhead and hike your gear in. If you’ve never gone backpacking or camping in the backcountry, it can seem daunting, so we’ve made a handy guide for getting started!
While you may think you want that cozy blanket or two hardcover books to read now, once you’ve been carrying them for a few hours you’ll regret it. No matter how far you’re hiking, packing light is very important. Your pack should be comfortable and fit your body well, with the weight settled mostly on the hip straps so you don’t hurt your back and shoulders.
While every trip for every season will have a different packing list, here are the must-haves no matter where you’re headed:
First Aid Kit: This seems like a no brainer, but you may want to amp up your standard first aid kit to include extras you don’t need day-to-day.
Great Shoes: Tennis shoes aren’t going to cut it for backcountry hiking. Make sure your boots have good ankle support and have been broken in on various terrain before you leave. Pair them with good hiking socks and moleskin to prevent trip-ruining blisters.
Tent: While everyone can bring their own little one-person sanctuary, splitting up a two- three- or four-person tent between travelers is a great way to reduce weight and be more efficient packers. You always want a lightweight three- or four-season tent with a footprint and a rain cover.
Layers: You’re going to be dirty and smelly, so don’t worry about bringing a fresh change of clothes for every day. You want moisture-wicking fabrics like nylon and polyester, a fleece layer in case it gets cold at night, a rainproof jacket, and a set of long underwear for cold nights or emergency clothing. Always bring extra socks in case yours get wet, and a hat for sun protection is never a bad choice.
Cook stove: Fires are almost always prohibited in backcountry camping. You don’t want to burn down the forest, so always respect these rules and plan accordingly. You can absolutely get through a backpacking trip on entirely ready-to-eat foods like trail mix, dried fruits, and granola bars, but if you want a little more substance a lightweight cook stove is a great option. Make sure you test it out before you go so you know how it works, bring enough fuel to last the duration of your trip, and bring light foods like potato flakes, oatmeal, and other add-water-and-cook meals.
Utensils: Bring just enough to get you through. One pot, one cup, one plate, one fork knife and spoon set. Get durable stuff you don’t mind getting scuffed and bring biodegradable soap and a sponge to clean everything and make the most of your adventure.
Bedding: You’ll need a sleeping bag that’s rated for the weather you’ll be experiencing (always err on the side of it ‘may get really freaking cold’) and either a sleeping mat or compact air mattress to provide insulation from the ground. Don’t bring a bulky pillow: we recommend packing your clean or extra clothes inside a pillowcase and using that as your pillow. Two birds with one stone!
Tools: trash bags, pocket knife, bungee cords, roll of duct tape,
Sun Care: Sunscreen, sunglasses, aloe, and lip balm are all good ideas, especially if you’ll be in an exposed area or at high elevation.
Load your pack smart. You want to load the heavy things against your spine, not all at the bottom. Here’s a helpful image to help you from Backcountry.com:
You won’t have access to toilets, so you’ll have to make do like the old days. Bring toilet paper and a small trowel for burying your waste. Leaving no trace should be taken literally here! If you’re a person who gets periods, always pack menstrual products (even if you don’t think you’ll need them—prevent a nasty and unwelcome surprise) and airtight ziplocks to pack those used products out as they do not biodegrade. Always keep waste sites at least 100 feet away from water sources and campsites to prevent contamination or animal curiosity.
Know Where You’re Going
You should not rely on your phone gps to take you where you need to go. Even if you bring a mobile charging station (which we definitely recommend for emergencies!) you likely won’t have service, or the routes may not be accurate. Bring a good old fashioned trail map with you and study it beforehand to make sure you know where you’re going, know how to read the map, and know how to get back out.
Be Bear Aware
Nothing ruins a party quicker than a hungry or curious bear poking its nose in your business. Always bring bear-proof containers and store things that may attract bears in a tree or away from your tent. This includes food, but also other scented things like toothpaste, insect spray, and lotions. If it smells, put it away from your sleeping body. Bears likely won’t bother you if you leave them alone, but if you do encounter one there are ways to protect yourself. Bear Spray is basically military grade pepper spray, and it can be purchased at most sporting goods stores. Carrying a whistle can also offer some protection, as no predator is going to be happy about a loud, frightening noise and is more likely to run off than mess with you.
You absolutely can’t pack enough fresh water to get you through the trip, so you’ll need to bring ways to purify water you find. NEVER drink directly from a stream or other water source, it’s a great way to get all sorts of diseases. Bring at least two liter water bottles and a camelback per person if you can, because you may not have a reliable water source constantly and you’ll be working hard and need to hydrate frequently. You can bring water filtration pumps, iodine tablets, or chlorine drops to filter your water. Even you’re going to cook with boiled water, filter it first or drop filtration tablets in first. We recommend bringing a combination of either two or three of these filtration systems in case one is lost, damaged, defective, and because there are certain circumstances where one or another are more convenient and we like to make our lives easy!
Here is REI’s Basic Backpacking Checklist to help you keep everything straight!
Feature Photo Credit: outwardbound.org