If you’ve never tried backcountry camping, we’re here to get you stoked about it!
So you love camping (but only in a car!) or perhaps you’re a pro at tent camping, but only at a site. Either way, we all agree that it’s hard to beat an evening spent swapping stories with friends around a campfire, snuggling up in sleeping bags, and waking up with the sun (something we rarely EVER do when we are back home).
You can experience all of this with traditional car camping, but there are SO many reasons to take this au naturale and lay out under the stars a bit further afield. There’s really nothing like hoofing it out into the backcountry to get away from it all. There’s something special about knowing you’ve worked hard to have the perfect campsite all to yourself.
Of course, when the car isn’t just around the corner, you’ll have to do a little extra prep. Don’t worry, there’s a happy medium between pitching your tent at a frontcountry campground and trekking dozens of miles into the wilderness.
Here are six things you should do to make your first backcountry trip a success you’ll want to repeat again and again.
1. Learn From Other People
Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions! Start with friends who are experienced backpackers and pick their brains on everything from where to go and what to bring. People love to talk about their experiences and what they’ve learned along the way (ahem…don’t forget your rain fly and wake up bathing in three inches of water).
Stop by your local gear shop, or better yet, one that’s actually located in the area where you’ll be camping to get the inside scoop on the area trails and best backcountry trips. If you still have questions, you can flip through a guidebook to the area you want to camp or cruise through online forums.
Backcountry rangers are also a great resource for current conditions if you are backpacking in a national park or national forest. Ranger contact info is usually available on the website for your chosen camp spot. They can tell you which alpine lakes tend to have the most notorious bugs, when you can expect snow to have melted off the trail, and the perfect loop to hike if you’re a first-timer.
If you’re lucky (or, you know, if you ask really nicely), someone might even let you in on their favorite backcountry campsite.
2. Do A Test Run First
Compared to car camping, heading into the backcountry brings sleeping under the stars to a whole new level. Will Saunders/Gregory Mountain Products
Make sure your stuff works. Carrying your gear all the way into the backcountry only to find you have dead batteries in your headlamp or your stove won’t light is a total buzzkill. If your camp stove stops working at a frontcountry campground, it’s not a big deal—you can beg or borrow from the camp host or totally throw in the towel and head into town for dinner. In the backcountry, you have to be way more self-sufficient.
Do a practice run in your backyard so you don’t find yourself high and dry miles away from anyone. Here’s what you need to do before you go:
- Check your tent and rain fly for holes.
- Prime your stove to make sure you get a flame.
- Choose what food to bring. Since you’ll be burning a lot of calories, you can pretty much eat chocolate all weekend if you want! But seriously, while freeze-dried meals are a great option since they’re lightweight and easy to prepare in camp, flavors and textures can vary widely. Try a few before you go to figure out the most delicious way for you to get those necessary calories in.
3. Bring the Right Gear
When you’re carrying everything you need on your back, you want it all in a comfortable pack—one that will keep your gear dry and keep your shoulders and hips bruise-free. For a quick overnight trip, a pack in the 50- to 55-liter range, like the Zulu 55 for men or the women’s Jade 53, is the ideal size. If you are heading out on a longer outing, you’ll be carrying more food and other supplies, so up the ante to a 63- or 65-liter pack.
Much of the other gear you’ll be bringing is pretty similar to what you’d pack for car camping, although the good news is that there’s way less of it (or at least there better be unless you are going for a strong man comp win). A tent, sleeping bag, headlamp, clothing layers, cooking gear, first aid kit, multi-tool is pretty much all you’ll need.
Depending on where you’re backpacking, you may also need to bring a water filtration device. The staff at your local gear shop will be able to help you decide exactly what you’ll need once you know where you are going—and whether you can get away with something small and lightweight, like a UV pen, or you’ll need a more heavy-duty system to filter out big particles.
4. Leave the Kitchen Sink at Home
When you are car camping, it’s easy (sometimes a little too easy) to add “just one more” sweatshirt, blanket, or cooking pot. When you are heading into the backcountry, those “just one mores” add up quickly, especially if your cooking pot is cast iron. An aching back can sap a lot of the fun from your trip, so spare yourself a long slog by being extra picky.
5. Treat Yourself and Your Friends
Bring along special treats, like chocolate or a deck of cards, to surprise your friends with during the hike or at the end of a long day. Will Saunders/Gregory Mountain Products
Don’t let all the talk about paying attention to pack weight scare you out of having some fun. It’s 100% worth packing in a few small, lightweight creature comforts to make your time in the backcountry more comfortable.
For example, a spare pair of socks can make a huge difference at the end of a long hike. Stick them in your sleeping back before you pack it, and you’ll have a pair of dry, cozy sleeping socks waiting for you at the end of the day. Hint: These are the kinds of tips you should ask your experts about before heading out.
It’s also always fun to bring along a surprise for the group. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but chocolate, energy drink mix to share, or a deck of cards to play with can make any backcountry trip extra fun. It’s also a good way to ensure invitations on future backpacking trips.
6. Be Critter Aware
Depending on where you are backpacking, there are different regulations for food storage, so be sure to do your research before you head out. Will Saunders/Gregory Mountain Products
Nobody wants little fury visitors rustling around the tent in the middle of the night. Just like you carry bear spray in grizzly country or give moose a wide berth if you encounter them on the trail, you have to be ready for other critters at night—particularly when it comes to food storage.
In a traditional campground, just putting your food in the car will usually do the trick. When you backpack into your campsite, you don’t have that option. Check the local Leave No Trace guidelines for food storage in the environment where you’ll be camping. In some places, stacking pots, pans, and trekking poles over your food is enough to deter the local wildlife; in others, you might need to hang your food in a tree or store it in a bear bin.
It’s well worth the effort and safer, and you won’t have to worry about sharing spit with the racoon who ate half your energy bar.
It may seem like there is a lot to consider before heading out on your own, but don’t let that stop you from trying. Once you do it one or two times, all of these tips and tricks become second nature and less intimidating. Pretty soon, you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of questions like “what should I bring?” and “where should I go?” It’ll be up to you to decide whether or not you want to share your secret campsite with the newbie (and then only if they ask really nicely).
Written by Emma Walker for Matcha in partnership with Gregory Mountain Products.
Featured image provided by Will Saunders/Gregory Mountain Products