Backpacking the backcountry

By Thomas Ray

Backpacking the backcountry

The backcountry: An isolated or remote area that only the most intrepid of campers will retreat to. Skipping out on the designated campsites and ditching all of the conveniences for the backcountry can be a rewarding experience—if you’re properly prepared. For a successful trek into the wilderness, here’s a few tips.  

1. Plan

A backcountry trip usually means a backpacking trip into a remote area. The more difficult the journey, the fewer people you will meet on the trail. Considering that most camping today is done within a quarter mile of a car or a house, a backcountry trip can be very rewarding for those willing to do what it takes to get there. Solitude, quiet, great fishing, wildlife viewing, and unspoiled scenery are just a few of the benefits of a trip to an isolated area. Prior planning will be required to secure necessary permits, arrange transportation, plot your course, locate water sources and campsites, and the like. For more valuable information on planning your trip, visit Backpacker’s website.

2. Make lists

Lists are a great way to plan and to avoid lugging along unnecessary gear, food, clothes, and weight. Each time you take a trip, create a list. Add or take away items upon your return, then file it for future reference. If you return to the area or plan a similar trip, you can revisit your list for that trip, taking much of the guesswork out of planning. This will result in a much more enjoyable trip. Lists, especially ones that are used repeatedly, also allow freedom from the worry that something has been forgotten. REI’s website features a comprehensive checklist to get you started. 

Cut your weight 

Since the main way into the backcountry is on foot, you will want to cut down on weight as much as possible. Below are some ways to do it:

Weigh your empty pack. If it is too heavy, you may want to consider replacing it.

If water is readily available in the area you are going, don't carry so much in your pack. It's better to replenish your supply as you travel.

Use a down sleeping bag suitable for the night time temperatures of the area you will be in. Remember, there is no standardized temperature rating for sleeping bags. Be sure and use the bag at home to test its effectiveness before taking it on the trail.

Use a lightweight sleeping pad and cut off the portion that fits under your legs. If you need to, you can use your pack there instead.

Carry your water in sports drink bottles.

Eat cold meals on weekend trips to avoid the weight of a stove and fuel.

Camp with a tarp or hammock when possible rather than a tent. 

When replacing worn gear, choose high-quality lightweight items.

3. Know your limits

Make sure that you stay safely within the limits of your physical abilities, gear, and skill level. For example, if your map and compass skills are iffy at best, you may not want to venture off-trail. Visit Backpacker’s website for helpful workout tips to get in shape for a backpacking adventure. 

4. Practice at home

Making sure you know how to use your gear properly and efficiently is an important step to take before your trip. Pack your new pack with your gear and head to the park to make sure it is comfortable when packed properly with the actual gear you plan to take. If you decide not to take a stove, eat the way you would on the trail for a day or two at home or work to make sure you like it. If you decide you can’t live without a stove, make sure yours is in top working order with enough fuel to last the journey. Practice your tarp set up and pre-rig it for efficiency. Sleep out on a cold night in your backyard if you buy a new sleeping bag. 

5. Prepare for the unexpected

A sudden snow squall or ice storm could turn your backcountry adventure into a survival situation if you aren't prepared. Always file a trip plan with family or friends so that someone knows when you are expected to return. Keep it light, but take all the gear and clothing you'll need for the trip. Make sure you know the quickest way out, as well as the location of the nearest medical facility. Chances are, if you prepare for it, you will never experience a wilderness emergency. 

Check out the Red Cross Wilderness and Remote First Aid Reference Guide and consider taking a course. 

6. Have fun!

Some people go to the backcountry so that they can relax and not work so hard. Others like to have an objective in mind, such as locating an old cabin site, natural features such as waterfalls or the best places to fish. Whatever your objective, do it with safety and style. Enjoy your time in the backcountry!

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