What is ‘Backcountry’ Camping?

Backcountry camping in Alaska

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What is “backcountry” camping? What is “frontcountry” camping?

If you’re new to camping you’ve likely heard the term “backcountry camping” but might not know what it means. Is backcountry camping something you want to do? Is it the right thing for you?

To understand what backcountry camping is, you need to know what “frontcountry camping” is. You’ll probably hear that term less, but generally speaking, it’s the opposite of backcountry camping.

Under most circumstances, frontcountry camping is camping that is easily accessible by car in a campground with amenities like picnic tables, fire rings, bathrooms, water spigots and, often, electric hook-ups for RVs.

In fact, frontcountry camping is probably what comes to mind when you think about a typical campground. These spots often also have a camp host, either paid or volunteer, who is on hand to help make sure the campground rules are obeyed and everything stays in working order.

So what is backcountry camping?

Backcountry camping, on the other hand, is less accessible. While you may still be able to drive there, “backcountry camping” often refers to campsites you must walk into. It also typically means far fewer amenities.

What, exactly, makes a site “backcountry” might depend on the region you’re visiting. For example, in some areas we’ve visited in the lower-48, backcountry campsites lack potable water or flushing toilets, but are accessible by car and still have many other campgrounds amenities like fire rings and picnic tables. In Alaska, “backcountry” usually means you cannot drive in, but might still find a fire ring and a bear-proof food locker available for use.

What do you need for backcountry camping?

Exactly what you need to pack for backcountry vs. frontcountry camping depends heavily on the type of backcountry camping you’re doing. Typically you’ll need to bring in mostly the same things. Since backcountry camping might mean that you’re walking in from your car, you’ll want to focus on making sure you’re not bringing things you don’t actually need. More than likely, however, all backcountry camping sites you visit will have one thing in common: no potable water.

That means that if you’re going backcountry camping you need to either bring water with you or, if water is available near your campsite, something to filter the water to create a clean source for you to drink.

Related: This is a water filter we really like.

What are some other things to think about bringing for backcountry camping? Since you’re likely to be far away from your car, you’ll want to make sure you have plenty of warm layers and rain gear on hand just in case it gets cold or you need them. To me it’s always better to have carried in too many layers and rain gear and not need it after all than to get cold and not have anything on hand.

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For that reason, for backcountry camping I suggest always packing extra layers and dry clothes just in case. When I go backcountry camping I carry a rain jacket and pants, dry socks, a warm hat and gloves, a warm jacket and a base layer. If you live somewhere warm (unlike me!) you can probably skip the warm hat, gloves, jacket and base layer and instead just carry a change of clothes.

Happy backcountry camping!

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