Just What Is Backcountry Camping?

If you click and purchase with one of our links, we earn a commission. Thanks.

I was discussing camping with a friend who had never camped before. And he asked, “what is backcountry camping?”.

Backcountry camping means you are camping in a more primitive campsite than a camping resort as you find along the side of the highway. They rarely have indoor plumbing or electricity. And you should prepare to bring along your own water. As well as a way to purify extra water you need. You will be carrying your supplies in and out with you.

The rest of this article will cover more detail.

What Is Backcountry Hiking?

If you’re new to camping and hiking, then you might be wondering just what backcountry hiking is specifically. It can get a little confusing, depending on who you ask, because two different definitions are in common use.

First of all, the shorter and simpler answer is that backcountry hiking simply means that you’re spending a minimum of one night somewhere in the wilderness. This generally means that you move up from just doing day hikes to overnight backpacking. You get further away from the crowds, you spend the night at a designated trail shelter or campsite, and you’re not that close to any roads.

In the second definition, backcountry camping might also be known as designated camping. This would be in contrast to ‘frontcountry’ campsites that are well-established facilities, which might feature running water, power outlets, restrooms, and possibly even showers. These are the kinds of places where you might pull in an RV or camp right out of your car.

Backcountry campsites aren’t places you can park. They might be a hardened campsite, and possibly even have a picnic table, grill, and fire pit. However, forget about the plumbing and electricity. These sites are a good balance between minimizing your impact on surrounding wilderness while also being a part of it. You might also meet others who share your passion for the outdoors.

Depending on the designated campsite in question, there might be shelters and lean-tos on top of tent sites. You might also find outhouses if there are a lot of backpackers coming through. You’ll likely need a bear bag to protect your food, as well as a means of purifying your drinking water.

Dispersed Camping As A Subset Of Backcountry Camping

Not all backcountry camping is in designated camping locations. Camping someplace totally wild which isn’t reserved exclusively for camping is what happens here. You get a personal choice of where you stay, provided it’s legal to do so. A number of state parks, official forests, and national parks allow for this, but not all, meaning you have to check in advance of where it is permitted or not.

If you like camping with a hammock in a thoroughly forested area, then this might be for you. Still, you need to purify your water and protect all your food. In fact, you need to be totally self-reliant. No one else is likely to be around, which has appeal to some. However, it can also get a little spooky. That and the skill level required don’t always make dispersed camping a good backcountry camping option for those new to the activity. A one-night stay around others is your best incremental move to get a taste of something past just day-hiking.

Planning Ahead Is Everything

You should never wander off into the wilderness without having a plan. This is particularly true when you’re a novice. First of all, if you’re going to a national park, then consult the National Park Service website to get detailed and thorough information about any backcountry camping that might be available. For parks that require a permit, request one.

Schedule Your Itinerary

A permit and weekend off approved by your boss aren’t enough. You need to get a detailed map for the trails you intend to hike. Identify potential campsites, but also look for all water sources. Depending on your fitness and the terrain, you should reasonably be able to cover from 5 up to 10 miles per day. Make sure your phone has a compass, a GPS, and at least one back-up battery or charge-pack.

Don’t Go Alone

As a general rule of thumb, you should never go hiking in a group less than four. That means that if someone gets injured and can’t make it out on their own power, someone can stay with them, while the other two hike out to help (or a good phone signal) and still have each other for backup.

Don’t Leave Home Without Saying Goodbye

Everyone in your group, whether it’s just you or a dozen people, should let someone back home know they’re gone. Let someone know where you are going, when you are leaving, and when they should expect to hear from you again. If the worst happens in the wilderness, this one act can mean the difference between life and death, since they’ll know when something has gone wrong, when to alert the authorities, and where to tell them to look.

What To Pack

The daypack you use for a hike that has you home for dinner isn’t going to be enough for backcountry camping. You need a lot more, and that starts with food. Snacks are still great, but you need to plan on three solid meals a day. Emphasize protein and carbs, since the hiking means you are probably burning more calories than usual. It’s your choice whether your foods need cooking or not. A stove does add more weight, but warm meals in the woods are something to savor.


Even if you fill your water bottles before you leave, you need to plan on filling them again along the way. Otherwise, you’re just packing too much weight. Assume that every hiker in your party will need at least 2 liters of clean water per day, if not more.

Give Me Shelter

You might be able to borrow a tent for a one-night trip, or just get a tarp. A tarp is lighter and cooler, whereas tents have more weight. Still, they keep insects and most critters out. Whatever you pick, practice putting it together before you leave. Being tired in the rain and darkness is not the first time you want to assemble an unfamiliar tent. A good sleeping bag and some kind of pad or mat are also essential.


Be ready for all sorts of weather. You should have at least two good pair of socks and great hiking boots. Have outfits ready for warm, hot, cool, and maybe even cold weather. Also, be ready for both wet and dry weather.

Be Prepared

Yes, it’s the Boy Scout motto. You should adhere to it though. Have a great first-aid kit and emergency supplies. For that matter, take a backcountry course like Outward Bound or at least go through a formal first-aid training seminar. You never know what awaits you in the wilderness.

Backcountry camping is the type of camping most people visualize in their mind when they think of camping. With a little planning and preparation anyone can do it. And it’s a great way to connect with nature as well as reduce stress from daily life.

Related Articles