What is The Difference Between Backcountry and Frontcountry Camping?

Backcountry camping is when you go camping four miles away from a road in a wilderness or primitive area. Front country camping is any time you book a campsite at a campground. The campground has all kinds of amenities, such as a bathroom, electrical boxes, and RV hookups. Backcountry camping is where you have to hike remotely to a campsite you find on a map.

Often designated campsites that are well marked by the land management agency will be on your map. Typical land management agencies are the United States Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or National Park Service. They are still maintained by park personnel such as rangers, but they are not reachable by car.

I’ve been backcountry camping for about four years. As a kid my parents took my sister and I frontcountry camping. We used to load up our minivan (yes, we called it the minivan of doom), and head on our way. Being raised to go sleep on the ground was a life lesson unto itself. I would wake up every morning to the sound of nature, plus maybe the sound of my Mom making her morning coffee.

Later in life when I went to college I got to go backcountry camping regularly. After going on our wilderness orientation, a five day wilderness backpacking trip, I was later able to lead two more wilderness orientations. In between those trips I honed my skills by taking an outdoor living skills class and going backpacking almost every weekend of my Freshman year. I ended up getting my four year degree in Adventure Education, which focuses on backcountry travel and outdoor leadership. I came out on the other side having gone on many backcountry trips, and some front country ones too.

In this article, we are going to address safety considerations for both backcountry and front country camping. We are also going to teach you exactly what you can bring to set yourself up for success. We will also go in depth into how to plan a trip to the backcountry. By the end of this article we will have introduced you to what backcountry camping truly is and how to get started. In every section, I will make sure to point out how camping looks similar or different between the backcountry and front country.

Here is something to remember:

Anything you learn while backcountry camping will help you with front country camping. The same can almost be said in reverse.

Let’s get going!

backcountry camping
Image By Tim Foster

What to Expect For Safety In an Emergency

When you go front country camping you typically have cell service, which means you can call 9-1-1 in almost any emergency. There are also helpful staff who are available to help you out at your campsite.

In comparison, when you are in the backcountry you will be living remotely. Without a car, or cell service, you will need to approach emergencies differently. If you get significantly injured it will take longer to evacuate you. In addition, if you need help it’s going to come from a search and rescue team. They can only reach you as quickly as they can hike to you. The worst case scenario is one where nobody knows where you are and you are injured.

Fortunately, there are many ways to prevent such a terrible situation from happening.

The first thing to always do is leave a detailed itinerary at home with a trusted contact. This includes exactly where you are going, how long you will be away, and when you will be back. Make sure to include exactly who to call if you don’t return on time. Find the park ranger on call through the park website, or the emergency hotline on the same site.

If you get lost, just hang tight exactly where you are. Since you have already made their job easy by leaving an itinerary, the search and rescue team will know what area to look for you.

Let’s say you are injured, but you aren’t in bad shape. You might have scraped an elbow and twisted an ankle, but are otherwise unharmed. Patch yourself up, drink plenty of water, eat plenty of food, and hike out the same way you came in.

If this were a front country situation where you got injured or lost, you would already be registered with the campground. Instead of registering with a campground, register at the trailhead instead.

The trail register shows that you signed in at a specific time with a destination in mind. Plus it shows how many people are using the trail. This is how the trail crews decide if they can afford trail maintenance for that area or not, so make sure to sign it to help out!

How to Pack For The Backcountry

Packing well is going to set you up for success on your trip. Just make sure you know how to use the gear I’m about to recommend to you!

Then budget to find this stuff, or maybe find a friend who can loan gear to you.

Start by compiling all of the gear on this list. Then you will be able to find out personal preferences.

  1. The Ten Essentials.
    1. Knife
    2. Sun protection
    3. Bug protection
    4. Water purification
    5. First aid kit
    6. Source of fire (lighter)
    7. Extra layers
    8. Shelter
    9. Headlamp and extra batteries
    10. Navigation (map/compass/gps/garmin).
  2. Proper Clothing
    1. The Basics: Raincoat, rain pants, base layer shirt, base layer leggings or pants, hat with visor, boots or hiking sandals.
    2. Winter Additions: Fleece, puffy jacket, large winter jacket, snow pants, winter boots, thicker socks, warm hat.
  3. Backpack, Sleeping Bag, Sleeping Pad, Backpacking Stove, Fuel, Food

The difference between backcountry camping and front country when it comes to packing is huge! For one, notice how few items are on this list!

There’s hardly anything. If you were to pack for front country camping you would be bringing a suitcase stove for your kitchen, coolers for your food, and much heavier stuff overall.

You will have an opportunity to use everything you pack in the backcountry because they are truly the essentials. In the evenings as soon as it gets dark you can use your headlamp. Your knife will come in handy for all kinds of lunches. You can use the map to your heart’s content for a bit of light reading, seeing all the different places to explore.

In the frontcountry you can use all of those things. It’s just different. For instance, you don’t have to feel self-conscious about throwing a deck of cards and an extra large novel in your backseat.

If you bring all that backpacking it’s going to get a little heavy. There is one exception to the weight limit rule in the backcountry, and that is canoeing.

If you canoe you can still bring extra stuff. Just, remember that the same safety rules apply as with backpacking trips.

How can I plan a solo trip to the backcountry?

Solo trips can be scary, but rewarding. As long as you plan within your limits, this can be a very refreshing experience. Depending on your level of experience you can plan more challenging trips.

Initially, plan trips without much elevation gain or loss. Arrange them to be closer to home, so you can feel safer. After you go backcountry camping a few times you will be more comfortable with your gear. Later you can go on bigger trips, even international ones!

How to Plan a Group Trip to the Backcountry

Similarly to the front country, the more the merrier. If you bring your family and your dog you can still have a good time. It’s just a little more planning. For instance, instead of putting your family in the car and having access to electricity and a shower, you will be living a little more simply.

According to the National Park Service, you will need to check ahead of time for permits and park regulations. I second this. Most backcountry camping areas will have group size limits that are very important to listen to. I recommend a group of four. This isn’t too big, but is big enough to enjoy time with your friends or family.

You also need to take time to plan this trip as a group. List the gear you will take, calculate daily mileage, accommodate the fitness of the group, and talk about group goals.

Group goals are especially important. While someone might want to travel as far as possible to see as much as they can, another person may want to travel very little so they can relax very much. Figure this out right away before you start planning.

List the emergency contacts for every member of the group before you go. Also document any vehicles you plan on bringing with you.

Include all of the information above in the detailed itinerary you are leaving with someone at home. Try to stick to this itinerary as closely as possible, understanding that changes probably will happen.

Unlike in front country camping, there are no designated places to store food. Before you go, plan on whether you will need to do bear bag hangs or use bear canisters. Many wilderness areas are beginning to require specific kinds of bear canisters, so be sure to work that into the budget.

You will need to make a meal plan, too. With front country camping, you can bring as much food as you want. You can make food in bulk very quickly, especially because most front country campsites will have grills available.

In the backcountry you will want to bring meals that can be prepared over a backpacking stove. Bringing two stoves will definitely expedite the process.

Group Shelter Options

Decide ahead of time whether you are bringing tents, bivouacs, tarps, or mega-lite mega-mids.

Tarps and mega mids are super easy for large groups. A simple A-frame tarp close to the ground will make for easy setup. Meanwhile, mega-mids are teepee style tents. They have only one center pole, with four corners to stake down. Not only are they quick to pitch, but you can bring an extra one to store everyone’s gear.

Another option altogether is to bring a group tarp. Tarps are much easier for a large group. You can pitch it between two trees, after making a ridgeline. A simple A-Frame with a backpacking tarp often works.

There is one more option that is a little different from each of these. A wonderful factor in backcountry camping is access to lean-to shelters. In certain backcountry areas lean-to’s can be the only shelter available. Sometimes you can pitch a tent at the site, but never inside of the shelter itself.

Another bonus is lean-to campsites usually have a large fire pit and a privy, sometimes called an outhouse. The only downside can be mosquitos during the Spring season, May through June. Make sure to pack bug nets! Unlike front country camping, you won’t have enclosed picnic spaces.

Conclusion

After all this information on backcountry camping, I hope you get out to try it soon. There are many beautiful places near each of us. Whether it’s a state park or a national forest, the opportunities for adventure are endless.

Backcountry camping can be anywhere from one night to a full vacation. A really low risk way to start is to bring a friend with you who has gone before. As long as you create an itinerary together and leave it with a trusted contact, the trip will probably go really well. You two can go out for just a weekend together and make memories for years to come.

Front country and backcountry camping are both unique. They both offer chances to interact with wildlife, meet fun people, and take beautiful photos. Remember to choose one that meets your goals. Maybe you just need to drive somewhere quiet and pitch a tent near your car for a few days. Other times, you want to hike out of earshot of a road. No matter what kind, camping brings people together and helps bring peace of mind.

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