If you want to start building your backcountry camping skills, it’s like most other activities - you will need advice and time to practice.
To stay safe and comfortable, you must be aware of the area you're going to be camping in, the weather conditions you'll be facing, and the amount of time you'll be in the wild.
Keep reading Outdoorsman Lab’s beginner-friendly guide to backcountry camping.
Covering the Basics
Where are you headed? What's the elevation? What does the weather forecast look like?
A hike to a backcountry tent site in the snow is a very different camping trip than the one you take in July - unless you're headed to very high elevations. Know what the temperature range will be before you head out.
No matter the temperature, you'll need:
- Somewhere to sleep, or shelter
- Food, water, and necessities like coffee or tea
- The safety gear to cook over a fire, or a camping burner
- A basic first aid kit
- Clothes to keep you warm and/or cool
- A way to keep clean
Location research can reveal what your basic needs will be, but you'll need to do further planning to make your first camping trip enjoyable.
Sit down with your fellow campers and plan your day. It may be tempting to think you can just wing it with protein bars and soda, but there's something incredibly comforting about cooking up a hot breakfast of paper bag bacon and eggs or campfire pancakes.
If you plan to hike, make your hiking shoes your traveling shoes. Never bring new hiking shoes; instead, use the shoes you regularly exercise in and bring wicking socks.
If you plan to fish for food, make sure you have the necessary gear and a license, as well as some backup food in case the fishing doesn’t work out.
Campers are flexible, adaptable folks. It may rain, the wind may come up, you may have to choose a different campsite than you planned. By staying flexible, you can still have a fun trip.
If you are prone to cold or flu, or any other similar infections, carry immune booster supplements with you. Having these handy will help you survive in extreme climates with ease.
Define Your Living Spaces
Your campsite will need to provide you with a place to sleep, which will usually be a tent. Look for a flat spot that is fairly smooth.
If there are a lot of pine needles, you may need to put down a tarp for a smoother base. Test the soil to make sure it isn't too severely compacted so you can get your stakes in the ground.
Once the tent is in place, you can settle in your:
- Sleeping gear
- Portable toilet
If fires are allowed, consider setting up your seating area around the fire pit. If you're rough camping and there is no fire pit, don't move rocks. Consider investing in a portable fire pit if you plan to camp on undeveloped sites.
Should you find yourself camping in a region that has a lot of mosquitoes, consider investing in a screen house. Your tent may have screens that you can also use to retreat to around sunset. Bug spray can also help, especially in the morning if you plan to hike early. If you have a screened-in space, place your seating area in the screened area and be ready to use your mosquito-repelling candles before sunset.
You may also be facing bugs that you won't notice until you get home. Because camping can put you at risk of tick bites, be ready to check for discolorations and bullseye sores with radiating redness around the site.
In case you are bitten, you will want to talk to your doctor about a blood test. There are also supplements to boost your immune system while you recover from a tick bite.
When you’re camping, you are the guest and the wildlife are the host. They will happily “collect rent" on your stay by raiding your cooler, trash, and food bags.
If there are bear boxes in the area, use them. Bears, especially black bears, are happy to shop through your groceries and may go as far as trying to get into your car as well as your cooler to see what you have for snacks.
Plan ahead for trash. If possible, prep foods ahead of time so you have as little waste as possible. For example, eggs can be broken and carried in a plastic water bottle for scrambled eggs. Veggies can be chopped and carried in a baggie so you have no onion skins left behind.
Leave nothing that may attract wildlife to your camp, and never leave trash behind at your site.
Building a Fire for a Great Burn
Before planning your camping trip, check for burn restrictions and regulations. If no fires are allowed, don't start one. If they are allowed, you will need:
- Tinder, or dry material such as leaves and fallen bark
- Kindling, or very small pieces of dried wood
- Larger pieces of dried wood for a longer burn once the fire is going
If you are allowed to collect firewood from around your campsite, make sure you gather it from a fair distance. Deadwood breaks down, building up the soil and boosting microbial soil growth. If you take all the deadwood from directly around your campsite, eventually the soil will become dead and dusty.
As you collect wood, make sure it snaps. Any wood that bends will be smoky when burned. Dry wood burns better.
Before you start a fire, make sure you have the material necessary to put it out. To successfully put out your fire, you'll need water to kill the coals, a shovel to smother the fire, and a stick to stir the ashes just to be sure.
If you're only camping overnight, don't use a push log. It's possible to start a fire with a long single log as the primary burning tool. However, unless you're going to be there for several nights, there is a risk that your push log may stay hot even after you douse the fire. If the next camper doesn't want a push log and chooses to move it away from the fire ring, they can transfer hot coals to the living forest and pose a wildfire risk.
You may be interested in learning to cook over an open fire. Consider carrying an old oven rack to give you a stable base for your camping cooking gear. Long-handled tongs and heavy leather gloves can protect your skin as you build your skills as an outdoor chef.
Once you know what the weather will be, pack clothes for each day and be ready to layer. A summer camping trip may only require shorts, hiking sandals, and a tee-shirt that will wick away sweat.
However, if you hike early in the morning, a fleece jacket can keep you warm until your body gets moving. You may also want lightweight pants if there’s a lot of mosquito activity.
Being cold can cause muscle tension. If you slip or take a tumble when your muscles are tense, you're at greater risk of an injury. Layer up and carry a pack so you can shed layers as you and the day heat up. If bugs are a risk, weary nylon pants and tuck them in your socks.
A hat can protect your face and neck from the sun. It can also reduce your risk of a squint-ache from bright light.
Many camping experts do not recommend wearing cotton on a camping trip. In extreme heat, cotton can be quite helpful if used wisely. For example, if you're camped near a lake, you can enjoy a swim and take a long-sleeved cotton button-up shirt for a dunk. Put on the wet shirt over your suit to wick away heat after your swim.
However, if it's going to be a cold camping trip, nylon, poly, and fleece are a much better choice.
Practice at Home
Before you go, inflate your sleeping mattress and take a nap on it. If it doesn't lose air, it will probably be fine for your camping trip.
Pack food that's easy to heat up with as little garbage as possible and practice using your camping stove until you're confident.
Make sure you can cover what's really important for you. If you have to have a soda every day at 3 pm, bring them. If you can't live without coffee, figure out a way to brew it in the wild. Test drive your camping toilet to make sure you can do what you need to do before you're desperate.
Finally, Don't Overpack
There’s a fine line between adequate preparation and overpacking. Bringing more food than you need can attract animals or lead to food waste. Hiking with every gadget and garment you can think of will tire you out faster.
Bring the few garments you need for each day you'll be out. Pack enough food to cover all your planned meals and add protein bars for snacks. Designate a spot for trash during the day at the campsite and follow all posted instructions about where to put it at night.