Backcountry Camping

Backcountry Camping: Essential Gear and Wilderness Tips 

What is Backcountry Camping? 

Backcountry camping is not what most people would consider easy. In fact, it is arguably the most challenging type of camping you can do. But a challenge never stopped you before. If you can hike for long periods of time, are willing to do a little planning and can carry the right gear, you can become a backcountry camper.

In the backcountry, you'll get closer to nature than most people ever manage. You'll discover inspirational, eye-opening natural beauty. You'll be able to see the stars more clearly than ever before. One of the most thrilling parts of backcountry camping is discovering your personal strength, pushing your limits and realizing what you're truly capable of. If you love the outdoors, this type of camping is an incredible experience you do not want to miss.

While backcountry camping can be tough, there's no reason to make it more difficult than it has to be. Proper planning, from finding the best camp area to packing the correct gear, can make your trip a more enjoyable challenge. Use this guide from The North Face® to learn how to backcountry camp, which gear is essential and how to make the most out of your next adventure.    

Tips and Tricks for First-Time Backcountry Camping Adventures

Camping in the backcountry has its unique challenges. Carrying everything you need for the next few days on your back while you discover the best camping spot is an experience that's completely different from the standard campout. Before you start your first adventure, there are some things you should consider that will help you stay protected in the outdoors while also staying mobile throughout the journey. Use these tips to make the most out of your first backcountry camping venture.

Plan Carefully

You may have some fears about backcountry camping. Getting lost, running out of water, not having enough food, being uncomfortably or even dangerously cold or hot – failing to plan greatly increases the odds that you'll have a few challenges along the way. Spend enough time to properly plan your trip, including mapping your route, creating a backcountry packing list and ensuring you have all the essential supplies to support you in a specific climate and location.

Get Your Permits

Some parks, especially the popular tourist destinations, require reservations or registration prior to arrival. Research the area you plan on camping in to determine if you'll need a permit. If you plan well enough in advance, you can call the park and secure your permit months ahead of time.

Try Out Your Gear

If you have to purchase new gear for a backcountry camping trip, try it out before the adventure begins. That way, you'll know which items you'll need, how to properly use them and which gear is durable enough to withstand a longer, tougher journey.

Train with Your Supplies

If you aren't used to the strain of hiking or backpacking trips, try loading your pack and going on a few hikes before your trip. With proper planning, you can adjust the way you load your pack to make it more comfortable while you hike long distances.

Pack Light

Backcountry camping requires hours of hauling your gear. To make crossing rocky paths as convenient as possible, pack a lighter load. The less you have in your pack, the more quickly and easily you'll be able to maneuver through the land without the bulk of unnecessary gear holding you back.

Bring Enough Food

While you want to your pack to be light, it's important to bring enough food to help keep you nourished and hydrated while you're away from everyday conveniences. Bring along an extra meal or additional snacks, just in case you need them during your trip.

Tell Loved Ones Where You're Going

Let someone know where you're going, when you expect to get home and a general map of your route. Consider leaving a detailed itinerary in your vehicle to help rangers find you in the event of an emergency.

Talk to Rangers

Park rangers are an incredible resource. Always check in at the ranger station and tell them about your plans. Since rangers know the park best, it doesn't hurt to ask for advice or tips before you begin your journey.

Backcountry Camping Essentials

Discover which backpack camping gear you need to stay safe while you explore off the beaten path.

Tents

Your tent serves as your portable home – a shelter that will keep the rain and insects out and the warmth in. For most backpacking trips, a bivy, tarp or three-season tent is recommended. Lightweight yet fully innovative, these items take up less space in your backpack and provide adequate warmth in the wilderness.

Before you head out to discover nature's playground, look for a backcountry sleeping tent with these features:

  • Ultra-lightweight performance
  • Minimalist design
  • Waterproof yet fully breathable materials

Packs

Before shopping for a pack, consider how long you plan on backcountry camping. The longer you'll be exploring, the more supplies you'll need to bring. Our technical packs are available in a range of sizes to provide adequate space for all your gear. Search by the following sizes to help determine which backpacking pack you'll need:

  • Overnight Explorations: 35 liters or less
  • Weekend Adventures: 35-50 liters
  • Longer Expeditions: 50-75 liters

After you've decided how long your trip will be, browse different pack styles to find the pack frame you need to succeed. Depending on the length of your trip, you may need a pack with a specific frame. Browse the following pack frames to determine which one is best for your adventure:

  • Super-light frameless packs for quick explorations
  • Mid-weight packs with internal frames and numerous pockets for longer adventures
  • Heavy packs with rigid external frames to carry heavy loads for the longest expeditions

Mid-weight internal frame packs are a favorite for most backcountry campers, making them ideal for beginners to use while they discover nature's playground.

After you know which size and frame you'll need, pick a style. Generally, the pack you choose will come down to personal preference and how you like to organize your gear. However, there are technically innovative features you'll need to perform well in the backcountry. Shop for packs that include the following features:

  • Rugged, durable, weatherproof materials
  • Breathable innovations
  • Hydration-compatible features
  • Suspension systems for a comfortable, secure fit
  • Dedicated sleeping bag compartments
  • Fully adjustable straps

Sleeping Bags

Sleeping bags designed for backpacking prioritize light weight and compactness. There are several factors to consider when buying a sleeping bag for your trip:

  • Insulation: Synthetic insulation can keep you warm and dry, even in wet conditions. Down insulation is light and warm, but can't perform as well in rainy or wet elements. You can choose full synthetic, full down or a mix of both to fit your preferences and backcountry location.
  • Warmth: Sleeping bags are rated for warmth. Consider what time of year you plan on going camping to determine which sleeping bag rating you'll need. Summer bags are good for conditions where the weather is above 32 degrees. Three-season bags are rated between 10 degrees and 32 degrees to keep you cool and comfortable throughout most of the year. For winter camping, look for bags that have a rating lower than 10. 
  • Shape: Most backpacking sleeping bags are mummy-shaped to reduce weight and space in your pack, while also providing insulation and comfort through the night.

Apparel

When camping in the backcountry, your apparel should be breathable, warm and protective. Look for backcountry camping apparel made from synthetics or wool for superior comfort and durability.

While everyone has preferences for what apparel to wear in the backcountry, there are some basics you'll need to keep you comfortable in specific locations and seasons. Plan on wearing the same clothes for most of the trip to make room for other essentials in your pack. Consider wearing the following men's camping apparel or women's camping apparel on your adventure for extra protection and comfort from the elements:

  • Pants/Shorts: Choose synthetic pants or shorts that provide durability, weatherproof features, breathability and a full range of motion for days at a time.
  • T-shirt: A shirt made of synthetic material or merino wool should serve as your first layer of protection. 
  • Fleece or hoodie: Your mid-layer should be a fleece or hoodie, crafted of either synthetic material or merino wool. 
  • Lightweight jacket: For a fully insulated jacket that packs up small, consider bringing an insulated or down jacket.
  • Beanie: Grab a hat that keeps your ears and head warm.
  • Socks: A good pair of hiking socks can last for two days easily, sometimes longer.
  • Light gloves: A light pair of gloves will keep your fingers toasty without adding too much weight.

Footwear

Before picking a pair of hiking shoes, plan out where your backcountry camping trip will take place. The area you choose may decide which type of protective footwear you need. Consider the following factors when choosing the best men's hiking boots or women's hiking boots for your trip:

  • Weight: The more heavy-duty the hiking boot, the more it will weigh. Of course, with that weight, you get durability, protection, ankle support and often waterproofing that you'll need to travel across rough, rugged terrain.
  • Ankle support: Ankle support can help you continue through rocky ground. Look for hiking boots with uppers that go above your ankle and provide a secure fit around the heel for durable, reliable support throughout your expedition.
  • Waterproofing: Depending on where you're exploring, you may need waterproof features to keep your feet comfortable and dry.
  • Stability: When hiking over rough terrain, a thick and rigid sole promotes extra comfort and offers more protection.

Food

Backcountry camping calls for a range of lightweight, trail-compatible foods to keep you full and comfortable throughout your adventures. Since you'll burn a lot of calories in the outdoors, you'll need a sufficient amount of calorie-rich, nutrient-dense and ready-to-eat foods in your pack. A general rule is to take between 2,500 and 4,500 calories for each day you're exploring.

Use these tips on what you can eat while backcountry camping to help you plan for your upcoming trip:

  • Dehydrated foods and dried foods are lightweight and easy to pack. Consider bringing items like nuts, seeds, dried fruits, dried meats, tortillas, powder meals, instant noodles or rice, energy gels and granola bars.
  • If some meals require water to cook properly, make sure you're packing enough water to both drink and cook with.
  • Make preparing meals as easy as possible.
  • Don't try to diet on the trail. You need calories for energy and warmth.

How to Pack Your Backcountry Gear

Every thrill-seeker packs their gear differently, so it may take a few tries to figure out what packing style works for you. Typically, it's recommended that your backpack camping gear is packed in a way that gives you access to what you need most, based on what you're carrying and the conditions of the land around you.

Use these backpack packing guidelines to help you organize your next backcountry adventure:

  • Stuff bulky items that you're less likely to need throughout the day at the bottom of the pack, like sleeping bags.
  • Put heavy gear in the middle of the pack to spread out the weight.
  • Carry items that you'll need to grab throughout the day at the top of your pack, including food.
  • Use exterior pockets for the items that you'll need quick access to, including your map and water bottle. 

You're Ready to Discover Nature's Playground

When you get down to it, the logistics of backcountry camping are simple: get some quality gear, plan your trip and get off the beaten path. When you emerge from the wilderness, you may be surprised to discover a new outdoor obsession.

If you're ready for new challenges, adventures and opportunities, browse our other camping guides. All-season camping explains everything it takes to tackle camping after winter's first snowfall, while hike-in camping provides helpful tips on how to enjoy nature without the typical campsite crowds.