Beginner’s Guide to Backcountry Camping

beginner's guide to backcountry camping

Your first time backcountry camping can be a bit scary so, with this post, I will provide a beginner’s guide for your wilderness journey to help put your mind at ease. Anything that is out of one’s comfort zone will feel nerve-racking and risky. However, with some practice and preparation you will feel much more confident in taking the leap. It’s utterly worth it! There’s something magical, wild and empowering about carrying all you need on your back as you wander into the unknown – it’s one of the greatest adventures in my eyes. Just picture being miles and miles from civilization with not another human in sight; laying in your uncovered tent at night staring up at the vast, starry sky; waking up to a solo sunrise gleaming on an alpine lake; seeing an elk grazing peacefully in a meadow. All these things, and many more, are at your finger tips when opting to venture into the backcountry. Without further ado…

A little about me, the author of “Beginner’s Guide to Backcountry Camping“:

Author: Mindy Michaels, mindyonthemove.com

Main Photographer: Doug Michaels

My name is Mindy Rose Michaels and I am an avid adventurer and traveler.  I “work to travel” (as I like to say) and thus, live a very unconventional life. My husband, Doug, and I are freelancers in the film industry and work on various reality/doc tv shows for a multitude of networks, such as: Travel Channel, Animal Planet, NBC, Discovery, A&E, Starz, HGTV etc.  Our work keeps us constantly moving and constantly on our toes AND, when we’re not working, you best believe we’re still on the move. Always. Because we love to travel as often and as far as possible.
beginner's guide to backcountry camping

DISCLOSURE:

THIS POST CONTAINS AFFILIATE LINKS AND I RECEIVE A COMMISSION IF YOU VISIT A LINK AND BUY SOMETHING ON MY RECOMMENDATION. PURCHASING VIA AN AFFILIATE LINK DOESN’T COST YOU ANY EXTRA, AND I ONLY RECOMMEND PRODUCTS AND SERVICES I TRUST. ALL OPINIONS ARE MY OWN. FOR MORE DETAILS SEE MY DISCLOSURE AND PRIVACY POLICY.


BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO BACKCOUNTRY CAMPING:

What to Pack

beginner's guide to backcountry camping

BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO BACKCOUNTRY CAMPING:

Some of my personal favorite gear

Favorite tent brand (to-date):

Big Agnes Salt Creek SL2 Tent: 2 person, 3 season

You can’t go wrong with this superior and trusted brand! Their tents are ultra-lightweight, weatherproof, durable, easy to set-up and easy to tear-down. This particular one is a more affordable option of theirs so it’s great for beginners! I’ve recently purchased myself a Marmot backpacking tent as well and will review it as soon as I test her out in the wild!

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Use your trekking poles (if you decide to bring them) to hold up the rainfly. This makes for a nice little shaded area and easy in-and-out access. Plus, helps with ventilation if it’s a warm day!

Favorite beginner sleeping bag:

Marmot Trestles 15 Sleeping Bag: Women’s

A great sleeping bag that won’t break the bank for your novice backpacking treks! This sleeping bag’s comfort rating goes down to 16 degrees (Fahrenheit) so it’ll keep you warm on those brisk mountain nights. A compression stuff sack is included and it allows for super easy packing. Plus, there’s an adjustable hood and collar to help retain more heat!

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Forgo your sleeping bag’s stuff sack and, rather, stow your sleeping bag inside your backpack’s main compartment. This will save both room and weight!

Favorite backpack:

The North Face Terra 55L Backpack – Women’s

Not only is this my personal favorite pack, but it’s also one of the cheapest for its quality. I’ve tried Mountain Hardware and Osprey (among others) and, although I do love them as well, this pack takes the win overall! I love all the easy-access side compartments, the floating lid design and, above all, its incredibly comfortable and supportive back panel and molded hip belt. Lastly, the dyno lift system in this pack self-equalizes your load for efficient carry.

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This size backpack (55L) is ideal for a 3-5 day backcountry hiking and camping adventure. If you’re going for more time, or less, opt for the respective size for your trip’s duration.

*Bonus tip: don’t forget to bring along a rain cover for your pack in case a spontaneous storm creeps in!

beginner's guide to backcountry camping

Favorite hiking boots:

Columbia Newton Ridge Plus Hiking Boot – Women’s

I’ve been hiking in the same pair of these boots for 3 years now and they’ve held up astoundingly well! Don’t let their price fool you (they’re one of the cheapest quality hiking boots out there) because these boots have protected my ankles on rocky terrain, kept my feet (and socks) dry through trickling creeks and puddles and not once, ever, have they given me a single blister! Their midsole absorbs impact and the outer, Omni-Grip rubber sole provides maximum traction.

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Test your boots out via small walks and hikes nearby before you set out on a longer, overnight backpacking trip. You want to be SURE that they’re comfortable for YOU (no matter anyone’s personal reviews – every person is different and varying). You do not want to get painful blisters miles into the backcountry wilderness.

beginner's guide to backcountry camping

Favorite Hiking Apparel (worth the investment):

Favorite jacket:

Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hooded Down Jacket – Women’s

While this jacket is not cheap, you can wear it for any outdoor winter occasion / activity. Though, it’s phenomenal for backpacking because it’s able to pack down SO small (even comes with a small stuff sack for stowing) whereas many winter jackets are too bulky and very difficult to fit in your pack! Not only is it compressible and lightweight, but it’s also extremely warm. Which is the sole purpose of bringing a jacket: to stay warm! It comes in a variety of colors, ranging from bright and bold to neutral and subdued.

Favorite pants:

Prana Halle Convertible Pant – Women’s

I’m a fan of convertible pants because it saves room in your pack (you don’t have to bring a pair of shorts and pants along if you have an all-in-one). Also, it saves so much hassle when you’re hiking on trails and get hot or cold – all you have to do is zip vs. digging for your change of pants/shorts and changing mid-trail. These Prana pants are such a comfortable fit and they’re totally durable, stretchy and water resistant.

Favorite t-shirt:

Icebreaker Tech Lite SS Low Crewe Shirt – Women’s

When you’re backpacking, it’s not feasible to bring along multiple changes of clothing and, thus, it’s critical to opt for high quality apparel that is sure to last and keep you dry, protected and comfortable. This t-shirt is made of merino wool and is highly effective at managing moisture and resisting odor. Furthermore, its offset shoulder seams are carefully crafted to be sure they don’t rub under your backpack straps.

Favorite fleece:

Patagonia Synchilla Lightweight Snap-T Fleece Pullover – Women’s

Next layer you’ll want to bring is a fleece for those cool nights when you’re sitting next to the campfire. I simply love the designs Patagonia’s fleeces offer and their warmth is unmatched. Their spandex bindings at the cuffs and hem lock in your body heat

Favorite backpacking stove & kit:

MSR PocketRocket Stove Kit

Compact, easy to use and heats up fast! What more could you ask for in a backpacking stove? It’s super easy to light for beginners as well. Not to mention, this kit comes with all the kitchenware you need: spork, mug, dish and pot to boil water/cook food in. For everything that’s included, you can’t beat the price either! We’ve had this stove for over 5 years now and it’s still working as if it were brand new.

beginner's guide to backcountry camping

Favorite hydration bladder and water naglene:

Platypus Big Zip EVO Reservoir

This hydration bladder does not leak or leave a funny taste and it has a quick flow through the straw. Its bite valve makes it super simple to stop and start water flow just by using your mouth (great while moving). The sliding lock and one-handed pincher grip on it makes it easily fillable and efficient for beginners.

Backcountry naglene

Most naglenes will do, however this one is cheap and has never leaked on me – it’s gone through some bumpy drops and has never cracked. Even more, I love its convenient water measurement lines because it significantly aids in my cooking of the dehydrated meal packs (which usually call for a specific amount of water). And, of course, it is BPA free!

beginner's guide to backcountry camping

BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO BACKCOUNTRY CAMPING:

Things to do before you go

beginner's guide to backcountry camping
Butler Flats, Canyonlands National Park

BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO BACKCOUNTRY CAMPING:

Always practice the Leave No Trace Principles.

Look up the rules and regulations

Search the wilderness you plan on exploring and see what their rules and regulations are. Most require some form of backcountry hiking/camping permit (whether you fill it out at the trailhead, purchase online or at a ranger station, etc). Also, many wilderness areas have very strict guidelines on having fires: see if you’re permitted to have a campfire there and/or if you need a fire pan or fire blanket to do so. Even more, there are various rules regarding where you’re allowed to set up your tent (i.e. 200 yards from a lake or 100 feet from the trails and so on). There’s often delicate ecosystems to look out for in which you’re barred from setting up camp on. I am planning a backpacking trip to the Sawtooth Mountains soon and I used the U.S. Forest Service site to research all of the above. A good google search will do the trick, too.

Research what wildlife is in the area

This is crucial in your preparation process because you’ll need to plan and prepare for properly storing your food and for packing appropriate safety equipment. If there’s a heavy bear population (particularly grizzly), you’ll certainly want to carry along bear spray. Regardless, you’ll want to bring a bear canister (which is required in some forests and parks) so that the bear and other critters will not break into your food storage and steal your sustenance – or, worse, harm you and others.

Equally as valuable, know how to effectively and carefully handle wildlife encounters – always know how to react in such instances! For example: know that you’re suppose to slowly back away from grizzlies while always keeping your eye on them and never turning your back. Meanwhile, when encountering a black bear, you should make yourself look big and make lots of noise. Always chatting or bringing along bells, etc, are a couple ways to alert the animals of your presence. If they know you’re near, they’ll likely stay clear. But if you’re to startle one, that’s when the danger has begun. 😉

Further along this subject, be knowledgeable of any venomous spiders and snakes and know how to identify them and know how to best treat any bites in case of an emergency.

Ask a friend, or multiple, to come along for your first backpacking experience

Not only is there safety in numbers, but having one or more people with you will help distract your mind from wandering to thoughts of fear and doubt. The more people, the less each person has to carry on their backs as well. You can divvy up the supplies: one person carries the tent, one person carries the cooking supplies and the other carries the meals, etc.

Know how to use your navigation tools

Do not wait until you are on the trail to open your topographic map for the first time. Intently study it prior to taking off and practice using your compass in familiar territories. Getting lost is one of the utmost dangers to hiking in the backcountry so you don’t want to take these skills lightly. Be sure your map is waterproof (if not, place it in a waterproof bag) because you can’t afford for it to ruin. Many people make the mistake of just relying on trail markers and/or their phones but these are both grave mistakes because: a) your phone can easily get destroyed, the battery could die, you could lose it and so forth, b) trust me, trail markers are not always visible/clear or concise!

Scope out available water sources on your map and online:

Of all things, you cannot afford to run out of clean drinking water. It’s essential to know how much you should bring and whether or not there will be opportunities along the hike to resupply (using your water filtration tools). Scout for lakes and streams on your map and be sure that they’re going to be flowing during whatever season you visit (some waterholes/creek beds dry up in the summer season, for example). As a rule of thumb, always carry at least one liter of water with you.

Forward your route/itinerary to a trusted friend/family member

Notify a trusted loved one of your backpacking plans and give them clear details of where you plan on hiking and for how long. That way, if you don’t return when expected, they know where to search and where to tell rescue teams to look! This is a very proactive and potentially life-saving act.

Practice using your gear

Practice makes perfect. You don’t want to arrive to camp late at night, cold and exhausted, just to be on a huge struggle bus trying to set up your tent for the first time. Therefore, practice setting up and tearing down your tent at home. Practice lighting your camping stove to be sure you’re absolutely able to cook for yourself in the backcountry. Be familiar with all your supplies in your medical kit. Certainly know how and where to properly store your bear canister. The list goes on!

Look up the weather ahead of time

Not only do you have to search for the weather at the trailhead, but you need to look at the weather at the higher altitudes as well AND on the opposite side of the mountains, canyons, etc. As an example: it may seem sunny and all clear at the start of The Narrows hike in Zion National Park, but on the far end there could be a nasty rainstorm which will result in dangerous flash flooding. Heed all park/forest warnings and any and all signage posted. You may check the weather at the base of the mountains (at the trailhead) and the temperature may read “70 degrees”. However, the higher the elevation you hike, the colder the temps get. There’s likely to be snow at the tops and, even more, the forecast could be calling for snowstorms at higher altitudes (or lightening).

Be aware of trail conditions

If there’s too much snow at the higher elevations, it may be too dangerous to tackle for your first go. If it’s extremely muddy and wet, the time it’ll take you to complete or arrive to camp will increase. There may also be water filtration warnings, wildlife cautions and a bevy of hazards you need to be aware of before setting off on your backpacking adventure.

Workout and amp up your endurance

You don’t have to be the most fit person or a world-class athlete to tackle the backcountry (you can find trails that suit your capabilities). However, it’s never bad to be more in shape and it will definitely help ease your first time experience. If you’ve never gone on a long day hike, I wouldn’t start with an overnighter in the backcountry. Thus, work your way up to it by taking smaller day hikes to longer day hikes to, finally, backcountry camping hikes and multi-day backpacking trips. Even hiking on shorter trails with your backpack on will help you adjust more than not taking any preemptive steps. Going on daily jogs and practicing yoga regularly are steps in the right direction.


BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO BACKCOUNTRY CAMPING:

Apps to Utilize

  • beginner's guide to backcountry camping
  • beginner's guide to backcountry camping
beginner's guide to backcountry camping

PeakVisor

Identify mountain peaks, coordinates and their altitude +

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Gaia GPS

This app helps you find your next hiking trail, plot a new route or scout out camping options along the way

AllTrails

AllTrails makes it easy to search and find hiking trailings of all varying degrees. Users can sort routes by activity, suitability and popularity. The fact you can tailor your search makes this app a gem! You can even read reviews from other hikers and check the weather forecast.

beginner's guide to backcountry camping

Seek by iNaturalist

Seek helps you identify the plants and animals you spot while you’re out adventuring by simply pointing your camera at your subject. It also shows you commonly recorded flora and fauna near you.

Google Earth

Use this app to plan your backcountry treks, calculate elevation gain and loss, and navigate to the trailhead. The app allows you to choose between 2D and 3D maps, explore distances and zoom in to search for trail features.

Cairn

This is a safety hiking app that enables you to share plans with friends and family, find cell coverage and track personal stats.

SAS Survival

This is the most comprehensive survival app I’ve yet to come across with plenty of in-depth and vital content. SAS Survival gives you information on how to get through all possible disaster and survival scenarios. You can learn essential survival skills and it even works offline! It’s magnificently handy.


BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO BACKCOUNTRY CAMPING:

Don’t be afraid!

“I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told.”― Cheryl Strayed

I know that all the above information may seem overwhelming and worrisome, especially for a super beginner, but it’s all to prepare you for the worst possible outcome, not the most likely. I’ve never had a bear encounter (yet) on my hikes – I’ve seen one in the distance but there was no harm or fright, I’ve yet to get super lost where I put myself in true danger, I’ve yet to get hurt, go hungry, go thirsty or experience any of these “worst cases“. But, do I prepare for them all? You bet I do.

Do I still some times find my mind wondering “what if a terrible storm stirkes?“, “what if a grizzly attacks?” and so on? Of course! I believe a little bit of fear is healthy because it allows you to better prepare. But, don’t let fear overtake your mind and hinder you from doing something you really want to do! If you take all the precautions I’ve mentioned above, you’ll feel and be much safer. A big one is: take baby steps. Start with having friends along and start in smaller, less dangerous areas. Work your way up. If you never take the first step, you’ll never reach the end goal.

Some smaller hiking/day-hiking to work your way up (check out Chapel Basin Loop trail in my post below):


BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO BACKCOUNTRY CAMPING

If you have any questions at all regarding backcountry hiking and camping, please ask away in the comments below and I’ll try my best to answer them to the best of my ability.

Also, Id love to hear from you: what’s one of your favorite hikes you’ve ever done to-date?

As always…

Thank you so much for reading and give it a share if you’ve enjoyed!

Happy backpacking,

Mindy

beginner's guide to backcountry camping
beginner's guide to backcountry camping
beginner's guide to backcountry camping

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