There’s no place like the backcountry. Wilderness. Serenity. Peace. It’s why we love hike- and paddle-in campsites more than any other. Car-camping is fun, but backcountry camping is the real deal.
If you’re headed out on a backcountry trip, take time to study first-aid, camp cooking and survival skills. Leave a detailed trip plan behind. Ensure you’re properly equipped and have the knowledge to use your gear effectively. Monitor weather conditions and note sunrise and sunset.
And consider these 10 tips for etiquette and safety:
1. Hang a Bag
There are a handful of islands in North America where bears aren’t a concern. Even there, however, you’re likely to run into nosey deer, trickster racoons and resourceful canines. That’s why a “bear bag” should really be called a “wildlife bag.” It’s not as catchy, but more accurate. In any case, your food bag (and other “smellies,” like toothpaste or deodorant) should be stashed 60 metres from your tent and hung from a branch five metres off the ground and three metres from the trunk of a tree.
2. Filters for the Win
You’ve chosen a campsite near a water source, right? Of course you did. Maybe it’s a tepid lake. Maybe it’s a frigid alpine river coursing from a glacial source just a few hundred metres away. Surely you don’t need to filter the latter, right? Probably. But what have you got to lose by running it through some micro-ceramic? We’re advocates of always filtering your natural water sources—if for no other reason, it’s a good habit to get into so you don’t slip-up and drink some giardia. Effective personal water filters can be bought for as little as $25 (Lifestraw), but $100 to $200 will get you a good basecamp unit.
3. No Fire Ring, No Fire
Even in the backcountry, you should always source out established campsites where ever available. One of the easiest ways of identifying these spots is by the fire ring. And if there is no fire ring, there is no fire to be had. Welcome to Leave No Trace, 21stcentury style. With the increased usage of our backcountry areas, it’s no longer kosher to start a blaze in any clearing you stumble across. Use an established fire ring, or use your camp stove. (And always mind fire bans.)
4. Sanitary Matters
Most campers fear beaver fever, as in tip #2. But evidence suggests it’s human contamination that’s the most likely source of sickness. Along with soap and toilet paper, alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a must on all camping trips. Use before every snack or meal and after every bathroom break. (Even number-one, guys.) A bonus is that it can also help start a fire in a pinch.
5. Stay on the Level
You’ll be once bitten twice shy with this one: stake your tent on level ground. Too many newbie campers focus on smooth or high ground (see tip #7) and don’t even notice that they’ll wake up with all the blood rushing to their heads, or will likely roll off their sleep pad and wake on the cold, cold ground. Take time to stake your tent on level ground and it will pay dividends with quality snoozes.
6. Bring the Kitchen Sink
This is one of the most common backcountry faux pas—washing your dishes in a natural water source. It’s a no-no, even when using biodegradable soap. Washing out your cookware in a lake can leave a slick of soap and suds that extends a dozen metres into the water. On a river, it’s arguably worse as the slick will vanish into the current perhaps leaving you to believe there is no damage done. It’s pollution, plain and simple. The trick? Bring a collapsible pail or tub. Fill with water. Wash your dishes without contaminating the au naturel H2O, then dump the grey water 60 metres inland.
7. Don’t Get Depressed
Don’t pitch your tent in a depression or low point. Best case scenario is that accumulated moisture pools under your sleeping area and you wake up wet. Worst case? A dangerous flash flood careens through your campsite. Always pick a spot that’s high and you'll stay dry.
8. Catholes 101
Everybody poops. Ideally, there will be a pit privy or thunderbox in your general area. In the backcountry, though, don't count on it. When number-two calls, it may be time to dig a cathole. (Unless regs call for a pack-out.) This is a hole in the ground, located 60 metres from a water source, and about 15 centimetres deep by about the same width. Use. Backfill. Cover with sticks or leaves. Then refer to tip #4.
9. What Lies Below? And Above?
You’ve found a level campsite. With a fire ring. Nearby water. And a sunset view. That’s all you need, right? Nope—remember that in the backcountry you’re travelling through ecologically sensitive areas. These aren’t raked and cleaned campsites. You may accidently setup on sensitive moss or endangered flowers. So mind the ground. Then look up. What’s above you? A rotten tree that could blow over in a storm? A precarious branch? A lone tree on a high point, a.k.a. a lightning rod? A bird’s nest, a.k.a. a poop factory? (OK, that last one is less serious.) All things to consider when pitching your tent.
10. Not Your Compost
If you’re taking the time to read this, I’ll assume you’d never litter beer cans or plastic wrap at any campsite, back- or front-country. But what about banana peels, peach pits and apple cores? Fine to toss these biodegradables, right? WRONG. According to the John Muir Trust, a banana peel can take two years to decompose. Even apple cores stick around for eight weeks. To compare, a paper bag will return to the Earth in just one month… making it actually the lesser of the sins. But they’re all deadly sins. If you packed it in, pack it out.