How to Safely Backcountry Camp (With no experience)
By Kevin Fraser
When Backcountry Coffee asked me to write an article about how to safely go backcountry camping for someone with no experience, I have to admit, I began to feel overwhelmed. It is by no means a small or easy question to answer. How do I inspire new campers to experience the majesty of the remote wilderness without terrifying them discussing all the risks? How do I begin to cover the nearly overwhelming amount of information one needs in order to have a success backcountry adventure? Well, I did what I always do when I feel overwhelmed. I hoped in a canoe and paddled till I had the answers.
First of all, what even is backcountry camping? You may find several different definitions online, or in books. It is something that people have very strong opinions about. My opinion is, the backcountry starts where the roads end. When you either put your life in a backpack or a canoe and take off into the “great unknown”. It is the promise of remote solitude, abundance of nature, and personal challenge that motivate people to explore further and further away from their parking spots.
Secondly, is it safe? Well, yes... but. The vast majority of backcountry camping trips are free of incidents and danger. However, this does not mean there are no risks. The unfortunate truth is for the unlucky few, what starts off as an amazing adventure turns into a tragedy. Nature can be a cruel mistress for those who are unprepared. Often times it is the less experienced campers who find them selves in life and death situations.
Finally, is it worth it? Without a doubt in my heart I can answer this with a resounding YES!!! Backcountry camping is one of the greatest experiences life can afford. It is a way to relax, be challenged, experience growth and grounding, and a fantastic way to reconnect to nature. Yes it can be hard work, but anyone who has ever opened their tent to see the sun rise will tell you, the struggles of yesterday were worth it just for that very moment. Experiencing solitude amongst natures splendor is something relatively few people have been able to enjoy in modern times. It can often be a life changing moment for those experiencing it for the first time.
So how can someone with no experience safely explore the backcountry? Well this is why I needed a day in a canoe to answer this question. I believe there are three main avenues to look at. Taking a fully guided trip, going with an experienced friend, or gaining the knowledge and experience yourself.
The first option is the most foolproof. Going on a fully guided adventure. All one needs to do is show up with the clothing they need for the trip and everything else is taken care of. Fully guided means you will have all the camping gear provided, professional and experienced guides, and all the food cooked for you. The greatest part about a fully guided trip is that you can safely explore incredible landscapes in extremely remote locations all while eating like royalty and never having to look at a map. Your very first backcountry camping trip can easily be a remote northern river that ends up in the arctic. For those that can afford it, there really is no better option.
If a fully guided trip is out of your budget, try turning an experienced friend into a guide. It is easy and affordable to rent all the gear (and even buy all the food) you need for a trip from a park outfitter. However, this does little to reduce the risks of backcountry camping. No amount of gear will offset lack of experience. This is where your friends come in. If you happen to be lucky enough to have experienced camping friends, talk to them about doing a trip together. Just like having a guide, a single experienced person is typically capable of offsetting much of the risks that come with time spent in the wilderness. If I was to make a recommendation, be prepared to cover more than your share of the bill. The time and energy spent putting together a trip for others can often be more than expected. So be a great camping buddy and treat them to an affordable adventure.
Finally there is the classic do it yourself approach. Buying all the gear, learning all the skills, and cooking all the food. There is no way to cover all you need to know in a paragraph. Countless books, blogs, and videos have been made to answer this question. If I were to recommend just one resource, it would be this incredibly comprehensive guide to canoe tripping in Algonquin park by the absurdly talented videographer Chris Prouse. Regardless of how you go about finding resources, what remains critically important is our old friend experience. Knowing how to set up your tent, use your stove, purify drinking water, read a map, and store your food are all skills that need to be practiced before they are relied on. My best recommendation is to take your back country set up out car camping. Having the safety net of your car and amenities is the perfect way to test out your gear and your abilities. Having a practice trip or two under your belt is a great way to build the confidence needed to have a great adventure. With all of that said, it is very important that your first back country adventure is an easy one. Don't bite off more than you can chew, leave a note in your car as to where you are going and how long you will be, and make sure people you trust have the same information. Letting others know where you are going and when you expect to return is perhaps the single most important safety tip I can provide.
Regardless of how you choose to go about your first adventure in the back country, make sure you keep a positive mindset, embrace change, and most importantly, wake up early to watch the sun rise with a delicious cup of coffee.
Kevin Fraser is a life long outdoor enthusiast, backcountry guide, outdoor educator, and owner of Wild Connection Outdoor Education. He is most often found enjoying the sunrise with a cup of joe.