People Out Camping with Tent in Rocky Terrain
Photo credit: Snow Peak

5 Tips to Prepare for Your First Backcountry Camping Trip

Backcountry camping is a great way to experience the less-traveled wilderness — maybe even forge your own path. When you’re out exploring new places, it pays to be prepared.

Knowing what to expect in the backcountry will inform how you pack and help you stay calm if plans go sideways. After all, you can’t jump in your car to resolve a rainy-day tent failure or a minor medical emergency when you’re really out there.

That means your packing list must walk a fine line between carrying enough gear to cover your bases while keeping the overall weight (and size) down. Here are some basic guidelines to prepare for overnight treks into remote terrain.

1. Break In and Try Out Your Gear

Test out any new gear, whether that means breaking in boots, setting up an unfamiliar tent, or cooking on a new stove.

Additionally, if you have a new fleece or jacket, make sure they fit comfortably and perform well with your other layers. It does no good to spend money on a highly breathable midlayer if your outdated shell will just trap your sweat.

Before you hit the backcountry, take a few laps in your pack, as you’ll carry it into the field. If the load is too heavy or lopsided, it’s better to adjust things at home than on the fly. In fact, taking a few hikes with a weighted pack before your trip will help you gauge your fitness for the trip.

REI Flash Air 1-Person Ultralight Backpacking Bikepacking Camping Tent
Photo credit: Zach Burton

2. Get the Lay of the Land

Check a topographic map to see what altitude and gains you’ll encounter. If you’re new to altitudes above 5,000 feet, or rarely hike steep terrain, adjust your mileage expectations accordingly. Aim for 5 miles a day instead of 10 miles.

Make a mental note of your expected route. What will be the farthest you hike from your car or base camp? Will you be hiking in a loop or out and back?

Also, check what type of terrain it is: Is it an open space, a thicket, or bear country?

Know the Rules

If you’re camping in a park, be aware of any regulations in place.

  • Are permits required?
  • Are there fire restrictions?
  • Are bear safes required?

Using a Compass

Know the Weather and Climate

Another major factor to consider is the weather forecast and season. You need to pack and prepare for just about any weather, but it’s important to have realistic expectations before you go.

Different terrains can introduce you to unfamiliar weather behavior. For instance, hiking at high altitudes can expose you to unpredicted storms with few options for safe shelter. Desert routes have large temperature swings, even in the summer.

You can download GPS maps or apps on your phone, or, to save battery, take a photo of the trail map for easy reference. That said, a paper trail map has excellent battery life.

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Photo credit: Kurt Barclay

3. Pack the Right Clothes and Essentials

Your packing essentials for the backcountry will require carrying more gear and therefore more weight.

One way to save weight is by packing a Goldilocks amount of apparel. Shoot for breathable layers with broad temperature ranges, like wool base layers and hybrid midlayers. Those will keep you dry on the move and warm once settled at camp.

For rainy or humid climates, a change of clothes will be worth the weight. The fresh layer will make you feel better and give the damp layers time to dry.

Likewise, pack at least two pairs of wool or wicking socks. It’s nice to have a pair to wear while the other airs out.

Running shoes are fine for day hikes, but if you’re unaccustomed to carrying a heavy pack on your back, consider the ankle support of a hiking boot. Somewhere in between are hybrid boots, which have protective uppers yet use running shoe cushioning and tread in the soles.

You need to pack a backcountry medical kit. Period. Additionally, if you’re in bear country, you need to have bear spray. It’s better to have it and not need it than the alternative.

And one last thing: There are no bathrooms. You need to bring biodegradable toiletries. And don’t forget a trowel for digging catholes.

The Grand Teton Therm-a-Rest Sleeping Pad
Photo credit: Alex Hansen

4. Sleep Setup

You’ll want a three-season tent for most camping trips. Just remember, it’s better to allow airflow in the tent and let the sleeping bag provide warmth.

At higher altitudes, with inclement weather, a four-season tent may be needed. However, those tents are heavier, and we’d advise a less-ambitious first backcountry trip.

A sleeping pad is essential for most people. Not only does a pad add comfort, especially for side and stomach sleepers, but it also provides insulation from the ground.

In the case of sleeping bags, it’s probably fair to say you should find one that is temperature-rated below what you expect. Chances are you already have a sleeping bag, and that’s what you’re planning to hike with. You should be fine, and if you get chilly, you can always sleep in another layer.

We’ll avoid the debate between synthetic and down insulation. In short, down is lighter and usually lasts longer. Synthetic insulation performs better than down when wet.

5. Food, Water, and Storage

Food

Think of calories in terms of return on investment (ROI), where foods need to be worth their weight. Eat veggies before your trip; you want carbs and protein on the trail.

A common benchmark is to consume 2,500 calories a day. Keep in mind: that’s snacks and meals combined. Pack dense, dehydrated meals like oatmeal (with dehydrated fruit or chocolate chips for flavor boosts) and instant stuffing, which can be made with boiling water.

Pack a favorite snack, high in carbs or sugars. You’ll burn them and they’ll give you a morale boost when the miles start to hurt. You can save room by re-bagging chips or packaged trail mixes into smaller bags and containers.

Here’s a point about food that gets neglected: All kinds of animals raid food. If your food supply is picked over by rodents or raccoons, that could be a trip-ender, sending you into a minor survival mode.

And if you’re camping in bear country, remember that smelly things (yes, even toothpaste and balms) attract unwanted attention from predators. Your best bet is to put your scented items in a bear safe and stash it more than 100 feet from your campsite.

The FRONTIERSMAN Bear Safe is a great option for keeping your food stored safely and keep your backcountry plans intact. While this bear safe is taller than others on the market, it’s ergonomically designed to sit more comfortably in your pack. It’s a great safe for weekend hikes and can be opened with a coin or screw — so you won’t have to worry about struggling to get the top off if you have cold or wet hands.

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Photo Credit: Kurt Barclay

Water

Water is heavy and not worth skimping on. Being dehydrated will throw off your trip more than the water’s weight.

Unless your route takes you along a river or lake, you should take the opportunity to quench your thirst and refill your water supply through a backpacking-friendly water filter when you come across water. Ideally, you’re carrying 32 ounces or more water with you in addition to a filtration system.

It sounds overly simple, but keep a small container of water within easy reach. Keeping water on a chest strap or a side pocket of your bag means you’re more likely to sip as you go. Refill your small container from a larger reservoir when you take a rest stop and take off your bag.

In a pinch, you can drink unfiltered water, but handheld filter systems have become a must-pack emergency item that works as an on-the-go accessory for fast-and-light hikes.

One Last Thought

Like most outdoor adventures, you need to be ready to change your plans.

Nature doesn’t care if you drove across states for your backcountry trip. And neither should you let that factor into your own decision making. Be ready to pivot if you get behind your goal pace due to losing the trail, bad weather, or a day on the struggle bus.

Talk among your fellow hikers, or to yourself, and decide on whether you can rally the next day or if a new itinerary will make the trip safer and more enjoyable.

After all, one of the appeals of backcountry hikes is the challenge it represents and the memories that remain afterward.

People sitting in sleeping bags enjoying the scenery
Photo credit: Backcountry

This article is sponsored by SABRE, makers of FRONTIERSMAN Bear Spray. You can find more bear safety products here.