What Is Backcountry Camping_

What Is Backcountry Camping?

You’ve probably heard the term thrown around a few times, but still might not be 100% sure: What is “backcountry camping?”

Put simply, backcountry camping, also referred to as “dispersed camping”, “primitive camping”, or “boondocking”, is camping outside of established campsites. Generally, this means that these campsites are less accessible, and don’t offer any amenities like running water, electricity, phones, etc.

The term is largely used in contrast to “car camping”, which involves campsites that you can easily drive up to, unload everything (and the kitchen sink), and then spend the night. Within the last couple years, some people have started to refer to this as “front country” camping, but to be honest, it just sounds pretentious and stupid. 

Some hikers may also use the term backcountry camping to include spending the night in wilderness huts, cabins, or bothies, although this is more common in Europe and elsewhere outside the U.S. 

Here’s a quick comparison to give you the idea: of the things you might find car camping, vs. the things you can expect in the back country: 

Car CampingBackcountry
picnic tablesthe dirt
fire ringsnothing (or maybe a circle of rocks)
grillssee above
community bathroomsdig your own latrine
drinking fountainsyour water bottle
community electrical outletsbattery bank or solar
drive to your campsitehike in
signs and wayfindingmap and compass

Where Can I Camp in The Backcountry? 

Good question. Generally, there are a few places you are permitted to do dispersed camping in:

Bureau of Land Management areas (BLM): In the Western U.S., the BLM controls a LOT of land. They allow backcountry camping, and their policies are fairly liberal, with just a handful of rules and guidelines related to fires, distance to waterways, etc. See the specifics for your state here

National Forests: Many national forests allow widespread dispersed camping, although you should check the specific state and forest area you are thinking about camping in for full details

National Parks: National parks are much more restricted in the camping that they allow, and many parks disallow primitive camping altogether. However, there are still some national parks that permit it, verify here

Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs): These are areas typically designated for hunting, fishing, and trapping. The rules for backcountry camping are different from state to state–some completely prohibit it, and others allow it. 

Things To Remember When You Are Camping Primitive

If you’ve never done it before, you may have some questions about how to plan your first backcountry campout. The best place to get started is by finding out what backcountry camping areas are near you (see above).

Above and beyond that however, there are a handful of things to keep in mind as you are getting ready:

  1. No water: If you are camping in the backcountry, you are out in the true wilderness. This means that there won’t be any running water for you to drink or wash up. Plan accordingly, and bring your own!
  2. No toilets: Going hand in hand with no running water, there isn’t any sewer connection when you’re doing primitive camping, so be prepared to water a few bushes and dig a latrine.
  3. Pack it in, pack it out: Like water and sewer, there aren’t any trashcans or trash pickup out in the boonies. So you need to be your own garbage man, and pack all of your trash back out. And it’s even more important that you take ownership in these situations, because you will be camping where very few people go. If you don’t bring it back out, it’s likely not getting picked up for a long time. The 2 biggest areas where this comes into play are with food/meal preparation, and toilet paper. If you plan ahead however, you can easily stash a lot of your trash in a couple of gallon Ziplock bags (there are also a handful of biodegradable toilet papers available for purchase).
  4. Tread lightly on plant an animal habitat: Although it should go without saying, camping in the back country requires a special sensitivity to the wildlife around you. When you are out in the willies, there will likely be very few established trails, and even fewer established camp sites (after all, that’s the point right?). Try not to disturb any more plants or animals then you need to. This means keeping your footprint small, and using areas that are already bare ground when possible. Remember, that even though you have another home that you can return to, the critters around you do not. While you may need to move or “rearrange” some things for your camp, try to be respectful and keep it to a minimum.
  5. You are FAR from civilization: if you have a medical condition or any other situation that requires quick access, backcountry camping could pose too great a risk to be enjoyable or a good idea (for instance, if you are on call for work, or your wife is 8 and a half months pregnant). Be sure to bring adequate first aid supplies, and know the wildlife risks (i.e. bears, snakes, poison ivy, etc).

Ready to Give it A Shot?

If you’re ready to try your hand at a little back country camping, good on you! Be thoughtful in preparation, and as with any time you go into the outdoors, make sure you leave your plans with somebody back home. Think through the gear that you are planning to bring, and above all, be safe.

Happy trails!