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Backcountry Adventure Basics: Planning the Ultimate Trip

The sweat rolls off you and your calves burn as you force your way up yet another ridge line.

Your bag feels like it’s filled with cinder blocks and your stomach is rumbling… it’s not even 10 a.m. and you’re already fantasizing about a four-course meal and a nap. But you push onward, deeper into the wilds in search of…? (Honestly it doesn’t matter what your target species is, the important part is that you’re out of your stand, blind or boat and you’re getting into the backcountry.

As challenging as backcountry camping, hunting or fishing can be, the rewards are huge—and so are the risks. If you’ve never experienced a backcountry trip before, there are a few things to consider before going deep. It doesn’t matter why you’re in the wilds, there are a few things you should learn about before heading out.

tent
A two-person lightweight tent takes up a little more space than a single-person tent, but the extra room is well worth the added bulk.

Shape Up

You don’t need to be a specimen of peak physical form, but spending time training before you head into your adventure is a really smart plan. Of course, a balanced plan that includes strength training and cardio is your best bet. I’ve found that packing your bag with everything you plan on carrying on your trip and then going for a walk yields big results. You can start small— maybe once around the block—and work your way up to longer and longer walks until you’re comfortable with the distances you plan to travel. The bonus to this method is that you’ll get to spend some quality time with your backpack. By the time your trip rolls around, you’ll learn how to make the necessary adjustments so you’re comfortable all day long.

meals
Organizing your meals makes it really easy to ensure you’re not cherry-picking your favorite dinner for every meal, then being stuck with less desirable options later in the trip.

Medic!

The backcountry can be a risky place, so it’s a good idea to make sure you are prepared to handle everything from a minor scratch to a major injury, and from sickness to bug bites. A great place to start is with a first aid course (specifically best is a wilderness first aid course like the one offered by the Canadian Red Cross.) A course will teach you the essential first aid skills required for planning your trip, preventing injury, promoting safety and emergency response in wilderness environments.

On the topic of first aid, make sure that including a kit in your backpack is one of your first priorities. There are numerous pre-built kits available. However, these kits tend to try to be all things for all people, so you’ll also need to plan to add a few things, including a splint, a tourniquet, some after-bite cream, Tylenol or Ibuprofen, and some Imodium and antacid pills.

The number of people going on the trip dictates how many supplies you need to carry. For a large group, put one person in charge of the first aid kit, and prepare to pack some of their other gear so that the load is evenly split.

Leatherman
The trusty Leatherman never leaves my side in woods or at home.

Pack Your Bag

It’s a given that even a weekend backcountry trip is going to be gear intensive. If you’re hunting, you’re going to want to consider a backpack with a lot of carrying capacity and a hefty weight rating. I run an Alps Commander Frame Pack. My only complaint aboutit is that removing the bag from the frame can be finnicky. Other than that, it’s an absolute unit of a bag that will haul anything, including the kitchen sink!

If you’re not hunting, you may not want or need the extra weight rating, so an internal frame backpack may be your best bet. Internal frame bags tend to be lighter and more comfortable than external frame bags without sacrificing volume. There are companies that make internal frame bags that have big weight ratings but be prepared to shell out some serious cheddar if you go that route. These are well worth the cost if you’re going to be going on trips frequently. If you’re looking to save a few bucks, an external frame will get you there.

footwear
Decent footwear is a serious consideration. These boots have been to the wars and back and still offer solid arch support and remain waterproof.

Gear Up for Shelter

You have options here, but if this is your first trip out, I suggest sticking with a lightweight two-man tent like the Alps Zephyr. While it’s not the lightest tent on the market, it’s tough, dependable, and easy to set up. To me, that’s worth the extra couple of ounces. Plus, if you’ve got a nice night with no weather rolling in, you can leave the fly off and sleep under the stars, without the threat of losing your blood to mosquitos.

The next consideration is a sleeping bag. Unless you’re able to keep your bag dry, I’d recommend a synthetic bag instead of cotton. A synthetic bag keeps you warm even when the bag itself is damp. What about a mummy bag vs. a rectangular one? Mummy bags trap heat better, but if you’re claustrophobic, a rectangular bag can help you move around more. Whichever style you choose, look for a bag that has a slippery inner lining. It will allow you to move freely without binding up in the bag.

What about temperature rating? Remember that temperature ratings on bags are the temperatures in which the bag will keep you alive, but not necessarily make you comfortable. So, if you’re backcountry bound when it’s going to be 0 to 10 Celsius, I suggest going with a -20 Celsius bag, or one that is basically rated 10 degrees cooler than the cold you plan on camping in.

As for sleeping mattresses, there are many different styles. Focus on one that fits you and that considers how you sleep. An ultralight inflatable mattress takes up very little space. If you’re a side sleeper, they will support your hips and shoulders. However, if they spring a leak, you’ll find yourself on the ground, so be sure to bring a patch kit. Back sleepers may find a foldable foam mattress works fine, with the plus that these are practically “bomb-proof.”

As for a pillow, get an inflatable camping pillow that fits you. It will provide far better sleep than rolling up a T-shirt. They pack down small and make a world of difference.

lake
Camping near a lake offers cooler breezes and respite from mosquitos.

Gear Up: For Clothing

For clothing, I believe that everyone who heads into the backcountry for the first time overdoes it on the amount of clothes they think they need to carry. (I know I did.) Depending on the length of your trip, I’d suggest packing no more than two sets of underwear, two pairs of socks, a Merino wool base layer, a mid-layer, a rain suit, and my personal favorite: a puffy jacket that packs down to about the size of a beer can. Add two T-shirts and a pair of zip- off, convertible pants, and you should be covered. Just bring some biodegradable soap so you can wash one set of clothes while wearing the other.

Now For Food

Backcountry camping is hard work and you’re going to be really unhappy if you don’t get enough calories to offset the ones you burn hiking, canoeing, and so on. Freeze-dried meals are a smart way to go because they’re lightweight, they take up far less room than fresh ones, and they last for a really long time. Of course, you’ll want something to use to rehydrate your meals, so a stove and lightweight cook’s set are a necessity, as well. For snacks on the trail, granola, beef jerky and trail mix are easy ways to keep your energy up for that final push to the next campsite. Don’t forget to pack a long-handled spork so you can eat right out of the bag without getting your hands dirty!

You can’t get away from carrying water. It’s a necessity, but carrying a week’s worth of fresh water on your back is not an option. Luckily, there are several easy ways to ensure you have fresh water, including a portable filter or tablets that are easy to pack and will keep you free from waterborne illness. If you add a one-liter container to carry water, you’ll be good to go.

fog
When the fog rolls in, having a GPS and a compass are your best friends.

Gearing Up With Tools

I carry two knives into the backcountry. One is a dedicated hunting knife, which is usually my fixed-blade Benchmade Bushcrafter. I won’t use it until it’s time to clean a critter. The other is a Leatherman for camp tasks. I really like the Leatherman Charge TTI, as it’s not super heavy, can be used with a belt sheath or slipped into a pocket using the pocket clip, plus its S30V main blade stays sharp for a long time. I will often favor the Leatherman for cleaning small game as well.

For navigation purposes and SOS/GPS, I use a handheld GPS unit with topographic maps. Having maps of the area you plan to explore is an amazing tool. They can help you find new country to explore while helping you navigate back when it’s time to go. Just remember to bring backup batteries because a dead GPS is useless. Some people use their phones, paired with an app that shows topo data. This can work well, too, but ensure that you have your maps downloaded for offline use. Otherwise, with no signal, you won’t be able to load your map. A great stand-alone GPS is the Garmin InReach. This unit also features an SOS function so if you’re lost or hurt, you can get help fast.

Even with a GPS, owning a compass (and, equally importantly, knowing how to use it) will always help you get home. Buy a compass and take an orienteering course. While a GPS is nice, a compass and a map is mandatory on any trip I take.

Topographic Map (at 1:24000 scale) will give you useful terrain hints, including distance, contour lines, elevation, magnetic north vs. grid north, and other terrain features. They’ll be able to tell you whether you’re about to stumble into a bog. Along with a compass, a map is your best friend.

Whether it’s after dark and you’re loading out your critter, or you’re just rummaging through packs, artificial light is your friend. Headlamps allow you to go hands- free. You just need to make sure to include batteries or a way to charge the lamp when the batteries die. My go-to is the Petzl Iko Core. Its rechargeable battery lasts a long time, and it can run on AAA batteries if you forget a charger.

There are many other gadgets that can make your life comfortable in the field, but my best advice is to consider your needs vs. how much you’re willing to carry.

pond
Sometimes all you can drink from is a beaver pond. This is why water purification is absolutely a necessity.

Go Lightly

The final piece of advice I will offer about backcountry trips is to try to pack as lightly as possible. If something has more than one use, bring that instead of single-use items. The more you venture into the backcountry, the better you’ll get at figuring out what is essential and what items never even left your bag. Once those are identified, you can remove them from the list of what you take n the next trip.

Until next time, I hope you give backcountry travel a go, whether it’s for hunting, fishing, or just for the sake of adventure. Stay safe and happy travels!

GEAR LIST

Alps Commander Frame Pack
Alps Zephyr 2-man tent
W-Up Bird 10 X 10 Lightweight Tarp
Tent Footprint
HotCore Sleeping Bag
ThermaRest SoLight
ThermaRest Air Head Pillow
Benchmade Bushcrafter
Leatherman Charge TTI
Work Sharp Field Sharpener
Hooyman Megabite
Petzl Iko Core
Vargo Trowel
AlpineAire Meals
Sawyer Mini
Nalgene Water Bottle
Polaris Optifuel Stove
Stanley Cook Set
Long Handle Spork
Garmin InReach
First Aid Kit

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