If you enjoy camping and hiking, chances are you’ll love backcountry camping. It can seem daunting to start backpacking in the wilderness, so I’ve made a guide to help you get your bearings and hopefully inspire you to try your first trip!
If you haven’t gone backcountry camping before, I recommend a shorter trip, 1-2 nights, so you can get an idea of what to expect before embarking on a longer trip. It can also help familiarize yourself with your gear, and your packing techniques to sort out what works best for you.
Booking a Site
When booking a campsite, keep in mind that many National Park locations begin booking campsites between January and February. Provincial campsites vary, but usually book between 2 months to 90 days ahead of your trip. It is easier to get a spot on a weekday, rather than a week, so you may want to consider if that is a possibility for you. Once you have your route booked, it is time to start planning!
Make sure you book an accurate number of tent pads for your group. You will need to print off your booking and bring the paper with you on your trip. It is not likely you will need to show proof of a permit, but it can happen! There is a limit of one tent per pad. These are the designated areas in the backcountry sites where you can pitch a tent. It is important to use these sites, and to use the outhouses and cooking sites as provided. You will also need to store all your “smellies” (food, toiletries, sunscreen, etc.) that might attract animals in either a bear locker or in a bear hang, whichever is provided at the site. If you are unfamiliar with these, take a moment to look them up before your trip. You help maintain these campsites by using the designated areas correctly and staying on the paths. Your behaviour at the campsite should be similar to that shown on the trail. It also helps keep you, your stuff and the other campers safe!
If you do not have gear, you can rent most things from outdoor gear shops. One piece of gear I recommend you do buy is hiking boots, if you don’t already have them. Boots help protect your ankles from rolling, and wearing a heavy backpack can pose a greater risk to badly rolled ankles. You will also need hiking socks; any pair that is longer than the top of your boot will suffice, though moisture wicking, athletic socks can provide more comfort. Make sure to break your boots in before your trip!
If you are renting or purchasing a backpacking bag, get an employee to help you size the bag. The waist strap should fit snuggly over your hips and the shoulder straps should sit flat on your shoulders. The bag shouldn’t gape or pull. Make sure the bag isn’t completely empty when it is sized, it will help you need fewer adjustments when you’re finished packing. You will probably need a bag between 60-80L (if you are only going for one night, a 50L may suffice).
Tents can also be rented. Make sure you specify that you need a backpacking tent when ordering, as backpacking tents are significantly lighter than standard camping tents. They are also smaller, with enough room to sit up in, but not stand.
Other gear you will need also includes a sleeping bag and sleeping pad. Mummy sleeping bags are helpful because they prevent the loss of heat through the opening that is common to rectangular sleeping bags. If you aren’t sure what type of sleeping bag you have, look for a “hood”. If there is a section of the bag that lays under your head and cinches around your face while you sleep, this is a mummy bag. You will also want to check the temperature rating of the bag. Warm sleepers may be fine with a bag rated to 0°C bag in the summer, personally I prefer one rated to -10°C. Warmer bags are available, but are often unnecessary and equal extra weight. However, if you are nervous about being cold it might be worthwhile. A sleeping pad is also a non-negotiable. This is a thin piece of foam or an inflatable mattress (usually around 1 inch or 2 cm thick). Not only does it provide some comfort as opposed to sleeping directly on the ground, it also provides warmth. Despite only raising you about an inch off the ground, the foam and/or air in the mattress helps shield you from the cold ground and keeps your body heat in.
When packing your backpack, your sleeping pad and sleeping bag should be the first thing in the main pocket. There are two reasons for this. First, these are not items you will need while hiking, so placing them at the bottom of the bag keeps them out of the way. Second, this gear is lighter, and placing it at the bottom will help minimize the strain on your back. Ideally the heaviest items sit in the middle of your pack, nearest to your back.
Other important personal gear, such as clothes, I like to pack in a small dry bag (I believe mine is 10L). This ensures my clothes will be dry even if my bag gets wet, and also keeps them organized within my pack. It can also come in handy for bear hangs, as a secure bag to hold food or toiletries in. If you don’t have a dry bag, I recommend using a garbage bag or extra large freezer bag to accomplish the same goals. To see a full list of clothing and personal items to bring, click here.
Food and Water
Group gear you will need includes a backpacking stove and fuel. These stoves are light and usually just screw onto the top of the fuel canister. Bring lighters and waterproof matches. Some fire starter can be a good addition to an emergency kit as well. You will need a pot (usually one that holds between 1-2L is sufficient) and dishes. You will want to minimize weight, so plastic is optimal. I usually opt for a bowl because it is more versatile than a plate. Or perhaps you can eat straight from the pot, or the backpacking food bags that you can purchase from outdoor stores. If this is the case you can skip bowls! My friends and I have also used Tupperware containers on occasion, which work well as bowls and for storage. You will also need utensils. I am a fan of the spork option as it includes both a fork and spoon on a single piece of equipment. You can also bring separates if you prefer. I also recommend bringing a mug. For some coffee is non-negotiable, for others a warm drink is simply a nice treat on the cool mornings or evenings. Tea bags and hot chocolate powder are usually one of the luxury items we bring on my trips. The last thing you need for cooking is dish washing supplies. You will need a tiny bottle of biodegradable dish soap and a cloth for washing. With each of these items you should be prepared to cook and eat on the trail!
I recommend bringing 2-3L of water on the trail with you. This can be in multiple water bottles, or a water bladder such as a Platypus or Camelbak. If you opt for a water bladder, bring a small water bottle as well for the campsite. It can be annoying to only have the bladder to drink out of when you’re not wearing your backpack, so an empty water bottle can be a lightweight option for a more versatile drinking container.
In Case of Rain…
Especially if you’re using a water bladder, make sure to waterproof the contents of your bag. This can protect against accidental spills inside the bag or heavy rain. As well, packing in dry bags or plastic bags can help keep your backpack organized. Bring an extra large garbage bag or rain cover for your backpack in cause of bad weather. A rainy trip can still be a fun trip as long as your clothes and sleeping bag are dry and warm.
Waterproof hiking boots make a world of difference on a rainy trip, as does proper rain gear. At the very least, make sure to bring a proper rain jacket. A rain poncho will not keep you dry while you’re moving, and is difficult to wear with a backpack. If you are able to bring rain pants (either buy or rent), these can also save a rainy trip. Being able to sit down without fear of soaking your pants, and protecting your legs from rain and mud makes hiking in the rain much easier and warmer. The weather in the mountains can change on a dime, so it is important to prepare for rain even if there is no sign of showers in the forecast.
Last but not Least
Remember that cell service is rare in the backcountry. Know your route, and save a map on your phone or bring a paper map. There is no electricity in the backcountry either. As I use my phone as a camera, I usually keep it on airplane mode and find it can last up to 4 days without a charge. Most phones have some sort of power save setting that you can use while in the backcountry. If you will need to charge your phone, consider bringing a portable charger. I do recommend you bring your phone on the trail in case of emergency, but do not rely on having service. Because of this, it is good to have a working knowledge of First Aid and a comprehensive first aid kit.
Other items that I recommend are a headlamp or flashlight, hand sanitizer and toilet paper (sites usually do not provide any), a camping knife, ibuprofen and other medications as necessary (ex: allergy meds, etc.), and bear spray.
See below for my packing list:
|Group Gear||Personal Items||Extras|
|Tent||Sleeping Bag||Camping knife|
|Toilet Paper||Sleeping Pad||Headlamp or flashlight|
|First Aid Kit||Backpack||Bear spray|
|Biodegradable dish soap||Clothes (see list)||Hand sanitizer|
|Dish cloth||Rain Jacket and Pants||Medications|
|Stove and fuel||Water bottle or bladder||Sunscreen|
|Lighter and waterproof matches||Bowl||Toiletries (toothbrush, deodorant, etc.)|
|Fire starter||Utensil(s)||Lip balm|
|Food (will need to meal plan)||Hiking boots|
|Campsite shoes (ex: sandals or crocs)|
|Dry bag or plastic bags|
|Rain cover or garbage bag|
|Hiking poles (not necessary but encouraged)|
Ask questions or give feedback in the comments. What else would you bring?