Backcountry 101: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It’s So Magical

By Jack Messerly

At the risk of sounding cliché by starting my post with a weather reference, it’s hard to ignore the fact that, despite Spring’s official emergence yesterday, we’re bracing ourselves for the fourth Nor’easter in as many weeks. And while I normally love the snow, I have to admit that I’m ready for my first backpacking trip of the summer.

There are many reasons I love backpacking: it’s an opportunity to get away from the hustle and bustle of work, school, and social media; it provides a true sense of independence; and the natural beauty is second-to-none. And while you can certainly experience these things to various degrees while getting out for a day hike, there’s nothing quite like heading into the wilderness for a period of days.

I realize, however, that it wasn’t too long ago that the idea of packing up and heading into the woods for a few days would have totally overwhelmed me. There’s a lot that goes into running a successful backpacking trip, and I know first-hand about how intimidating it can be. Now that I have some experience under my belt (I mean, I literally get paid to do this kind of thing), I’m hoping I can quell some of your questions and concerns, share some of the nitty-gritty details that go into a backcountry trip, and give my two cents on why it can be such a rewarding experience.

My philosophy professors taught me well, so I know I should first define some of my potentially-confusing terms before I get too deep into the body of this blog:

  • Backcountry: there are a number of definitions out there, but for our purposes here, the backcountry is anywhere sufficiently removed from advanced medical care and technology (as well as running water and bathrooms, etc.).
  • Front-country (why this is two words while “backcountry” is one word is beyond me): where there is near-immediate access advanced care (i.e. road access), cell service, running water, flush toilets, etc.
  • Backpacking: any multi-day trip into the backcountry.
  • Hiking: a single day hike, which will start and end in the front country.

With those in mind, here are some questions that we field all the time: What equipment do we bring and how do we pack it all? What do we eat while in the backcountry? What do we do with our garbage? What’s the deal with the bathroom situation? What happens if there’s an emergency? What’s so great about the backcountry anyway? All great questions! I’ll dive right in.

What equipment do we bring and how do we pack it all?

This part isn’t actually as overwhelming as it might initially seem. First, we need the basics, which we clearly denote on our trip-specific equipment lists. Backcountry clothing is pretty similar to typical athletic-wear (we want lightweight, quick-dry materials), and our backcountry packing list will include a lot of layers, which allows us to be efficient and adaptable based on the weather, changing altitudes, etc. Everyone will also pack their toiletries, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and a part of a tent (the body, the rain fly, or the poles), which are split equally between each tent group. Then, everyone will chip-in and carry some group cooking equipment (e.g. small, portable stoves and fuel, pots and pans, utensils, etc.), as well as some food (more on this later). The leaders will bring a variety of other useful items, including medical kits, maps, GPS communication devices, bathroom equipment (see below…), etc.

Before kicking off a backcountry trip, our leaders will walk their groups through a thorough backcountry packing demo, where they’ll cover everything from waterproofing to efficient packing.

What do we eat while in the backcountry?

Regardless of the trip, we put a lot of thought and energy into every Apogee meal. We strive to make each meal simple, tasty, nutritious, plentiful, and varied, and we hold our backcountry meals to the same standards – we just need to get a little bit more creative. Since factors like sanitation, packability, dietary restrictions, and weight carry more, umm, weight (sorry) in the backcountry, we need to put more thought into our shopping list. Here are some backcountry staples:

    • Bases (carbs and starches): pasta, quinoa, couscous, rice, oatmeal, bagels, sweet potatoes, tortillas, and pitas
    • Protein: peanut or other nut butter spreads, hummus, canned chicken and fish, beans, summer sausage, and cheese (which, contrary to popular belief, does not need to be refrigerated!)
    • Produce: peppers, onions, carrots, apples, and oranges
    • Condiments, sauces, and toppings: jelly, Nutella, mustard, marinara, pesto, hot sauce, honey, bouillon cubes (for soups), soy sauce
    • Dessert: s’mores, worms and dirt, and dunkaroos

What do we do with our garbage?

I’ll never forget my surprise when one of my college wilderness orientation trip leaders told me that I couldn’t throw my apple core into the woods. I just figured an animal would eat it, right? Well, as I’ve learned since then, that’s part of the problem; if wild animals get familiarized with humans and eating our leftovers – especially in high-use areas like National Parks – they could become dependent on human food and lose their ability to fend for themselves, and they’ll spend more time around roads and cars (not a good combination). Plus, the last thing you want to see when you’re out for a long hike is a candy wrapper or plastic bag.

So for all of our trips, we follow the Leave No Trace Seven Principles:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare: This is the step that happens before our trips even begin; we make sure that we have all of our required permits, we have a clear understanding of the rules and regulations of where we’ll be traveling, and that all of this information is properly explained to our leaders and students.
  • Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces: The main idea behind this principle is that we want to minimize our impact by hiking on established gravel or dirt trails and camping at existing campsites and away from water sources. For example, when we’re hiking down a trail (single file!) and come across a big puddle, we hike through the puddle, rather than trampling off-trail to go around it, which would assist erosion and damage other fragile vegetation.
  • Dispose of Waste Properly: Here’s a phrase you might have heard before: “Pack it in, pack it out.” Every piece of garbage, every food scrap, and all of our toilet paper that we bring into the backcountry will be packed out with us to be disposed properly in the front country. This also refers to disposing of human waste properly, which I’ll get to below…
  • Leave What You Find: Unfortunately, we won’t be picking those beautiful Washington wildflowers or pocketing any Maine seashells this summer. I know it might seem like no big deal, but it begs the ol’ “if everyone did it…” response. Another classic backcountry adage advises us, “Take only photographs, leave only footsteps.”
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts: There’s nothing that quite compares to roasting marshmallows over a campfire, and we encourage it on all Apogee trips where regulations allow. But we’re always extremely careful to completely extinguish our fires (so that it’s no longer smoking), we only use existing campfire rings, and always keep the fires small and well-contained. It’s worth noting that many areas we travel to on the west coast don’t allow fires in the backcountry at all!
  • Respect Wildlife: One of the coolest parts of heading into the wilderness is the opportunity to spot mountain goats in Washington, Swiss ibex, or the iconic Maine moose. But it’s important that we keep our distance, and do everything in our power not to disturb these animals (after all, how would you like it if a marmot wandered into your house?). As I mentioned before, we’ll never feed animals (intentionally or not), which includes properly storing our food, either in a bear-bag hung in a tree or in bear canisters.
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Especially as a large group on the trails, it’s more important than ever to be conscientious to other hikers, so as not to negatively impact their experiences. Keeping the volume down, yielding the trail to smaller groups of hikers, and making sure our water and snack breaks don’t clog the trail are a few of the ways we keep others in mind.

We take the role of environmental stewardship seriously, and learning about the Leave No Trace Seven Principles can be one of the most rewarding parts of an Apogee experience.

What’s the deal with the bathroom situation?

As we sit in our offices at work or at our desks in school, each one of us will occasionally look out the window and feel like nature is calling us to go outside. Other times, when we are outside and enjoying the great outdoors, nature calls again, but in a slightly different way. So how does that work when we’re miles away from the nearest toilet? The standard protocol to dispose solid human waste in the backcountry is to use a trowel to dig a 6-8 inch cathole to create your own personal toilet. We pack out all toilet paper in a duct-tape wrapped ziplock bag (affectionately referred to as the “mystery bag”), and make sure that our leaders discuss proper sanitation – there’s always a bottle of hand sanitizer that travels with the trowel, TP, and mystery bag.

We understand that this activity, though totally necessary, can be pretty intimidating and uncomfortable to talk about. Fortunately, our leaders are prepared to cover all of the important information ahead of time and implement strategies and an open line of communication to make it more comfortable for everyone. [Side note: I attended a two-hour long professional course on this subject that included stories, techniques, and, probably most importantly, how to teach this to students!]. In some cases, the backcountry campsites that you stay at will have “privy” toilets, which is a fancy term for an outhouse, but not all campsites have this luxury!

We hope you’ll understand why there aren’t any more relevant pictures to this particular section of the post…

What happens if there’s an emergency?

Especially when traveling into the backcountry, prevention and acting proactively is the name of the game, but, of course, it would be irresponsible not to be prepared for emergencies. The first line of defense is our leaders; all of our trips that venture into the backcountry will have at least one Wilderness First Responder (WFR)-certified leader. A WFR certification is an intensive, 80-hour wilderness medicine training, which prepares our leaders to deal with a huge variety of medical emergencies. At a minimum, the other leader will have a Wilderness First Aid Certification (WFA), which also covers important backcountry medical procedures, like allergies and splints. All of our leaders will also be lifeguards and certified in CPR.

When additional support or more advanced care is required, our leaders on backcountry trips are equipped with GPS communication devices to be in touch with both us in the office as well as nearby EMS services. Check out Will’s blog from a few weeks ago, which dives into the details of our backcountry communication.

What’s so great about the backcountry anyway?

I’d be willing to bet that most Apogee leaders and students would agree that the backcountry portion is the most impactful, confidence-inducing, group cohesion-strengthening part of their trip. But why is that?

It’s difficult to put into words exactly why the backcountry is so meaningful; maybe it’s the feeling of independence when carrying everything you need on your back; maybe it’s interacting with and immersing yourself in nature to an extent you’ve never before experienced; or maybe it’s the dichotomy between the vast expanses of the wilderness and the close-quarters of group living. Whatever it is, from my experience leading  Apogee trips for three summers and witnessing many more trips as a full-time Assistant Director, I know that the backcountry can be the turning point of a trip. Up until we entered the backcountry, my groups were friendly and getting along well, but, when backpacking, say, along the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine, something clicks, and all of a sudden, I watched “friendly” become “inseparable” and “getting along well” transform into uncontrollable laughter. Some of my fondest memories as an Apogee leader include a particularly deep conversation under the un-polluted starry backcountry sky, and floating on our inflatable sleeping pads in a Yosemite lake on a hot day.

The experience of a backcountry trip is a lesson in building confidence, creating an “Apogee family”, and fostering love for the outdoors. And, yes, while there’s a lot that goes into carefully planning each backcountry expedition, we’re in this line of work for a reason: because we love it, and it is so worth the work to see the impacts that a backcountry trip can have a on an Apogee group.