Front- vs. backcountry

Among outdoor adventure enthusiasts, there is a distinction between frontcountry and backcountry adventures. At first, these might seem like synonyms for little vs. big adventures, or easy vs. hard, but if you are engaged in any sort of outdoor adventure, like hiking or canoeing then the topic deserves a little more thought.

Here is how I keep the two apart in my mind.


  • Most State or City Parks
  • Many privately-owned lands
  • Anywhere with improved campsites (potable water, electric service…)
  • Anywhere with good cell reception and nearby road access
  • Anywhere with accessibility features for children, people with disabilities, etc.
  • Anywhere you can reasonably expect emergency services to arrive within an hour or so
  • Anywhere you could reasonably expect to see lots of other people each day


  • Designated wilderness areas
  • Some National Parks
  • Anywhere with poor cell reception and/or no road access
  • Anywhere that you can reasonably expect emergency services longer than 24 hours to arrive.
  • Anywhere with no accessibility, improvements, and safety features
  • Anywhere that you might not see any other people for days on end

The main reason that you will need to understand the difference between frontcountry and backcountry is that adventures in the backcountry require greater expertise, planning, and equipment to accomplish. There are simply more considerations in playing in the backcountry.

Safety and first aid

If you are on a backcountry adventure then you will, by definition, expect it might take 24 hours or more for professional first responders to arrive (if they can get to you at all.) You will need to have learned and practiced any skills and abilities you might need to stabilize and transport victims of accidents and emergencies for prolonged periods of time (potentially for days).

A great way to develop these skills and abilities is to sign up for a Red Cross Wilderness First Aid class.

Another safety consideration besides wilderness first aid is communication. In backcountry areas, you cannot count on cell phone reception. You may want to invest in a satellite phone or a GPS spot.

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace is a set of seven principles or guidelines that help to minimize our negative impacts on the natural areas where we have our adventures.

The first, and perhaps most important of these principles is to know before you go and plan ahead and prepare – and that’s where the frontcountry vs. backcountry distinction comes in.

In frontcountry areas, like State Parks, much of the planning ahead and preparing has been done for you. There are roads and parking lots and improved campsites and rangers to help you out when you have a problem.

But in the backcountry there are no roads and no rangers so you’ll have to figure out how to carry all the equipment you’ll need (plan ahead and prepare) and you’ll have to develop all the skills you need to solve your own problems if you get into trouble (know before you go).

Car camping vs. pack camping

So, you have seen that in backcountry adventures you will need to plan ahead and prepare for the lack of a safety net. This mean you’ll need extra skills (like Wilderness First Aid) but you’ll also need more and different equipment.

In a frontcountry situation (also called car-camping) you can usually drive right up to the campsite. This means that you can carry lots of extra equipment, stoves and Dutch ovens, bags of charcoal, camp chairs, bigger tents, pop-up canopies, fully-stocked first aid kits and emergency supplies, steaks and whiskey, etc… You can solve problems with equipment!

But in the backcountry you have to physically carry all your equipment – sometimes for miles – sometimes for days! This means fewer, lesser, smaller, and lighter equipment but it also means extras like water purification and satellite phones. Since you will potentially have less equipment in the backcountry, you will have to solve any problems that arise with experience and skill!

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A while back I was with a group of hikers on a trek through the Black Creek Wilderness in Southeast Mississippi.  To set the tone for a trek through an officially designated wilderness area, I asked them two questions, “What does the word wilderness mean?” and, “What images do you associate with the idea of […]

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Leave no Trace – Plan ahead and prepare

Leave No Trace is an outdoor ethic which promotes responsible stewardship in the outdoors.  It is composed of seven principles (not laws) that promote a minimal footprint when you venture into the outdoors. The first of these principles is, “Plan ahead and prepare.” Also sometimes stated as, “know before you go.”  By studying up on […]

Categories: Adventure