How to Prepare For a Backcountry Trip
This article is an exclusive preview from Land Investor magazine volume 8, coming November 2022.
One of the largest attractions to the Western United States is the vast acreage of land allocated for public use, including large tracts of state land, National Forest, regions managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and designated Wilderness Areas. Outdoor enthusiasts love camping on public lands with recreational vehicles and enjoy exploring them from a UTV. Although these are excellent ways to enjoy public lands, many outdoorsmen seek off–the–grid adventure in the backcountry. Backcountry means no motorized vehicles, no cell phones, and limited access for public use. Backpackers pursue high-altitude climbs and strenuous long-distance treks. Horse packers pursue scenic trail rides, wilderness fishing adventures, and backcountry hunting opportunities. No matter your preference, adventures await. The challenge with off-the-grid camping is that you must be prepared. It is rare to take a backcountry adventure and not pass an unprepared group of adventurers. So, how do you prepare for a backcountry trip? Let’s break it down into four key elements.
Element # 1 – Know Where You Are Going
In order to reach your destination, you must know where you are going. It is common for people to get lost while traveling someplace new. In fact, it is very common to get “turned around” while traveling. Although you may not like to admit it, most travelers dislike asking for directions. In the backcountry, it is imperative to know where you are going and how you will get there. Adventurers should plan a route, study the route, and communicate the route before leaving on a backcountry trip. First, plan the route. The backcountry adventurer will need to choose a specific destination and devise a plan to get there. The plan will require answering several questions. How many miles to the destination? How many days do I plan to be gone? How many miles per day will I travel? Once you have answered these questions, study the route. Know your area by reviewing all available maps and information. Most local sporting goods stores, BLM Agencies, and Forest Service offices can provide a good map. Save digital maps into a Garmin inReach device or download onX hunt maps before you leave. It is important to know the mountain passes and valleys, the river and creek crossings, as well as good camping spots with plenty of natural resources.
Be sure to communicate the route; you will want someone to know where you are going. Off-grid backcountry trips have the potential to be dangerous. Let others know where you are going and give them your itinerary for each day. Communication from the mountain was never an option for many years. Now, devices like Garmin inReach, Zoleo, or satellite phones can quickly put you in touch with emergency personnel, family, and work. It is easy to let someone know that you arrived and that the trip is going as planned. However, do not rely solely on backcountry technologies. Communicating your plan to someone is a great way to stay safe. In the event you have no satellite connection for communication, someone knows approximately where you are. So, in order to reach a destination, you must know where you are going. You have planned a route, studied the route, and communicated the route. Next, plan for basic needs.
Element # 2 – Plan for Your Basic Needs
The basic needs for survival are essential in the backcountry. Anticipating these needs is the fine line between an uncomfortable trip and an enjoyable experience. This preparation is the deciding factor between “never wanting to do this trip again” and “how soon can I plan another trip?” No matter the length of your trip, planning for your basic needs is paramount. This planning will vary depending on the style of your trip. The backpacker can take only what can be carried on his back, while the horse packer can use multiple horses and mules for the distribution of needs. The following list with corresponding questions will provide most of the basic items necessary for your trip.
Hydration – What will you drink? How will you drink it? How will water be purified?
Food – What will you eat? How will you cook it?
Fire – What are your three different sources of starting a fire? Where will you pack them? Do you have a waterproof option?
Shelter – How will you protect yourself from the elements?
Toiletries – What is necessary for basic hygiene?
Clothing – What will you wear? What weather will you need to plan for?
Health/ Safety – How will you respond to an emergency? What equipment or medications are necessary?
Emergency Communication Device – How will you communicate if you are in danger? How will you get out of the wilderness if you are sick or injured?
Answering these questions will assure a much more enjoyable trip. Your individual level of comfort determines your decisions when taking a backcountry trip. Many adventurers desire to push the limits of survival, while others just want a small taste of what the backcountry has to offer. You must decide what you can live with, along with what you can live without. No matter your choices, preparing for your needs remains vitally important on a backcountry trip. Next up, organizing the livestock.
Element # 3 – Organize Your Livestock
Many backcountry adventures include livestock. The handling of livestock in the backcountry requires an added element of preparation. Backpackers and outfitters bring dogs along as companions and predator control. Horse packers wrangle horses and mules loaded with people and gear. Some people even pack gear on llamas. The further you go into the wilderness with livestock, the more prepared you need to be. It is not uncommon to see a dog limping back to the trailhead with sore feet, a llama stranded on the other side of a flooding creek, or a riderless grey mare leading a string of empty pack mules back home to greener pastures. It is your responsibility to organize the livestock; here are the most important aspects of doing that:
Condition – Are the animals healthy? Are they in top physical condition for the strenuous trip ahead? The backcountry has a way of humbling your physical condition. Many animals cannot carry on because they are not properly fit for the journey. If an animal is not in good physical condition, leave it home, or plan an easier, less strenuous route. Consider the animals’ feet. Many potential problems are related to sore pads on dogs and lost shoes on horses. Many trips end in disaster because the animals are not physically fit.
Feed – How will the livestock eat? Will you pack food for them? Animals will need sufficient food to resupply energy levels. It seems like standard information, but it is often overlooked. Packing dog food is a simple checklist item. However, providing feed for a grazing animal is more complicated. Horses and mules require a well-thought-out feed plan. First, you will need to plan your route to include good grazing locations. Second, you will need to decide when they will graze—all night or several hours each morning and night? Finally, you will need to decide if a supplement to grazing is needed. Often, horses and mules benefit from a supplement like grain, hay cubes, or salt and mineral blocks.
Water – Hydration is a major source of maintaining an animal’s health in the backcountry. How will your animal get adequate water? First, plan your camps next to a live water source. Next, provide multiple opportunities per day for hydration. Finally, promote free choice drinking opportunities whenever possible. You know what they say, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” If an animal can have free choice access to feed and water in the backcountry, he will eat and drink what is necessary to stay balanced and healthy.
Equipment – Animals need to be fitted with high-quality equipment that fits them correctly. A backcountry journey encompasses many miles of rough terrain. Pack saddles, riding saddles, saddle bags, and other miscellaneous livestock gear can sore an animal quickly. It is recommended to pre-check the fit of the gear before the trip, adjust it daily during your trip, and always strive for balanced loads.
Handling – Although dogs may not require much handling, horses and mules do. It is necessary to have a livestock handling plan. Will you need a full-time wrangler, or will you do it yourself? Care of animals adds a significant amount of time to a backcountry trip. Gear such as hobbles, pickets, bells, or electric fences may need to be packed in order to handle your livestock appropriately.
Heading into the backcountry with animals requires additional planning. However, the rewards of sharing the experience with your favorite dog, seeing the sunset with a horse between your legs, or watching the tall ears of a string of mules cross a high-altitude mountain pass makes the extra work worthwhile. It is not difficult to do if you simply organize your livestock. Finally, pack for recreation.
Element # 4 – Pack for Your Recreation
Fun. It is the point of a backcountry trip. The backcountry is packed with recreational opportunities. It could be high-altitude mountaineering, photography, rock climbing, elk hunting, an archery mule deer hunt, or fly fishing a no-name lake or alpine stream. Recreation abounds around every wilderness corner. It is important to pack for your recreational activity. An adventurer never wants to get to camp and hear, “I forgot my fly rod.” It is important to make a simple list of three recreational activities and pack accordingly for each.
Hobby – This list will include the hobby you came to enjoy. It provides organization for fly rods, hunting equipment, cameras, or climbing gear.
Relaxation – This list will include how you plan to relax. It contains items like hammocks, lawn chairs, and shade tarps.
Indulge – This list will include special items of personal fun. It organizes a place for whiskey, books, cigars, swimming gear, or s’mores.
A backcountry trip is all about your enjoyment. It is no secret that a Bush Latte chilled from an ice-cold mountain creek is one of the great experiences of life. Create a list of recreational items you want to enjoy while in the backcountry and figure out a way to bring them along. After all, fun is the point of a backcountry trip.
Preparing for your wilderness trip does not need to be difficult. As an old backcountry guide once told me, “Prior planning prevents poor performance.” It simply requires paying attention to a few elements. If you know where you are going, prepare for your needs, organize your livestock, and plan for your recreation, the trip should go off without a hitch. The backcountry of the United States offers amazing off-the-grid adventures. It includes some of the best photography, hunting, fishing, and climbing in the entire world. Having the lists checked off makes for a great night’s sleep before you take off on your next backcountry adventure!
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