I was thrilled when my youngest sister started taking weekend camping trips during the COVID-19 pandemic. I had previously attempted to share my love of backcountry excursions with her, with modest success. But when the stresses of the pandemic became too much, Cameron and her partner Colton, both 24, suddenly learned to appreciate the “freedom of the hills”.
You weren’t alone: Camping and outdoor recreation have surged in popularity across North America since 2020. A survey of national parks in the western United States showed an overall 20 percent increase in visitor numbers, while Canada, along with my home province, saw similar numbers from Ontario, a whopping 140 percent increase in provincial park campground bookings in 2021 from already high levels of 2020. New camping enthusiasts like my sister even had to compete with those looking to make a profit reselling parking permits.
Faced with a shortage of vacancies in developed campgrounds, Cameron and Colton began to seek out the slackcountry. They explored off-road sites, looking for quieter, primitive campsites, sometimes having to hike a mile or two beyond the trailhead parking lots to get there. In the process, they also discovered the joys of public lands (“Crown” lands if you’re in Canada) for gentle DIY outdoor recreation.
Here are some tips for finding your own path from frontcountry to slackcountry.
Where: Staying away from iconic locations has always been the best way to discover hidden gems. That means visiting smaller state parks, many of which offer little-known backcountry camping opportunities within a short hike of established trailheads. Do your research, as backcountry campgrounds are often poorly advertised. Similarly, US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management public lands often provide areas for primitive camping. You can research access points around long-distance trails like the North Country Trail and the Appalachian Trail; Chances are you can find places to camp within a short walk.
Pack it up: Going beyond the streets means carrying gear on your back. Therefore, it is imperative to strip down to the essentials (without neglecting safety items such as warm layers of clothing and a first aid kit). The best way to get it right is to keep a list and write down what you used and didn’t use after each trip to help streamline your packing list for future trips. Speaking of backpacks, you could do worse than rent or buy an internal frame backpack like this Sierra Designs Gigawatt 60L ($119.95, sierradesigns.com), a full-featured, budget-friendly package with over 3,600 cubic inches of storage and an adjustable harness.
Camping comfortably: Long-distance backpackers go to great lengths to save weight, sleeping under flimsy tarps and using minimalist sleeping bags. You don’t have to on weekend trips when you’re not going far, but you benefit from the new technology. Modern tents are spacious and light, which allows you to increase the size (i.e. choose a four-person model if you are a group of three) for more freedom of movement. Try this Big Agnes Spicer Summit 4 ($449.95, bigagnes.com), a 58-square-foot dome with near-vertical walls for more usable space and a packed weight of less than nine pounds. Or, for an ultra-lightweight shelter that encourages you to venture deeper into the backcountry, check this out Sea to Telos Peak TR3 ($659, seatosummit.com), a three-person (i.e. two-person comfortably) model that features multiple setup provisions for excellent visibility and ventilation.
A similar comfort-weight spectrum can be found with sleeping mats. Worried about sore hips? Go big with the aptly named Thermarest MondoKing 3D ($229.95 – $259.95, thermorest.com), a 4.25-inch-thick self-inflating pad that rivals your pocket spring mattress at home (although it rolls up into a fairly compact cylinder, you’ll probably need to put it on buckle your backpack). ). Couples might consider a two-person mattress like this Exped Dura 5R Duo ($249.95, expedusa.com) that’s not only comfortable, but saves you packing two mattresses and is made from recycled materials. Finally, down remains the gold standard in sleeping bag insulation, especially as most manufacturers offer responsibly sourced water-repellent and third-party certified materials. That Great Agnes 3N1 ($329.95-$419.95, bigagnes.com) Gender-specific bag range, for example, provides comfort for spring through fall travel across a wide range of temperatures.
camp kitchen: With few exceptions, pre-packaged, freeze-dried backcountry meals are expensive, skimpy, and loaded with salt. Think about how you can adapt your favorite backcountry recipes: pasta, rice dishes, and legume-based dishes all translate well to outdoor cooking. You can find powdered pesto, dehydrated scalloped potatoes, and foil-wrapped chicken at any grocery store. For breakfast, oatmeal is greatly enhanced by toppings like dried fruits, seeds, and nuts. Flatbread, bagels, cheese, and peanut butter are lunchtime standbys. Many fresh fruits and vegetables (apples, oranges, citrus fruits, and root vegetables like carrots) will keep for days. If you travel a lot, investing in a food dehydrator will quickly pay off and give you fun projects to work on over the winter. basic models Nesco Start at $50 (nesco.com) or go high end Excalibur (From $149.99, excaliburdehydrator.com).
When it’s time to cook, a liquid fuel (aka white gas) stove like the Classic MSR Whisperlite Universal ($169.95, msrgear.com) is more efficient and produces less waste than a canister cooker. With foldable silicone, you can save space Sea to Summit X set Cookware, including a pot, bowls and mugs (From $74.95, seatosummit.com). Collecting water from streams, rivers and lakes and boiling it for five minutes is a reliable but laborious way to produce clean drinking water. a microfilter like that Platypus QuickDraw ($44.95, platy.com) weighs just 3.3 ounces and uses a squeezing system to produce up to three liters of pure, tasteless and pathogen-free water.
Take care: As with any outdoor adventure, leave an itinerary with a loved one, including a plan of action, what to do if you don’t check back in by the expected date, and when to do so. Being out of cell phone coverage is liberating, but a lack of communication also puts you at greater risk. Consider investing in (or renting) a satellite communication device such as a SPOT X ($249.99 plus service plan, findmespot.com) that enables two-way text messaging, mapping, and the ability to trigger search and rescue services when needed.
Unpack it: The first goal of wilderness travelers should always be to do no harm to the environment. This means taking responsibility for your actions and thinking critically about how your actions will impact those around you, considering everything from where you pitch your tent, whether you choose to light a campfire or not, as well as your impact on wildlife and other human visitors. Not to mention how you handle your dishwater and body waste. Green camping guidelines vary depending on climate, landscape features and remoteness. Top priorities, wherever you go, include traveling and camping on durable surfaces to avoid trampling on vegetation, minimizing the use of fire, staying calm, securely securing food to minimize odors, wildlife plenty of space and dispose of dishwater and human waste in shallow ditch (and buried) Catholics at least 200 feet from open water. Learn more about specific policies at Leave no trace.
Find out more and be inspired: Sierra Club Excursions are a great way to meet other adventurers, learn skills (and often contribute to good causes), and discover new environments. A variety of excursions in North America and around the world are available for all types of travelers, including wilderness restoration projects and budget deals for young adults.