As stay-at-home measures are relaxed, potential vacationers are beginning to let thoughts of summer travel creep into their dreams. And there may be no safer way to vacation this summer than camping. It was social distancing before social distancing was even a thing. But some campers are nervous about returning to crowded, drive-in frontcountry — aka car camping — campsites.
Fortunately, there’s a more secluded option. Backcountry campsites are kept more natural and only have room for a very small number of campers. They lack public facilities like restrooms and showers, but those willing to do the work to reach them are rewarded with sweet solitude. And that “work” doesn’t have to require hours of hiking. Many backcountry campsites are just a five- to 15-minute walk from the car.
What it does require, however, is a little more planning. Call the park to confirm it’s open and to check if permits are needed. Be sure to have all the necessary gear, as well as a way to carry it to the campsite. Going back and forth to the car can be a hassle and takes up valuable time you could otherwise be spending chilling in nature.
To help, we’ve come up with this list that will make backcountry camping as easy and fulfilling as possible.
Osprey Exos 58 Men’s Backpacking Backpack ($219.95; amazon.com)
It’ll be tough to make it to a backcountry campsite without a hiking pack that is comfortable and holds all your gear. This Osprey pack is one of the most popular among male hikers and with good reason. It’s light but still has enough space to carry supplies. Maybe the best thing about purchasing an Osprey product, though, is the brand’s guarantee to repair any damage at any time for no charge.
Osprey Eja 58 Women’s Backpacking Backpack ($219.95; backcountry.com)
This is the women’s version of the Exos pack above, and it includes the same great guarantee. It’s important for hikers to try the pack with all their gear in it before they set out on their adventure. If it doesn’t feel right, give Osprey a call; it might just require a different size. We prefer the 58 — which refers to the number of liters a pack can hold — but if you’re carrying less gear, the smaller 48 will do the trick.
Osprey Ultralight Rain Cover (starting at $29.95; amazon.com)
The first thing many backcountry campers learn is the importance of keeping their gear dry. How fun does sleeping in a wet sleeping bag sound? Not very. When it’s sunny, this rain cover can be condensed to take up almost no pack space. Just slide it over your bag at the first sign of rain. Size medium, large or extra-large will fit into a 58-liter pack.
Wacool 3-Liter Hydration Pack Bladder with Cleaning Kit ($21.99; amazon.com)
Those who camp in the frontcountry are used to easy access to water. That’s not the case in the more natural backcountry, where there are no spigots to be found. This 3-liter bladder holds almost enough water to get an adventurer through the day (we’ll get to that in a second). The tube and mouthpiece allow for convenient water drinking while on the move, and the bladder comes with a cleaning kit for when the adventure is over.
Aquamira Water Treatment Drops ($14.95; amazon.com)
Backcountry campers have a major water-related decision to make: Carry all necessary water to the campsite, or purify it along the way? It’s suggested that campers drink about a gallon (3.8 liters) of water each day. Buy two of the Wacool bladders above, and an individual hiker’s set for a day and a half.
That’s a lot of water to carry, though. Campers should check to see if their backcountry campsite is near a water source like a stream. If it is, these water treatment drops are a better option. Just a few drops from each container react with each other to kill bacteria and odor in water in approximately 15 minutes. The containers are tiny, but they last a long time. The only downside to these drops is that they leave a minor aftertaste in the water, but most campers don’t mind it.
Sawyer Products MINI Water Filtration System ($19.97, originally $24.95; amazon.com)
Another water treatment option is this filter by Sawyer. It takes longer than the treatment drops, but leaves no aftertaste. There’s also no danger of running out, as you could with the droplets. The filter can clean up to 100,000 gallons of water over its lifetime. To use it, gather the natural water into the pouch. Screw the filter onto the pouch and roll the pouch from the bottom. That squeezes the water out of the bag, through the filter and into the Wacool water bladder. Repeat that process several times until the bladder is full. It takes time, but the water tastes great.
Alps Mountaineering Lynx 1-Person Tent ($79.72, originally $94.46; amazon.com)
If a camper is adventuring alone, or camping with people outside the immediate family or social distancing bubble, a one-person tent is the way to go. It’s snug to sleep in, but it’s also easy to fit in a hiking pack. This Alps version is light, affordable, easy to put up and works all year — except maybe on the coldest winter nights. The tent includes a vestibule for storing gear and hiking shoes.
Alps Mountaineering Meramac 2-Person Tent ($109.20, originally $119.99; amazon.com)
Camping with a roommate or on a romantic getaway? This two-person tent offers a great balance of affordability and quality while remaining light enough to not weigh down a backpack.
Alps tents are easy to assemble and include an optional rain cover for privacy and protection from rain and bugs. We recommend leaving the fly off on a clear night for a look at the stars.
Coleman 4-Person Dome Tent ($96.50; amazon.com)
Whole family going camping? You’ll have a tough time fitting a four-person tent into any hiking pack, but this large tent collapses into a remarkably small duffel bag. That means it can be carried with a free hand.
The tent can be assembled in less than 15 minutes, and with a height of 5 feet, it means there’s plenty of room inside for the family to maneuver. It also includes a large vestibule so gear can be stored outside the main living area. For even more space, check out the six-person Coleman Dome Tent ($229.99; amazon.com), which is almost 6 feet tall and provides enough room for chairs or even two queen-size air mattresses.
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite Ultralight Backpacking Air Mattress ($174.95; amazon.com)
Little ruins an outdoor adventure faster than a poor night’s sleep. A sleeping pad may seem like a luxury item, but it makes for a much more comfortable rest. It also helps with insulation, which is especially important when nights get cool.
This pad is easy to inflate and it’s ultralight, weighing just 18 ounces. There are several sizes and it rolls down tight into a small storage bag that fits well in packs. The Therm-a-Rest Prolite Plus Regular (starting at $104.95; amazon.com) will save money for those OK with a pad that’s a little heavier and a little bigger.
Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed 20F Sleeping Bag ($319.95; backcountry.com)
A camper needs a great sleeping bag to slide into when the sun goes down. This bag by Sierra Designs is one of the best, according to our well-traveled editors. It ditches the zipper in favor of something that resembles a comforter. This makes it more comfortable for side and stomach sleepers, and keeps things cooler during the warmer months.
For colder weather, there are pockets to make sure even extremities like hands, arms and the head are completely covered. This bag is advertised as being safe for sleeping in temps as low as 20 Fahrenheit — which means it’s comfortable down to about 40.
Pro tip: For individuals over 6 feet tall, purchase the “Grad” or “Long” version.
Kelty Tuck 20º Mummy Sleeping Bag ($89.99, dickssportinggoods.com)
For those OK with bulkier synthetic filling who are looking to save a few dollars, this is a very good option. No matter the sleeping bag, we recommend forgoing the stuff sack and allowing the sleeping bag to take on the shape of the pack. Accomplish this by stuffing the sleeping bag into a garbage bag at the bottom of the Osprey. This, combined with a rolled sleeping pad — in its stuff sack — is an efficient use of space at the backpack’s bottom.
Tough Outdoors Sleeping Bag Liner ($15.95, amazon.com)
A sleeping bag liner is like a bedsheet for the backcountry. It gives a sleeping bag about 10 degrees more warmth — if the bag is comfortable in 40-degree weather, a liner allows it to feel comfortable even at 30 degrees — and it also keeps the sleeping bag from getting dirty.
Sleeping bags are challenging and expensive to clean, especially when they have down stuffing. A liner is easy to wash and protects sleeping bags from outdoorsy grime.
MSR Pocket Rocket Stove Kit ($99.95; backcountry.com)
Grills and fire pits aren’t common in the middle of the backcountry. That means the best way to get hot food is to bring a camping stove kit.
This kit is comprehensive and comes with a miniature stove, bowls, mugs, a pot and sporks — no need to bring both sets if it’s just one person camping. All it’s missing is a fuel canister. Speaking of which…
GasOne Camping Fuel Blend, 2-pack ($18.99; amazon.com)
These fuel canisters work with most camping stoves, including the Pocket Rocket kit above. They’re easy to use, and each canister has enough fuel to burn for between one and two hours. Fuel is usually only used to boil water for cooking, so one could last for weeks.
Osprey UltraLight 12-Liter Dry Sack ($20, amazon.com)
Store food in a dry sack like this. Its ability to compress the contents means it reduces the amount of space food takes up in a backpack. Check out this list for some of our favorite energizing foods to pack. The food bag is easy to hang from a tree in case bears and/or other hungry critters are looking for a feast.
Nite Ize Rope, 50-Foot ($11.80, amazon.com)
In the frontcountry, food is safe and sound stored in a car. That’s not an option in the backcountry. Mice, raccoons or squirrels will tear through a food sack if they find it, and bears are renowned for their sense of smell. That’s why hanging a sack from a tree — known as a bear bag — is essential in bear country. It’s not difficult; rope is required, and the Washington Trails Association explains the process well.
1-Gallon Ziploc Freezer Bags, 60-count ($8.84, amazon.com)
Leave No Trace is a series of principles that serious hikers and campers swear by. The idea is that when campers leave nature, no one should be able to tell they were ever there.
One important way to do this is to take back with you everything you brought into the backcountry. Yes, a banana peel is biodegradable, but it’s not good for animals to eat. Plus, subsequent campers don’t want to catch a whiff of old food rot. Ziploc bags will store trash until it can be tossed into a receptacle back in the frontcountry.
UST U-Dig-It Light Duty Aluminum Trowel ($17.80, amazon.com)
There are no bathroom facilities in the backcountry. Or — depending on your perspective — nearly everywhere in the backcountry is a bathroom facility. There are some rules, however. All bodily waste should stay at least 200 feet (about 70 adult paces) away from water, trails and camping areas. When it’s time to defecate, dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep and 4 to 6 inches in diameter and cover it up after all is said and done. This trowel will do the job.
Coghlan’s Toilet Paper, two-pack ($4.90; amazon.com)
This toilet paper will also help. Don’t put it in the hole, though. Even well-buried toilet paper has a way of reaching the surface and littering a campsite. Instead, “leave no trace” by sealing it up in one of those Ziploc baggies.
Nitecore NU20 Rechargeable Headlamp ($29.95; amazon.com)
Lanterns are iconic, but they can’t hold a candle to a lightweight, hands-free headlamp. Headlamps are brighter, easier to work with and more effectively direct light where it’s needed. This rechargeable headlamp by Nitecore is popular and can produce 100 hours of light on a single charge. If you prefer a battery-operated headlamp, check out the Black Diamond Spot Headlamp ($31.49; amazon.com).
Anker PowerCore 13000 ($30.59, originally $35.99; amazon.com)
Your phone is your camera, stereo, notepad, newspaper, library, television and also — your phone. Hopefully camping is so much fun that you ignore it, but being prepared to recharge is important.
We tested a whole bunch of portable power banks, and the Anker Powercore 13000 was our top pick. It has two ports (great for families or people traveling with multiple devices), is one of the fastest-working portable chargers around, and can offer two and a half charges before it needs to be plugged in again.
Note: The prices above reflect the retailers’ listed prices at the time of publication.