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Differences Between Backcountry and Frontcountry Camping
Published: Apr 30, 2021
Outdoor activities are among the most effective ways to remain mentally and physically healthy, and exist in numerous forms, such as biking, rock climbing, camping, and sailing.
Camping refers to the recreational activity of taking up temporary residence outdoors, usually in tents or vehicles specially adapted as shelter. It differs from picnicking and day-tripping in that the outdoor activity runs throughout the night as well. So, what are the two main categories of camping, and what are their differences?
Frontcountry camping involves camping on sites close to road access and that usually offer some utilities, such as running water and bathrooms. Backcountry camping, on the other hand, is camping on sites further from any human developments. They do not offer the conveniences of frontcountry camping.
A more modern take on camping that is quite common these days is glamping. This portmanteau word for “glamorous” and “camping” refers to a luxurious type of camping with amenities and, on occasion, resort-style services. Glamping intends to allow people to enjoy freedom and closeness to nature while avoiding camping's uncomfortable aspects.
Camping exists in multiple forms, depending on your desire to connect with nature. The two top-tier forms are backcountry and frontcountry camping. So what's the difference, and why pick one over the other? What gear should we consider for each type? Find out more below.
What Is Backcountry Camping?
Backcountry camping refers to camping away from any developments or roads. In these isolated and remote locations, our only option is self-sufficiency. The equipment we need is usually light to easily explore the outdoors and easily move farther from the beaten path. The rewards are tremendous, with views of clear night skies, pristine lakes, and vantage points barely scratching the surface of what we enjoy.
What Is Frontcountry Camping?
Frontcountry camping, also known as car camping, refers to camping in established locations dedicated to camping, such as parks. The campgrounds usually consist of camping loops (looping roads) with campsites to accommodate tents, towed campers, or recreational vehicles (RVs). With running water, restrooms, and electricity, frontcountry camping eases on the strains of self-sufficiency.
Differences Between Backcountry and Frontcountry Camping
The differences between frontcountry and backcountry camping are numerous due to the contrasting environments.
First, the amenities offered in both camping modes differ. Indeed, backcountry campers enjoy minimal amenities, trying to be as fully in touch with nature as possible. Meanwhile, frontcountry campers, enjoy facilities such as restrooms, check-in stations, electric hookups, and wheelchair accessibility.
Second, backcountry campsites generally require hours of travel. Campers generally have to dedicate a lot of time to access the place, usually by horseriding or trekking when the terrain becomes rough. On the other hand, frontcountry camping usually implies short trips to the campsites as, most of the time, they are easily accessible by road.
Self-sufficiency is of the utmost importance to anyone looking to delve into backcountry camping. Indeed, camping sessions require intense preparation as they take place in isolated locations, where help is hours or days away. However, packing for frontcountry camping is easier as most utilities are easily accessible when needed.
The experiences offered by both types of camping are stack contrasts. Frontcountry camping gives very little, if any, feeling of wilderness. If you've forgotten any essential, you simply hop in your car and head out to the nearest store, unlike in backcountry camping, where you have to improvise, adapt, and overcome.
What Gear Do You Need for Backcountry Camping?
Packing for backcountry camping requires you to prepare to deal with any type of weather or emergency. Everything you tackle will only utilize what's in your backpack. Campers have to carry all their equipment to the remote sites, which means you have to think light and easy-fitting.
The most essential tips to consider when packing for this type of camping are to:
- Place the heaviest items at the center of the bag to improve balance. With heavy tops or bottoms, your bag won't sit comfortably on your back while you walk.
- Pack your most frequently used items near the top, and the least often used things, like your sleeping bag and pad, at the bottom.
- Ensure you can quickly access a source of light and bear spray if you are on bear territory.
Essential personal gear for a proper camping trip includes the following items:
- Appropriate changes of clothes and underwear
- A synthetic sleeping bag
- Water or purifying utilities if there already is at the campsite
- Breathable and waterproof rainwear
- A pocket knife
- Lighting equipment and backups
- A comfortable pack that is large enough to fit all your gear
- Hiking boots
- Sunglasses for sunlit locations
- Gloves and a hat
Gear to consider when packing for a group includes:
- A first aid kit
- Cooking pots and utensils
- A stove and fuel
- A firestarter kit
What Gear Do You Need for Frontcountry Camping?
Despite undertaking frontcountry camping within pretty controlled environments, it can be a nightmare if we omit any essential gear while packing. Imagine setting up your campsite and discovering you don't have a power adapter specific to a tool you need, or that you can't quickly power it nearby. That is just pure suffering.
Research is essential while frontcountry camping to ensure we abide by park regulations. Plus, it provides a basis for insight and the opportunity to book spaces or facilities. Researching also saves campers from unwarranted investments, such as packing loads of water when the destination already provides water.
Gear to ensure a fun frontcountry camping experience includes:
- Tents, sleeping bags, or hammocks, depending on the local regulations, as some parks do not allow you to tie ropes to trees.
- Cooking supplies: camping mess kits efficiently provide all the essential tools, but since there tend to emphasize comfort more than lightness, you can pack extra supplies.
- Cleaning supplies: camping easily gets a lot of gear and ourselves dirty. Products such as biodegradable soap, paper towels, and scouring pads are essential additions to our packed materials.
Best Backcountry Camping Places
Finding the best spot to set up camp in what are virtually unexplored lands can prove to be a difficult task. This is significantly tougher for newbies looking to venture into backcountry camping for the first time. The choice of location can make the difference between a disaster and a photo worth beautiful recollections.
Curated from outdoor enthusiast Micheal Lanza, the following top 10 places will help you make memories and be in touch with nature while backcountry camping. They are not sorted in any specific order as different camping destinations offer completely different experiences.
- Cascade Canyon, North Fork: If you're out on the hunt for boulder-strewn meadows and picturesque canyon views, look no further than Grand Teton National Park for a lifelong experience.
- Sahale Glacier Camp: Enjoy the company of mountain goats and extensive views of the clouds below you in the highest campsite in North Cascades National Park. A proper memory from the place is the view of the earth falling away into a bottomless abyss.
- Precipice Lake: Strutting clean, white granite along its compact shoreline is a pristine lake offering magnificent views of the stars at nighttime. The alpenglow on the lake offers stunning views for anyone out in that backyard.
- The Narrows: Zion Canyon's narrowest hike is one of Zion National Park's premier hikes, offering a beautiful view of high escapements on both sides.
- Royal Arch: nested deep and lonely in the Grand Canyon National Park is a campsite beside the Royal Arch worth all the effort it takes to get to it.
- Johns Hopkins Inlet: For all those looking to incorporate sea kayaking, sea lion noises, and bald eagles in their expeditions, Glacier Bay National Park offers all those and crowns it all with the view of a massive glacier breaking into the sea.
- Columbine Lake: Although it takes significant efforts to get to, this pristine lake offers two challenging options in your bid to get to it; numerous switchbacks or a scramble up slippery talus. The place, not easy on the legs but very easy on the eyes, offers intense adventure and hiking activity.
- Evolution Basin: One of the most stunning stretches of the John Muir Trail, the beautiful landscape's mix of rock, water, and sky offers scenic camping locations for the outdoors enthusiast.
- Toleak Point: Offering a beach rich in life, the view of rock pinnacles rising from the ocean makes this one of the best places to camp. From sea otters to starfish and heron, the area is awash with scenes of wildlife.
- Middle Fork Salmon River: large beaches, pine, golden grass, rapids, trout, and hot springs barely begin to capture the full extent of camping experience that this wilderness offers. The Idaho wilderness is a must-go for any camping enthusiast.
Best Frontcountry Camping Places
If you're seeking a camping experience while maintaining access to facilities, enjoy the following curation of frontcountry locations. Remember to make reservations before heading out there.
The Great Smokey Mountains offers ten camping grounds, with two being open all-year-round and the rest being seasonal. These campsites are:
- Smokemont Campground (all-year)
- Cades Cove Campground (all-year)
- Look Rock Campground
- Elkmont Campground
- Big Creek Campground
- Cataloochee Campground
- Abrams Creek Campground
- Cosby Campground
- Deep Creek Campground
- Balsam Mountain Campground
Each campground offers restrooms with flush toilets and cold running water. Some campsites also feature a picnic table and fire grate. A critical detail is that there are no showers or water, nor electrical hookups, so preparing those is necessary.
Yellowstone National Park offers campgrounds, all of them permitting RVs. However, Fishing Bridge is the only campsite to provide water and sewer facilities. For some campgrounds, you need to make reservations, while others are on a first-come, first-serve basis. Thus, it is essential to study the policy of the campgrounds you're interested in.
Grand Canyon National Park offers several developed campgrounds for camping enthusiasts:
- NPS Campgrounds - advance campground reservations can be made for two of the three NPS grounds available: Mather Campground, in the Southern Rim, and the North Rim Campground. None of the NPS campgrounds offers RV hookups.
- Trailer Village - opened all year, the Southern Rim campground is an RV park with full hookups. It is located in the Grand Canyon Village.
- NPS Desert View Campground - located in the Southern Rim of the park, this campground works on a first-come-first-serve basis. The place, however, offers no RV hookups.
With 13 front-country campgrounds, Glacier National Park is a good setup for anyone looking to delve at frontcountry diving. Some of the notable grounds at the park include:
- Apgar Campground - the largest campground lies near Apgar Village, where you can enjoy horseback rides, a casual restaurant, a shuttle bus, and a camping store. Sunsets on Lake MacDonald are a short walk from the campground, giving the whole experience a nice touch.
- Cut Bank Campground - for a quiet and serene camping experience, the grounds on the east of the park have nearby trailheads. One can even stretch their legs in some backcountry trips. Although, water is not available, so make sure to bring some.
- Kintla Lake Campground - the most remote frontcountry grounds offered by the park are very quiet and rarely filled. With no motor craft allowed on the lake, paddlers land in paradise when they arrive in this place that offers spectacular views of the lake and mountains. However, campers are to bring water to support the available potable water from a hand pump.
- Many Glacier Campground - ideal for anyone into frontcountry camping, it offers flush toilets and sinks with running water. Potable water and nightly evening programs by rangers only add to the popularity of the place. Have a pair of binoculars on quick launch as opportunities to view wildlife, like bighorn sheep and bears, regularly rise.
- St. Mary Campground - For those seeking reserve grounds, make a reservation through the national reservation system and avoid the rush associated with first-come-first-serve, which most campgrounds operate. Rustling sounds of spring and summer breezes, coupled with views of Singleshot, East Flattop, and Red Eagle Mountains make the place an endless buffet for our eyes.
While both types of camping experiences vary, the value created by each camping experience is well worth it. From making memories to strengthening friendships, a starry sky, cracking jokes, and telling stories with family and friends, camping an experience worth the dedication.
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