The Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Hiking

mt. Willard New Hampshire

Written by thealpinepursuit

Hey! My name is Dylan. Welcome to The Alpine Pursuit! I am an adventure enthusiast who loves travel, health, and photography.

So, you are ready to leave the crowds behind? A guide to backcountry hiking will teach you how to make a plan, prepare, and head out on the trail for a successful trip. The work is worth your effort. You are setting out to create some of the most memorable outdoor experiences of your life. Take the time to educate yourself. The guide to the backcountry outlines the proper approach to staying safe while out in the backwoods. A foundation for any person who plans to spend time in the backcountry. This guide to backcountry hiking will provide insight to gear selection, layering, pre-trip planning, weather, and avoiding medical problems.


Start With the Backcountry Hiking Essentials


A guide to backcountry hiking calls for every single person who is entering the backcountry to have the ten essentials.In addition, make sure to prepare adequately for your attempted route. Check out 7 Tips to Increase Your Hiking Stamina for more tips.



The “10” Essentials in the Backcountry


1. Navigation
2. Insulation
3. Light
4. Sun Protection
5. First-Aid Kit
6. Fire
7. Emergency Kit
8. Shelter
9. Water
10. Nutrition



Navigate the Backcountry


Know how to use a map and compass? If the answer is no, stop. Do not head out into the backcountry before learning this skill. Don’t be a fool. Always plan ahead.

One must master direction. Every person heading into the woods must be able to use a map and compass. In addition, backpackers have the option to use GPS systems. However, the fundamental skills must never be overlooked. Technology fails, so always know how to use a traditional map and compass.

A map, compass, and GPS system will provide the highest level of safety. The advanced GPS systems allow for additional features. These features include tracking your route, advanced signalling, 2-way offline messaging, and enhanced location assistance for search and rescue during an emergency. Every minute counts. Make sure to set yourself up for the greatest chance of survival. Technology can be great, but never rely on it. Nothing beats the basics.

Methods of Heat Loss While on a Hike


A guide to backcountry hiking involves keeping crucial body heat when in exposed weather for hours. The body loses heat in four ways. Take note on each of the methods and ways to avoid them.

Conduction is the loss of heat through direct contact with another surface, such as wet clothing or the ground. Whenever possible, replace with dry clothing and avoid direct contact with the ground. Convection is the transfer of heat through the movement of air, such as with wind, thus the importance of a wind breaker layer. Invest in a quality shell. A shell should protect against wind and rain while being able to ventilate effectively.

Radiation is the movement of rays of heat from a warm object to a colder one, thus the reason hats and face masks are important to prevent heat loss. A warm head will lose heat to the cold air. And evaporation occurs when tiny droplets of water are converted into vapor. The creation of vapor results in heat loss. When sweat evaporates from the skin, it causes a cooling effect. In turn the body removes heat.



Bad weather should be expected when in the backcountry. Hypothermia is one of the leading causes of death in the mountains. Thus, proper clothing is vital to success. A guide to backcountry hiking includes using the right layers at the right times. Effective layering is one of the best ways to avoid hypothermia.

Layering allows the addition and removal of clothing. The addition, or removal, of one layer at a time keeps a stable temperature. Along with temperature, layers are easy to place in a backpack. Layers pack better than large bulky jackets. Thin and foldable. Large all in one coats do not perform well in the backcountry. Long uphills and exposed ridge lines create the need to constantly shift clothing throughout a hike.

The key to mastering the art of layering is timing. Each layer serves a purpose. A layer should be added or removed at the appropriate time. Make sure to have a merino wool layer at the base, an insulating mid-layer, and waterproof hard shell on the outside. All layers should be moisture wicking and able to vent effectively. Sweat can cause just as big of a problem as rain. Either way, wet clothing will cause heat loss.

Mountains have wild weather. A day can start warm and mild at the beginning, changing to cold and windy towards the summit. Extra clothing is crucial. When one layer becomes wet you have the option to change.

A Guide to Planning Your Backcountry Hiking Trip


A guide to backcountry hiking involves creating a plan. You can never plan too much. Be sure to research different routes, duration of the hike, locations of water sources, and alternate ways off the mountain if caught in bad weather. The terrain will influence the choice of gear as well. Always know the terrain.

When creating a plan consider the physical limitations and comfort level of each member within the party. Physical limitations include fitness level, altitude acclimatization, ability to trek on exposed terrain, and joint health. Make adjustments accordingly. Never try to push a member too far.

Once a plan is in place, make sure to check inventory. The right gear equals a safe trip into the backcountry. It is easy to forget vital pieces of equipment when in a rush. Create a list of all pieces of needed equipment. Frequently check all equipment to make sure everything is working. When packing, check off each item from the list. Organize your equipment in an efficient way. Thus, you will always know where each piece of gear is without having to unpack your entire backpack.

Even a seemingly easy day-hike can turn into a nightmare in a matter of minutes. Take the necessary steps before departure. Plan to leave a detailed note with family about the route, duration, and when they should expect to hear from you again. Provide enough detail so that search and rescue could find you in case of an emergency. You have to plan for the worst. If search and rescue can narrow their area, you have a much better chance of survival.

A guide to backcountry hiking. On Mt. Rainier, starting to climb up the Muir Snowfield. The weather changes quickly, as it was sunny on the bottom but completely clouded in half way to Camp Muir.

On Mt. Rainier, starting to climb up the Muir Snowfield. The weather changes quickly, as it was sunny on the bottom but completely clouded in half way to Camp Muir.


A Guide to Weather When Hiking


Weather is always changing. The forecast may call for clear skies, but in the split of a second can change to a thunderstorm with high winds. You must check the weather before heading out every single time. The best habit is to check the weather right before departure. Weather is constantly changing.

Since weather changes so frequent, it is a good habit to pay attention to environmental clues. Clouds can tell a lot about approaching conditions. Whenever possible try to take a good look at the nearing clouds. The formation and movement of clouds provide valuable information on upcoming weather. Stay attentive. Weather can be dangerous anytime of the year.

Check out this article, Backpacker Backcountry Weather, for more information on how to predict weather.

A Guide to Backcountry Hiking Medical Conditions


While out in the backcountry, weather has a large effect on overall safety. A guide to backcountry hiking includes learning how to analyze weather conditions before it becomes too late. Weather changes quickly out in the mountains. A lack of preparation can be the difference between life and death. The following information displays the effects weather can have on the body.



The body needs water. As a matter of fact, the average person needs at least 20% of their body weight in ounces of water per day. This calculation is done without any activity. With strenuous exercise, much more water is needed throughout the day.

Dehydration is when the body does not have enough water to function properly. When dehydrated, you can begin to experience tiredness, dizziness, and confusion. To avoid dehydration you should consume water on a regular basis. Make sure to drink even when not thirsty. The sign of thirst is already too late. Electrolytes, especially salt, help to retain body fluids and prevent muscle cramps.

Heat-Related Illnesses


There are times where the body needs to release too much heat. In these times, interventions must be done before the situation requires medical attention. Generally, you will experience in order muscle cramps, heat exhaustion, and finally heat stroke.

Muscle cramps occur when the body becomes challenged with intense heat for an extended period of time. The body’s salt and fluid levels are low. This situation is not dangerous; however, one must monitor electrolyte and hydration levels more effectively. Rest and consume water. In addition, electrolyte packets will replenish imbalances linked to cramps and help with fluid retention.

Heat exhaustion is when the body cannot cool. Too much exertion in warm temperatures can cause clammy skin, weakness, and nausea. Rest and hydrate. Allow the body some time to catch up. If near water, try to submerge to cool. Interventions are critical. This condition is to be taken serious, as it can easily become heat stroke.

Heat stroke is a life-threatening condition. When heat exhaustion is not treated properly, you become excessively overheated and cannot continue to produce sweat. At this point the body is unable to cool itself. A person could have dry skin, weakness, flushed face, and eventually become unresponsive. Seek help as soon as possible.



The most common killer in the backcountry. Hypothermia is the drop of the body’s core temperature. There are a number of ways to avoid with the proper plan.

Food and water are the best way to generate heat. In addition, muscular activity creates heat with the use of food energy. It is crucial to know clothing and shelter only conserve heat.

The body’s first reaction to cold is to shiver. Shivering causes isometric contractions in attempt to begin to produce heat. Although, shivering lowers the body’s level of energy. If energy levels are low, the body may stop shivering all together. This is a bad sign.

As the body constricts blood to the core, one may begin to experience mental cloudiness. The change of chemical components in the brain cause victims to see vivid hallucinations. As hypothermia becomes more severe, the body may periodically pump warm blood to the colder extremities. The movement of this warm blood causes a person to feel a sensation of heat. One may begin to remove clothing. It is important to keep as much warmth as possible. Always monitor the person. Believe the signs, not the person.

Prevention is key. At the first signs of hypothermia, turn around. Reaching the peak is not worth your life. Hypothermia can be avoided with layering, reducing exposure to wind and wet conditions, and stay hydrated.



Frostbite is the freezing of deep tissues. Cold air, altitude, and constriction of blood vessels lead to the problem. The best way to avoid is prevention. The use of non-restrictive clothing and keeping your extremities warm will prevent deep tissue injuries.

Once frostbite is present, your priority should be to get out of the cold. Do not rewarm until out of the cold. The back and forth from warm to cold does not help improve the outcome. In fact, rewarming a frostbitten area to only have the same area re-exposed will lead to further, irreversible damage.

UV Radiation


When in direct sunlight, cover all exposed areas of skin and your eyes whenever possible. The sun is strong. The sun and elevation have a direct relationship. As you climb in altitude, the sun increases in strength. Pay attention. It can take only minutes during the right conditions to cause harm.

Sunburns will happen quickly. The use of sunscreen and covering exposed skin with clothing can stop any serious effects. The key is to remember to cover all skin. The underside of your arms, chin, and nose can get burnt from the reflection of the light on the snow.

Snow blindness is when sunlight is reflected off the snow on the ground into the eyes. The proper eye wear is crucial for prevention. Sunglasses or goggles should always be worn in areas of direct sunlight when in high altitude. The light is intensified with the reflection off the white surface of the snow. Snow blindness can occur in as little as thirty minutes. The pain does not occur until after the damage has been done.


Sitting above Dingboche, Nepal at 14,469 ft. The effects of high altitude can be felt at this elevation, including headaches, nausea, and insomnia.

Sitting above Dingboche, Nepal at 14,469 ft. The effects of high altitude can be felt at this elevation, including headaches, nausea, and insomnia.

High-Altitude Sickness


Generally speaking, most individuals live at a low elevation. Problems with altitude can occur at as low as 5,000 feet. As you ascend, the level of oxygen decreases and it becomes more difficult for your body to perform. Altitude sickness is directly due to the low level of oxygen. The body is unable to adapt if pushed too quickly. In summary, the body will begin to slow all functions.

Typical symptoms include headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, and fatigue. These symptoms may increase in severity. A person may experience insomnia, vomiting, and unconsciousness. Life threatening conditions are high altitude cerebral edema (swelling of the brain) and high altitude pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs).

The gradual approach to altitude can prevent sickness. The body will likely adapt.  A general rule is to take a rest day after gaining 3,000 feet in elevation. A rest day allows for the body to adjust to the low levels of oxygen. While on the rest day, it is recommended to climb to a higher altitude before returning to a lower altitude to sleep.

In addition, start drinking extra fluids a few days before starting to climb. Ever person handles altitude differently. So, if it is your first time in high altitude just prepare to take your time. Slow and steady is the way, especially when you are unfamiliar with how your body adapts to changes in altitude.

Conclusion: A Guide to Backcountry Hiking


The number one rule to the backcountry is to stay safe. A series of tasks must be completed prior to leaving for your trip. The first is to have the proper knowledge, training, and gear. Those all save lives.

The next in order to have a successful trip is to check the weather forecast, familiarize yourself with the terrain, and create a detailed plan to leave with a family member. While on the trail you must eat nutritious foods and hydrate. Always be thinking ahead. Plan to eat before you are hungry and drink before you get thirsty. Monitor your body temperature. Plan to adjust layers before becoming too cold or hot. The key is to create a consistent temperature. Keep an eye out at the clouds in order to get out of a dangerous environment before severe weather.

If you keep planning ahead you will be much more likely to avoid emergencies. In conclusion, heading out into the backcountry is dangerous and takes work. Never take shortcuts. If you put in the work, you will definitely be rewarded. The backcountry is an awesome place to enjoy.

A great source for planning your first overnight hiking trip can be found at Adventure Junkies.

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