Tag Archives: backcountry camping

Tent pitched in front of lake

Why I Love Wild (Backcountry) Camping

It’s a warm summer’s night. Mosquitoes flit around my head, looking for a patch of bare skin on which to dine. The sun has just dipped below the horizon, and around me the snow-capped mountains fall into darkness. Nature’s goliaths; magnificent by day, menacing by night. Below me, the lights of Vancouver are twinkling. I take a one last glug of red wine and decide it’s time for sleep. It’s been a big Friday evening, after all.

But instead of a queen-sized bed adorned with a fluffy duvet, my shelter for the night is a miniscule two-person tent. A blow-up mattress provides a degree of luxury, while my ‘pillow’ is a rolled up down jacket. For you see, I’m camping. But I’m not at a campsite. There’s no one else here, no wardens, no fees to pay and no designated pitches. I’m backcountry camping. Or to use the European vernacular, ‘wild camping’.

A Friday night well-spent

Earlier in the day, I packed my backpack with all the essentials required to keep me alive (red wine included). I cycled to a trailhead and hauled myself and my overstuffed backpack halfway up a mountain. Accompanied by my boyfriend, I set up camp on a rocky plateau, cooked dinner and just…relaxed. There’s no need to ‘do’ anything. It’s a gorgeous spot. Soaking up the views is entertainment enough.

In the morning we enjoy some coffee and hot porridge, watching as the sun burns through the clouds to reveal the coastal mountain range once again. We pack up and make the return journey, by now our thoughts turned to all the chores that must be achieved over the weekend. Before we leave, I take one last look around me. There is absolutely no indication that we’ve been here.

I consider it a Friday night well-spent. The alternative would have been a pizza eaten on the sofa while watching something mindless on Netflix. Instead, I’ve immersed myself in nature, and this makes me happy. Why? There are so many reasons. Because it’s beautiful. Because it’s a fun adventure. Because I prefer the simple life. Because I enjoy being in splendid isolation; a welcome retreat from the chaos that we call civilisation.

Backcountry camping near Squamish, British Columbia

The science of ecopsychology

I’ve known for a long-time that being outdoors is good for me. Now, science has confirmed what I’ve suspected all along: that time spent in nature is an antidote for stress. The scientific movement of ‘ecopsychology’ has discovered that exposure to nature has all kinds of incredible benefits. Not only does it do things like enhance your mood and lower your blood pressure, it even reduces crime rates and improves cognitive functioning.

The notion of reconnecting with nature has seeped into the public consciousness of late. People are realising how distanced they are from the natural world – and just how much better they feel after a walk in the park or a good stomp along a woodland trail. The Japanese concept of forest bathing is gaining traction in the western world, and is even an ‘experience’ offered by some hotels and tour operators. But it doesn’t have to cost anything. I just packed my bag on a Friday afternoon and walked out my front door.

Leave no trace

Yet this revitalised interest in the natural world is a double-edged sword. There have been reports in the UK of people camping across the Lake District, leaving litter and trampling across the natural habitat. One woman even found a wheelie suitcase, left abandoned for someone else to deal with. This, of course, is not OK. There are rules to wild camping, which are known collectively as the Leave No Trace principles.

This disregard for the natural environment does little to help the cause of wild campers – something which is already viewed with suspicion in England. In fact, it’s only legal in Dartmoor National Park. The whole thing is a shady business; you’re advised to arrive late and leave early to avoid detection. Get caught and you risk a fine for trespassing and a severe telling off from the landowner. And you can never really relax for fear that you’ll be found out.

Having lived in Canada for four years, this now seems laughable. Wild camping – or backcountry camping as it’s known state-side – is practically a birth-right. A whopping 94% of British Columbia is Crown land, meaning it can be accessed by the public, so long as that does not mean infringing on a First Nations community. Sleeping in the wilds is considered the norm, and even heavily protected Provincial Parks have designated backcountry camping sites.

The USA also has vast swathes of public land, held in trust for the American people. Compare this to England, where almost all the land is privately owned. The right to roam is severely restricted. Even where public footpaths exist, they are typically located on private land – meaning you cannot camp there without the landowner’s permission.

Wild camping in Dartmoor National Park
Wild camping in Dartmoor National Park

Cultural disparity

In four years of living in B.C., I have been on numerous backcountry camping trips. Not once have I been moved on, told off, been called irresponsible or looked at with distaste. Quite the contrary. Most people want to know where you’re going, what route you took and where the nearest water supply is – all information logged so they, too, can recreate a similar excursion. It’s just a part of the lifestyle.

This cultural disparity struck a chord recently when I read The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. While walking the South West Coastal Path in England, Raynor and her husband camp on a beach one night. In the morning, a passing dog-walker calls them “disgusting”. I found this shocking. Have we become so removed from nature that sleeping under the stars is something to be reviled? Why exactly is wild camping all-but outlawed in England, but positively encouraged elsewhere?

Perhaps places like Canada are just more ‘outdoorsy’? Maybe it’s because the population is considerably smaller, yet has far more space to enjoy – space which is actually open to the public? Or is it because people (for the most part) obey the rules regarding backcountry camping? Most likely, it’s a combination of all these things.

Wild camping is not “disgusting”

All I know is that when done properly, there is nothing disgusting about wild camping. Evidently, a degree of education and respect is needed. Litterbugs can’t be tolerated and the habitat must be handled delicately. If the whole of the UK descends on Dartmoor for a Saturday night, then clearly there will be problems. But there are ways to manage the situation. In British Columbia, for example, backcountry camping permits are required for provincial parks, and rangers patrol the area to enforce the rules.

Some might question why you can’t just go to a campsite. But actually, campgrounds can be expensive, not to mention noisy and overrun with people. It’s completely different to being in the wilderness. You don’t get the sense of freedom or the enjoyment of the untamed landscape. It’s also unavailable to those who – like Raynor Winn and her husband – cannot afford the cost of a campground night after night.

The fact that sleeping on a beach is viewed with antipathy just goes to show how disconnected from nature we still are. In this day and age when we’re all being told to go outside more, this seems very contradictory. Perhaps it’s time to see wild camping for what it really is – not a crime, but a perfectly acceptable outdoor activity. Ultimately, this could have so many benefits. For our physical health. For our mental health. And who knows, perhaps even for Mother Nature herself. Because if others are anything like me, the more time they spend living up close and personal to nature, the more they’ll want to protect it.

Hiking in Tetrahedron Provincial Park

If you love a backcountry cabin, then Tetrahedron Provincial Park is for you. With four maintained huts to choose from and a network of hiking trails to explore, it makes for a perfect weekend adventure.

Tetrahedron Provincial Park is located on the Sunshine Coast, near Sechelt. In winter it’s a haven for backcountry skiers, who skin up to Mount Steele and Panther Peak in search of fresh lines. Come the warmer months, hikers hit the trails – although not in any great numbers, it seems. When we visited on a sunny Friday evening in August, ours was the only car in the parking lot.

The hiking here isn’t difficult, if you don’t want it to be. You gain a significant amount of elevation when you drive up the logging road to the trailhead. From then on, you can weave your way along undulating trails, past subalpine lakes and boggy wetlands. If you prefer more of an ascent, the hike to Mount Steele is available and is around 8kms (one way) to the summit.

Chapman Lake

There are four backcountry cabins in the park, making this an ideal opportunity to stay overnight. While the cabins are rustic, they are brilliantly maintained by volunteers at the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club. Each has a stove stocked with firewood, a sink and grey water bucket (but no running water), a dining table and benches, an outhouse and a range of survival equipment. Even comfy sleeping pads are provided.

You cannot reserve these cabins – they are first come, first serve. You have to be prepared to share. The upstairs sleeping quarters are cosy, so you might want to take some ear plugs. In theory, the only other items you need are your sleeping bag, cooking equipment, water, toilet roll and dishwashing soap. I always recommend taking a tent, just in case the cabins are full. And you must pack out what you pack in – including food waste.

The hiking route

The great thing about hiking in Tetrahedron Provincial Park is that there are numerous options open to you. I wanted to see as much as possible in 48 hours, so devised a loop that incorporated all four cabins.

From the parking lot, we hiked the 4.5kms to Edwards Lake cabin. The first section is along an old logging trail, which if truth be told, isn’t very inspirational. Then, all of a sudden, you’re deep within the forest. The bushes are teeming with berries in August (and bears!) The terrain is easy-going, so it doesn’t take long until you skirt the edges of Edwards Lake. The cabin itself is a little further along the trail.

Backcountry cabin in the forest
Edwards Lake cabin

We stayed the night at Edwards Lake cabin, which we had entirely to ourselves. In the morning, we left our big packs behind and put together a day hiking bag. We then headed over to McNair Lake cabin, which is 5kms (one way). The trail rolls up and down, over roots and creeks – some with questionable bridges. As you get closer to Chapman’s Lake, the ground gets wet and boggy. McNair Lake cabin appears shortly afterwards.

Backcountry cabin in the forest
McNair Lake cabin

At this point we still hadn’t seen another human being since entering the park. In fact, we didn’t see anyone else until later that afternoon, when we came across a big group heading to Mount Steele. Walking alone to McNair Cabin was almost eerie, and strange for a Saturday in mid-summer. In Tetrahedron, it feels like you don’t have to go far to achieve a sense of isolation and remoteness.

After eating lunch, we retraced our footsteps almost to Edwards Lake cabin. But instead of turning left to the cabin, we continued upwards to Mount Steele cabin, which from this point is 3km one way. It’s a steep climb, so it’s much easier without a fully loaded backpack. From Mount Steele cabin, it’s a short hike up to the summit. We then returned to Edward’s Lake cabin for a second night, and this time we were joined by a local couple.

Alpine landscape with cabin
Walking up towards Mount Steele cabin

In the morning, we packed up all our belongings and returned almost to the parking lot. However, when we got to Victor’s Landing, we took a left turn towards Bachelor Lake cabin. There’s also a stone arrow on the floor to point you in the right direction. This is not a well-trodden path and is overgrown, so you need to follow your nose. You skirt the edge of the valley before descending down into the forest.

Backcountry cabin in the forest
Bachelor Lake cabin

Apparently, Bachelor Lake cabin is the party cabin. We didn’t find any hungover souls, but we did have lunch and a swim in the lake. We then returned to the parking lot via the normal summer trail – just follow the orange trail markers. And there you have it! Two days, four cabins and a few kms under our belts.

Woman sits in front of lake
Bachelor Lake

Of course, you don’t have to follow this route. You can pick and choose which cabins or lakes you want to go to. Some might prefer the out and back to Mount Steele. This seemed to be the preferred destination for the hikers we did meet. Others may opt for the loop from the parking lot to Edwards Lake, returning via Bachelor Lake. For solitude, I suspect McNair Lake cabin is the best bet. It’s entirely up to you.

Know before you go

The road to the parking lot is steep and extremely rough. We just about managed it in a Honda Odyssey – but only just. If you do not have a 4WD with good clearance, do not attempt to make it to the upper parking lot. If you visit in winter, 4WD and snow chains are essential.

The cabins are maintained by volunteers from the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club. If you’re staying, they ask for a donation of $15 per person, per night, or $25 per family, per night. Fees are payable to the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club can be paid online. If you want to send a cheque, there are pre-addressed envelopes in the cabins.

There is no running water in the cabins. In the summer, you can refill at the creeks and the lakes. Water should be boiled or treated.

In the summer months the park is bursting with berries. Where you find berries, you inevitably find bears (we saw two). So, be bear aware!

Man holds bowl of berries
Freshly picked berries covered in chocolate

There is little-to-no cell reception in the park.

Conditions are very different in winter. The lakes may be frozen and avalanche hazards exist.

Red tent pitched in front of lake

Top Tips for Backcountry Camping

Sure, expensive hotels are nice, with their fluffy towels and pressed linens. But if you ask me, nothing beats packing up your rucksack, venturing into the wilderness and setting up camp for the night. Not even The Ritz.

Overnight hikes into the backcountry are a challenge, of course. But they’re also so rewarding. You can go further than you otherwise would during a day hike, and it gives you more time to spend at a favourite lake or a beautiful vista. You can also set up a basecamp and explore the area further, without your bag weighing you down.

However, if you’ve never done an overnight hike before – also known as wild or backcountry camping – then it can seem a little intimidating. You might be asking yourself: ‘can I really pack everything I will need for a night (or more) and carry it for miles on end…and then carry it back again?’

Let me tell you – with the right planning and the right mindset, the answer is undoubtedly yes!

However, I’m obliged to warn you that it can take a lot of practise to hone your backcountry camping skills. I remember doing my first overnight hike at school as part of my Duke of Edinburgh Award. I had an impossibly big bag which weighed a ton. After many gruelling hours of walking I arrived at camp, my shoulders torn to shreds, my hips in agony, and little desire for a repeat performance.

Thankfully I did give it a second go, and a third, and then I got hooked. There were times when I took too much, and times when I took too little, but now (a little bit like Goldilocks’ porridge) I feel like I’ve got it ‘just right’. Yet it would be nice if you didn’t have to go through the same trauma as me. So, if you’ve always wanted to try an overnight hike but you’re not sure where to start, here are a few tips to help you along your way.

Get the right bag

Having the wrong backpack can result in tortuous discomfort, particularly on the shoulders, back and hips. Therefore it is well worth getting your mitts on a backpack which fits your body. Play around with the straps and continue to adjust them until it feels comfortable. About 80% of the weight should be rest on your hips and 20% should rest on your shoulders.

You might be tempted to go for the smallest bag you can find, but don’t forget, you need to have enough room for all your stuff! It’s difficult to say what size is best as it will depend on so many factors, such as how long you’re going for, how small your gear packs down, and how good you are at cutting the non-essentials from your life. Generally, something between 50L and 65L is suitable. If you’re planning on sleeping in a hammock, you can get away with less.

Invest in lightweight gear

Buy, rent or borrow lightweight gear. Seriously, it makes a huge difference. In particular, having a small lightweight tent, roll-mat or mattress, and compact sleeping bag are key. Not only will it leave more space in your bag for other essentials, it will reduce the amount of weight you’re carrying. Which is, as I’m about to explain, absolutely vital.

What do you really need? Really?

It falls on your shoulders to take everything you need – quite literally. Unless you really enjoy pain, you’re going to want to make your bag as light as possible. That means that every single thing you pack needs to be there for a reason.

Now then, that doesn’t mean you should leave out sensible things, like a medical kit. Rather, cut down on the luxuries and non-essentials. Remember, you’re going backcountry camping, not to luxuriate at the Fairmont. If you’re going for one night, you don’t need seven outfits. And no, you don’t need your favourite fluffy pillow!

Think carefully about food and water

When you arrive at your destination, there won’t be a 7/11 will aisles full of delicious snacks and hot coffee on tap. Oh no. And if you don’t have enough food and water, it will make for a very miserable (and potentially dangerous) adventure.

When it comes to water, you’ll probably need more than you think. Hiking with heavy backpacks on is thirsty work, and you may also need water for cooking. Check whether there are any fresh water sources en route where you can refill, bearing in mind that creeks and rivers can dry up during the warmer months. If there aren’t any, carefully consider how much water you will need and load up your bag. Yes, it’s heavy. But you’re going to need it.

As for food, there are a variety of options available. Lots of people opt for the pouches of freeze-dried food. If possible, I avoid these in favour of homemade food. If you do too, don’t plan meals that require every single pot, pan and utensil in your kitchen cupboard (or lots of water). Instead, think about what is going to be easiest on a single gas-burner.

If I’m just going for one night, I’ll normally pre-cook a meal and simmer it for hours, meaning it reduces right down and can be easily packed into a small jar. When it comes to dinnertime at camp, I simply need to heat it up and rehydrate it with some water. Et voilà, a delicious meal is served!

Prepare for Leave No Trace principles

Whenever you are in the great outdoors, practice Leave No Trace principles. Pack out what you pack in, taking all your rubbish and trash home with you. If you need to relieve yourself (you know what I mean!) then bury it. And if you are camping for the night, don’t disturb the local flora and fauna when pitching your tent.

Have a practise run

It can be a great idea to have a practice run. Lay out everything you think you would take on an overnight hike, pack it in your bag, then go on a short walk or hike (preferably a trail you know well, so you don’t get lost). This will give you a good idea of how it feels to hike with a backpack, and whether you can realistically manage to carry the weight for an extended period of time. If not, you may need to shave a few pounds.

Start with something easy

For your first backcountry camping experience, don’t go crazy. You don’t need to conquer the world just yet. Instead, choose an easy route with minimal elevation gain, little to no technical sections and pleasant weather conditions. Once you’ve refined your skills and grown in confidence, you can start on some more difficult trails, or even multi-day hikes. It won’t be long before you’re eyeing up Everest basecamp.