Frontcountry vs. backcountry camping: Is hiking to campsites better than driving?

by | Oct 21, 2022 | Beginners

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When you think of “camping,” what comes to mind? Do you think of a campground? Or do you think of hiking through the wilderness on a backpacking trip?

There are two main ways of camping: frontcountry camping and backcountry camping.

Both are great ways to enjoy the outdoors, but they’re quite different. Let’s take a deep dive into each one so you can decide which one is right for you.

What is frontcountry camping?

Two children sitting at a picnic table at a frontcountry campsite.

The term “frontcountry camping” refers to camping in developed areas near roads, towns, and cities. This generally means you’re at a campground and you can drive right up to your campsite.

Frontcountry camping is the most popular type of camping. It’s convenient and easy, which makes it great for families or first-time campers.

There are plenty of frontcountry camping options all over the country. You can stay at a state or national park, or even a private campground.

The campsites at frontcountry campgrounds are usually well-maintained and have amenities like running water, flush toilets, and electricity. Many also have change rooms and showers, plus cell phone service—sometimes including free WiFi in communal areas.

What frontcountry campsites look like at a campground

An RV trailer parked on a frontcountry campsite.

Frontcountry campsites are usually found along campground roads (paved or dirt) and are situated close together. This means that you’re likely to have other campers beside you, behind you, and across the road from you.

The size of a frontcountry campsite can vary, but they’re usually large enough to accommodate a few tents and at least one to two vehicles. The area is clear of vegetation and the ground has been flattened by campground staff so you can park your vehicle and set up your tent.

A frontcountry campsite will usually have an established fire pit (such as a fire ring) with a grill and a picnic table. Some also have bear-proof food storage lockers to keep your food safe from animals.

Keep in mind that many campgrounds also allow people to camp in RVs and trailers. Campsites designated for these types of vehicles will have electrical and water hookups so you can bring all the comforts of home with you on your camping trip.

What is backcountry camping?

A man sitting by a river on a backcountry campsite.

The “backcountry” refers to undeveloped areas that are remote and only accessible by foot or boat (or plane, helicopter, or snowmobile in the winter). When it comes to camping, this means hiking, boating, paddling, or flying out by float plane to a campsite that’s not accessible by road.

Backcountry camping is a much more adventurous, rugged, and remote way to camp compared to frontcountry camping because you’re farther away from modern amenities including roads, stores, facilities, and even other people.

For many people, this is the appeal of backcountry camping—it allows you to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and really connect with nature. it also gives you the opportunity to travel along a route and set up camp at different spots along the way.

It’s a far more immersive experience compared to frontcountry camping, which is more casual and convenient. You definitely need more skills and preparation to go backcountry camping, but the rewards are well worth it.

What backcountry campsites look like in a park or on trail

A backcountry campsite with a fire pit overlooking a lake.

Backcountry campsites vary depending on where you’re camping. For instance, if you’re camping in a state, provincial, or national park, campsites will typically be marked with a sign.

They’ll often have clear and flattened spots for tents, a fire pit, and sometimes a privy or outhouse. Well-used campsites might also have wood dropped off by park staff and bushcraft features like log benches and tables.

Like campground campsites, you typically need to book and pay for a campsite in a park. On Crown land (Canada) or public land (U.S.), you don’t need to book. You can stay on Canadian Crown land for up to 21 days and usually around 14 days on U.S. public land—however exact limits vary by location.

Crown or public land campsites are often used less and aren’t necessarily maintained by local conservation or volunteer groups. Although you can certainly find some stellar sites that are equal to or better than what you can find in a park or conservation area, it’s more common to come across campsites that are less than ideal—grown over with vegetation, not very flat, without an established fire pit, and without a privy or outhouse.

What’s the difference between frontcountry vs. backcountry camping?

The main difference between frontcountry and backcountry camping is the level of development and amenities at each type of campsite.

Frontcountry camping is accessible by car or RV and usually takes place in regional or private campgrounds.

Backcountry camping is much more primitive than frontcountry camping, and is only accessible by foot, boat, plane/helicopter, or snowmobile.

Frontcountry camping is a more casual, convenient way to camp, while backcountry camping is a more adventurous, immersive experience.

The benefits of frontcountry camping

The trunk of a car filled with camping gear parked on a frontcountry campsite.

Frontcountry camping has a lot of perks to offer, which is why it’s such a popular activity. Its main benefits include:

Convenience. You don’t need to spend hours upon hours hiking or paddling to reach your campsite. Likewise, all your gear can be transported by vehicle.

Beginner friendliness. If you’re new to camping, frontcountry camping is a great way to start since it’s not as challenging as backcountry camping.

Access to amenities. Campground sgive you access to safe drinking water, toilet facilities, showers, and even cell service. Many also sell firewood at the front gate so you don’t have to source and process your own.

Safety in numbers. There are usually other people around in case of an emergency, which can give you some peace of mind.

Beach, trail, and landmark access. Since frontcountry campsites are typically located near popular areas, it’s easy to explore your surroundings.

Accommodation for families and large groups. Many campground include big campsites that can fit multiple tents, vehicles, or RVs, which is great for families and large groups.

The drawbacks of frontcountry camping

A sign that says Camp Ground Full.

Although frontcountry camping is a great way to enjoy the outdoors, it’s not for everyone. You might find that frontcountry camping is:

Expensive. Campgrounds typically allow you to book and pay on a per night basis, with private campgrounds typically costing more.

Hard to book. The most popular campgrounds fill up fast. If you don’t book well in advance, you might not get a spot.

Crowded. Frontcountry camping can often feel more like a crowded picnic than a wilderness experience—especially on holiday weekends at the height of the summer season.

Less private. Most campgrounds have their campsites close together, meaning that you can expect to have lots of neighbours all around you.

Noisy. It can be hard to get a good night’s sleep when you can hear your neighbours all around you. Many people book frontcountry campsites to celebrate family reunions, birthdays, and other social events that involve staying up late and partying.

Prone to critter problems. You’d think that backcountry camping would be more likely to attract critters, but frontcountry campgrounds often have their fair share of raccoons, mice, and even bears because they’ve grown accustom to careless campers who leave food and trash out.

The benefits of backcountry camping

Two campers toasting their mugs at sunset on a backcountry campsite.

Backcountry camping is a more rustic and remote experience that comes with a few key benefits, including:

A sense of isolation and adventure. Since you have to hike or paddle to reach your campsite, backcountry camping feels more like an adventure. You’re often rewarded with spectacular views and a greater sense of solitude.

Fewer people. Campsites are typically spaced out along backcountry camping trails, lakes, rivers, and mountainsides so you have much more privacy. Keep in mind that more popular parks, like Algonquin Park in Ontario, Canada, may have multiple backcountry campsites in concentrated areas—meaning there’s a higher chance of seeing and hearing other campers.

More peace and quiet. Since there are fewer people around, it’s usually much quieter in the backcountry. This is ideal if you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and relax in nature.

An opportunity to disconnect. Most backcountry areas don’t have cell service, which means you’ll be forced to unplug from text messages, email, social media, and online news. This can be a great way to reset and recharge.

A greater chance to see wildlife. Backcountry camping gives you a front row seat to all the action since you’ll be exploring and camping in areas where animals live and roam.

The choice to set up a basecamp or travel along a route. Some backcountry campsites are located along trails, making them ideal for thru-hikers or multi-day backpackers. Others are located on lakes or rivers, which gives you the option to paddle or float to different campsites.

A challenging yet rewarding experience. Backcountry camping requires more planning and effort than frontcountry camping, but it’s often seen as a more rewarding experience. There’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with pitching your tent in a remote location after a long hike or paddle.

The drawbacks of backcountry camping

A person standing next to their tent on a backcountry campsite in the mountains beside a river.

Although backcountry camping can be an incredibly adventurous and rewarding experience, it’s not without its challenges. You might find that backcountry camping is:

More difficult to access. Backcountry campsites are often located in remote areas that can be difficult to reach. This means you might have to hike for miles or paddle for hours just to reach your campsite.

Less comfortable. Backcountry campsites are typically more rustic than frontcountry campsites, which means you might have to rough it a bit more. Don’t expect amenities like running water, toilets, or picnic tables.

More rugged. Don’t expect your backcountry campsite to have everything you need. You may need to build a fire pit, clear away brush or vegetation, or find a dead standing tree to chop down for firewood.

More physically demanding. It takes time and effort to get to a remote backcountry campsite. This is especially true if the terrain is rugged, steep, rocky, and unmaintained by staff or volunteer groups. You should be in good physical shape for backcountry camping.

More dangerous. Backcountry campsites are usually located in remote areas, which means it can be difficult to get help if something goes wrong. Be sure to brush up on your wilderness skills, be prepared for all kinds of weather, bring a map, pack a first aid kit, tell someone where you’re going, and bring a personal locator beacon or satellite GPS messenger like the SPOT Gen4.

More difficult to find drinking water. If you’re backpacking on a trail, you’ll need to make note of where to find water and use a water filtration system to be able to safely drink it. Our favourite products include the BeFree 1-litre water filter and the Sawyer Mini.

Expensive in terms of gear needed. You may need to invest in some high-quality gear to make your backcountry camping trip a safe and enjoyable one. This may include ultralight gear for backpacking and cold weather rated sleep gear for dealing with colder temperatures. You may also need specialized gear items like trail running shoes, hiking boots, or clothing (such as North Face women’s or North Face men’s outerwear).

Which camping style is right for you?

Two camping chairs in front of a fire pit at a campsite.

We’ve camped both in the frontcountry and backcountry, and as intermediate-level campers who prefer traveling by canoe, backcountry camping is our preferred choice. But everyone is entitled to their personal preferences.

Here’s how to choose whether frontcountry vs. backcountry camping is right for you:

Consider camping in the frontcountry if:

  • You’ve never gone camping before
  • You’ve gone camping before, but it was a long time ago
  • You’d rather spend more time relaxing than working hard
  • You enjoy creature comforts like running water, toilets, and picnic tables
  • You want to camp with young kids, dogs, or multiple friends or family members without much outdoor experience
  • You have basic camping gear (a tent, tarp, and sleep system including an air mattress and sleeping bag)
  • You don’t mind being in close proximity to other campers

Consider camping in the backcountry if:

  • You enjoy being outdoors
  • The thought of spending time in a remote wilderness area excites you
  • You have some experience camping, hiking, backpacking, or paddling
  • You’re comfortable with “roughing it” for the sake of adventure
  • You’re in good physical shape
  • You’ve researched and invested in the proper gear needed for a safe and successful backcountry camping trip
  • You understand that backcountry planning takes planning and preparation
  • You’re willing to implement backup plans and take necessary safety precautions in case of emergency

Whether you plan on backpacking or heading to one of the best frontcountry campgrounds, get ready to grab your gear and head north!

We hope this gave you a little bit of insight into frontcountry vs. backcountry camping to help you decide which kind of trip to plan. Just remember to leave no trace, camp safely, and have fun!

Happy camping!

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About Us

Elise & Ross

We’re Elise and Ross, avid backcountry campers and outdoor adventurers! We started Gone Camping Again as a way to share our knowledge and experience about wilderness living and travel. Our hope is that we inspire you to get outside and enjoy all that nature has to offer!

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