Thu. Dec 7th, 2023
Backcountry Basics: Knowing Your Limits

You’ve heard about this fantastic new adventure from a friend, a trail guide, or Instagram. It seems a little difficult and you’re pretty new to the whole backcountry thing.

Still, you don’t want to miss it, so you decide to do it.

But when you start planning, there is a little voice that wonders if this is In fact the best idea.

Listen to that voice.

It may cross your mind, so here are some questions to ponder as you prepare for an upcoming outing and decide if it’s a safe option for you.

Women carrying their hiking equipment.

Know your comfort and skill levels

Don’t skip this section!

It may seem basic, but it gets some visitors into trouble every year.

campers cooking on the stove

Ask yourself these questions before planning any activity, whether in the field or otherwise:

  • Have you done this activity (hike/bike/row) before?
  • How far do you usually go? And what level of difficulty have your past experiences been at?
  • How is your heart health?
  • Are you a good swimmer?
  • Are you a strong and experienced paddler?
  • Are you going with someone with more experience who can guide you?
  • If you were to get trapped, do you have wilderness skills to keep you safe until help arrives?
  • Can you bring everything you need to pack?

Do you bring a child or pet with you? Go over the same set of questions for them.

Be realistic and honest with yourself when answering these questions.

Choosing a ride that fits your skill and comfort levels will help minimize the chance of injury, accidents, rescue, and tragedy. (It will probably make your trip more pleasant, too.)

Plan your route

Have you ever planned a trip and know where to start?

This differs from frontcountry to backcountry because you can’t simply follow Google Maps to get to the campground or rely on the site’s sequential numbers to guide you.

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Ask yourself:

  • Do you understand the difficulty of the route according to the description and the map?
  • Can you read a map?
  • Once you’re on the trail or at the lake, will you be able to tell north from south?
  • Can you read a measure and do you know what to do with the reading?

Couple planning their route with a map by the lake.

Knowing how to read a map and a compass will help you calculate the distance and difficulty of your trip. It will also help you navigate once you’re exploring because the real world looks very different than a few marks on a sheet of paper.

If you’ve never sailed before, choose a beginner-friendly sailing option, such as a simple place to paddle before embarking on a more complex trip.

Consider the temperature, weather and season.

The weather plays a big role in the success of your trip and as we all know, the forecast can always change.

Ask yourself:

  • Have you checked the weather for the dates of your trip?
  • Have you packed appropriate clothing for the forecast and season?
  • Have you packed? extra Clothes in case the forecast changes?
  • Is your equipment adequately waterproofed?
  • Do you know what to do if it snows, rains, or thunderstorms while you’re on the trail, in the water, or at your site?
  • If you fall into cold water, do you know how to get out and warm up?
  • Do you know when it’s time to turn back?

kayak on stormy beach

The weather can change in the blink of an eye. Being prepared to deal with inclement weather is a big part of being prepared to venture into the backcountry.

Remember: unlike the rural front, you can’t just hop in your car when the weather turns bad or the temperature drops.

Make absolutely sure you have the knowledge and equipment to navigate in bad weather.

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Pack the essentials

There are many options to get extra comfort on your trip, but don’t ignore the essentials to make room for them.

Touring equipment next to a canoe on the coast.

Ask yourself:

  • Are you sure you have everything you need?
  • Do you have enough food?
  • Do you have the option to filter water and do you know how to use it?
  • Do you have shelter?
  • Have you packed a first aid kit and know how to use it?
  • Have you refilled any prescription medications to make sure you have enough?
  • If you are paddling, do you have the mandatory equipment required by law?
  • Can you carry everything you need on one trip or are you prepared to take multiple trips?

A couple canoeing through the countryside and taking out their trash.

You can’t run to the store to buy extras while you’re in the field. You could be miles from the nearest store, so make sure you have everything you need with you.

And remember: everything you bring must come back with you. Do not leave trash or equipment behind.

Tell someone where you’re going

Once you’ve chosen a route and decided how long you’ll be gone, share that plan with someone responsible who will monitor your progress.

Remember: Cell reception is generally not available in the backcountry.

GPS unit and map.

Ask yourself:

  • Will they have good cell reception or the ability to call for help if you need it?
  • Do you trust them to follow an emergency message?
  • Do they understand who to contact and how to communicate their location to emergency teams?
  • Will they notice if you don’t come back on time?

Get more support

If you’re less experienced or need a confidence boost, try these tips:

  • Test your skills with short trips or easier routes initially.
  • Practice at home (this works for skills ranging from packing to carrying)
  • First book a trip with an experienced provider to learn the basics from a professional.
  • Go with someone who has more experience than you and be honest with them about your comfort/skill level.

For additional trip planning resources, visit My Canadian Canoe Routes or other guides, the Canadian Red Cross and