Tired of Overcrowded National Parks? Here’s How to Go Backcountry Camping.

Alisa Tang/The Washington Post
Stargazers, some using less intrusive red lights as flashlights, observe the sky and Perseid meteor shower in August 2023 at Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

Everyone seems to be a camper these days, including folks who once feigned an allergy to nature.

According to Recreation.gov, which handles reservations for nine federal agencies, the number of camping reservations increased from 2.72 million in 2019 to 4.14 million last year. For this summer, 143 campground facilities are sold out from June through August and another 232 campgrounds are at capacity for a least one peak month.

If your version of the outdoors does not include trunk-slamming car campers and wheezing RVs, then you need to venture deeper into the wild.

“Backcountry camping is an opportunity to connect more with the wilderness, to have a little more solitude and to get away from cellphone service,” said Sarah Martin, Rocky Mountain director of the National Outdoor Leadership School.

Not surprisingly, wilderness or backcountry camping has also grown in popularity. Recreation.gov issued 371,000 permits last year, compared with 188,000 in 2019. Due to demand, the number of permit facilities has jumped from 38 in 2019 to 81 this year. However, the rigors of backpacking without standard services works as a filter; only the heartiest apply.

“Nobody is responsible for taking care of you, for cleaning up after you, for making sure that you put out your fire,” said Andrea Ference, an experienced backcountry camper based in the Canadian Rockies. “It is more self-reliant camping than traditional front-country camping.”

For first-timers, backcountry camping might seem intimidating. But with the right tools, digging a latrine and sleeping far from civilization will become second nature.

What is backcountry camping?

The National Park Service defines the category as “one or more primitive or wilderness areas which are reached primarily by hiking, boating or horseback.”

The agency emphasizes that a developed campground on a remote parcel of land, such as Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, does not qualify. The campsites fall into one of three categories: designated, designated-dispersed and dispersed, the most rugged option.

Backcountry camping is available on public lands in a range of environments, such as mountains, deserts and wetlands. The parks distinguish the backcountry from the more established hiking and camping areas.

For example, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia boasts more than 196,000 acres of backcountry and wilderness. Denali National Park in Alaska divides its 6 million acres into 87 backcountry units covering thousands of acres each. In Everglades National Park, the 1.4 million-acre Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness is the largest subtropical wilderness in the country.

Though backcountry campers carry all of their gear and basically fend for themselves, the activity has a few guardrails. Many parks will map out routes and designate campsites for backcountry campers. You might even share trails with day-trippers or less ambitious campers. But in the wilder spots, you will be alone. Well, not entirely alone.

Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post
Clouds move across the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah National Forest.

Purchase your permit

Many parks require backcountry campers to acquire a permit during peak times or year-round. Purchase it as soon as possible. The number of spaces is capped, and demand can be high.

“Gaining access to the permit has become a much bigger hurdle, especially since the pandemic,” said Ference, who has camped in about 20 national parks. “If you don’t have a permit in advance, there’s almost a zero percent chance that you’ll be able to go backcountry camping, especially within a national park.”

The booking systems vary by park.

Mount Margaret in Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument opens reservations to the Washington state lands the first day of a month before the month of your reservation.

Santa Rosa Island in Channel Islands National Park uses a six-month rolling system. On May 9, the California park started releasing permits for its Aug. 15 through Nov. 9 camping season.

Yellowstone National Park, which maintains nearly 300 backcountry campsites, offers an early-access lottery, a general sale period and walk-up permits two days before your trip.

When purchasing a permit, note any restrictions, such as length of stay, group size, open fires and pets. Also check the reservation policy. You can often cancel a few days before your booking and receive a partial refund. Unless you’re Yosemite and keep the entire $15.

Test equipment

For a backcountry camping trip, you don’t need to train with the same intensity as a marathon. Frequent neighborhood walkabouts in your hiking boots and pack will suffice.

“The biggest part of physical training is just time on your feet. Go on long walks and break in your gear,” Ference said. “The worst thing you can do is head out on the trails with a pair of brand-new hiking boots.”

If you purchased gear for your adventure, Ference recommends camping out in your yard for a night. This way, you can familiarize yourself with your equipment, work out any kinks and identify any ill-conceived items. On a test run, Ference discovered that her sleeping pad did not fit inside her one-person tent.

Campers not ready to invest in gear can rent a variety of items from REI. The inventory varies by store, but some common objects include sleeping bags, tents, propane stoves, trekking poles and bear canisters.

Bring only essentials

Before packing your rucksack, determine whether the campsite offers any amenities. The perk might be minor, such as an animal-proof food container, but it’s one less thing you’ll have to lug.

At Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, for example, the sites come with campfire rings and tent pads. Yellowstone provides bear-resistant food boxes or storage poles (35-foot rope not included). Sylvania Wilderness camping in Michigan’s Ottawa National Forest has pit latrines.

Many national parks and outdoor outfitters provide checklists (check Backcountry.com). NPS spokesman Dave Barak shared his list of 10 essential items:

Navigational supplies, such as maps, a GPS unit and a compass.

Sun and insect protection.

Extra clothing for insulation.


Light source, such as a headlamp and flashlight.

First-aid kit.

Fire starter.

Extra food and water.

Repair kit and tools.

A communication device that is more reliable than a cellphone, such as a personal locator beacon or satellite phone.

Ference brings a camping pillow, her one little luxury, and dehydrated meals, which she swears are tasty.

“The backpacking meals they make these days are shockingly delicious,” she said. “They are also made for the activity that you’re doing. So, it has a really high sodium content, because you’re sweating all day.”

As your camping skills advance, so can your cooking. If you carry a pot or pan, choose the nonstick kind, because cleaning burned dehydrated eggs is a thankless chore.

To calculate your food quantity, take into account the activity level, weather and weight you are carrying. NOLS recommends 1 to 1.5 pounds of food (2,000-3,000 calories) per day for a short, leisurely trip in mild temperatures. For a more strenuous outing, increase your supply to 1.75 to 2 pounds, or 3,000 to 3,500 calories.

For drinking water, Martin plots out routes with natural water features, such as rivers and lakes in the mountains and springs in the desert. She uses chlorine tablets called Aquamira to purify the water. To rinse off before bed, she carries a hanging shower bag and small bottle of Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable soap.

“It keeps me feeling more like a human and less like a wild animal,” she said.

Martin reminds campers to keep at least 200 feet away (or 70 paces) from a water source, to avoid contamination.

Find a campsite

If your permit includes a designated campsite, then you can stop there. If you are in charge of scouting out a site, location is critical.

The National Park Service advises against ledges, high peaks and the middle of a field, which can be a vulnerable spot in high winds or lightning storms. Also avoid setting up camp under dead branches that could crash down on your tent. Stay away from ravines that might flood.

Stake your tent at least 200 feet away from any trails and natural water sources. Ditto for your toilet and food storage and cooking area, especially in bear country.

Dig a toilet

When constructing a latrine, dig a hole at least eight inches deep. Martin said most people bury their toilet paper, but she said the product does not always quickly decompose.

“We cannot count on toilet paper to break down season after season. It just takes a lot longer than we think,” she said. “I think any sort of human products that we use in the backcountry need to be packed out.”

To reduce the ick factor, she said some people store the used toilet paper in empty coffee bags, so the coffee scent masks the less pleasant odors. If you use a plastic zip-top bag, she recommends covering it with duct tape.

“You don’t need to look at what’s in that trash bag,” Martin said.