Backcountry vs. Frontcountry: What's the difference? Where's the line?

Trailspace is "the backcountry gear guide." We have a Backcountry community forum devoted to human-powered backcountry activities. But, what does backcountry mean?

It's a term that is easily tossed around in conversations, online posts, and marketing materials. So, where or when does one cross the line from frontcountry into backcountry? Is it a certain mileage or time from roads? Does it depend on the effort or length of approach, the participant's activity and skill level, the conditions? Is it a mindset?

I expect, like me, many of you would say that you know it when you see it, but don't get hung up on definitions. So, here are a few to consider.

Merriam-Webster defines backcountry as "a remote undeveloped rural area."

Wikipedia has the beginnings of a backcountry entry emphasizing isolation, remoteness, lack of development, and difficult accessibility.


Wilderness areas are backcountry, but is the backcountry only found in wilderness areas?

In wilderness medicine, wilderness (which most would argue is backcountry) can mean an hour or two from definitive care. That can describe some trailheads, before you even leave the car, though.

For comparison, Leave No Trace has the following definition for frontcountry. "Frontcountry is composed of outdoor areas that are easily accessible by vehicle and mostly visited by day users. Developed campgrounds are also included in the frontcountry arena. Frontcountry locations tend to be more crowded and attract a wider range of visitor than backcountry."

For me, backcountry generally means there is no vehicle access, no facilities, nothing developed. You've got to get out there on your own human power, carrying everything you need, and it should be some distance from roads, though I'm not offering up a specific distance.

There are sure to be exceptions and gray areas. What if, despite the rough, remote trail you've hiked up for hours, you pass a hut? How about if you're a day hiker, but you travel fast and far, getting deeper into the woods than some backpackers? It seems like the more you try to parse something, the less defined and more troublesome it becomes.

What does backcountry mean to you? Remoteness and accessibility certainly make an impact on one's outdoor experiences, gear choices, and necessary skills, but does the precise definition of backcountry matter? Do you even care? Or is this just a potentially elitist topic — like style — that classifies and divides outdoorspeople?


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Comments

trouthunter
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July 6, 2010 at 11:58 a.m. (EDT)

I agree Alicia, I know it when I see it.

I've always considered the difference between the two to be determined by the level of development. If there are roads that allow vehicle access & parking, developed campsites, garbage cans, picnic tables, bath houses or even concrete buildings with pit toilets, I would consider the area front country.

Once you head down a trail and the only signs of development are trail signs, trail blazes, primitive shelters or primitive camp areas, I consider that back country.

As far as a defining line, I guess that's subjective, but I would think anything past a trail head on a trail that takes you away from any developed areas (as opposed to a loop trail back into a developed area) and into wilderness would qualify in my mind. Others may feel like traveling a certain distance from developed areas is in order, I wouldn't disagree with that either.

rescue_ranger
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July 6, 2010 at 12:15 p.m. (EDT)

What does backcountry mean to you? Remoteness and accessibility certainly make an impact on one's outdoor experiences, gear choices, and necessary skills, but does the precise definition of backcountry matter? Do you even care? Or is this just a potentially elitist topic — like style — that classifies and divides outdoorspeople?

I myself feel that minimum Backcountry is a remote or seldom used trail and or area located at a minimum of 10 miles from any developed or populated areas free of any road noise and light pollution at night, in some places this could mean getting above the tree line I tend to lean on the notion that if I see 1 person during the day I am still in front country or middle land, although middle country was not mentioned at all I truly believe there are the three distinct areas, so let me re-define my feelings on this Front country would be any well populated trails, trail heads, day hike areas, car-camp grounds areas with any modern facilities. Middle country would be areas that start at least 2 hours away from the end of the “front country” limit, can still be well worn trails can have some “shelters” and be populated usually with over-night hikers /backpackers that are usually trail savvy and have a better respect for the trail and nature in general tend to adhere to the “leave no trace behind” attitude. Back Country I consider deep wilderness where any form of civilization is a min of 2 to 3 day hike out, where a person has a {or should have} a deep respect for the land a be an active conservative of the land, where all is taken in and all is taken out, paths are animal trails or they are blazed through, Back Country is very pristine land seldom seen or touched by man. Well that’s my feelings on the subject what are yours? R_Ranger

whomeworry
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July 6, 2010 at 1:15 p.m. (EDT)

Backcountry is the body part that rests on the toilet seat. You don’t want the definition for back packing… (drum rim shot here). Well like that definition backcountry does have a smell test of sorts.

Beyond the road’s end isn’t sufficient, especially if the entire parcel of land referenced encompasses a relatively limited acreage.

Likewise any distance measurement like two days walk or ten miles out is an arbitrary construct. In any case, stating backcountry starts ten miles out precludes Mt Blanc and many extremely rugged sections of the Alps from such designation.

A presence of facilities doesn’t preclude the backcountry designation either; there are composting toilets, ski huts, even air strips in quite remote sections of the Sierras.

How one gets there is arbitrary too. There are vast tracks of Alaskan wilderness so remote practical access is possible only by horse, dog sled, four-wheel drive, snowmobile, or bush planes.

Nor does difficult access alone suffice to label an area as backcountry. You can cross the Sierras on non-technical trails, yet canyons and peaks just beyond the trailhead may be extremely difficult to access.

A lot of backcountry endures light pollution; you can see the glow of Las Vegas from 100 miles out in the desert.

If seeing one or more persons a day precludes the backcountry designation, most of the Sierras would be relegated front country designation, at least during summer time.

One could state backcountry has no permanent man made trails, but this would preclude vast tracks of land most would call backcountry.

Introducing the notion of a “middlecountry” just further muddles the topic, since such a phrase doesn’t exist in most peoples’ terminology. Heck if we have middle country, then perhaps areas like the Antartic should be called beyondbackcountry, since we are talking about an entire continent where man is basically only visiting on an extended basis.

But these unconventional definitions may apply:

Backcountry is anywhere people are surprised to spot two-wheel drive vehicles.

Backcountry is where emergency medical rescues are carried out by the sheriff, military, park or forest service personnel.

Backcountry counts homesteaders as its only permanent residents.

Backcountry is the place you arrive at when you think you have gone far enough to get away from it all.

Backcountry is anywhere you can nude sunbathe, and not worry about the area being specifically designated as such, and not worry about being cited for going nude.

Backcountry is out thare yonder.

Ed

trouthunter
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July 6, 2010 at 1:25 p.m. (EDT)

Well, I'm glad we got that settled Haha.

gonzan
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July 6, 2010 at 1:51 p.m. (EDT)

In my mind, "True" wilderness and backcountry are things that barely exist today. But I don't think using that kind of definition helps at all. With the exception of Extremely romote areas of Alaska, Eurasia, Canada, South America, Africa, and perhaps Australia, that kind of "backcounty" doesn't exist. To then label anything less as Front Country is, in my estimation, a maybe bit elitist and snobbish.

I think Ed and Trout have it defined about as much as it needs to be. I know of several places in the Cherokee and Nantahala NFs that can be accessed by an "easy" hike, but that could kill you real quick if harsh weather rolled in. By some of the definitions listed above there isn't any backcountry anywhere in the Appalachian Mountains. I think that is too limiting.

If you have to get there by your own legs, have to exist on what you bring with you, must rely on your gear and wits to survive, would require SAR action (official or not) for rescue should something go terribly wrong, and are more than a couple hours "out in it", then I feel you are in the hypothetical "Back Country."

Edit: I forgot to include the antarctic in the list of places that contain "true" Backcountry...

rescue_ranger
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July 6, 2010 at 2:38 p.m. (EDT)

I agree with Trout thanks for your insight "Whomeworry" it is good to put this to rest besides in Middle country you usally come across Hobbits...haha

GaryPalmer
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July 6, 2010 at 3:12 p.m. (EDT)

I say front country is the trailhead and backcountry is down the trail a ways.

gonzan
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July 6, 2010 at 3:18 p.m. (EDT)

besides in Middle country you usally come across Hobbits...haha

Hahaha!sssspfftfthhh...cough...cough...cough!!! Hahaha!

(the sound of me unexpectedly laughing when having just taken a gulp of coffee)

Alicia
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July 8, 2010 at 1:12 p.m. (EDT)

I say front country is the trailhead and backcountry is down the trail a ways.

That about sums it all up for me.

I will report back if I stumble upon Middle Country and its hobbits (maybe they wear Vibram FiveFingers shoes).

whomeworry
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July 8, 2010 at 2:42 p.m. (EDT)

I will report back if I stumble upon Middle Country and its hobbits (maybe they wear Vibram FiveFingers shoes).

I have it on inside information that five finger footwear actually are the tanned leather of Hobbit’s feet.
Ed

trouthunter
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July 8, 2010 at 3:32 p.m. (EDT)

OH ..that's just great. (sarcasm)

Thanks for the laugh guys.

rescue_ranger
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July 9, 2010 at 11:52 a.m. (EDT)

Alicia said:

I will report back if I stumble upon Middle Country and its hobbits (maybe they wear Vibram FiveFingers shoes).

Ya know I was thinking that those Vibram FiveFingers shoe would make kind of a good camp shoe after a hard day of hiking, but my leather sandals have been my tried and true favorite for years and I cannot see me trying to get my fat foot into those little toe things, I would probably end up giving to Rascal ( Australian Kelpie) as a chew toy for the trail.

JimDoss
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July 9, 2010 at 11:12 p.m. (EDT)

Backcountry is the place you arrive at when you think you have gone far enough to get away from it all.

I like this.

It also brings to mind that someone with less "backcountry" experience would arrive there sooner than someone with more.

whomeworry
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July 10, 2010 at 2:11 a.m. (EDT)

Backcountry is the place you arrive at when you think you have gone far enough to get away from it all.

I like this.

It also brings to mind that someone with less "backcountry" experience would arrive there sooner than someone with more.

Sometimes backcountry is the back yard.
Ed

Brad David Orndorff
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July 10, 2010 at 2:02 p.m. (EDT)

I remember the first time I went to the smokies, just a kid but I still recall fondly the instant fealing of wilderness as soon as we parked the car and got just a few yards into the woods. But on a thoroughly pratical level and just for me backcountry means getting far enough away from the man world to realise that for days now I haven`t seen a ciggerette but or gum wrapper and begin to realise that my conversations with myself are the most intelligent I`ve ever had. But then upon reentering said man-world I cant get over how music can sound ethereal and color tv can be vividly beautiful and sitting in a car can feal like a roller coaster ride and remember again that humanity is a sweet ordeal. Who was it that said, "wilderness is in the mind"?

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