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

by Alicia MacLeay
July 6, 2010

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?