There’s something incredibly gratifying about a challenging adventure in the woods—and the more it tests your skills, the more satisfying the end result. If you’ve spent significant time in the backcountry you know that the wilderness can be unpredictable and the consequences of a mistake can be devastating. That is why it’s crucial to brush up your skills before ramping up the seriousness of your outings.
Ready to test your inner survivalist? Here are six things you need to focus on to boost your backcountry skills and level up your outdoor adventure game.
When humans discovered fire, everything changed. The same can be true of your backcountry travel experience: Once you can start a fire with no help from modern technology, including matches or non-natural tinder, you’ll add another arrow to your survivalist quiver and gain significant confidence. There are several feasible methods for building a fire from scratch though the main ingredient is almost always friction. Regardless of which method you use, you’ll need to gather kindling and larger fuel before you get started. This is definitely a skill you’ll want to practice in your backyard a few times before you’re in the woods with no backup plan.
On a typical backcountry outing, you can reach into your backpack and find a granola bar when you need a snack or boil water for a freeze-dried meal at dinnertime. But if you really want to up your game, learn how to forage for your own food. Sourcing your own meals from the wild can mean different things to different people. Fishing and hunting are great ways to find food so you can hone these two skills, and also be sure you are knowledgeable about the wildlife in the area you are adventuring in. Certain insects can also provide a wealth of nutrients.
Being able to identify plants is another key component to foraging for wild edibles like greens and berries. Again, this is a skill you’ll need to practice before you head out, as foraging can be disastrous if you’re not 100% sure of your identification. With some practice, foraging for food can be a satisfying and delicious way to get to know your favorite backcountry areas.
Heading into the woods with no partner dramatically reduces your margin for error, which is why it’s advised that newcomers to the backcountry don’t go out alone. However, if you have backcountry know-how, solid navigational skills, and decision-making expertise, heading out on a solo mission can be a truly empowering way to experience the wilderness. Instead of consulting with a partner as you make decisions—when to stop and where to camp, which way to go at the fork, what to have for dinner—you’re on your own to weigh the pros and cons of each option. You’re also on your own if something goes awry so it’s crucial to inform someone at home of your plans before you head out. Let them know your intended route and when you plan to be back. It’s also advisable to bring a communication device, like a personal locator beacon or satellite phone, on your first handful of solo trips.
With so many high-functioning GPS devices on the market—including apps for your smartphone that essentially turn it into a handheld GPS—it’s easy to make your way down the trail without ever looking at a paper map. If you’re ready to get to know the landscape better, leave the GPS behind and navigate using only a paper map and compass. This method of navigation is not only how woodsmen have been making their way through the backcountry for generations, but it’s also an important skill to have in general. What would you do if your phone battery died and you were left without a GPS?
Many local outfitters and gear shops offer inexpensive or free introductory navigation classes, so you can test your skills before you strike out on your own.
Camping in the summer and shoulder seasons can be challenging enough on its own. If you’ve mastered that challenge, the obvious next step is to take on the winter backcountry, which means adding a whole new set of skills to your toolbox. You’ll need to understand how to identify and avoid avalanche terrain, keep yourself warm while you’re moving and while you’re sleeping, and move through the backcountry on skis or snowshoes. All this can be well worth it: The world looks completely different when it’s coated in white, and as a bonus, you’ll likely have your favorite campsites all to yourself. Ramp up the challenge factor slowly on this one by taking shorter, closer-to-home outings as you hone your skills. Consequences can be dire in the winter when hypothermia is a very real risk.
In order to truly get away from it all, learn to navigate off the literal beaten path. Cross-country travel is a surefire way to avoid encountering other parties and it can mean experiencing awe-inspiring landscapes that you don’t have to share. It will challenge your navigational skills, but at the same time increase the potential consequences of a misstep—search-and-rescue teams have a much more difficult time finding and evacuating folks who aren’t on the trail. That’s why it’s essential that you get your navigational skills up to snuff before you plan an off-trail expedition and increase the distance and time off-trail slowly as you become more competent.
Written by Emma Walker for Matcha in partnership with Catoma.
Featured image provided by Aaron Burden