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Transitioning from Car Camping to Backcountry: Quick Tips

Transitioning from Car Camping to Backcountry: Quick Tips

By Patricia Tomaszewski

My favorite campsite - Cascade Falls - Lake Superior - Pukaskwa National Park (8)
Photo: Jim Baird | Cascade Falls, Pukaskwa National Park

Is this the year you finally ditch the car and try backcountry camping? Are you ready to experience a different type of camping surrounded by wilderness and away from the crowds? Then this article is for you.

Below I go through some key considerations and tips for making the transition from car camping to backcountry camping. Ontario offers many great options for backcountry camping including two of my favourites: Frontenac and Lake Superior Provincial Parks.

The ultimate mindset shift: Less is more

This might seem obvious, but I can’t stress this enough: Less is more. This is a critical mindset shift when transitioning from car camping to backcountry camping. With car or drive-in camping, you can throw anything into the trunk without thinking much about size, weight, shape, or usefulness. Hike-in camping is fundamentally different in the sense that you must carry everything you need. Therefore, you need to be strategic about what you pack.


Your gear needs to be light, compact, and minimalist. And I don’t mean you have to have the newest, most advanced gear. I simply mean that the objective is to have gear that you can carry, and this will likely require swapping some items for lighter and more compact versions.

For starters, you will need a good backpack and comfortable hiking boots. This is foundational for getting you and your camping gear to the backcountry campsite. You want to be as comfortable and supported as possible.

Are you someone who has a 4-person tent because you like the extra space? Well folks, this tent will not be coming with you to the backcountry. Downsize your tent and make sure to compare the weight when selecting a new one. An air mattress will need to be swapped for sleeping pads. A big stove will also need to be replaced by a “pocket rocket” style stove.

Check out 8 Favourite Gear Choices For Backcountry Canoe Camping

Food & Water

Food and water, the heaviest items overall, usually fit into a big cooler you just plop into the trunk for car camping. A cooler full of food is too heavy for backcountry treks so no cooler means no perishable foods. This might be a tough one to wrap your head around because we live with a refrigerator and have access to perishable food all the time. You can opt for dehydrated food or meal packages as well as anything dry that can be easily cooked at the campsite such as quick rice or quick oats. It won’t be glamorous, but you can check out some recipes for inspiration such as these 10 easy backcountry recipes.

With water, it depends on if there is a water source at or close to your campsite. If there is a source of moving water such as a stream, river, or large lake, you can bring water purification tablets and treat the water. Running out of water is not really an option, therefore you need to be prepared.

Start small

Although you might be tempted to set off on a long multi-night trek in the backcountry, I recommend starting small. Starting small can mean different things to different people but generally picking a backcountry campsite that isn’t too far away (5km hike or less) and planning for 1-2 nights of camping. This ensures that you can test out all your gear and have a successful, empowering experience. The last thing you want is to realize your pack is way too heavy or that you didn’t bring enough food and this seriously hinders your trip. Start small and build up to bigger adventures.

Get outdoor survival training

There are some vital skills you should have before heading out into the backcountry. These include using a map and compass, co-existing with wildlife, and first aid/outdoor survival skills. I recommend that you do your research and consider doing a course or training in outdoor survival. Check out Backcountry Camping for Beginners course by CamperChristina, Ontario based backcountry camping enthusiast

Who wouldn’t want to wake up to this view (and a coffee)?

Woah, a lot to think about, right? At this point you may be overwhelmed or excited or both. In summary, select light and compact gear, pack what you can carry, pick a realistic destination for your first time, and consider investing in some outdoor survival training. Car camping is great for many reasons, but I really hope you make the transition and get to experience backcountry camping in Ontario and beyond. It is worth the planning and considerations! Good luck!

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