Most people probably don't even know that when they're hiking on a well-marked trail, with the closest town only a few miles away, it's referred to as 'frontcountry' hiking. This is in stark comparison to 'backcountry' hiking, where the closest town is, well... not several miles away. The differences between the two are many, but there's more than proximity to civilization that stands between why both are so unique.
When it comes to choosing a hiking trail, there are many things to consider depending on where in the world one might be. A backcountry trail in one country might be far easier to navigate in another, while a frontcountry trail in one country might feel very backcountry in a remote area.
Here's what to know about both frontcountry and backcountry hiking.
Frontcountry Hiking: Less Remote, More Civilization-Centric
It might be obvious from the name, but frontcountry hiking is what most hikers are familiar with. This usually includes any well-marked trail that's popular in a region, and can even include national park trails that are well-traveled by the masses. In fact, signs of other (human) life are one of the biggest tells of a trail that's considered to be 'frontcountry.' If, when on a hike, there's the promise of seeing several people to several groups of people, it is a frontcountry hike. Some good examples of this would include many trails throughout the East Coast, including those well-traveled in the Adirondacks, Catskills, and the Green and White Mountains of New England. Additionally, trails in the southern states close to the coast (excluding the Blue Ridge and the Smoky Mountains) could be considered frontcountry, as well. This is due to their unintentionally close proximity to the shoreline or major towns and cities that prevent them from being as remote as backcountry trails.
As a general rule of thumb, frontcountry hiking includes the following rules:
- The trail is only about two hours, max, from the closest main road if a person or group needed to hike to it.
- The hiking trails themselves are traversed by several people to many groups on any given day.
- There are facilities along the trail such as restrooms, water stops, campsites, or lean-tos.
- The trailhead is straightforward and requires no off-roading or specific instructions, other than simply hiking, in order to reach it.
Additionally, frontcountry hiking has a certain level of safety with measures in place that prevent trails from being backcountry territory. This includes access to emergency services whether it be via a cell phone signal or close proximity to public spaces. Another sign of a frontcountry hike is if the trail is maintained by some sort of local authority - this means that the trail is well-traveled enough by locals that it requires general maintenance and clear markings.
Backcountry Hiking: Remote And Wild, With Few People, If Any
In stark contrast, one usually knows they're setting out on a backcountry trail just by the silence that often follows their hike. For the most part, the only sounds will be from woodland creatures and potentially the wind. Trails that are considered part of the backcountry will have few if any, people on them, and it won't be likely that hikers will run into any groups during their trek.
Additionally, the backcountry hiking trails themselves probably will not be clearly marked. Rather, the act of following the trail falls on the hiker to pay attention to worn paths and their own navigation. Trailheads could be few and far between (if there are any), and the trail might be rugged to the point where much of it is following a direction, rather than a well-blazed trailhead. Speaking of which, backcountry trails also may require the hiker to do some off-roading or additional work just to reach them. This is a fairly solid indication that the trail is considered 'backcountry' as opposed to 'frontcountry.'
As a general rule of thumb, backcountry hiking follows these unspoken rules:
- The trail itself is not well-traveled and there may not be much of a trail at all.
- Following the trail depends on the navigation of the hiker, with a GPS or map system helping them to find the trailhead each time.
- The hike is several hours (or sometimes more) from the closest main road, town, or city.
- There are no facilities on the trail, which usually requires knowing how to backcountry camp, as well.
In regard to safety while backcountry hiking, hikers will need to be comfortable with having little, if any, cell phone service while on the trail. Nine times out of ten, cell phone service will be nonexistent. This also means that any emergency services will be hours away, which is one of the risks associated with backcountry hiking - so a firm knowledge of first-aid and survival skills is necessary.
What If A Hiking Trail Has Qualities Of Both Frontcountry And Backcountry?
It's entirely possible that a hiking trail might be hours away from the closest main road, with spotty cell phone service - but also may have facilities, several other hikers, and an easy-to-follow trail. According to Best Hikes BC, these are referred to as 'Slackcountry' trails.
This in-between hiking territory is often reassuring enough to those who are unfamiliar with backcountry hiking but offers enough remote wilderness for those who are. Additionally, it might be a well-traveled trail that's not necessarily maintained by an authority. Another example of this would be a frontcountry trail that traverses slackcountry territory, such as a National Park trailhead that diverges to a backcountry region.