Backcountry Touring 101

Excerpts from the Backcountry Byways series (Wilderness Press)

There is safety in numbers. There is security in having access to more than one vehicle, and more than one source of ideas and labor if things go awry (and sooner or later, they will). It’s also more fun to be with other people. But when you’re on vacation, or venturing off for a few hours, a day or a weekend, you and yours will probably go alone, in a single vehicle. And that’s OK, since so many backroads are actually pretty good roads. Just be sure that your vehicle is in good shape and reliable and that you’re prepared to handle emergencies alone.

Don’t expect to have the road to yourself, however. Many travelers enjoy scenic and historic backroads, and exploring backcountry roads is becoming an increasingly popular pastime. So while the more remote roads might provide genuine solitude, others can be busy with everything from jeepers to mountain bikers and even hikers. Be careful and considerate.

Even in places where no one will be watching, there are rules to follow and practices that help to preserve natural and historic areas. The intent behind them is simple: to keep you safe, to keep your vehicle operating reliably and to protect fragile wildlands and cultural sites from abusive and destructive activities. Misconduct and mistakes can result in personal injury, damage to your vehicle, areas being closed and legal penalties.

Here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Drive only on established roads. Never drive "off-road," make a new route or follow in the tracks of someone who did. The same goes for hiking and mountain biking.
2. A cardinal rule in Utah's desert areas is to avoid driving, riding or stepping on the delicate cryptobiotic crust that grows on Utah's desert soils. You will see it almost everywhere on the Colorado Plateau. It appears to be a thin, lumpy mineral crust that's almost invisible in its early stages and reddish brown or black when it matures. But it's actually a living, self-sustaining community of organisms. Its name, in fact, means "hidden life." It provides critical nutrients to plants, absorbs and holds water and helps stabilize desert soils and prevent erosion. One footstep can destroy decades of growth. Once the crust is damaged or destroyed, it takes anywhere from 50 to 250 years to recover. Meanwhile, however, other people are likely to follow in your footsteps or tracks. Vegetation will not regenerate, loose sand will take the place of the living biological unit, and dunes and gullies can begin to form. So stick to the rock (called slickrock in canyon country), washes and designated roads and trails.
3. In many places in canyon country you will see exposed rock marked by numerous depressions, or potholes. They appear to be nothing more than dirty little basins when dry. In reality, though, many tiny crustaceans, larvae, tadpoles and snails lie dormant in that dirt until precipitation fills the potholes with water. Then, they literally teem with life. So don't step in them, and, to avoid contamination, don't touch the water.
4. Do not disturb archaeological or historic sites or artifacts. They are not replaceable and are protected from theft and vandalism by federal laws. Do not touch the Native American rock art that you will see in many places. Again, they are an irreplaceable cultural treasure, often thousands of years old, and they are easily destroyed or damaged. Never enter, climb on or even walk close to an ancient rock structure unless it is designated for tours because doing so, again, can destroy it or degrade it over time. View them from a distance. If you find an artifact, prehistoric or historic, don't disturb it. Moving it might damage it, and its exact location and position can provide critical information for archaeologists. Report it to a ranger. Do the same if you see someone vandalizing a site or removing artifacts.
5. Do not use archaeological or historic sites for picnics or camping unless they are developed for those purposes because the more time people spend at them, the more they are degraded.
6. Your vehicle must be street legal to take these drives. Obey traffic laws and regulatory signs, wear your seat belt and keep the kids buckled up.
7. If you get lost or stuck, stay with your vehicle unless you are certain help is nearby. A vehicle will be much easier for searchers to find than you will be if you're out there wandering aimlessly. In summer, if you do attempt to walk out, don't do so during the heat of day.
8. Many of the places you will visit remain honeycombed with old mines that pose many dangers, from radon gas to unstable, abandoned dynamite, rotting timbers and collapsing structures. Either avoid them or view them from a distance.
9. Be especially careful on blind curves, which are common.
10. Mechanized travel of any kind, including motorcycles and mountain bikes, is not allowed in designated wilderness areas and wilderness study areas unless a legal corridor exists.
11. In undeveloped areas, bring a portable toilet. Some places, as in the backcountry of southeastern Utah’s national parks, will require you to have one. Even if a portable toilet isn’t legally required, you’ll find that having one enhances your ability to travel deeper into the wild and to camp away from crowds with less impact on the land. Increasing visitation to remote and fragile wildlands has meant more people answering the call of nature where nature is unable to deal with solid human waste and toilet paper. As with most things, you can spend as much as you want on a portable toilet. But you really don’t need to spend much at all (mine cost $10), and it doesn’t need to be elaborate. A plastic 5-gallon pail, lined with a plastic garbage bag and capped with a tight lid will do. Just add cat litter. If you want to buy something more sophisticated, check your favorite outdoor equipment supplier, or an RV supply store. Toilets can be emptied at RV dump stations or into fixed toilets once you get back to town. If you don’t have a toilet, dig a hole six to eight inches deep (if possible, beneath a pinyon pine or juniper, where the fragile cryptobiotic crust is not present) at least 300 feet from a water source, sandy wash or trail. Carry out toilet paper in a sealed container.
12. If you camp, use minimum-impact practices and leave no trace of your stay. Camp on more resilient mineralized soils (never on the cryptobiotic crust or vegetation) and only in established campsites or areas that show previous use. Bring your own water (even many developed campgrounds are dry), and camp at least 300 feet from the banks of streams, ponds and lakes to avoid damage and pollution, and to allow access by wildlife. Never camp in washes or narrow canyons, especially in summer when the desert's inability to absorb sudden downpours creates flash floods that can instantly sweep you and your vehicle away. Clean up the campsite before you leave, and take your trash with you.
13. If you want to have a campfire where it is legal and appropriate, bring your own wood.
14. In some areas, pets are prohibited in the backcountry or are restricted to road corridors and must be kept on a leash. Find out before you go. Dogs can be quite destructive in the backcountry. They foul campsites, and if they run loose, they trample the soil's crust and chase after wildlife. Some have even dug up archaeological sites.
15. You will cross a lot of grazing land. Leave gates as you find them. Don't disturb wildlife or livestock.
16. Don't drink directly from the streams because the water can be contaminated by that longtime bane of backpackers, the parasite giardia.
17. Avoid parking on grass because hot exhaust systems can ignite fires.
18. Avoid steep hillsides, stream banks and boggy areas.

Tony Huegel is the author of the acclaimed Backcountry Byways series of books, published by Wilderness Press. Find out more about his books at

Published: 3 Jul 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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