Where Are You Hiking? Backcountry vs. Frontcountry vs. Slackcountry

Not every hike is a backcountry adventure

You can't see it, but there's a road down there... and the trail leads right to it. I call slackcountry!. Photo © Lisa Maloney

The word "backcountry" sure has some mystique to it. The actual definition of the word is kind of flexible, though, depending on which sport you're doing. Some people even say "backcountry" is becoming a promotional term that doesn't always have much to do with its original use.

But in a general sense, you'll know backcountry when you see or experience it. For me, backcountry is the place where cell phone service stops. It means the wild and undeveloped places, devoid of road access, houses, and the other conveniences of civilization. Where the only running water comes from a stream.

You can also put the word in the context of emergency services: If you're more than an hour or two away from medical help, consider yourself in the backcountry. The deeper you go, the longer and more difficult any rescue will be -- if rescue is possible at all. The backcountry is a glorious place to travel, but you should always plan to be as self-sufficient as possible while you're there.

What About the Frontcountry?

If you're on or near the road system with cell phone service and fast, easy access to emergency services, you're in the frontcountry. Frontcountry trails usually perch just outside or right on the fringe of a city or town, within easy sight of -- sometimes even overlooking -- populated areas.

And Then There's the Slackcountry

Think of the slackcountry as the confluence of the frontcountry's easy access and the backcountry's inherent perils. Slackcountry is the place where you can see or hear civilization, or just know it's nearby, but can't actually get there easily. (Yes, there's a correlation of sorts to slackpacking.)

Why Does This Even Matter?

There's a particular mountain in Alaska that's a prime example of slackcountry terrain. The huge, paved trailhead for Flattop Mountain sits just on the fringe of Anchorage's city limits; on a sunny day, you're lucky to get a parking spot.

You'll see everybody from octogenarians to small children and dogs climbing up this mountain, and only a few of them are put off by the last scramble to the top. As long as they're slow and patient, almost anybody can get to, and then up, this mountain.

But that very accessibility turns this mountain into a trap for people who aren't prepared to deal with rapid weather changes and rugged terrain. They mistake easy access for tameness and controlled conditions. There are rescues because of hikers who tumbled off the steep top slopes of the mountain or glissaded out of control on late-season snowpatches, avalanche fatalities, and a myriad of other injuries. In fact, rescues here are so common that they rarely make the news.

The lesson here isn't to avoid the backcountry or the slackcountry. There's nothing quite like the feeling of smallness, humility and belonging that comes with venturing out of our ready-made city worlds and leaping into the arms of a living, breathing organism that's much bigger and more ancient than we will ever be.

Just make sure that you understand what you're getting into. File a trip plan so others know where and when to start looking if something goes wrong, and make sure to carry the ten essentials. That way you can kick back and enjoy the journey, secure in the knowledge that whatever comes up, you're ready to handle it.