I’ll never turn down an invitation to go fishing. That said, the trips I look forward to most every year are the ones that get me well off the beaten path. I’ve taken enough overnight backcountry trips, both solo and with others, to know what to expect.
My first few were pretty comical. I didn’t always know where I was, how much to bring, or how to take care of myself well. I made it through just fine, but not as efficiently or as comfortably as I could have.
Here are a few takeaways I’ve learned over the years.
1. Don’t overpack
This is something that’s hard for many backpacking beginners. While you don’t want to be caught out there without necessary supplies, it can take a bit to learn what counts as necessary. And that list isn’t universal. What’s considered necessary for one person might not be for another. A trick I’ve heard many times is to keep a list of things you don’t use on a trip. If an item makes three lists in a row, you probably don’t need it.
Of course, things like a first aid kit or emergency kit can be excluded. I’ve rarely needed my first aid kit, but it’s still clearly a necessary thing to bring. The types of things that will likely make the list are extra clothes (particularly pants, which can easily last a whole trip without being changed out), items that serve the same purpose as something else, and single-function items that don’t add much to the trip.
For fishing specifically, there are a lot of luxuries I enjoy that often don’t make the cut on my backcountry trips. Instead of lugging around a fishing pack full of all my boxes and accessories, I’m more likely to pull out what I need specifically for the trip at hand. If I’m fishing for high country cutthroats in blue line streams, I’ll probably leave the bulky streamer box at home. Even if I need waders, I often leave wading boots at home, too. I’ll substitute them with a pair of Tevas, which don’t work as well, but do just fine on a long weekend and weigh far less. Depending on the trip, I may ditch the net, as well. For tiny, backcountry trout, it’s often easy enough to just fish barbless and weasel them off the hook as they come in to your feet.
2. Do your research beforehand
Doing your research ahead of time is essential, both for safety and enjoyment. The safety aspect is obvious. You want to know where you’ll be, how the areas around you connect together and are laid out, and how to get back out safely. Checking the weather can be a lifesaver, especially during seasons prone to snow or thunderstorms.
Apart from safety, researching beforehand makes the trip more exciting and enjoyable. You’ll probably want to know whether there are even fish in the spot you’re planning to go. Even if your plan is simply to find out whether there are fish in a body of water (part of the fun on many trips), you’ll want to know about the water you’ll be fishing. Is it moving? Still? Are there inlets and outlets, and where are they? These are things that can easily be learned with an hour or two on Google and will save you time when you’re limited to a long weekend.
3. Know how to get around
Learning how to get around is a big step in taking overnight backcountry fishing trips. Backcountry navigation exists in many forms. Some people still swear by a map and compass, while others rely on GPS technology or smartphone apps to get around. Many experienced backpackers enjoy a combination of all three.
It’s not absolutely required to be a master of all three styles, but having a solid grasp of at least one, and a decent familiarity with the others is immensely helpful when you aren’t quite sure where you are. I understand the basics of getting around with a paper map and compass, but I almost always make my phone my primary source of spatial information. I’ll always have it anyway, for emergencies and photos, and its speed and efficiency are unmatched.
Knowing how to get around isn’t just about protecting yourself from getting lost; it also makes backcountry trips significantly more enjoyable. You’ll have the confidence to navigate the landscape, and can make on-the-fly decisions about checking out areas that weren’t included in your initial plan.
4. Push yourself, but not recklessly
One of the best aspects of backcountry fishing trips is that they allow you to push yourself and face fears. Obviously, there’s a difference between facing fears and being reckless. Being at the top of a mountain during a lightning storm is more of a safety risk than something to conquer. But, there are other aspects that allow you to push yourself without significant risk.
For the past few years, I’ve done a lot more at night. My friend, Ali, and I have started several of our bigger backpacking trips around 11pm, since we didn’t get off work until 5 or so. At first, we weren’t very comfortable with it, but by the second or third trip, we were happily hiking along by moonlight without having to stop every time we heard a twig snap.
Many of the beautiful places fish live are also well off the beaten path. It’s not unusual for us to do several trips each summer that take us between five and 10 miles from the nearest sign of civilization. That’s pretty standard to get back to some of the alpine lakes here. So allow yourself to try something you haven’t before, or something that makes you a little uncomfortable. It’ll be worth it.
5. Know how to respect the landscape
Most people who get into backpacking, and by extension backcountry fishing, start off by enjoying nature close to home. This might be afternoon hikes, fishing a stream that runs through town, or car camping at established sites. Backpacking is the obvious next step, but it’s not always obvious how behaviors have to change when you’re in the middle of pristine wilderness.
Regardless of your thoughts on the organization itself, Leave No Trace offers some extremely useful guidelines on how to be respectful while recreating outside. For someone who has only done afternoon activities before, it might not be obvious how or where to poop outside, or how to wash dishes (or themselves) without contaminating the local water source. Especially for those of us who wish to enjoy a resource on the landscape (specifically, healthy fish populations), it’s vital to know how to treat it.
6. Cater your style of fishing
A final thing to keep in mind if you’re going on an overnight backcountry trip is that you may want to try a different style of fishing than you normally use. If you’re fanatical about streamer fishing, Euro-nymphing, or any other niche within the fishing world, it’s likely you’ll encounter water that’s outside your wheelhouse while wandering around in the woods. Consider adapting your style to fish the conditions.
This could mean bringing along a tenkara rod in addition to your normal setup. If you cross a stream on the way to your final destination, it’s easy to take a few casts in minimal time. If you’re forgoing the tent for a hammock or just sleeping on the ground, you may have enough room to throw in a lightweight belly boat to get out into the lakes. Whatever it is, don’t be laser-focused on the same techniques you use on heavily-fished tailwaters or city ponds.