Question of the Month: If I Want to Explore the Backcountry, Where Can I Land?

One question that comes up frequently in discussions about backcountry flying involves potential landing locations.  Unlike airports—which are easy to look up using resources like Foreflight and Chart Supplements—it can seem less clear how exactly one should go about researching backcountry strips or fields prior to a trip.

Wilderness vs. Backcountry

When planning a journey to a backcountry location, a primary consideration should be whether or not it falls within a federally designated protected wilderness area.  Many times, the terms backcountry and wilderness are used interchangeably, as both refer to remote areas.  There is, however, an important distinction between the two.  Backcountry is a more general term, and can refer to any tract of land that is sparsely populated, from glaciers in Alaska to fields in the Midwest.  Such areas are often comprised of private or open land, and pilots can land off-airport in these locations at their own risk (though, if the area is private, it is important to get permission from the landowner).  Protected wilderness areas, by contrast, contain more restrictions for pilots. 

The National Wilderness Preservation System contains “over 109 million acres” and “more than 760 wilderness areas administered for the American people by the federal government,” according to the U.S. Forest Service.  While pilots can access public-use airstrips in these locations, they are prohibited from operating anywhere on the ground outside of these strips.  Protected wilderness areas are marked on sectional charts as Special Conservation Areas; these are outlined in solid blue lines, with blue dots lying within their border.  For those desiring to find out more about wilderness areas, the Wilderness Connect website, operated by the University of Montana, offers a great deal of information about access rules and governing agencies responsible for public lands throughout the United States.  

Where to Go?

While wilderness areas—by their very name—might sound inaccessible, one doesn’t necessarily need a STOL aircraft or a taildragger to visit them.  In fact, many airstrips within wilderness areas can be accessed by typical piston single-engine aircraft.  Also, backcountry strips (both within and outside of wilderness areas) can be found throughout the United States, which means that regardless of where your club is located, it is unlikely that you would need to go far to seek out backcountry experience.

If you are interested in trying out backcountry flying, there are myriad resources that you can reference to find a destination that appeals to you.  Numerous backcountry pilot guides exist that contain detailed information on strips from coast to coast, and referencing them is sure to give you some exciting ideas.  Another good strategy for finding destinations is to ask pilots at your local airport, or to seek out backcountry groups on Facebook.  The Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF)—an organization centered on improving backcountry access for all aviators—also makes an excellent resource. 

Regardless of where you decide to begin your backcountry adventure, it is always a good idea to seek out an instructor and hone the skills that you will need in remote areas (e.g. spot landing, density altitude calculations, etc.) prior to setting out.  To do this, you can use the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s Backcountry Focused Flight Review, which will improve your ability to operate from unimproved strips. 

Backcountry flying provides pilots unprecedented access to some of the most pristine, beautiful locations in the United States.  It’s likely that there are strips closer than you think that you can access using your club aircraft.  With a bit of training and research, the opportunities for adventure are nearly limitless. 



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