"The mountains are calling and I must go." --John Muir
Take all of the important safety aspects of general aviation flying: thorough flight planning and research, weather dynamics, density altitude awareness, precise airspeed and altitude control, and unwavering decision making. Multiply them by a factor of at least three, and you'll get an idea of the heightened focus that backcountry and mountain flying requires.
But with increased risk comes increased reward. Master the art of flying to unimproved mountain landing strips, and you'll be rewarded with pristine prairies, stunning vistas, and a camaraderie with fellow pilots that may become some of your greatest aviation memories.
In aviation-speak, “backcountry” often refers to unimproved strips in remote, isolated, and often mountainous areas. The term doesn't necessarily have to include mountains as some backcountry strips are mere gravel runways surrounded by flat nothingness. But canyon strips in the mountains generally define this subcategory of general aviation.
With that definition comes the implied techniques that one must master before venturing into the great unknown. Most of these runways have their own peculiarities that you should know about before setting out. For example, on some strips pilots take off and land in the same direction regardless of the wind conditions due to rising terrain in all directions. Some have such significant slopes that wind direction is taken out of the equation. Some require you to determine your abort point, or go around point, well before you turn final. And some have you not even seeing the strip until you are on final approach.
There is no additional FAA rating or sign-off needed, however several hours with an experienced backcountry pilot should be considered mandatory. And there's no better way to hone your overall stick-and-rudder skills than taking a mountain flying course with an qualified instructor. But you don't need a mountain strip in your backyard to start building your backcountry flying skills. Some of the techniques needed to fly into mountain strips can be practiced at your home airport.
Take short takeoff and landings. Just because you have 3,000 feet of pavement available doesn't mean you have to use it all. Based on your aircraft performance data, select an amount of runway that's well short of your normal takeoff distance, but enough that your airplane is capable of achieving. Pick a point at this distance...maybe a taxiway, a VOR, or building. Following proper short-field takeoff procedures, can you lift off at or before this point? Just be sure to review your performance charts, including the fine print such as adding 10 percent or more to your takeoff distance on unimproved runways if this applies to your airplane.
And how are your precision landings? Can you put it down “on the numbers?” Spend some time practicing spot landings. Pick a spot on the approach end as your intended point of landing. Pay attention to that spot during your final approach; if it moves up in the windshield, you'll need to add power to gain some altitude. If it moves lower in your windshield, you're too high and need to lose some altitude. Take note of where you need to begin your flare to hit that spot. Are you confident you can hit that landing point when a go-around is out of the question?
The above are examples of two of the skills you'll need to sharpen to safely fly into the airstrips few will visit. To be a proficient backcountry pilot, it's not enough to keep doing the same things you already do. A good pilot is always learning, and there are a ton of resources to get you started on your mountain flying journey. The AOPA Air Safety Institute (ASI), in conjunction with the Recreational Aviation Foundation, has produced a safety briefing checklist to help guide you on your backcountry flight. And for more a more in-depth approach, try the Mountain/Backcountry Flying Focused Flight Review for your next flight review. It incorporates some of ASI's educational material that pertains to backcountry flying and helps you, and your instructor, tailor your flight review to meet specific goals.
So go ahead...make plans to fly into a backcountry airstrip. But take the time to understand exactly what you're flying yourself into. Once you do, you won't be disappointed, and you'll come out a better pilot.