Backcountry driving trip down the Forest Service Roads (FSR) of British Columbia can seem like a daunting prospect. And with good reason. These roads are unforgiving, will undoubtedly put you out of phone signal, and leave you to fend for yourself if anything goes wrong. So why go? Well, the moment you leave the highway, backcountry roads lead to a world where the vast majority of people just won't bother going. In this world, you'll discover the most incredible views, campsites and hikes, often not too far from the highway. Backcountry driving does require preparation and planning, but the rewards are well worth it.
In this blog I'll cover the basics of backcountry driving, followed by an easy two day itinerary for your first FSR trip from Vancouver, in a safe location not far from Squamish.
What is backcountry driving?
What should I consider for a backcountry trip?
When driving in the backcountry you'll almost certainly have no cell coverage. For this reason it's important to have all your navigation tools offline. This means physical maps, and downloaded Google map areas at the very least. Ask yourself if you could get home, without data. By planning for this outcome, you'll feel far more prepared and comfortable in this new environment.Often, directions will be provided as km references, with the distances being reference points from the start of the Forest Service Road. Reset your trip odometer at this point to make calculating distances easier.
Backcountry road present different risks to paved roads. They require more caution and usually offer less traction due to the loose surface. With that in mind, insurance companies all have different policies with regards to driving on un-paved roads. Car owners in BC are likely to be insured, but car renters in BC are almost certainly not.ICBC (Insurance Cooperation of British Columbia) provide a short term insurance policy that allows you to take a rental vehicle on unpaved roads. As of 2020, it costs $10 a day. It's not well documented on their website, but if you ask an Autoplan advisor they'll immediately know what you mean.Remember, always check the details of your insurance policy before you go. With the right cover, you'll have peace of mind for your adventures.
- Breakdown Cover
Some recovery and breakdown companies will come and fetch you from unpaved roads, others wont. Check with your provider what types of road they cover, and up to what distance they will tow you. Whilst breakdown cover is totally optional, fees will be higher if you decide to buy their services when you need them most.
This one really depends on how far from civilisation you intend to venture, and with who else. Often, as soon as you leave a paved road, you'll lose phone signal. In the event of an accident, this means you're either walking, or waiting for a passer by. The alternative is to buy a GPS satellite comms device such as a Garmin InReach, allowing you to communicate from almost anywhere should you need to. Whilst these devices don't come cheap, when you need them most you'll wish you'd spent the money. They're also great for all your backcountry hikes and other adventures in British Columbia.The need for a communication device really depends on your situation. If travelling by yourself; 200km from the nearest town, this certainly necessitates a GPS sat comms device. But 30km from Squamish with a convoy of 3 cars maybe doesn’t. Driving in convoy is also a great way to build your confidence in the backcountry, knowing that you always have a back-up car to get help if you need it.
- Food & Water
You never know when you might break down, or need to hunker down for the night whilst help arrives. Keep a 20L (or more) container of water in your car, as well as a box of dried or packaged food that will last. Take a box of basic foods that require no preparation or other utensils that you may not have. Don’t be tempted to use these supplies for convenience in a non-emergency, you may just forget to top them up.
- Warmth / Shelter
If you’re on a camping expedition then you’re likely to have your sleeping gear with you, though if you’ve gone for a hiking day trip it’s a less obvious, but nonetheless essential item. If you breakdown, there’s a reasonable chance you’ll end up sleeping in your car, so make sure you have at the very least enough warm clothing, or sleeping bags for everyone in your party.
- Road Worthiness & Conditions
With no mandatory annual vehicle checks in BC, it's easy to let vehicle maintenance fall down the priority list. A backcountry road is not somewhere that you want to breakdown. Make sure your car is in good working condition before you go.Backcountry roads are commonly dirt or gravel, though many are kept in good passable condition for even the average car. That said, every service road is different and conditions can change rapidly, particularly in spring and fall when rainfall, snowmelt and icemelt can cause landslides and block roads. It's worth researching the specific area you'll be visiting; often local facebook groups can be found detailing current road conditions. This may help you decide if you need a true 4x4, high clearance vehicle for example.
Finally, depending on your plans, consider taking additional fuel, stored in an appropriate container, incase you need it. There are no gas stations in the backcountry!
- Driving Tips for the Squamish FSR to High Falls Creek
Look out for pot holes and remember that driving on gravel provides far less grip than tarmac. Many of BC’s FSRs are still in use for commercial logging, even on weekends, so be aware of the large and fast moving logging trucks who have a reputation for not slowing down.
Keep your distance from the car infront to let the dirt settle a little and give you better visibility, and equally slow down (a lot) when passing parked cars or pedestrians so that you don’t completely cover them with dust. Drive with your lights on and make sure your tail lights are working so that they can be seen through the dust (it’s like driving in fog).
For more general tips of driving in BC, click here.
British Columbia's provincial government places a high value on the natural resources and recreation resource that the backcountry provides for us all. For that reason, many resources exist that can help us all to enjoy these areas safely, with good preparation.
Two Day Backcountry Driving & Hiking Itinerary in Squamish
This two day backcountry itinerary is designed to be an easy introduction to the Forest Service Roads of BC. It's easily passable without a high-clearance 4x4, and won't take you more than 40km from Squamish.
From Vancouver, drive an hour north to Squamish along the Sea to Sky highway. The Sea to Sky is an added bonus on most North bound adventures from Vancouver, often ranked as one of the best drives in the world.
Squamish will be your last opportunity to stop for supplies and fuel. Your best option is Save On Foods, located about a kilometer from the main highway in Squamish, and near many other outdoor supplies shops. Once you’re all stocked up you’ll be head towards the Squamish FSR to the North West of the town.
When you change onto the Squamish FSR, remember, reset your trip odometer to aid navigation.
You’ll very quickly be met with jaw dropping views of the Squamish river valley, as the road climbs and descends the meandering river banks. The road will change between gravel and tarmac initially before changing permanently to gravel, though is incredibly well maintained for a dirt/gravel road. After only a few kilometers on the gravel, you’ll lose phone signal, though there are plenty of other cars around which you can flag down should you need help. Kilometer counters are marked at the side of the road as well as the direction (up or down) that you’re travelling (down means towards civilisation; Squamish).
Squamish High Falls Creek Campsite
Km Marker: 5.5km
High Falls Creek Campsite is less than two kilometers past the High Falls Creek trailhead, which can easily be found and pinned on Google Maps (before you lose your data connection). The location of this post is the campsite itself. It is clearly marked with the usual “recreation site” sign. The campsite is free and usually pretty quiet. There are zero facilities here, just a lovely picturesque camping area with no designated spots. Fires are permitted but do check for any province wide fire bans during summer months. Set up camp here and then make your way to the trail head about 1 - 2 km before the campsite.
High Falls Creek Trail
(6 hours - easy / moderate, light scrambling, some avoidable exposure to heights)
The High Falls Creek trailhead is at kilometer 3.6 of the FSR, or roughly 36km from Squamish. Just before you reach the trailhead, you'll pass a power station, followed shortly by a wooden bridge. The trailhead begins on the right hand side, just after the bridge and is marked by the brightly coloured trail marker tape in the trees. Park up on the left hand side before or after the bridge.
You’ll need to use the following trail map for the hike. The hike involves some light scrambling with moderate exposure, though it’s easy to stay away from the edges if you want to. As the name suggests you’ll be following a steep creek and eventually reach an impressive waterfall. Beyond that you’ll be walking through dense forest along a mostly well marked path.
The hike is best done in warm, dry weather, as it can become exceptionally slippery in wet weather.
The top section is a little less clearly marked, though whichever route you take just remember your exit road is to the north. The walk down is entirely along a more rugged FSR, and will pass by this amazing viewpoint looking over the Squamish Valley. The viewpoint isn’t far from the bottom so if you happen to be driving near here and not doing the hike, is still reachable with a roundtrip 40 min walk from the bottom, or a 10 min drive (in a high-clearance 4x4 only).
Below: Squamish Valley Viewpoint
Day 2 - More Options
After waking up and realising what an awesome decision you made to camp down an FSR, you’ve got a few options for your second day, depending on how tired you are from the previous day’s hike (or perhaps how many beers you drank the evening before).
- It has to be said that the drive along the Squamish FSR is spectacular, and if you fancy driving a little further simply to enjoy the views, I would highly recommend the following: Note that the road does become quieter the further UP you go:
- Kilometer 30: This campsite is even better than the one described above, though is a fair amount further to drive.
- Kilometer 33: One of the best viewpoints along the Squamish FSR.
- Kilometer 40 (ish): Shortly after the viewpoint, turn left onto the Elaho Main Forest Service Road. After about 8km, you'll pass over a small wooden bridge with a thundering waterfall passing underneath. This is Maude Frickert Falls (the featured image of this post).
- Finally, 2km after Maude Frickert falls, take a left onto G-Main FSR, which immediately crosses the Elaho river. Stay right at the fork, and you'll shortly reach Peaches & Creme Falls.
- Crooked Falls Trail - Just across the river from High Falls Creek, you can reach this hike in under an hour from the campsite.
To get back to Vancouver you’ll drive the same route in reverse, back along the Sea to Sky highway. It’s worth knowing that Sunday evening traffic back into Vancouver from the North is particularly bad. You can often be queued up for a couple of hours as the traffic squeezes across the less than adequate two bridges to the lower mainland. I’ve learnt my lesson too many times so tend to stop for dinner or a beer in Squamish at one of the following:
- The Watershed Grill - Tasty food and great views over the Squamish River
- Shady Tree - Great food and atmosphere, with a large decking area not much of a detour from your route home.