Backcountry piloting

The spectrum of knowledge and abilities among individual aviators is vast, but safely flying the backcountry is possible for pilots of all experience levels to a certain degree. Learn about the unique considerations for operation, and how to train and prepare to maximize safety.

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How is backcountry airmanship different?

Piloting light, piston-engine aircraft into the "backcountry", that very general term we use to describe the concept of being away from civilization and improved facilities, is a specialized subdiscipline in aviation that requires additional training and experience. In addition to utilizing all the skills of everyday airmanship, operating in the backcountry requires knowledge of:

  • Terrain and its effect on wind, weather, and route selection
  • Effects of non-standard atmosphere on aircraft performance
  • Evaluation of unimproved landing surfaces
  • Weather and micro-meteorology
  • Cold weather aircraft operations
  • Emergency maintenance and forced camping

It doesn't sound like a whole lot extra, in fact much of the knowledge is covered in primary flight training texts, but it's a critical body of knowledge that no aspiring explorer should ignore. There are only a few method by which to kill one's self in an airplane, and pilots keep using these same methods over and over again., mainly due to ignornace and complacence.

Get instruction

It is without doubt that this Knowledge Base will appeal most to low time or inexperienced pilots. While it is a great idea to educate yourself as much as possible from available knowledge resources, there really is no substitute for a real live instructor, especially one who has plenty of experience with this kind of flying. Many instructors have built all their hours instructing primary students on pavement, so time in the cockpit isn't a good indicator of proficiency by itself. Inquire about the quality of their experience and whether they've actually done this stuff.

There are many mountain flying and tailwheel flight schools around the country that specialize in this stuff. Thely likely won't teach primary, but for a pilot with a fresh certificate, it's a good place to get additional instruction.

See the Training and instruction article for more specific information.


Backcountry flying is no different from any other discipline in aviation in that good planning and strategy result in the best outcome. Doing research and gaining as much knowledge about your destination(s) prior to departure allows you to formulate a plan to deal with any unknowns or variables. The strategy aspect really comes into play when considering how to make an approach or departure from an airstrip or landing zone that's surrounded my terrain or obstacles, as well as challenging atmospheric conditions like high density altitude or weather.

Check out Patrick Romano's STOL Tips article & video series for some good write-ups ranging from how to fly the wing effectively, to STOL oriented takeoff and landing techniques.

No summer is complete with forest fire smoke reducing visibility. Learn how to deal with flying in smokey conditions in Hazards of Wildfire Smoke.

Mountain flying

Mountains are massive and beautiful, and often the destination for the best camping and fishing spot. But mountains present some unique challenges to pilots. Learn more in this section about the considerations for flying within the mountains.

Off-airport operations

Not needing a proper airport is probably the most rewarding element of backcountry flying-- The culmination of knowledge, training, and experience in precision spot landing, surface evaluation, and strategy allow a pilot to make his own airport, given that his equipment can handle it.

Read more on off-airport flying

Ski flying

When the lakes freeze and feet of snow cover the surface, it can be transformed into an entirely new and landable wonderland. But it is wrought with challenges and dangers all its own, from deceptively deep snow waiting to bog the aircraft down, to the extremely serious phenomenon of "overflow."

Read more on {ln:intro to ski flying 'ski flying}


Weather is obviously a huge factor in a pilot's ability to negotiate any particular flight, and this is made even more important when operating in or around significant terrain. Read more on {ln:weather flying}.

This is a living article in the Knowledge Base. If you have feedback on the accuracy or legitimacy of this entry, or would like to add more information, join the discussion below or email to volunteer your input. Suggestions and changes will be incorporated readily.

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  • I am new to the site, and new as a pilot, just a Sport pilot, but I have built 2 aircraft that are Taildraggers, I am having problems finding an Instructor around me that will actually teach tailwheel, I would like to fly the hours off of the Aircraft as I get them finished so I need to get the endorsement. I know I am not ready to do back Country flying, but I am just trying to get the start. Can someone direct me to a tailwheel instructor in the Upper Northwest corner of Iowa, or recommend a flight school that I can actually get a sign off from? I have about 20 hours in a cub but the instructors that I had used one was from a community college and seemed more interested in making money from hours and the other has me on a waiting list so I am not getting any time in his plane even though it would be the closest to my own build. The community college also had me on a waiting list with 2 months between lessons and having to pay tuition each term, I feel comfortable in Landing on a small grass strip that I hangar at, but I know it is up to the Instructor if I get the endorsement, but 20 hours in one plane landing in crosswinds, how do these places get there 5 hour endorsement packages, am I just that bad of a pilot or am I not finding the right instructor?

    from Laurens, IA 50554, USA
  • I suggest posting in the forum about a recommendation. There will also be many opinions on time to establish competence.

  • I have a new O-360 C1F 180 HP factory reman in my Maule MXT, and it takes 5 shots of primer and a lot of cranking to get it started. That doesn't seem right. Same thing in hot weather, cold weather, hot or cold engine. I crack the throttle about 1/4 inch. Any suggestions?

  • Something is wrong,find a good mech.

  • Wow!

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While this knowledge base is a compilation of information from various sources, some official in nature, it is not a recognized or acredited source of aviation training information, and thus should be considered entertainment. Please consult a FAA-certificated flight instructor or mechanic prior to putting any information found here into practice.