BACKPACKER is a proud sponsor of Leave No Trace (check out our book, Leave No Trace, available from The Mountaineers Press). All articles and photos that appear in the magazine must adhere to Leave No Trace’s ecologically friendly practices. Likewise, we do not promote motorized use in the wilderness or backcountry. Our readers are knowledgeable and experienced backpackers, therefore we accept only authentic, well-researched, well-crafted stories (see the section on “Accuracy,” below). We’re not interested in slavish imitations of stories we’ve already done. As always, you should carefully study several issues of the magazine before submitting a query. The best articles have style, depth, emotional impact, and take-away value for the reader. Please send your content submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good BACKPACKER articles contain the following attributes:
- Foot-based travel: BACKPACKER primarily covers hiking. When warranted, we cover canoeing, kayaking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and other human-powered modes of travel.
- Wilderness or backcountry: The true backpacking experience means getting away from the trailhead and into the wilds. Whether a dayhike or a weeklong trip, out-of-the-way, unusual destinations are what we’re looking for.
- North American destinations: We only occasionally cover foreign locales. Our defined market is North American destinations.
- Advice for improving the backcountry experience: Our readers want to know how to, when to, where to, and with what. Every BACKPACKER article incorporates one or more of these things. We write not merely to inspire our readers to do something, but to help them identify and research new places to go, techniques and skills to use, or the gear to take.
While a portion of BACKPACKER is written by staff and regular contributors, we encourage freelance authors to submit query emails for features, departments, and web. Approximately 50 percent of our features and more than half of our departments and web stories are written by freelancers. Please note that it’s rare for a writer new to BACKPACKER to break into the magazine with a feature assignment. Direct your efforts toward establishing a working relationship with us via department or web-only assignments first.
BACKPACKER features usually fall into one of several distinct categories: destinations, personality, skills, or gear. Gear features are generally staff written. In order to make the grade, a potential feature needs an unusual hook, a compelling story, a passionate sense of place, or unique individuals finding unique ways to improve or enjoy the wilderness.
Destinations: BACKPACKER uses pieces that go beyond a mere description of a trail or place. Our destination stories are almost always first person and based upon the author’s recent trip experience. Readers should come away with a strong sense of that particular outdoor experience, a firm grasp of the location’s character, and the inspiration to duplicate the trip. Journal-style articles are generally unacceptable. Word counts vary widely from 1,500 to 5,000 or more words but most contain a full Expedition Planner sidebar (contact, permit, season, hazards, map, guidebook, and other useful information; look at past BACKPACKER issues for examples and style).
Personality: Backpacking doesn’t have star athletes like you find in bicycling or some other outdoor sports, but plenty of unique personalities exist to write about. Colorful, controversial, historically significant, amusing, unusual, or unique people are what we’re looking for, especially those who have a direct impact on how or where others hike. These are perhaps the toughest assignments to get, and only experienced writers with previous national magazine credits should expect to get a profile feature assignment.
Technique: Skill-based articles in BACKPACKER feature high levels of takeaway value. A good technique piece also has information relevant to all skill levels (e.g., beginner, intermediate, and advanced hikers). Often our technique pieces take non-narrative forms. Again, these are mostly written by long-time contributors with whom we have very established relationships.
Gear: Our Field Tests and comparative gear reviews are always written by writers we’ve worked with before. If you’re interested in writing such articles, start by querying about the Gear department.
Freelancers most often break into BACKPACKER’s pages in the departments. These shorter assignments (100 to 1,200 words) and mostly take a single topic within the scope of that section and cover it thoroughly. Again, the more take-away value for the reader, the more appropriate it is for BACKPACKER.
Life List: 300-400 words. Short essay treatment about a particularly awesome big trip that every reader should add to their tick list. On the inspiration<——>core-service spectrum, this falls decidedly on the inspiration side. Of course we’ll also deliver the tools a reader needs to start planning. This is BACKPACKER after all.
Every trip in this section should meet the following requirements:
- Involve a true wilderness overnight experience (ideally backpacking, but canoeing/skiing/etc. okay sometimes)
- Big/hard/beautiful enough to provoke serious long-term dreams
- Not too easy or accessible
- Not already covered a lot
- Bonus points: Not currently on most readers’ radar screen
- Events and experiences (rooted in a stellar place, of course) could also be life list worthy. Seeing the northern lights. A NOLS trip. Summitting for someone. Catching your first rainbow on a fly. Making fresh chocolate fondue with wild blackberries.
- International destinations OK, but a majority of these will be domestic
Done in a Day: About 500 words. One hike in each of our three regions that falls within an alluring, rewarding conceit, and can also be finished in a day (including drive time from major cities). Hot springs, swimming holes, shooting stars, beach camping.
Example: Views and Brews
Weekend: This page is all you need to undertake a killer weekend in your region. Trips should be 1–2 nights, 6–10 miles a day, within striking distance of a major city, and seasonally appropriate for the month in which they run. These absolutely must have a GPS track, and we assign them early.
Example: Mt. Pleasant, VA
Skills: The advice source for all essential hiking and adventure skills, with information targeted to help both beginners and experts. The section is divided into the following categories:
- Technique. What you need to day-hike, backpack, or do just about anything in the outdoors, all digested into easily understood articles geared to every ability level.
- Food. Explores all aspects of trail nutrition, cooking methods, and food preparation. Tested recipes and creative and tasty food suggestions are a must.
- Health. Examines the physical and psychological aspects of fitness, first aid, and nutrition as it relates to backpacking. This section covers topics from poison ivy to snakebites to altitude sickness.
Gear: This department is filled with short reviews of gear that has been field tested. Note: Gear, unlike the other departments, is done by assignment only. Instead of submitting a query regarding a specific piece of equipment, query the equipment editor with your qualifications for testing and reviewing gear. All gear reviewed in Gear is acquired by BACKPACKER editors only and shipped by us to assigned reviewers. All reviewed gear must be returned to us at the end of the test so that we may photograph it and return it to the manufacturer. This is not a way to fill your gear closet.
As of 2015, we are now assigning web-only content to freelancers. Here are a few general categories of content we’re looking for:
- Best Lists (think BuzzFeed; example: 11 Things Every Hiker Should Know About Fitness)
- Videos (probably least likely to pay freelancers here, but just so you know)
- Slideshows (Make sure you have a plan for photos we have rights to! Examples: 8 Fantastic Foods for Backpackers; The 10 Most Useful Backpacking Knots)
- Ask an Expert (example: How Do I Train for a Thru-Hike?)
- Whatever else you can think of; it’s the internet, and it’s infinite!
Our main goals here are to create awesome content our readers will love, and drive traffic to the site.
BACKPACKER prides itself on providing outdoor enthusiasts with reliable information. It’s important that our contributors check all facts and figures. A full set of guidelines for fact checking will be provided to you with your first contracted assignment for us. In general, however, we require:
- Confirmation of all facts and figures used within an article from a primary source.
- For medical, nutrition, and technical advice, direct quotes from accepted professionals or experts.
- Full contact information for every source used in creating an article.
- An extra copy for our files of any map, catalog, brochure, or other primary source you may have acquired from a land agency or manufacturer.
We prefer queries to completed manuscripts (in the last few years, we literally have not accepted a single manuscript that was sent to us already written). If you’re not familiar with querying magazines, please consult the excellent resources available online, such as this one from Serious Eats or this discussion of how NOT to pitch from Open Notebook. As we mentioned above, it’s pretty much impossible for a new, inexperienced writer to break into our publication with a feature or long story; your best best is to pitch a department or short online-only piece. That way, we can get to know each other before getting serious.
We accept pitches only via email (no phone or mail). Please DO NOT SEND ATTACHMENTS (see above about not wanting completed manuscripts). We are not responsible for unsolicited artwork, photographs, and manuscripts, so please don’t send originals or anything that you can’t afford to lose.
Allow 2 to 4 weeks for replies on print stories, or up to 2 weeks for queries on web-only pieces. All queries should be emailed to email@example.com.
Assignments and Payment
All BACKPACKER assignments are made in writing, and require a signed contract with you, the freelance author, in order to be valid. The contract will specify payment amount, payment terms, and rights purchased. In general, we pay on acceptance and buy all rights. Rates vary depending upon the complexity and demands of the article, as well as the proven experience of the writer.
BACKPACKER uses stock photography and assigns photographers for magazine-sponsored trips. We prefer photographs that meet the following requirements:
- The activity shown does not violate local agency guidelines or Leave No Trace principles (e.g., unless specifically allowed in that location, no tents within 200 feet of water).
- No visible roads and no front-country shots, unless specifically required by the article. BACKPACKER is about the backcountry experience and hiking in wildlands; photos taken at scenic outlooks on a road are not what the backpacking experience is about.
- Clothing and gear and equipment shown in photos should be appropriate to the activities specifically requested. Backpacking, not car camping. We will not run a photos of hikers wearing jeans and sneakers, nor clothing that is out of date (more than 5 years old). Gear in the photos should also be current and fit properly.
Stock Requirements: While we use a large amount of stock photography to illustrate articles, we usually have very specific requirements (e.g., “overnight hiker on McConnell Lake Trail, Desolation Wilderness, preferably with Horseshoe Lake in background”). For each issue, our photo department sends out via e-mail a list of photos we need for upcoming articles. If you believe you have stock photos that may meet our needs, contact us, indicating your interest in receiving our monthly call list. We require a link to your website to be considered. If your work meets our photographic standards, you will be added to our database.
Assignments: BACKPACKER only hires professional photographers on a freelance basis and sends them out on assignment. We have very few assignments each year. These assignments are grueling, as they often involve lots of mileage over rough terrain. Not only that, but you have to get your pictures while moving through the terrain, carrying your own photo and backpacking gear. Our budgets and time restraints are quite restrictive in this area, thus we tend to work only with photographers that we know to be capable of always bringing back results, no matter what the conditions. Interested photographers should contact us and be prepared to present a portfolio of photographs taken in the backcountry.
Publishing frequency: 6 issues annually, one of which is the Gear Guide (April)
Circulation: 340,000 (2008)
Lead time: At least 6 months for print, more like a month for online