Yellowstone Backpacking 101
The Beginners Guide to Backpacking
in Yellowstone National Park
We've put together a few simple tips that will help you get started on your first backpacking adventure in Yellowstone. There are a number of special regulations that exist in Yellowstone and this overview will help you understand these rules and regulations so you can plan the perfect backcountry outing in America's first national park.
1. Do I need a permit to camp in the backcountry of Yellowstone?
Yes! Anyone planning to stay at a backcountry campsite within Yellowstone National Park is required to obtain a backcountry use permit. You can download the permit online and mail it in prior to your trip, or you can apply in person at any backcountry office up to 48 hours before your trip. It's often best to apply for a permit well in advance to make sure you get the campsite(s) you are interested in. This is especially true for multi-day backpacking trips.
Learn more about Yellowstone Backcountry Use Permits.
2. How do I choose a backcountry campsite?
There are over 300 wilderness campsites located throughout the backcountry of Yellowstone and each campsites has a specific number (e.g. 2S1, 2S3, etc.). You can use our backcountry campsite locator to find the campsites for any given region within the park, or you can use the topo maps for each individual hike. They will provide you with the locations and the appropriate numbers for each of the campsites along each trail. You will need these numbers in order to complete your backcountry use permit (see above). Always have a backup plan in place just in case your first choice is unavailable.
3. Bear spray. Do I really need it?
We highly recommend it. Bear spray has proven to be highly effective in cases where it was used properly. Following the basic rules listed below when hiking or backpacking in Yellowstone will greatly reduce your chances of a bear encounter and your need to use bear spray. Remember, carrying bear spray does not automatically guarantee your safety.
• Make noise while hiking. Clap, shout or sing.
• If approached by a bear DO NOT RUN - bears may interpret you as prey if you run.
• Never approach a female bear with cubs for any reason.
• Do not hike after dark.
• Watch for signs of animals including tracks and scat.
• Avoid animal carcasses. Bears may be feeding or resting nearby.
Learn more about bear spray and traveling in bear country.
4. What kind of backpacking equipment should I carry?
There are some essential items you'll need before your backpacking trip in Yellowstone (see below). You may want to rent or borrow equipment if you're new to backpacking but it's very important to be properly outfitted with the right gear in order to avoid any discomfort or injury while hiking. Stop in at your local gear shop for advice and ask if they rent gear. You may be able to try out equipment before you purchase something for yourself.
We recommend that you become familiar with your camping equipment before you ever set foot in the backcountry. Practice setting up your tent in the backyard. Make sure you know how to use your camp stove and how to filter water properly. Break in new shoes and boots before any trip and never hike in a brand new pair of hiking boots. Carry freeze dried food until you are comfortable cooking more elaborate meals. Freeze dried meals are convenient, require very little clean up and are lightweight. This basic pre-hike preparation can mean the difference between a memorable trip and one that keeps your from enjoying your first Yellowstone backcountry experience.
Basic Items for an Overnight Stay in Yellowstone
• 2 or 3-season tent
• Sleeping bag rated to 20º or 30º degrees
• Sleeping pad
• Cook stove and fuel
• Cookware and utensils
• Garbage bag for trash
• Rain jacket
• Matches or lighter
• Extra socks
• Headlamp and batteries
• Food - energy bars, freeze dried meals
• Good boots/footwear
• 50' of nylon rope to hang your food
• Water filter and water bottles
• Warm clothes
• Bear spray
• Basic first-aid kit
• Bear bag or bear-proof canister (optional)
See our gear review page for equipment recommendations and reviews
Download the Trail Guides backpacking checklist
Trail Guides Backcountry Trip Planner
Download the Trail Guides Backcountry Trip Planner
5. What is a food storage pole?
A food storage pole allows you to hang your food and other gear away from animals. It is usually suspended horizontally between two trees near the cooking area of each backcountry campsite, and is located approximately 12 to 15 ft. above the ground. You should carry at least 50' of nylon cord (3mm), a bear bag as well as a carabiner or two to help you hang your food. Some campsites even have metal food storage boxes which allow you to stow your food and cooking items safely in these heavy-duty steel containers. It's often a good idea to hang or secure your food before you set up camp so there are no surprises when you return to the cooking area to retrieve your backpack and other camping gear.
Learn more about backcountry food storage in Yellowstone.
6. Is the water safe to drink?
No. You should never drink untreated water directly from any lake, river or thermal area no matter how clean the water may appear. Parasites, viruses and other bacteria live in these waters and unless they are properly treated they can cause some unpleasant side effects.
Learn more about backcountry water purification.
7. How physically fit do I need to be?
Much of Yellowstone is located above 5,000 ft. and preparing your body for any physical exertion at this altitude will not only help prevent injury, but it will allow you to enjoy the backcountry experience more thoroughly. The higher altitude may seem insignificant but it can deplete your energy until you completely acclimate (this can take a few days) and if you are unaccustomed to carrying a backpack it's important to spend a little time preparing your body for the physical efforts that lie ahead. Hiking, biking and running are great for general conditioning and a simple weight lifting regime started a few months before the trip can strengthen your arms, back and shoulders. Strengthening your core will help with balance and protects your back from possible injury as well. Consider putting the approximate weight you'll have to carry in your backpack and taking a walk or doing an easy day hike. This will help you get used to the weight and learn how to adjust your pack when it is fully weighted.
8. Can I swim in the hot springs and thermal features?
Yes and no. Many hot springs and thermal areas are off-limits to swimming or bathing and are often marked with warning signs, but in the backcountry this is not always the case. If you're unfamiliar with the area ask the park rangers about any thermal features you may encounter along your route when you're picking up your backcountry permit.
9. Is that smoke on the horizon? Hiking during fire season.
Warmer and drier conditions during the summer are becoming the norm throughout the west and the fire season in Yellowstone can begin as early as June and may last through September. The following is the Wildland Fire Program in Yellowstone and it provides a little insight as to why most fires are left to take their natural course.
1. The park service will suppress wildfires that are human-caused or that threaten people, property or resource values.
2. To ensure that naturally ignited wildland fires may burn freely as an ecosystem process.
This means you may experience hazy and smoky conditions during your visit. Trails may be closed without notice if a fire poses a threat to people or property. With that in mind we've created the following pages to provide visitors with the most current backcountry trail conditions and fire updates.
Backcountry Situation Reports
This page provides updates on trail conditions, trail closures, bear warnings, etc. Click here for the current Yellowstone trail conditions.
Wildfire Locations in Yellowstone
This page provides updates on the locations and sizes of wildfires within the park. Click here for more information.
10. The best trails to start your
Yellowstone backpacking adventure.
Here are some of the best trails to help get you started on your first backpacking trip in Yellowstone National Park. Generally speaking these hikes are very flat, well traveled and are short enough to let you to enjoy the Yellowstone scenery without spending the entire day on the trail. As you gain more experience you can increase the distance and the difficulty of your trips which will allow you to experience more of what makes Yellowstone so special. There are over 1,000 miles of hiking trails in Yellowstone and any one of these trails will be the start of a life-long adventure.
Ice Lake/Chain of Lakes - 1.4 miles round-trip to campsite 4D1
Indian Creek - 1.8 miles round-trip to campsite 1B1
Sentinel Meadows - 2.2 miles round-trip to campsite OG1
Cascade Lake - 4.0 miles round-trip to campsite 4E4 (Chain of Lakes)
Grebe Lake - 6.6 miles round-trip to campsite 4G2
Lamar River - 6.6 miles round-trip to campsite 3L1
Bighorn Pass - 8.0 miles round-trip to campsite WB1
Wrangler Lake - 8.2 miles round-trip to campsite 4W1
Important Phone Numbers & Links
Road Updates: 307-344-2117
Xanterra Parks & Resorts: 866-439-7375 or www.YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com
NOAA Weather Radio: www.crh.noaa.gov/riw/nwr/
Central Backcountry Office: 307-344-2160
Guided Backpacking Trips From Trail Guides
If you'd like to take your first backpacking trip with an experienced guide, visit the following link for a list of our current trips: Yellowstone Guided Backpacking Trips
If you'd like to create your own custom adventure from one of the many hikes featured on our website, please visit the following link: Custom Guided Backpacking Trips