Winter Camping in Yellowstone National Park
If you enjoy winter camping you'll probably have the backcountry of Yellowstone all to yourself during this time of year. The crowds of have thinned and the landscape has been completely transformed by the winter snows. Your favorite trails take on a whole new appearance and the park offers a whole new backcountry experience that is often otherworldly.
Off-trail travel is best suited to snowshoes or wider cross-country or alpine touring skis. Self-reliance is critical and overnight camping requires a fair amount of fitness, experience and preparation. Traveling with a heavy winter pack will take much longer depending on the weather and snow conditions and will require more calories to keep your body fueled, warm and functioning properly. Careful planning is essential for any winter backpacking trip.
Navigation skills are always an important part of any wilderness outing and you should carry a compass or GPS and the appropriate maps for your location. Study them prior to your trip so you have a solid understanding of the topography for your trip. Route finding during the winter can be challenging and trails that are exposed to the wind and weather can disappear within minutes. Know your route and always play it safe. Turn around if the weather deteriorates.
Winter Travel Tips
Layering is the key to staying warm during the winter. Regulate your body temperature during the day, especially while you're active by adding or removing layers to prevent overheating. DO NOT wear cotton clothes or jeans. COTTON KILLS. Cotton loses its insulating power when wet and it takes too long to dry no matter waht time of year it is. Synthetic fabrics and wool, or a combination of both are the best choices for winter outings. Consider wearing a light base-layer next to the skin, followed by a heavier fleece shirt or jacket and finally a Windstopper or waterproof outer shell. Everyone regulates their body temperature differently and you may need to wear more or less clothing depending on your specific body type.
Carry multiples of certain clothing items like hats, gloves, socks, and long underwear so you can adjust them accordingly for certain weather conditions and/or tasks around camp. Large GOR-TEX® overmitts are great if you're skiing or hiking in windy conditions but a lightweight pair of fleece or Windstopper® gloves work better for lighting stoves, prepping food and setting up tents. If the wind is a factor make sure your gloves are securely attached to clothing or jackets.
Outer shells made of Windstopper® fabric or GORE-TEX® are essential to protect against the wind. You should consider bringing a waterproof shell, bibs or wind/waterproof pants and a pair of gaiters to keep snow from entering your boots. A down or synthetic parka and down booties are great for around camp. Down booties with a chemical heat pack inside are an ideal way to warm up cold feet. A down coat provides additional warmth and can double as a nice big pillow.
Choosing a Winter Campsite
Picking a location for your winter campsite should be based on a number of practical considerations. Don't be tempted to setup out in the open no matter how calm or beautiful it may be during the day. If the wind picks up at the night or a storm moves in you'll be exposed to everything mother nature has to offer. Try to find locations that provide natural shelter from the wind and blowing snow and if your camp is located in the woods make sure there are no dead trees (widowmakers) nearby or overhead that may topple over in heavy snow or winds. If you should be required to camp out in the open dig down 1-2 feet and place your tent in this depression. This should help protect your tent from the effects of wind and driving snow.
Once you've chosen a good campsite you'll need to clear an area that matches the footprint for your tent and vestibule. For winter adventures it's important to carry a lightweight snow shovel for excavating or moving snow. It's not necessary to dig all the way to the bare ground and it's actually better to leave a little snow underneath the tent. The idea is to create a flat or smooth surface area for the tent. If you just place a tent on the uneven surface of the snow as your body temperature melts you'll end up with a very uneven surface under your shelter.
4-Season Tents & Shelters
A good sturdy 4-season tent is highly recommended for winter camping in Yellowstone. This is your home away from home and it needs to provide you with bombproof protection against the harsh elements of winter. Wind and heavy snow can ruin a tent if it's not designed specifically for winter camping. In mild conditions a 3-season tent may be adequate but if bad weather moves in it may not be worth the risk.
If this is your first outing with a new tent make sure you set it up at home beforehand so you have and idea of how it all fits together. Attempting this for the first time in the cold, snow and wind will make the task much more difficult and if you're unfamiliar with the setup it could turn into a frustrating affair.
Securing the tent in the snow requires a little different than in warmer weather. Regular tent stakes will not work the same when used in the softer snow. Snow stakes have a larger surface area and will hold much better in the snow. Mountain Hardware makes a very practical alternative to the the standard aluminum snow/sand stakes. The Mountain Hardwear Snow & Sand Tent Anchors are made of fabric and they allow you to pack snow into the fabric which can then be buried in the snow. In a pinch you can use small stuff sacks or nearby branches or logs to accomplish the same effect. Just tie a length of paracord around a branch that is 12-15" long and about 2-3" in diameter and bury it in the snow. If you stomp the ground over the top of these anchors be aware that in the morning they will be very solidly seated in the snow and will often require digging to loosen them.
TIP: Keep the tent well ventilated during the night to prevent frost build up on tent walls and sleeping bags. Condensation can build up overnight and dampen clothing and sleeping bags.
Food, Water & Cooking
Keep it simple. During the winter it's all about convenience. Everything you do will take longer and will require a greater effort so when it comes to food it should be quick and easy to prepare. Bring freeze dried meals for dinners, instant oatmeal or other hot cereals for breakfast and plenty of snacks that don't require cooking. Remember, energy bars, etc will turn into solid blocks of ice when exposed to colder temperatures. Place them in a pocket to warm them prior to eating.
You'll need to boil snow for cooking and for producing drinking water which adds considerable time to meal preparation. An empty stuff sack or large garbage bag makes gathering snow for cooking easy and it allows you to scoop out cupfuls as needed. When boiling snow to make water it's important to start with a little water in the pot and then add more snow as the water level increases. Adding just snow to a heated pot will only scorch the bottom of the cookware. If you're traveling in a group it's often beneficial to designate chores for each group member. Boiling water should be a top priority because it will take time to melt water for cooking and for replenishing everyone's drinking water. It's best to carry 2-3 water bottles for this purpose. One bottle can be used for drinking during the day and the others can be utilized for cooking, and most importantly, as a 'hot water bottle' to keep you warm throughout the night.
For winter outings it's best to leave the water bladders and water filtration pumps at home. During warmer weather these options are indispensable but in temperatures below freezing the drinking tubes will cog with ice and may crack or leak rendering them useless. The 32 oz. wide-mouth bottles from Nalgene work great for winter camping and an insulated water bottle cover will help prevent liquids from freezing. Outdoor Research makes a 'water bottle parka' that will fit a variety of bottles and sizes and they often have Velcro fasteners that allow you to clip them to your pack for easy access while hiking. At bedtime you can boil water and place it in these bottles and then drop them into your sleeping bag for aded warmth. This will help you maintain body heat during the night and will also keep the bottles from freezing. In the morning you'll already have water for drinking and cooking breakfast.
TIP: If you store your water bottles upside down during the night it will keep the water from freezing near the mouth of the bottle so in the morning you won't have to struggle with a frozen cap.
For winter camping it's best to carry a stove that utilizes liquid fuel or white gas rather than a mixture of propane/isobutane. Liquid fuel burns hotter and is unaffected by temperatures that drop below freezing. While propane/isobutane fuels will work during the winter their heat output is greatly reduced in colder weather and this means boiling water can take much longer. If you should use a stove that runs on propane/isobutane keep the cansisters in your sleeping bag to keep them warm and place them on insulated surfaces when cooking to prevent further heat loss through the ground. A larger pot for melting snow and boiling water is a must.
Shorter days and colder temperatures mean you'll probably spend a great deal of time hunkered down inside of a tent. Keeping yourself warm during these extended periods of inactivity can be challenging but with the right gear you'll be able to get a good nights sleep no matter how cold it gets outside.
Since keeping warm means keeping your body away from the ground the first item to consider is a sleeping pad. There are a handful of styles, thicknesses and lengths to consider and it all comes down to personal preference. For winter trips a longer pad between 72-77" will give you plenty of room to stretch out and allows you to place other gear or essential items at the bottom of the pad. Consider using an air mattress with an R-Value of 3.0 or higher. This should be enough to prevent any heat loss through the ground during the longer nights spent inside a tent. For added warmth try carrying a lightweight Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest SOlite (R-Value: 2.8) or Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite (R-Value: 2.2) closed-cell foam pad in addition to your air mattress. This will add considerable protection against the cold and provides you with an extra pad that can be used as a seat/chair when cooking or working outside and they weigh between 14-19 oz.
If you are using an air mattress or air/foam core combination always pack the repair kit just in case you need to fix a puncture or minor leak. Inflate your sleeping pad a few days before any trip and watch for signs of leaks or loss of air. Making repairs at home is much easier than performing these tasks when it's below freezing.
Your sleeping bag is your main defense against the cold during the night and should be rated down to at least 0º for most winter trips in Yellowstone. There are generally two types of insulation to consider when looking for a sleeping bag—goose down and synthetic.
Goose down is generally lighter and more expensive than synthetic insulation and offers a greater warmth-to-weight ratio. Look for sleeping bags with a fill-power of between 600-800 for winter camping. A sleeping bag with an 800 fill-power rating will require less down to achieve greater warmth. Take extra precautions when using down in wet weather. Down will lose its insulating characteristics if it gets wet so it's important to minimize exposure to moisture. It also takes much longer to dry compared to synthetics. However, most sleeping bags whether down or synthetic come with water-resistant/breathable shells to help repel condensation and water and a GORE-TEX overbag can be carried for additional protection in wetter conditions.
Synthetic sleeping bags (polyester) are less expensive than down but are usually a bit heavier and do not offer the same warmth-to-weight ratio as down. If you're a weight conscious backpacker you may opt to carry a down bag. The big advantage with synthetics however is that even when wet they retain their warmth and will dry much faster than down. There is a little trade-off with each type of insulation and your budget will probably be the deciding factor when choosing a sleeping bag.
Mummy style sleeping bags are the most efficient for winter camping and the narrow/tappered shape requires less effort or energy to heat. Your body temperature is the warming mechanism for a sleeping bag so it's important to choose the right rating for your body type.
TIP 1: Avoid covering your face/mouth with your sleeping bag during the night. Your breathing will create condensation inside the sleeping bag.
TIP 2: To help you stay warm at night place a heated water bottle inside you sleeping bag. Preferably near your feet. This will generate a great deal of warmth and will keep your water bottle from freezing during the night.
Visit our backcountry checklist page for equipment and clothing recommendations for both summer and winter backpacking trips.
Getting to the Trailheads During the Winter Months
Access by motor vehicles is limited to the northern and western regions of the park during the winter. The are only two roads open to automobile traffic this time of year. The first runs from Gardiner to Cooke City, which is a very popular destination for snowmobilers heading into the Absaroka Beartooth's to the north and east of the park. The second is located along route 191 on the western edge of the park which runs north and south between West Yellowstone and Bozeman. The stretch of road along route 191 does not require an entrance fee like all other access points to the park and there are a handful of trailheads located in these two areas that offer great skiing and snowshoeing opportunities. (see list below).
Winter Trailhead Locations
The following trailheads in Yellowstone are accessible by automobile during the winter months and some are great places to begin a backcountry trip.
Northern Section Starting From Gardiner to Cooke City
• Rescue Creek - Near the north entrance and Gardiner
• Lava Creek - Between the north entrance and Mammoth Campground
• Beaver Ponds - Near Mammoth Hot Springs
• Sepulcher Mountain - Near Mammoth Hot Springs
• Upper Terrace Loop - Ski Trail Only - Near Mammoth Hot Springs
• Snow Pass - Ski Trail Only - Near Mammoth Hot Springs
• Bunsen Peak Loop - Ski Trail Only - Near Mammoth Hot Springs
• Sheepeater Cliff - Ski Trails Only - Near Mammoth Hot Springs
• Indian Creek Loop - Ski Trail Only - Shuttle from Mammoth Hot Springs
• Blacktail Deer Creek - Between Mammoth and Tower
• Blacktail Plateau - Between Mammoth and Tower
• Hellroaring - Between Mammoth and Tower/May not be plowed
• Tower Junction - Ski Trail - Tower Junction
• Specimen Ridge - Between Tower and the Lamar Valley
• Slough Creek - Between Tower and the Lamar Valley
• Soda Butte - Lamar Valley
• Pebble Creek - Between the Lamar Valley and the northeast entrance
• Thunderer - Between the Lamar Valley and the northeast entrance
• Barronettee - Ski Trail Only - Between the Lamar Valley and the northeast entrance
• Warm Creek - Between the Lamar Valley and the northeast entrance
• Bannock - Ski Trail Only - Between the Lamar Valley and the northeast entrance
Western Section Between West Yellowstone and Bozeman
Most of these trails offer great skiing and snowshoeing. If you're planning an overnight backcountry trip in this section of the park you'll need to obtain your backcountry permit in West Yellowstone at the West Yellowstone Visitor Information Center. Some trailheads along this section of route 191 may not be cleared of snow during severe weather.
• Daly Creek
• Black Butte/Bighorn Peak
• Specimen Creek
• Fawn Pass
• Bighorn Pass
• Gneiss Creek
Traveling Park Roads During the Winter
Roads to the interior of the park are only open to snowcoach or snowmobile traffic from December 15th to March 15th and tours start at either West Yellowstone or Mammoth Hot Springs. The Snow Lodge at Old Faithful is open year-round and makes a great base camp for ski or snowshoe tours in and around the thermal areas located in this beautiful and remote section of the park. Access to the Old Faithful region is only available by snowcoach or snowmobile during the winter. Click here for an overview map of Yellowstone National Park.
Winter Backcountry Permits
Permits for backcountry travel during this time of year are available at Mammoth Hot Springs (Albright Visitor Center) or in West Yellowstone at the West Yellowstone Visitor Information Center. During the winter months the visitor centers do not open until 9am and a ranger may not be available to issue a permit when you arrive. Check in with the visitor center staff and they will call a ranger to come and issue the backcountry permit. For additional information of backcountry permits click here.
If you want to travel further into the backcountry the towns of Gardiner and West Yellowstone are open all year and you can book trips to the interior of Yellowstone via snowcoach or snowmobile through one of the many outfitters and guides located in these locations. Mammoth Hot Springs which is located near the northern entrance has limited amenities compared to West Yellowstone but you have much more opportunities for backcountry travel along the road from Gardiner to Cooke City.
Visit these websites for information on lodging in and around West Yellowstone, MT.
• Visit Yellowstone
• West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce
• Snow Lodge (Old Faithful)
Gardiner & Mammoth Hot Springs winter lodging information.
• Gardiner Chamber of Commerce
• Mammoth Hot Springs
Cook City lodging information.
• Cook City Chamber of Commerce
No matter what time of year you travel in the backcountry always practice a Leave No Trace ethic; plan ahead, camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave things as you find them, reduce the impact of campfires, respect wildlife and be considerate of other visitors.