Planning a Backpacking Trip in the US National Parks

U.S. National Parks receive over 330 million visits every year.

The National Park system includes 418 national park sites that cover a total of over 84 million acres. These carefully preserved acres are home to all kinds of wildlife, terrain, vegetation, and history.

U.S. National Parks are also fantastic destinations for outdoor wanderers. If you love backpacking or wilderness exploring, make sure you put a nearby national park on your list!

Are you planning a backpacking trip to a national park? If so, there are plenty of things to keep in mind as you do so.

Keep reading for your comprehensive guide to national park backpacking!

Backpacking in National Parks 101

Backpacking in a national park isn’t like backpacking on general public land.

National parks are preserved, carefully monitored areas of land. While the national park system is designed for the public’s enjoyment, there are still plenty of rules when it comes to wandering these beautiful locations! 

These rules are also likely to vary depending on your destination. For this reason, when planning your backpacking trip, be sure to research backpacking rules specific to your national park of choice.

1. You May Need a Permit

Prospective backpackers often need a permit in order to trek in national parks, especially in specific regions. Backpackers typically secure this permit in advance of their trip, sometimes months before.

This is the case regardless of how long your backpacking trip is. Even one-night backpacking excursions will likely require a permit.

There may also be a limited number of backpacking permits available per season or per week. This is designed to ensure what’s called “outstanding solitude opportunities,” as described in the Wilderness Act, a law passed in 1964.

Basically, the national parks system wants to limit overcrowding for the enjoyment of humans and animals alike!

Some parks may have what’s called a lottery system, which distributes permits to randomly chosen applicants on a specific timeline. 

Others, like Denali National Park, give out first-come, first-serve backpacking permits the day before your trip begins or the day of the trip itself. For this park, you can only obtain permits before the office closes at 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.

Backpacking permits in national parks are generally free. However, you may also need to make a trailhead reservation in addition to obtaining your wilderness permit, and these typically have a nominal fee ($5, for example).

We strongly recommend researching your destination’s permitting rules before planning your backpacking trip, as they vary depending on the park.

It’s important to note that you don’t need a permit for day hikes in any national park. 

2. National Parks Are Wild

This goes without saying, but plenty of novice backpackers overlook this important fact. In fact, Yosemite National Park calls its backpacking permits Wilderness Permits.

Wild animals regularly traverse national parkland, and weather patterns in national parks can be incredibly severe and unexpected. For this reason, national park backpackers should be prepared to engage with the wild in a safe, respectful manner.

Backcountry Etiquette

All national park backpackers should show appropriate etiquette while wandering the backcountry. Basically, this etiquette embraces the Leave No Trace policy.

Leave No Trace (LNT) means backpacking in a way that does not leave behind any evidence of your being there. Backpackers shouldn’t leave any waste on the trails, for example, and they should prepare to pack everything in and out of the park.

This is particularly important when it comes to food waste and ingredients! You may be tempted to throw that apple core into a nearby meadow, but doing so can be disastrous for flora and fauna.

Human food waste can actually alter animal diets and introduce contaminants into water supplies. It can even draw animals to a campsite, which can put backpackers (and the animals themselves) at risk!

Backpackers should also be mindful of where they set up camp. Be respectful of other wanderers and the natural environment itself.

Engaging with Wild Animals

In short, don’t approach or feed any animals you encounter in the backcountry. Every national park will emphasize this, and it’s so important to follow this rule!

Engaging with wild animals in any way, no matter how cute or impressive they are, can be life-threatening. There are plenty of tales out there about tourists getting mauled by grizzly bears and moose, unfortunately.

You may also be tempted to feed that sweet little chipmunk chattering in the trees. However, doing so can acclimate these animals to human interaction, which can be devastating to their species and well-being.

Most “dangerous” wild animals are only dangerous if provoked or threatened. That being said, if you are traveling to a place like Glacier National Park, home to the grizzly bear, you’ll want to take bear spray with you. Make sure you know how to use this before bringing it along!

(Please note you can’t pack bear spray into luggage if you’re traveling on a plane. Buy your bear spray at your destination.)

If you encounter an animal on the trail, stay calm and don’t make eye contact with the creature. Keep your distance until the animal has moved along.

Enjoying Not Destroying

National parks are meant to be enjoyed and respected, not destroyed! Be respectful of your environment while wandering.

Don’t pick any wildflowers, as tempted as you may be to do so. In fact, don’t take anything out of the park, including stones, pieces of wood, and the like. This is prohibited by law.

If all backpackers practice this etiquette, our national parks will remain the stunning, well-preserved places they have been for the last few decades.

3. Plan Well in Advance

Even experienced backpackers will take the time they need to plan a serious trip. If you’re planning that national park backpacking trip, block out the time to do so!

You’ll probably have to do this anyway if you wish to secure a backpacking permit. Yes, it is possible to obtain a first-come, first-serve backpacking permit the day of your trip.

But this isn’t guaranteed, especially if you are backpacking during peak season at a popular park.

Advance planning will also make sure that you have everything that you need when on the actual trail. For multi-day backpacking trips, this is vital. It can be challenging to plan meals for four days, for example, and to squeeze these ingredients into a singular pack!

4. Be Careful with Water

Crystal clear streams, rippling lakes, and surging rivers. Sounds delicious, right?

Be careful! As tempted as you may be to sip on that fresh mountain spring, it could contain bacteria. This bacteria, if consumed, can lead to giardia or other infections.

Always bring along a portable water filter. This will ensure that you have sufficient water supply while traveling–an absolute must–and that you are drinking fresh filtered water.

5. Activities May Be Limited

Most national parks prohibit certain kinds of activities in the wilderness. Make sure you know a park’s prohibited activities before you set off!

For example, most parks don’t permit the flying of drones of any kind. Yes, your drone will probably take an amazing photo of the backcountry, but don’t pack it. Drones can be dangerous for wildlife.

You may also not be allowed to build a fire in certain parks. This is often a seasonal rule, particularly in areas prone to intense wildfires.

If you’re thinking about traveling by horse or motor vehicle, be careful. Most national parks will have rules with respect to the type of permitted traffic. Some national parks are also more suited than others for backpacking trips by canoe or kayak.

Best National Parks for Backpacking

Now that we’ve discussed the rules of backpacking in national parks, which parks are the best for backcountry trekking?

Here are a few cult favorites.

Glacier National Park

One of the best-known Rocky Mountain national parks, Glacier will not disappoint backpackers. While trekkers will have to wary of moose, grizzly bears, and mountain lions, the Glacier wilderness is mesmerizing with glaciers, wildflowers, and untouched meadows.

Rock climbers will also likely appreciate Glacier’s extensive rocky climbs.

Backpacking country permits are required for all backpackers and cost $7 per person per night. Walk-in permits are available the day before or the day of your backpacking trip at several locations.

The good news? Half of all backpacking sites are reserved for walk-ins! Still, competition for these permits can be fierce, so arrive at your permitting location early to obtain one.

For an easier multi-day backpacking trip, check out the Triple Divide Pass backpack, which begins Cutbank Creek Ranger Station and takes backpackers through ridges dotted with bighorn sheep.

The Boulder Pass Trail backpack is ideal for multi-day wanderers. With this 31 mile (one-way) trek, backpackers begin at Waterton Lakes National Park and take a ferry to Goat Haunt, eventually ending up at Kintla Lake.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite may be the most popular national park destination for backpacking trips. And for good reason! Yosemite offers trekkers 1,169 square miles of mountainous terrain, pristine lakes, and gorgeous meadows.

If you’re looking for a one-night backpacking trip, start with the classic Half Dome backpack. This involves backpacking to Little Yosemite Valley, camping there, then hiking the infamous Half Dome the following day.

Keep in mind that this hike isn’t for the lighthearted. Climbing up and down Half Dome can be daunting due to the steep incline, but there are cables provided for holding onto (and even gloves for hikers to use).

If you are a lake lover, plan for a Cathedral Lakes backpacking trip. This trip will take you to the top of Cathedral Peak, where you can enjoy alpine lakes and a verdant green meadow. This is definitely a milder, shorter trip (eight miles) but ideal for first-timers.

Adventurous multi-day backpackers shouldn’t overlook the Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley backpack. This 33-mile trip is often completed in five or six days and takes trekkers to Sunrise Lakes and Cloud’s Rest.

Permits are a must for any wilderness wandering in Yosemite. The process is competitive, but it is possible to obtain a walk-in permit for select locations.

Grand Canyon National Park

A classic of the American West, Grand Canyon National Park is an ideal destination for savvy backpackers. If alpine wandering isn’t high on your list, opt for this park’s magical canyons and vibrant earth tones.

For a relaxed, low-key out-and-back trip, put Havasu Falls on your list. This ten-mile trek brings backpackers close to emerald water and plunging falls. 

Diehard backpackers may want to opt for the 47-mile Grand Tour, which takes trekkers around the entire Canyon’s rim. You’ll gain 10,141 feet in elevation and experience this spectacular canyon from all angles.

Backpackers with an affinity for the water shouldn’t overlook a canoe expedition either!

You will need a Grand Canyon backpacker’s permit for any overnight trekking. 

Can I Take My Dog?

This question is asked a lot! Before you invest in some dog backpacking gear, though, check to make sure your national park of choice permits dogs.

In general, most national parks only allow leashed pets on well-traveled areas, such as designated trails. Your dog may or may not be allowed in the backcountry.

Don’t worry, though. You can take your dog backpacking on most non-national park land. And there are a few pet-friendlier parks out there, including Grand Canyon National Park and Great Sand Dunes National Park.

How to Train for Backpacking

There’s more you can do to prepare for a backpacking trip than packing and securing your permit. Backpacking can be physically strenuous, especially if you are planning a long multi-day backpack across many miles of terrain.

Begin by taking regular day hikes on local trails. Ideally, opt for hikes with varying terrain, rather than a flat trail, and choose hikes between 3 and 5 miles. This can help you build your stamina for carrying a heavy pack up and down steep slopes.

Once you feel comfortable with day hiking, add a pack into the mix. Keep the same mileage, but go on these day hikes wearing a backpack full of water, snacks, and other heavy items.

After this, you can work your way up to longer hikes (preferably 5-10 miles total), with or without a heavy pack.

The secret to training for backpacking? Consistency! Start your training early and stick to it to ensure easy breathing in the wild. 

Final Thoughts: Your National Park Backpacking Trip

A spectacular backpacking trip in your favorite national park awaits. But what comes next?

You’ll need to make sure you have everything you need before you head out. Check out our packing tips here!

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