The backcountry of Yellowstone is the real deal: a domain of free-roaming wildlife and natural treasures predominantly untouched by the hand of man. The U.S. National Park Service, through its system of permits, designated camping areas, and rules, has managed to preserve a true wilderness. Yellowstone has more than 1,200 miles of trails (mostly in the backcountry) and 300 backcountry campsites.

Information before you go—Contact the Yellowstone Backcountry Office, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190 (www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/backcountryhiking.htm; tel. 307/344-2160), with questions about campsites, permits, and reservations. The website above has a link to the useful Backcountry Trip Planner, which has a detailed map showing where the campsites are, as well as information on preparation.

Backcountry Permits—Backcountry permits are required for any overnight trips on foot, horseback, or by boat. They cost $3/person/night (maximum group fee $15/night) for backpackers and boaters and $5/person/night for parties on horseback. If you’re lucky enough to be spending many nights in the backcountry, an annual backcountry pass costs $25. You can arrange for permits in person at a backcountry office no more than 48 hours in advance of your trip, or you can make reservations ahead of time by fax, mail, or in person only. The park accepts permit applications from January 1 to October 31 of each year, with those received by March 31 processed first, and charges a $25 fee. Camping is allowed only in designated campsites, many of which are equipped with food storage poles to keep wildlife out of your stores. Some are also equipped with pit toilets. 

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Pick up your permit in the park within 48 hours of your departure at one of the following stations any day of the week during the summer, 8am to 4:30pm: Bechler, Bridge Bay, Old Faithful, and South Entrance Ranger Stations; Canyon, Grant Village, Mammoth, and West Yellowstone Visitor Centers; or Tower Backcountry Office.

When to Go—Many trails into the park backcountry remain covered with snow and become muddy in the first weeks of melt, well into June. At the higher elevations, over 9,000 feet, summer doesn’t truly begin until early July. Even then, the weather is unpredictable at best. Creeks and streams described as “intermittent” during summer might be filled with snowmelt that transforms them into impassable, swiftly running rivers that often drench trails and convert them to mud. Generally, mid-July through mid-September brings the best backpacking weather. Look in the Backcountry Trip Planner for approximate dates for when specific campsites will be accessible and habitable.

Bear Safety—Grizzly bear attacks in the park are incredibly rare, but possible. Reduce your chances of an encounter by respecting seasonal bear closures, hiking in groups of four or more, not hiking off-trail, and making noise by talking loudly, singing, or clapping your hands. Always carry bear spray, a very effective deterrent to a charging bear, and know how to use it.

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Maps—A good topographic map is essential for backcountry trips. GPS units and smartphone mapping apps can be very useful, but always carry a paper map as backup. Park rangers suggest using maps from the Trails Illustrated Map series, published by National Geographic Maps. There are six Yellowstone maps printed on durable plastic; the maps also show backcountry campsite locations. For more information, contact National Geographic Maps (www.natgeomaps.com; tel. 800/962-1643) or Yellowstone Forever (www.yellowstone.org; tel. 406/848-2400).

Outfitters—An alternative to venturing into the backcountry on your own is to go with an outfitter. Outfitters usually arrange for backcountry permits and provide most equipment, which can offset the cost of their services. And some offer a more catered experience, setting up your tent and preparing meals. Check www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/guidedtours.htm for a list of companies with permits to operate inside the park. 

The 10 Essentials + 1

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Though hiking is a very safe activity and most visitors run into no problems while exploring the park, don’t forget that you’re entering a true wilderness. It’s vital to be prepared for changing weather conditions, rugged trails, and wildlife encounters. Experienced backcountry travelers swear by carrying the “Ten Essentials,” or a must-pack list of comfort and safety gear to stash in your daypack. Make sure you have the following items with you before any hike, even if you’re only going a short distance.

  • Navigation: Always carry a map and compass. The map you get at the entrance stations is not detailed enough for true navigation, so pick up a topographic map that shows terrain details. GPS units and smartphone apps are helpful too, but they shouldn’t replace a paper map and compass in case you run out of power or they malfunction.

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  • Sun protection: Everyone in your party should have a hat (wide-brimmed sun hats are best), sunglasses, and sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.

  • Extra clothing: This should include both warm layers (such as fleece or down jackets) and waterproof rain gear.

  • Light: Pack a headlamp or flashlight in case you’re unexpectedly caught out after dark.

  • First-aid kit: You can buy compact, ready-made wilderness kits or assemble your own. Carry pain relievers, bandages, and blister treatments.

  • Fire-starting materials: Waterproof matches and/or a lighter, plus tinder, can be the difference between life and death if you’re lost in bad weather.

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  • Repair kit: A knife or multitool plus duct tape can temporarily fix a surprising number of gear malfunctions.

  • Food: Trail mix, trail bars, dried fruit, jerky, and peanut butter are all calorically dense, long-lasting foods for extra energy.

  • Water: Prevent dehydration by making sure everyone in your group has a sizeable water bottle or hydration bladder.

  • Emergency shelter: A space blanket is small and light, but even a large garbage bag can add essential warmth and weather protection. And, at Yellowstone, there’s an 11th Essential:

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  • Bear spray: Don’t be caught without this highly effective deterrent against a charging bear.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.