How to backpack in popular national parks

Your guide to the permits, protocol and perks of sleeping in some of the nation's most iconic outdoor environments.

Every year, I debate the pros and cons of backpacking in national parks.

Cons: There are reservations, permits, people, shuttles and mandatory bear cans.

Pros: What you give up in convenience is usually more than repaid in access to jaw-dropping scenery that just can't be matched on any old footpath through the woods. And it's really helpful to have that kind of distraction when you're carrying a 30-pound load.

This could be your nightlight. Photo: Pixabay/Pexels

If you're committed to trying wilderness camping in some of the most scenic and visited natural areas in the country, such as Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Glacier or Yellowstone, here's how to do it right.

Don't wing it

You can't, because some of the best hiking trails to the most iconic backcountry camping spots require booking a reservation at least six months in advance. If you plan to go at the height of the summer tourist season, mark your calendar to submit that online wilderness camping reservation to your favorite national park right around New Year’s.

Plan for permits

hikers on a backpacking trail

Spec out bear can sizes based on the number of people in your party, how many days you’re heading into the backcountry and how hungry you get when hiking. Photo: Julie Kailus

In addition to a reservation for camping in a specific spot in a national park, you must also purchase, pick up and attach to your backpack a wilderness permit. This one always throws me, because at Rocky Mountain National Park -- my local go-to -- you have to go into the Headquarters Wilderness Office near the visitor’s center to wait in line and physically obtain the permit before you head to the trail.

Rangers are checking these tags at the trailhead, so don't try to skip it. Besides, the permits -- basically a cap on the number of visitors allowed in a particular area at a particular time -- are in place to manage use and ensure the park stays beautiful and uncrowded for everyone, so trying to poach a camp spot isn’t just illegal; it’s rude.

Also, remember that permits don't include the cost of admission to the park, so plan for that fee too.

Behold the bear can

man with backpacking gear

You’ve got to plan ahead for wilderness camping in the national parks, but it will be worth the extra effort. Photo: Alexandre Godreau/Unsplash

Many highly visited national parks now make it mandatory to not only pack in and out all food, but to store it in a bear-proof canister, which you can buy for an ungodly amount or rent from a local outdoor store for as little as $3 a night. They come in a couple of sizes, which you'll need to inspect and test for volume, depending on how many nights you're going or people you're going with.

It makes sense that the screw top takes a little practice to maneuver, and don't forget that bears like more than just peanut butter sandwiches. “Anything with a smell that would attract a bear, like lotions and sunscreens, needs to go in the can,” says Jenny Coriell of Estes Park Mountain Shop near Rocky Mountain National Park. Bear cans, while they can sit on the ground, should be kept 70 adult steps from a tent.

And remember, don't cook or spit toothpaste where you sleep.

Strategize the shuttle

backpacking looking into wilderness

Securing permits and the right gear will ensure you get to the goods without last-minute hassles. Photo: Andrew Collins/Unsplash

At many of the most popular national parks, parking lots at the primo trailheads are full by 8 a.m. “The times seem to be getting earlier and earlier each year,” says Coriell of Rocky Mountain National Park, which sees some 4.5 million visitors annually.

That means sucking it up and taking a shuttle to where you need to go. It's a lot less stressful than getting denied -- or a late start. Plus it's a lot more entertaining. Most shuttlers are day hikers who love striking up a conversation about how rugged you are for sleeping over in the backcountry.

Ride the high from the extra attention; you'll need it later when your shoulder blades go numb from the weight of your pack.

Know the etiquette

Looks refreshing, but still, purify that water before you take a sip. Photo: Pixabay/Pexels

Backpacking gear is a personalized pursuit. Do you want to go as light as possible in pack, tent, sleeping bag and pad? Are you on a budget? Do you care if you're toting stuff in an external-frame hand-me-down from the 1980s?

Only you will know what will work for you, but more important is what you do with your gear in the national parks. Here are a few reminders about good etiquette (and health) when you wilderness camp:

• Be aware of altitude and carry enough water or a portable water filter or “straw” for easy and safe drinking. Even fit people can get lightheaded and disoriented quickly while hiking with a heavy backpack on.

• Purify your drinking water. Use a filtered pump that fits on a reusable water bottle, purifying tablets or water boiled for at least a minute.

• Pitch your tent in designated areas -- don't go rogue -- at least 200 feet from water.

• Make sure fires are permitted where you camp. Often they're illegal, and you don't want to burn down a pretty national park, right?

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