With its majestic geysers, Technicolor thermal springs, bison-filled forests and fields, craggy canyons, and roaring waterfalls, Yellowstone National Park is undoubtedly one of the crown jewels of America’s national parks system. Stretching nearly 3,500 square miles across northwest Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, Yellowstone sees millions of visitors per year, who flock here to be wowed by some of the most spectacular landscapes of the western United States. The home of the famed Old Faithful geyser and the multi-hued Grand Prismatic Spring, here the wonders of geological history are on full display at thermal hot springs and geysers, the evidence of a caldera and supervolcano hiding beneath the park. It’s an absolute bucket-list destination, and if you’re going to plan a trip, you need to do it right so you can best enjoy everything the park has to offer while staying safe and comfortable. Here’s everything you need for a trip to Yellowstone.
When’s the Best Time to Go?
Yellowstone is most popular during the summer, which means that, if you want to experience the park during fair weather but with fewer crowds, you should aim to visit during the shoulder season months of either April to May or September to October. Visiting outside of the summer peak season has many benefits besides reduced crowds; in spring, the foliage starts blooming and the bison are in calving season, and in autumn, you get to see spectacular fall colors.
The park is still open during the winter, but many of the roads, lodges, and other park infrastructure and amenities are closed, so access is significantly limited. It’s still possible to get around by snowmobile, snow coach, snowshoeing, or skiing, but unless you’re an experienced outdoorsman, it’s recommended that you explore Yellowstone in winter with a guide or as part of a tour. If you are planning to visit Yellowstone during the winter months, you’ll need to plan and pack accordingly for frigid temperatures, heavy snowfall, and other difficult weather conditions.
What To Pack
If you’re planning on visiting Yellowstone in the spring, summer, or fall, there’s a whole host of items you’ll need to take along with you to ensure comfort and safety.
For Day Trips:
A comfortable, sturdy, and functional daypack that can hold all the supplies you need for a day plus some extras for emergencies is arguably the #1 thing you’ll need for a trip to Yellowstone. Exact requirements and style vary by person, but it’s a good idea to get a daypack that’s waterproof with adjustable straps that will feel comfortable on your back and shoulders and won’t cause back or shoulder pain as the day progresses.
There are no lions and tigers, but there are bears aplenty throughout Yellowstone; both black and grizzly bears. So whenever you’re hiking, especially in the backcountry or in less-crowded areas, it’s a good idea to bring a can of bear spray just in case of emergency. Bear spray should only be used if a bear is actively attacking or charging you, so be sure to make loud noises while hiking in bear country to make sure they’re aware of your presence.
During the summer, Yellowstone has large swarms of mosquitoes that hang out around lakes, ponds, and other bodies of water. So if you’re hiking, camping, or spending time near the park’s rivers or lakes, bringing along some bug spray to keep those pesky mosquitoes at bay is essential. Yellowstone also has horse and deer flies, whose bite packs quite a punch, so be sure your buy spray will ward them off as well!
Yellowstone is renowned for its wildlife, including bison, bears, elk, wolves, and many more. For the safety of yourself and the animals, though, you need to give them plenty of space, so most often you’ll be observing these majestic beasts from a distance, requiring the use of binoculars to observe them.
From wildlife to landscapes, there’s always something to see and admire around Yellowstone, so you’ll want to bring a good quality camera to capture those moments. For up-close shots, a smartphone camera or basic camera works just fine, but if you want to capture far-off landscapes or wildlife, a telephoto lens is essential.
The sun burns hard during those long summer days, so make sure you have plenty of sun protection. SPF50 or higher is recommended for sunscreen, and it’s also a good idea to have a good sun hat, sunglasses, and even sun shirts to make sure you’re fully protected.
Next to your daypack, a good pair of hiking boots is a must. Obviously, everyone has their own preference for brand and type of hiking shoes, but there are a few universal rules to keep in mind. They should be comfortable and have good support, and if you bought new hiking shoes for the trip, be sure to break them in beforehand; there’s nothing worse than going on a day-long hike in new hiking shoes and ending the day with bloody, blistered feet.
Planning on hanging out at Yellowstone Lake or one of the park’s 1,000 streams and rivers? Don’t forget some sturdy water sandals to splash around in.
You’ll likely spend entire days walking around, enjoying the sights, so you need sturdy, high-quality hiking socks that can wick moisture and won’t rub against your feet and cause blisters.
Summer temperatures in Yellowstone can soar to the 80s or higher, so it’s important to stay hydrated. Bring along a reusable water bottle on all your adventures, even if you’re just driving around the park, and be sure to drink water frequently.
Yellowstone’s summertime weather is generally sunny and fair, but in the afternoon, thunderstorms and heavy rain can arrive. The nights are also pretty chilly, so with such variance in the temperatures and weather, it’s a good idea to pack for all seasons. Start off the day in layers, with fleeces, warm hats, long pants, and other cold-weather gear, and as the day heats up, shed layers for warm weather clothing like hiking pants/shorts, short-sleeve shirts, and more.
Because of the afternoon thunderstorms, you should definitely make sure to bring rain gear like waterproof jackets (that can easily be folded up and kept in your daypack when not in use), waterproof shoes, and other waterproof gear.
Even on easy day hikes, you can still get scratched up, so pack a small first-aid kit into your day pack with Band-Aids, disinfectants, and other essentials just in case of a little tumble.
There are plenty of dining options around Yellowstone, but if you’re primarily spending the day on hikes or visiting popular attractions, you’ll want to bring your own food along to maximize your adventure time. Feel free to pack whatever you want, from trail mix to protein bars, but the most important thing is to remember to not litter.
For Multi-Day Camping/Backpacking/Backcountry Trips
For longer stays where you’re going to be exploring Yellowstone’s backcountry on multi-day trips that require overnight camping or even just camping at a campsite near the main tourist areas of the park, you’ll need all of the above as well as:
Whether in the backcountry or camping in one of the better-outfitted campsites, you’ll be in need of a good tent. Be sure to pack one that’s either designed to be waterproof and keep out the rain or bring along a tent fly.
Few people want to sleep on the cold, hard ground, so pack a well-insulated, comfortable sleeping bag, as well as a sleeping pad to provide extra cushioning.
There is ample water throughout Yellowstone National Park from its thousands of lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water, but you’ll still need to make sure it’s safe to drink. Most backpacking water purifier systems are compact and easy to pack along, and their results are robust, so this is one of the best ways to make sure you stay safe and healthy when you’re way out in the middle of nowhere.
Don’t let the bears get to your grub; it’s dangerous for you and also endangers the bears as they can develop a taste for human food. Before going to sleep each night, package your food in a bear-proof container that can either be hoisted into a tree or placed a fair distance downwind from your tent.
Don’t forget the basic necessities like toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, hairbrush, and other toiletry essentials. And all the better if they’re eco-friendly and biodegradable!
Nothing worse than trying to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night with no light, so don’t forget a flashlight or headlamp.
All overnight stays in the backcountry require a permit, so be sure to apply for yours well in advance!
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