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. Stretching nearly 3,500 square miles across northwest Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, Yellowstone attracts millions of visitors seeking to revel in the beauty of its most spectacular landscapes.
Indeed, it’s an absolute bucket list-worthy destination for adventure-minded individuals who want to visit beautiful national parks this year. If the idea of visiting its picturesque landscapes in 2021 gets you excited, here’s a list of the essentials you need to stay safe and comfortable so you can enjoy everything the park has to offer.
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 April to May and September to October. Visiting outside of the 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.
Whether you’re planning on visiting Yellowstone in the spring, summer, fall, or winter, 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 number one 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. One of the hiking daypacks we recommend is the water-resistant 17-Liter Hyperlite Mountain Gear Daybreak Backpack, designed to store all your essentials without breaking your back or shoulders.
There are no lions or 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 or bear deterrents, such as this one from Counter Assault, 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. Feel free to check out our guide on how to survive a bear attack.
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 bug spray will ward them off as well! We suggest getting this insect repellant from Sawyer since it offers a 12-hour and eight-hour protection against mosquitoes and flies, respectively. We’ve highlighted natural insect repellents that don’t stink if you’re looking for more natural remedies.
Yellowstone is renowned for its wildlife, including bison, bears, elk, wolves, and many more. For your safety 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. We especially love Celestron’s binoculars for their 8x magnification power so you can clearly view Yellowstone’s fauna without disturbing them.
From wildlife to landscapes, there’s always something to see and admire around Yellowstone, so you’ll want to bring a good quality (and even better, a waterproof) outdoor action camera like the GoPro Hero 8 Black 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 on hotter days, so make sure you are equipped with the best protective sunscreens. We love EltaMD’s Sport Sunscreen Lotion for its non-greasy formula and SPF 50 sun protection. It’s also infused with vitamin E to help minimize free radicals. Pack your 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. The Salomon Quest 4d 3 GTX Backpacking Boots are a great one to have since they boast a 4D advanced chassis for reducing fatigue and improving traction on the trail. Although everyone has their own preference for brand and type of hiking shoes, 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.
Water Shoes or Hiking Sandals
Planning on hanging out at Yellowstone Lake or one of the park’s 1,000 streams and rivers? Don’t forget to bring along some sturdy water shoes and hiking sandals to splash around in. If you need ideas, you can go for Teva’s Original Universal Sandals, featuring an EVA footbed for a comfy all-day trek at Yellowstone’s bodies of water.
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. The Icebreaker Hike+ Medium Crew Socks, for example, offer maximum breathability and ample cushioning for your feet.
Temperatures in Yellowstone can soar to the 80s or higher during the warmer months, so it’s important to stay hydrated. Bring along a water bottle that ideally features vacuum insulation, like HydroFlask’s water bottle, to keep water cold for several hours. Drink water frequently, even if you’re just driving around the park.
Layered Clothing for All-Weather Use
Yellowstone’s 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 or hiking shorts, short-sleeve shirts, and more. For hiking pants, we suggest investing in a pair that sports a zip-off system to keep your legs cool, like these high-performance convertible pants from Kuhl.
Because of the afternoon thunderstorms, you should definitely make sure to bring a rain jacket or full-on waterproof jackets (that can easily be folded up and packed in your daypack when not in use), waterproof shoes, and other waterproof gear. Although there is a plethora of rain gear available in the market, we prefer the North Face Venture 2 for its easy-to-pack design and DryVent shell for fighting off unexpected showers in the outdoors.
Even on easy day hikes, you can still get scratched up, so pack a small first-aid kit into your daypack with Band-Aids, disinfectants, and other essentials. There are many DIY emergency kits for your travels. If you’re afraid that you might miss an essential, you can purchase the I Go 85-Piece First-Aid Compact Kit to help you prepare for minor injuries along the way.
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. There are packaged hiking snacks available and some that you can make on your own. Protein bars are good too, particularly this offering from One. Packed with 20 grams of protein and one gram of sugar, One’s protein bar will keep you pumped up throughout the day while giving you a too-good (uh, delicious)-to-be-true snacking experience. We don’t care how many snacks you will bring, just remember not to litter, okay?
For Multiday Camping/Backpacking/Backcountry Trips
For longer stays where you’re going to be exploring Yellowstone’s backcountry on multiday 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 the following:
Whether in the backcountry or camping in one of the better-outfitted campsites, you’ll be in need of a good camping tent. Whether you are traveling to Yellowstone alone or with a group, be sure to either pack one that’s designed to be waterproof and keep out the rain or bring along a tent fly. There are great and affordable tents out there, but we’d definitely go with the Coleman Sundome Tent for extra protection from the elements.
Few people want to sleep on the cold, hard ground, so pack a well-insulated, comfortable sleeping bag like the Synthesis 20 Degree from Sierra Designs. You can also bring a sleeping pad for 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 filters 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. We recommend the LifeStraw Personal Water Filter for your drinking needs as it eliminates salmonella and other water-borne bacteria.
Bear-Resistant Food Storage
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 be either hoisted into a tree or placed a fair distance downwind from your tent. Our top pick is the Backpacker’s Cache Bearproof Container. The container helps suppress the smell of food to prevent famished bears from raiding your favorite snacks.
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! It’s wise to invest in a compact carrying case for your camping toiletries, and this toiletry bag from Sea to Summit gets the job done thanks to its multiple mesh pockets.
There’s nothing worse than trying to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night without a camping lantern or a headlamp. But never fear, the Streamlight Siege Compact Hand Lantern will help you navigate in the dark with its 540-lumen white LED bulb.
All overnight stays in the backcountry require a permit, so be sure to apply for yours well in advance!
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