What to Pack for Your Yellowstone Vacation

Packing tips video by The World Outdoors


You are headed to Yellowstone National Park where you will find half of the world’s geysers and more wildlife than anywhere else in the Lower 48. From high mountain peaks to green valleys and alpine rivers, there are hundreds of places to explore. But how do you pack for Yellowstone? Here are the top 16 items to put in your backpack.

1. Binoculars or a Spotting Scope to See Bears and Wolves

Don’t miss seeing that grizzly across Hayden Valley or the wolf trotting through the grass in the Lamar Valley. Bring along a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope to see all the wildlife Yellowstone has to offer. It’s worth talking to your local camp store employee about the different types of binoculars for sale as not all are created equal. You don’t want to end up with an extraordinarily weak pair, nor a pair too heavy to hike with. The Nikon Monarch series offers some great features. Photo tip: Put your cell phone camera up to the spotting scope lens to take a close-up shot of the herd of moose in the distance.

2. Bear Spray

Bear spray is a must in the Yellowstone area if you plan on doing any sort of hiking or walking along trails. Home to about 150 grizzlies, Yellowstone rarely reports fatalities from grizzly bear attacks on humans. But the park advises everyone on the trails to carry bear spray and know how to use it in the event you encounter a grizzly. You can purchase bear spray at camping stores (don’t try to bring it on the plane en route here) in the towns near the park or you can rent it from the kiosk at the Canyon Village Visitor Center. Keep in mind the best prevention is going to visitor centers to find out what areas to avoid, walking in groups of four or more and making noise as you hike to avoid surprising a bear. Read more about what to do if you encounter a bear.

3. Air Horn

Bison may seem docile at first look but they are responsible for many unfortunate incidents in the park. An air horn is not something to be used on a whim, but if you feel threatened by a bison or you think it’s going to charge, sound the horn to get the bison to back off. Better yet, avoid the situation by staying the required distance away from wild animals.)

4. A Sun Hat, Sunglasses and Sunscreen

You only need to have experienced the sun in the West one time before you realize how strong it really is, especially since Yellowstone sits at an average elevation of 8,000. Bring a wide-brimmed hat, which is preferable over a baseball cap, to cover your entire face.

Then, apply sunscreen over all exposed skin, including the back of your neck. Sunglasses will protect your eyes from being burned and polarized lens will help you see views more clearly. Don’t forget you are 8,000 feet closer to the sun than at sea level. Purchase sunglass straps if you plan to be on the water- it can be frustrating watching your new sunglasses float downstream without you.

5. Sturdy Hiking Boots

To make the most out of your trip, pack a pair of supportive, waterproof and breathable hiking boots. The advantage to boots over athletic shoes is the hard, unyielding sole that will protect your feet as you walk over rocky surfaces. Boots will allow you to navigate wet and dry trails with ease and enable you to explore farther than you maybe would have. To get you started on your research, one of our staff members raves about his Sportiva Synthesis Mid GTX. Our friends at Backpacker really liked the 2016 Vasque Skywalks GTS.

6. A Rain Jacket

Who brings rain jacket to the dry West? We do. Every time we visit. In summer, afternoon rainstorms roll in almost like clockwork. The good news is they pass quickly. The bad news is the temperature drops dramatically when it rains, turning a warm day into one that feels freezing. When it rains and temperatures plummet, you want a jacket that can keep you warm and dry.

7. A Couple Water Bottles or a Hydration System

The average elevation of Yellowstone National Park is 8,000 feet. Combat the effects of high elevation and sun by drinking water almost constantly. Because the air is dry, your sweat quickly evaporates. Often, you won’t know you are sweating. Drinking water ensures you won’t get dehydrated, which can lead to headaches and more serious conditions like heat cramps and heat stroke. Plan to drink .5 -1 liter per hour of hiking. Even when you are not recreating, be sure to keep drinking. If your urine is clear, you are hydrated. We love bringing along our CamelBak, which allows us to keep sipping even as we are on the move.

8. Warm and Cold Clothing Layers

When you are sitting in sweltering heat in Chicago, it may seem totally ridiculous to pack a winter hat and warm layers for your Yellowstone trip. Ignore your inner cynic. At 8,000 feet, park temperatures can fluctuate 30 degrees in one day, going from 40 F in the night to 70 F in the day. Be sure to pack light layers for daytime and others that will keep you warm in the evenings, including a winter hat, when the sun sets and cooler air moves in. You will be surprised at how quickly temperatures drop as the sun sets.

9. A Star Chart

You’ll find some of the darkest skies in Yellowstone, which hundreds of miles from major cities. With a star chart, you’ll be able to identify some of the formations you may never have seen before, specially if you are coming from an urban environment. Or use technoloby and download the SkyView® Free app for iPhone or Android. You may be able to see up to 15,000 stars in the Wyoming sky in comparison to 500 in an urban sky. It’s far out!

10. Sturdy Water Shoes

If you plan on river rafting, canoeing or kayaking, you will want a good pair of water shoes. Flip-flops are not recommended for water activities as they will get stuck in the mud and either break or get swallowed down river. A covered rubber-toed shoe can help you avoid getting bruised toes from river rocks or cuts from stray logs.

11. A Tablecloth

It’s the little things that make a big difference. When you stop at the roadside weathered picnic table to eat lunch, pull out your tablecloth to go from downhome to gourmet in a matter of seconds. You’ll also avoid getting hard-to-remove splinters when you lean against the table.

12. Bug Spray

Spend more time enjoying the scenery instead of swatting bugs. If you don’t want to use traditional formulas that do or do not include strong chemicals, there are plenty of bug sprays available these days that are made from natural ingredients and are safer for use by children.

13. Daypack

Make going for a stroll at Mammoth Hot Springs or a hike to Fairy Falls easy with a daypack. Place all your (and your family’s essentials) like extra layers, extra snacks, a flashlight, binoculars and simple first-aid kit in it.

14. Headlamp

Read at night in your tent comfortably with your headlamp or use this great lighting device to safely walk to and from evening ranger talks.

15. Download Sightseeing Apps

Don’t miss the highlights of the areas you are driving by when you listen to the GyPSy Guide. The tour app uses your device’s location abilities to play the commentary automatically as you drive, recommending places worth pulling over for and providing background stories.

To find out when various geysers are estimated to erupt, download the free National Park Service Yellowstone Geysers app from from iTunes or Google Play. You do need Wi-Fi or cellphone service to access the predictions, which can be spotty in the park.

16. Plastic bags

Plastic bags come in handy, as well to pack out used toilet paper if nature calls while you are hiking. It’s a big no-no to try to bury toilet paper in the back country. It has to be packed out.