What to Pack for Your Yellowstone Vacation
The top 16 things you wish you'll had while vacationing in Yellowstone.
Headed to Yellowstone National Park where you’ll 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. You might wonder, how do you pack for Yellowstone when there is so much to see and the temperatures fluctuate up to 30 degrees in one day? Here are the top 16 items to bring to the park.
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.
Need help on choosing a pair of binoculars? REI.com has this helpful article and a plethora of binocular brands.
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 700 grizzlies, Yellowstone region is also home to black bears. Park staff advise 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.
In addition to providing bear spray rentals, Bear Aware has supplies for hikers including bells, guide books and smelly-proof bags. For more information and to learn about their seven convenient drop-offs, visit Bear Aware at www.bearaware.com.
3. 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 lenses 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.
4. 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. REI has a great article and video on how to choose a hiking boot.
If you’re not going more than a couple of miles down the trail, you can pack light with a hiking shoe that can go from the trail to the restaurant. We love the Lowa Locarno Low hiking shoes.
5. A Rain Jacket
Who brings a 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.
Tip: Pick a jacket that claims to be waterproof or watertight, not water resistant. Check out the many brands of rain jackets at www.rei.com.
6. 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. Another favorite is EcoVessel’s bottles for both hot and cold beverages.
Read more: Why Reusable Water Bottles Are Important
7. 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.
8. 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 technology 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!
Want more options? Read this review of the 6 Best Stargazing Apps from our sister brand, Outside Magazine.
9. Sturdy Water Shoes
If you plan on river rafting, canoeing or kayaking, you will want a good pair of water shoes, or at least an old pair of athletic shoes that you don’t mind getting ruined. 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.
Not sure what a water shoe is? Here’s a great selection of everything from socks to sandals and shoes made for the water at www.rei.com.
10. 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 down home to gourmet in a matter of seconds. You’ll also avoid getting hard-to-remove splinters when you lean against the table.
11. Bug Spray
Spend more time enjoying the scenery instead of swatting bugs. If you don’t want to use strong chemicals, there are plenty of bug sprays available these days that are derived from natural ingredients and are safer for use by children.
Our pick is the family-friendly Sawyer 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent. Consumer Reports has ranked this formula as the best protection against mosquitoes. Sawyer’s insect repellent is also very effective for ticks and biting flies, and it won’t damage gear or equipment. Learn more at Sawyer.com/picaridin
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.
Daypacks don’t need to be the big expensive kind that backpackers use. If you’re just going out for the day, a smaller 18-30L size will work just fine and many can also double as a personal item on an airplane. Here are some good options for daypacks made specifically for travel on www.rei.com.
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.
Taking photos of the night skies? A headlamp with a red light option will help you change your camera settings in the dark with minimal annoyance to your travel mates.
14. Download Sightseeing Apps
Don’t miss the highlights of the areas you are driving by when you listen to the Guide Along. The driving 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.
15. Plastic bags
Bring these along to keep your cell phone, journal, book and other things dry if you get stuck in a rainstorm or get covered in spray near Yellowstone’s geysers. 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.
Read more: Leave No Trace
16. Park Maps
Yellowstone is a huge park – larger than some states – so you will need a map. You can wait until a park ranger hands you a map at the entrance station, or you can plan ahead and get your maps now. Download a free PDF map or get the detailed NatGeo topographic maps of Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier national parks at REI.com.
Pssst. Want to download an insider’s guide to Yellowstone, where to stay and what to do? Get our free Yellowstone Trip Planner filled with an inspiring itinerary, gorgeous photographs and everything you need to plan your dream vacation.