Camping and hiking in Yellowstone
January 10, 2011 7:35 PM   Subscribe

I’d like to take hiking trip with a friend in the American West this summer and I have overlapping questions on how to get the most out of the trip. I am at the early stages of planning so tips on general resources are as welcome as specific answers.

Where and when should we go? I have had my heart set on Yellowstone but I am willing to consider alternatives. Ideally we would walk for three days and camp for two nights or stay in a single campground and take three separate day-hikes. I’d like to feel remote but not walk up any serious mountains. What route should we take? When is the weather best? Are there bookings or other advance preparations required?

What skills and equipment do I need? I have hiked and camped before but never in the US West and not for decades so tips on fire/bears/food/water/ insects would be helpful. I’m willing to buy equipment but I would rather not overspend as unless the trip is a lot of fun then the kit might not get reused.

What physical preparation is appropriate? I am 40, sedentary and overweight. I don’t want to launch a rigorous conditioning program but I’m willing to put in some effort so I can more easily hike with a pack and not have my trip ruined by aches.
posted by Fiery Jack to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I see that you're from Pennsylvania. Nights in the mountain west are a completely different animal from nights on the east coast. It gets cold. Cooooold. Whatever else you do to prepare for hiking/camping/etc, make sure you're gonna be warm enough when you sleep.
posted by phunniemee at 7:45 PM on January 10, 2011

A good, minimal effort place to start for training is to start walking as much as you can; logging time on your feet is more important than distance.

You'll have to make reservations in advance or time early arrival for day-of opening for popular campgrounds in national parks. Check the parks' websites for that.

Get a quality waterproof jacket and boots.
posted by thewestinggame at 7:49 PM on January 10, 2011

Forget Yellowstone, my friend. Forget the Grand Tetons. You need to go to the Wind River Range, especially the western side.

You can use Pinedale, Wyoming, as a base for several excellent trails. I especially recommend the Elkhart Park trailhead, which leads you to a trail to Titcomb Basin, which is the second most beautiful place I've ever seen.

It's a bit of a hike back there, about 40 miles round trip, but it's not terribly strenuous. I did it fine, and I'm no health buff. And, when you're done, you can still go to Yellowstone, etc, as it's pretty close by. The Wind River Range is just as pretty though, and generally not very crowded. If you decide to go, this book is fantastically useful.

MeMail me if you want more recommendations or anything.
posted by elder18 at 7:54 PM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yellowstone is pretty crowded and touristy. If that is what you are looking for, then I'd say, by all means, go. If you are looking for something a little more back-country (less touristy) you may want to check out the wind river range in wyoming. You can find all levels of difficulty in hiking and camping, without the crowds of some of the larger parks in the area.

As for the activity itself, find a good pair of shoes (I would recommend cross-training tennis shoes instead of hiking boots) and a good pack. Get familiar with the gear you will be taking. Find some good capeline shirts. Wear them around. Do your chores in them and get used to them.

Weather is sort of a crap shoot. The later in the summer you go, the more likely you will to have afternoon thunder showers. This is, of course, very location dependent. So wherever you choose, call the ranger station, or a local outdoor shop and get advice for the best time of year.

If you are in wyoming, it is not unheard of to have snow showers in september at higher altitudes.

Conditioning: Walk! Walk with a pack on! Go on hikes. Get some mileage under your belt. Get used to hiking in the clothes you are going to wear on your trip, with the pack you are going to take on your back, and the shoes you are going to wear on your feet.
posted by TheBones at 8:01 PM on January 10, 2011

Wow, elder18 beat me to the wind river range- awesome place!
posted by TheBones at 8:02 PM on January 10, 2011

I've been to Yellowstone and it is great. Visually stunning and totally unique. It has a lot of advantages for those who aren't regular outdoorsy types -- namely, because it is so popular, it has a lot of well-developed facilities catering to a wide range of visitors, and you will not have trouble finding information about the park. By the way, the park is huge. Old Faithful will be crowded, but there are so many places you can see, whether you want to hike out to see geysers or climb mountains or whatever. You might as well remove some uncertainty and make this the Yellowstone trip you're dreaming about -- why not.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:06 PM on January 10, 2011

I have always found REI's website to have a wealth of information on gear as well as technique. This link should be helpful: Camping Advice

I am a regular hiker in Colorado and I have to say backpacking is entirely different. Carrying all your gear versus a daypack is pretty intense. Start walking now, do as many day hikes as you can between now and your trip.

The best weather in the American West is probably going to be in July/August. This is also the most crowded time for camping in national parks in the area. I was in Yellowstone over Labor Day weekend camping and it was FREEZING and raining/hailing for a large part of the weekend.

General advice: drink tons of water. Being bear aware and practicing bear safety in your camp ground is no joke. Seriously! Get hiking boots soon and break them in. Wear good socks. Do some research on trails in yellowstone and believe the trail ratings. I have found the NPS to be pretty accurate in their ratings (easy really is easy and strenuous is tough).
posted by rachums at 8:12 PM on January 10, 2011

Yellowstone is amazing and it is completely possible to structure your days so as to avoid crowds. Of course, sites at the park like Old Faithful are not a wilderness experience. However, you absolutely can go on the hikes you are envisioning without many others on your trail, because in a park the size of New Jersey, there are quite a few of them. Ask a ranger which are less used and you will be fine. I would hate for somebody to avoid this national treasure for fear of it being touristy.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:24 PM on January 10, 2011

I think Yellowstone is over populated and it will be crazy busy during the summer. So keep that in mind if you want a real wilderness experience. You could get by that a little bit by getting a backcountry permit but you'll want your backcountry skills up to par by then.

As far as conditioning goes you'll just want to be prepared for whatever mileage your attempting to do. Like if you think you can only manage 12 miles in a day and your hike is 36 miles before the next resupply point make sure you have enough food and know where to get more water for 3 days.

I'd be more a fan of Glacier National Park for a camp in one spot + bunch of day hikes. I did that and Yellowstone last year and ended up just leaving Yellowstone instead of spending too much time there.
posted by zephyr_words at 9:13 PM on January 10, 2011

I'm seconding Wordwoman and others on YNP. Especially if you haven't been before, and especially since you already have your heart set on it, you should see Yellowstone! It's awesome. Do you have to go in the summer, or could you go in the very early fall after kids are back in school? I went a couple of years ago in September, and it was totally not crazy busy.

I can't speak to the hiking/camping experience -- I stayed in motels.

Whatever you choose, I hope you have a wonderful time!
posted by hansbrough at 9:59 PM on January 10, 2011

I haven't been to Yellowstone, so can't help you with specific details. However, I have done a fair number of 5-30 day backpacking trips.

How comfortable are you navigating with a map? Will you be lost without well-defined trails? How you answer this question will help people to narrow down itinerary suggestions.

If you were to choose the Wind River Mountains (which I 3rd as an awesome place to go backpacking), I'd strongly suggest basing yourself out of Lander. Access to the NOLS headquarters will be well worth it - you can rent pretty much anything that you'd need for incredibly reasonable rates. I think the only things they *don't* rent are boots, socks and base layers (and they sell all of those). They even have an amazing selection of dried trail food.

"40, Sedentary and overweight" covers a lot of ground. Except for the age, you could be describing me *or* my dad, and only one of us would be remotely able to backpack for 3 days.
Before my last big backpacking trip I just happened to spend a month working out 4 days a week. This extra cardio was a godsend - Your trip is short enough that if you haven't been getting some exercise beforehand, you're going to spend the whole trip with your body complaining about the unexpected load. At least do some walking in whatever shoes you plan to wear, as well as taking the stairs whenever possible.

My thoughts on equipment, geared towards the 3-day backpacking trip option:

* Boots - I second everybody who says that heavy-duty hiking boots are overkill for what you're describing. I'd take trail-running style shoes, or maybe a really lightweight hiking boot for a bit of ankle support. Don't forget wool socks - sometimes keeping your feet dry is a lost cause, but with wool socks you'll at least be warm. I'm also partial to liners.
* Shelter - If I were going to the Wind River range, I'd just take a tarp. For places with even more bugs, I'd deal with the extra weight of a tent
* Stove - I adore my whisperlite ... incredibly durable, easy to use, I got it cheap. However, just go for whatever you can get cheap that's light enough to carry.
* Food - for 3 days, this isn't a huge logistical challenge. PB, pasta, oatmeal, cheese, sausage, candy bars, etc are all good trail foods. Fancy freeze-dried trail foods are just a waste of money, unless you're really really worried about extra ounces of weight.
* Water - I'm a fan of iodine purification (or that new chlorine stuff that tastes better), b/c filters are a pain. Either way, have a plan for how to get it safe to drink, and remember to drink lots. (and don't make my mistake of trying to purify the water directly in your camelbak .... it's never been the same)
* Bears! - I've used bear barrels when camping in CA, and just been careful to store food way away from my tent in WY/MN/UT. Bears will be more of a problem as you get into more popular wilderness areas, and they learn that humans are a source of easy food. Either way, never ever ever take any food or food-like substances into the tent with you. This means EVERYTHING. I'm crazy about it, and this means that my chewing gum, toothpaste, sunscreen, etc winds up with the food. I've also never had a problem with bears.
* Sanitation - if you choose to use toilet paper, for Pete's sake, pack it out with you, unless you're using an established outhouse. Find out what the human waste disposal rules are for wherever you decide to go. If you can't count on outhouses, a trowel is useful, but you can usually get by with unearthing rocks to create a hole.
* Clothing - good raingear is a must. Breathable goretex is nice, but expensive. For base layers, have at least a cotton t-shirt / lightweight pant combo for hiking/warm days, and several polypro/fleece layers for colder/wetter days and nights.
* Sleeping - sleeping bag rated for the conditions you expect to see - and remember that the ratings tend to be "you will survive this temp" rather than "you will sleep cozily warm at this temp". Don't forget a pad of some sort - thermarest is nice and expensive, but foam works just fine. This isn't just for comfort - it insulates you from the ground.
* Other stuff - Headlamps are a lifesaver if you ever have to function in the dark.

Whoa, that got long. Obviously, much of that applies to a 3-day backpacking trip and would be totally extraneous on a set of 3 day-hikes. Don't forget to practice lighting the stove / setting up the shelter before you have to do so when it's dark and rainy.

MeMail me if you have any questions!

posted by Metasyntactic at 10:35 PM on January 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't know how far away from civilization you are looking to go, but there are so many options that it's unreal.

My experience with Yellowstone in the summer is that it is crowded pretty much everywhere you go. I have a tendency to like uncrowded places where I may or may not actually run into others. If this is up your alley, I'd consider going up to Montana. Specifically somewhere in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The Bob is untouched nature. 950,000 acres of mountains, forest, and no people. No motorized vehicles are allowed, only ways in are by foot or horseback. Groups are limited to 12 heads, including horses.

Most of the access is from the west side of the Bob, near Flathead Lake south of Kalispell. Some of the access is from towns on the eastern side such as Choteau or Augusta. The eastern side can get pounded by some of the most random weather due to the chinook winds that blow off of there. The Chinooks will mess with your head. Sunny with a slight breeze to thunderstorm and 60 mph winds in a few minutes, and the temperature will change 40 degrees in two hours.

If you want something that is really western, remote and off the beaten path, consider it. A lot of people go in with guides and guided trips are easily available, especially if you plan ahead of time.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 11:06 PM on January 10, 2011

The best advice I can give you is to read one of the books written by Laurence Gonzales. Either, Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things or Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why (or both!).

He talks a lot about well-intentioned people, just like you, that go into the wilderness, perhaps a little unprepared and then, well, die.

It's a good eye-opener on how we all sort of live this made-up world of safety, which doesn't help us when we're walking something other than the beaten path.

And yeah - walking helps. Maybe taking some day hikes where you live could help, too. Learn all about lightning as well. Crazy stuff here in the West.
posted by alex_skazat at 11:19 PM on January 10, 2011

I was once caught in a snowstorm in late June just outside of Yellowstone. I also rescued a cyclist who was being chased by a bison on a wet, slippery highway inside the park. The weather and fauna do not fuck around in Yellowstone.

Then again... old faithful.
posted by palacewalls at 11:27 PM on January 10, 2011

Why not Canyonlands?
The scenery is spectacular, the weather is warm/hot and mostly dry. You can see pictographs, dinosaur footprints, anasazi ruins and big, big big starry skies. You can travel with a lighter load (fewer layers of clothing and possibly no tent as a fly usually suffices).
Moab Utah is a great town and Arches is also nearby.
Read up on desert hiking, take a copy of Desert Solitaire, but be forwarned, like so many of us ex-pennsylvanians, you may never be satisfied with the east again.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:57 PM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you considered the Southwest at all? There are a lot of places that are far less crowded and the scenery and local color are amazing. Places in New Mexico like the Sante Fe Mountains or Cimarron Range are beautiful and there are really cool ghost towns.

Oh, and of course if were down New Mexico way you'd want to stop in Palo Duro Canyon!
posted by _superconductor at 7:35 AM on January 11, 2011

Yellowstone is like NYC in summer. So many people.
If you want to feel remote, then try Glacier national park.
posted by WizKid at 9:51 AM on January 12, 2011

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