A backcountry Glacier National Park trip is an adventure you will not forget in a hurry! Throughout our time in the park, we encountered hikers inside and outside the backcountry who had been coming back to visit year after year.
Our host, Jake, was one of such people with this trip being his seventh time in the park. It’s not difficult to see why people return. Glacier National Park is stunning! With its pristine alpine lakes, fantastic mountainous landscapes, glaciers, and incredible wildlife, it’s easy to understand why it draws one in!How to Plan a Backcountry Glacier National Park Hike – Everything You Need to Know! Click To Tweet
But to have a successful backcountry Glacier National Park experience, the planning process requires some time and effort, and a bit of luck too. In this post, I will share everything you need to know about planning the perfect backcountry trip, using tips Jake shared with me.
Planning a Backcountry Glacier National Park Trip – First Steps
The first step to planning a successful trip is to determine your routes, how many days you have to spend in the park and how many people you will be travelling with. This will determine your strategy, which could be approaching your planning process intending to get the best hikes and campsites or opting for walk-in permits.
Regardless of whichever strategy you choose, it will be worth planning out the areas you would like to visit in advance and at least four to five alternatives just in case you do not get your preferred hikes. It is also important to accommodate some flexibilities in your schedule.
Once you’ve figured out your dates and company, it’s time to think about the permits and passes. These are the categories of passes needed:
- Vehicle Reservation for Going-to-the-Sun Road and the North Fork ($2 from 06:00 to 15:00, currently not required. Check here for updates)
- Entrance Pass (around $20, valid for 7 days; free for select days)
- Backcountry Permits ($10)
- Camping Fees ($7 per person, per night in the summer months); free in winter
Glacier National Park piloted a vehicle reservation system for the 2023 peak hiking season, from May 26 to September 10. The reservations were released in batches on April 1 and May 1 at 08:00 MST. Additional reservations became available at 8 a.m. the day before an intended visit.
Visitors with backcountry permits or campground and lodge reservations within the park did not need to pay this fee. In 2024, this may all change, so be sure to look out for updates on the NPS website.
Tip: It can be a hassle to find a suitable parking spot, especially along the Going to the Sun road and Logan Pass. Free shuttles are available and could save you some time getting to the trailhead.
Entrance Pass into Glacier National Park
An entrance pass, starting from $15 is required to gain access to the park and the rates differ based on the season and mode of transportation. If you live in the US and plan to visit more National Parks, then getting an annual Interagency Pass will save you some time and money in the long run.
The entrance fees are waived on the following days:
- Jan 15: Martin Luther King, Jr Day
- Apr 22: First Day of National Park Week
- Aug 4: Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
- Sep 23: National Public Lands Day
- Nov 11: Veterans Day
Backcountry (Wilderness) Permits
For the backcountry permits, there are two ways to obtain them. You can either reserve them in advance or get the walk-in permits at any of the ranger stations a day before your hike or on the day of.
If you do a multi-day camping trip, like we did, you may need to get a permit for each site. This document on the National Park Services’ (NPS) website shows all the campsites available within the park, as well as other essential information to note.
Backcountry Glacier National Park Permits: Advanced Backcountry Permit Reservation
The majority of campsites in Glacier National Park are available for advanced reservation on the Recreation.gov website. You would need to create an account to make reservations. On March 15, all backcountry campsites become available at 8:00 a.m. MST.
The best campsites are reserved very quickly, so you would need to be quick with it to get your preferred sites and hikes or their alternatives.
If you are hiking in groups of 5-8 people (mid-size) or 9-12 people (large), there is a separate lottery process that opens up on March 1 via Pay.gov. The application can be pre-loaded on the site but cannot be submitted until the 1st of March.
30 spots for mid-size groups and 5 spots for large groups will be processed using this lottery system. Each application entry costs $10. The results of the lottery come out after about one week, and payment for the campsite ($7/person/night) and permit ($10 per permit) must be done within 5 days of receiving the notification.
Note that the confirmation you receive is not the actual backcountry permit. You will need to visit a ranger station at least a day before your trip into the backcountry. Two group leaders are needed for mid-size groups, while three are needed for large groups.
Backcountry Glacier National Park Permits: Walk-in Permits
According to the NPS site, about 30% of all sites in the backcountry are reserved for walk-in campers. You can get this type of permit the day before or on the day of your trip. The permits are offered on a first-come-first-serve basis and the best campsites tend to go first.
This is why it’s important to have alternative sites in mind or no expectations at all. If you are targeting a particular campsite, you stand a better chance of getting it if you arrive early. The ranger stations open from 07:30 or 08:00, depending on the station, but I hear people start lining up as early as 4 a.m. Permits will not be issued after 4:30 p.m. or half an hour before the station closing.
There is a $10 permit fee and an additional $7/night per person camping fee, payable at the time of permit issuance.
Quick Recap: (a) You need an entrance fee ($15-$35 per individual or group travelling in one car) to enter the park. (b) In addition to this, you need a backcountry permit to go hiking and camping in the backcountry. From May 1 to October 31, permits cost $10 and campsites are $7 per person, per night. They are free otherwise.
Trip Planning Resources
Book your accommodation: Find accommodation options for any budget on Booking.com
Purchase Travel Insurance: I use SafetyWing for both my travel and visa application needs
This entire blog post has been tailored to those who plan to camp in the backcountry. However, if you plan to stay in one of the lodges or chalets, you should also try to reserve them early and you can do so for stays up to 13 months in advance. The chalets become available in early February.
Now that we have covered fee details, let’s get into what to pack and things to expect during your camping and hiking trip.
What to Pack for a Backcountry Glacier National Park Trip
The list below assumes that you will be hiking in the company of at least one other person. Plan to bring and carry all items on the “Individual Gear” list and liaise with each member of your group on what to bring on the “Shared Gear” list.
Backcountry Glacier National Park Packing List
The weather and temperature in Glacier National Park in August and September can vary greatly and can be very dangerous if you’re not well prepared. It can range from hot and sunny (85F/30C) to below-freezing and snowing or sleeting. You may have to sleep in or hike through terrible weather, so it’s best to be prepared with summer, rain and winter gear.
- Individual Items
Warm hat (like a wool stocking hat)
Light gloves – fingerless are nice
Mittens or very warm gloves
Raincoat – non-breathable coats that can withstand a long downpour are better
Warm vest or light insulated coat
1 pair of hiking pants
1 or 2 pairs of shorts – for hiking, maybe swimming
Athletic bra or swimsuit
2 Short-sleeve shirts (synthetic is best)
1 light thermal (like wool) long-sleeve shirt
1 pair of cool socks
2 pairs of warm socks
1 pair of long underwear or tights – running tights work well. Can be slept in or used in very cold temperatures
Hiking boots/shoes or trail running shoes
Gaters are nice, especially with trail running shoes
Backpack – preferably waterproof
Backpack rain cover
Water bottle(s) or water bladder – 2+L recommended
Sleeping bag – warm but light is ideal
Phones with maps loaded
Stuff sacs for clothing and gear
Water-resistant stuff sacs or a garbage bag is best to have if there’s going to be a significant amount of rain
Toiletries and personal hygiene items
- Optional Individual Items
Sandals/flip flops (nice to have in camp)
Sleeping bag liner
Journal, postcards, sketchbook with pen or pencil
- Shared Items
First aid kit
Cups, utensils, plates
Dishwashing soap and scrubby
Matches/lighter – windproof
Gallon ziplock (for trash)
Extra batteries (for headlamps)
Cord for hanging food
Tiny roll of duct tape
- Optional Shared Gear
Maps and/or maps downloaded on phones
- Scented items should be avoided in the backcountry. Instead pack unscented versions of things like deodorant, soap, sunblock, lotion, lip balm, etc.
Food Items to Pack for a Backcountry Glacier National Park Trip
Here are some suggestions for the foods to pack for your hiking trip. Plan to bring an extra ½ day of food in case of any emergency:
- Breakfasts: Oatmeal, instant coffee/tea/hot chocolate, instant juice
- Snacks: Bars, trail mix, jerky, fruit leather, drink mix
- Lunches: Large crackers (Wasa), peanut butter, jelly, honey, and/or Nutella (in tubes)
- Dinners: Freeze-dried meal, side dish and dessert, Tea/hot chocolate
So, if this is your first time doing a trip like this, you’re probably wondering what to expect. Daily routines in the backcountry are pretty much the same. You hike, snack, camp, eat and sleep, break camp and do it all over again!
What to Expect During a Backcountry Glacier National Park Trip
Upon arrival at the campsite, you will find a map at the entrance indicating where to pitch your tent (done on a first-come-forst-serve basis), the food storage and preparation area and the toilet (pit latrines, often with a foul smell!).
The first thing to do is to head to the food storage area and put away your food and scented items (if any). Most campsites have a pole where you can hang a bear bag (like in the picture above), while in some, it’s a metal container.
Food should only be consumed in the food prep area and nothing should be taken back to your tent. Also, your bear bag should be safely stowed away when not in use.
Remember to Leave no trace! Take out what you bring in!
Backcountry Glacier National Park campsites do not have portable water but many have at least one water source close by. You will need to boil and/or filter the water before drinking or using it to prepare your food.
Be sure to review the information about your campsite on your backcountry permit, on the map at the entrance, and from other hikers as well.
Top Safety Tips for a Successful Backcountry Glacier National Park Trip
And now, for some safety tips!
- My number one tip is to watch the safety video on the NPS website. The video contains information about the park, camp protocols and bear safety.
- It is important to know your abilities and those of everyone in your group. If possible, I recommend doing pre-hikes before your trip to Glacier National Park backcountry.
- Consider all members of your group and choose the appropriate trails and hiking levels
- Read the nature and weather reports and get updates from the range stations
- Familiarize yourself with the risks involved and prepare accordingly
- It is recommended to hike in groups and make some noise (talk, clap) while on the trail.
- Always carry a bear spray and make sure it is accessible. Don’t pack it away in your backpack or leave it in your tent if you go out to the food prep area or toilet.
Always keep your bear spray easily accessible; don’t pack it away.
Planning a Backcountry Glacier National Park Trip – The Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Glacier National Park is from the beginning of July to the beginning of September. Summer is the most popular time due to favourable weather conditions, as well as, all the roads, facilities and lodges being open. However, depending on your preferences, you may find other months suitable as well.
We visited the park in mid-August into early September. Most of our days were cool and pleasant, some days were sunny and warm and we had one evening of hail storm and a 24-hour rainy day.
The front-country was full of people but the trails in the backcountry were quite sparse. We encountered hikers now and then and had one full day (the rainy day) when we did not meet anyone else on the trail or at the Bowman Lake campground.
And with that said, it’s time to wrap this post up. As you can see, planning a camping trip to this park requires some effort and luck. Having the right information, booking your passes and permits in advance, travelling with the right set of people and being flexible with your schedule can set you up for an amazing experience!
I hope that this article has helped to demystify the planning process a bit and if you have any questions about organizing a backcountry Glacier National Park trip, please leave them in the comment section below and I’ll be sure to respond!