What to pack for your Yellowstone vacation will differ, depending on whether you’re staying on paved roads, sleeping in a hotel, or will be camping at a campground, or in the backcountry.
I spent a week in Yellowstone and learned which items are really useful in this National Park, that might not occur to you if you haven’t visited before. In other words, it’s meant to be useful, not to teach you how to pack.
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Yellowstone Packing List for Everyone
If you have any questions or would like additional details, just leave a comment at the bottom, and I’ll get back to you ASAP. Plus, I’ll update this post, so others don’t run into the same question. Thanks!!
Unique to Yellowstone
Most importantly, carry a can of bear spray, even if you’ll be staying on boardwalks and trails. Bears use trails, too! Bushwhacking isn’t easy for anyone. And, if you’re camping, keep the spray near your pillow, so it’s reachable at night.
You cannot bring bear spray onboard an airplane in your carryon, nor in your checked baggage. Buy it now, if you’re driving. Or, buy it when you arrive, if flying. It’s sold in the National Park gift shops. I’m sure local Walmart and outdoor stores sell it, too. It’s a popular item!
One can of spray per group is fine, as long as the group stays together at all times. If you’re in a larger group, you’ll be making so much noise walking and talking that the grizzly bears probably won’t come near you anyway. So, a large group won’t need bear spray– as long as you stay together at all times. Here’s the catch, groups often split up– maybe a few people are slower walkers, or a conversations cause a few people to walk separately.
Buy the larger 9.2 ounces can. Do you really want to run out? Also, learn how to spray it– read the instructions as though your life depended on it. Ask a ranger for help or for any questions you may have. Finally, bear spray is not like mosquito spray– do NOT spray it on any person. You only spray it at a bear, when it’s close enough to be within range. And, no, it’s not the same as mace or pepper spray. The chemical is different, and the spray can spray a longer distance.
You must carry bear spray where you can easily reach it with either hand without needing to take your eyes off the bear– this is usually on your belt loop or backpack waist strap. Don’t pack it inside your backpack, as that is not easily accessible enough.
Dial into the Geyser Gazers. I wrote about these geyser observers in another post in Pro Tip #4. At the Old Faithful area, these people spend their entire 1- or 2-week vacation tracking the geysers.
They carry FRS radios (like a walkie-talkie) for communicating when a geyser will erupt. So, you can either follow them around or just bring your own radio and listen for their communication. When you arrive, just ask someone with a radio what channel they’re on. Or, just figure it out yourself– there are only 10 channels. Click here to check the current prices on these radios, usually around $60 for a pair.
Reusable Water Bottle
The Park does not sell disposable water bottles anymore, in an effort to reduce trash. This Platypus bottle is my favorite since it packs flat when empty. I’ve had mine for years, and they don’t leak. I use the 1 liter bottles for water and the small bottles for alcohol.
Binoculars or Monocular
“Hey! Is that a bison way over there? Oh, no, just a big bush.” “What is that eagle eating?” I’m always shocked at the lack of binoculars hanging from tourists necks. It’s just so much easier to see animal behavior through binoculars.
I let strangers borrow mine for a few minutes, but want them back as soon as the action starts. You can get a good compact pair of binoculars for $50-$100 in my experience. A monocular runs about the same price for a basic one– they even have ones where you can attach your phone for photography. They last forever, so are an investment. Just don’t lose them (I haven’t done this) or drop them in a lake and watch them sink out of sight (I might have done this once). You can take them on every trip forever.
Rain is always possible at any time of year, so check Yellowstone weather before leaving home. And, definitely take a rain jacket, just in case. If nothing else, it’s good as an extra layer for cool evenings.
Not Unique To Yellowstone, but Pack Them!
You probably already have some of these items in your closet. Pack them! They’re useful for Yellowstone.
I had a Petzl Tikka for years, before forgetting it in a hotel in the Philippines. So, now I have another. For the price and weight, it has the best features (plenty of lumens, red light, strobe light, etc.).
Light is always on my packing list for any trip and goes everywhere with me everywhere– short hikes, day hikes, hotel room. It’s practically part of my first-aid kit. It’s useful indoors– you can find the bathroom without waking anyone else by flipping on the lights. Also, my headlamp has proven useful when searching for my keys when they fall between the car seats. And, if you’re camping a headlamp is just 1,000 times easier to use then a flashlight, since it leaves your hands free for the important things, like carrying toilet paper while hunting for a good poo spot.
Yellowstone is at high elevation and the sun is strong. Bring your sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, and a long-sleeved shirt. I like small bottles of sunscreen for trips.
The later in summer you visit, the fewer mosquitos there’ll be. Be on the safe side, and just take mosquito repellent in case. I don’t like the bottles, since DEET is a real disaster if it leaks, and I always seem to get bites on my forehead, where it’s harder to spray without getting it in my eyes. Ben’s wipes are what I’ve used for years.
If you want something better than a phone or your current camera for Yellowstone, check out this page of camera comparison charts I made. There’s everything from waterproof cameras to DSLR’s. For a full packing list of camera gear, check out what I wrote for Machu Picchu.
First Aid Kit
It’s always handy to have a First-Aid Kit. At the very least, make a kit with the things you already have at home, including band-aids, aspirin or another painkiller (in case you get a headache, twist an ankle, a bear bites off your arm, or anything else), head cold or allergy medicine, moleskin (for blisters and blister prevention— it’s not actually made from the mole animal), mini scissors, and whatever else you might need.
I pack pills in little re-sealable bags, so I don’t need to carry bottles. A pack of 100 lasts a long time!
If you don’t want to make your own first-aid kit, buy a travel first aid kit that has things that are most useful for you and add in whatever else you want.
Staying on Paved Roads
If you’ll be bringing in food, you’ll want a cooler. Also great for keeping that beer and wine cool! You can go from a mini soft-sided cooler all the way up to a Yeti— the choice (and budget) is yours! (It had never occurred to me that a cooler could cost $400!!! I suppose if you’re a hunter, you need it, though!)
Keep the cooler and all food items indoors or in a bear box at a campground, whenever you’re more than an arm’s length away. Your car is not bear proof, as they can easily get through car doors and car trunks. Just google “yosemite bear car” for some examples!
For a review of various cooler styles, click here.
If you don’t do much camping, and just want a cheap tent for this trip, have a look at these. Ensure it’s waterproof (with a rain fly), in case it rains, which is possible year-round in Yellowstone.
Backcountry Camping Packing List
Bear Bag, Bear Can, or Bear Bag
For bear cans, I prefer the taller, narrower can. And, it’s actually not necessary in Yellowstone, if you hang your bear attractors, or use the bear boxes in the campgrounds. Bechler Trail has bear hangs at every campsite.
For bear bags, I haven’t personally used one, but they’re lightweight.
Like all bear approved products, they’ve been tested on grizzly bears at the Grizzly Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. (You can visit the Center.) But, after a bear has chewed on your stuff, even through a bag, are you really going to want to eat it? Neither can rodents chew through these bags.
If you just need a Rodent Bag, this one works against rats, squirrels, and even raccoons! I know, it doesn’t look impressive in the picture, but it’s warranted against animals, except bears.
Backpacking Gear List
For the most lightweight backpack, check out the Nero by ZPacks. It’s so lightweight that it’ll take pounds off your total weight, assuming you currently have a regular backpacking pack. When I backpack, my partner who has this pack and I split the carrying of shared gear. When I have less than half the gear, his pack still weighs less than mine!
For the lightest weight tent, go with one by ZPacks. It packs up so light, you’ll never want to have a normal tent again.
Superfeet insoles! So many people swear by them. Make sure yours fit properly before taking them on the trail. They come in sizes, which you’ll have to trim to fit your shoes exactly.
Prevent blisters by wearing Wright Socks double-layered socks or by wearing your regular hiking socks with pantyhose socks underneath. I met a woman with that set-up, and she told me that she learned it from athletes, since it’s what football players use for blister prevention. The point is, the 2 layers of socks rub each other, instead of 1 sock rubbing your foot. It’s the rubbing on your foot that causes the blister.
Honestly, I don’t wear hiking boots unless I’ll be on trails where I actually need ankle support. They are so heavy! I like trail running sneakers, for the tread and so you don’t feel all the little rocks on the trail. Salomon is my favorite brand since they don’t squish my toes.
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Check out my overview of Yellowstone, and all the amazing sights to see!
Lodging in Yellowstone is a little hard to grasp if you haven’t visited before. There are many options in and near the park. So, I wrote a post on Yellowstone hotels and other accommodation.
Here’s a post dedicated to camping, hiking, and backcountry backpacking in Yellowstone. I had a lot of fun! I hope you find the information useful.
Nebraska State Parks – If you’re on a road trip, consider adding these parks to your list of places to see. It’s not as flat as you might expect. The Well Traveled Nebraskan has useful information!