INTRODUCTION TO BACKPACKING DENALI NATIONAL PARK
Home to North America’s tallest peak, Denali’s biggest draw for nature lovers is backpacking across a wide open, unfiltered, trail-less wilderness with jaw-dropping views around every turn. Yes, you heard us correct… TRAIL-LESS. Backpacking Denali is no walk in the park!
One must solely rely on a topographic map, compass and instinct to navigate through the untamed wilderness. This can even be daunting for experienced backpackers due to Denali’s unpredictability, harsh climate and unforgiving terrain.
This being said, backpacking in Denali is an unforgettable experience. A place where primitive mountainous landscapes, extreme solitude, and unparalleled beauty come together to form one of the greatest national parks.
We learned a lot after our first experience in Denali. In fact, if we could live this experience over again we would do things 95% differently! We were naive to say the least, but we made it out alive and are here to share our experiences and let you in on everything you need to know about backpacking in Denali National Park.
PRE-PLANNING IS KEY
The moment you know that you want to go backpacking in Denali start doing research. The park is divided into 87 units and 41 of these units have a specific quota per day. Although you can’t book ahead for these units, you should narrow down your top 5 before arrival. Look at the map, read the description of each unit and decide what fits with your experience level and type of backpacking experience you are looking for. The best resource for researching your backpacking route is the official park website. To access the majority of these units, you will need to purchase a ticket for the Denali Park Shuttle.
Plan for all weather conditions
Another important factor to consider is what time of the year you want to go. The weather in Denali is temperamental and unpredictable so be prepared for any and all conditions. Unfortunately, luck plays a huge role in the weather factor. Don’t underestimate the midnight sun if you travel to Denali in June. The constant presence of dusk-like conditions at night can affect sleep patterns so be sure to bring an eye mask.
Learn from our mistakes!
We like to think that we have passed the novice stage of backpacking, but our experience in Denali proved otherwise! Casually showing up at the visitors center around 2pm and looking to obtain our backcountry permit for that same day was not the best idea. We had already purchased our shuttle ticket, which was due to leave at 3. We learned later that this a big no-no (we were actually scolded by a park ranger). Apparently, the mountain air got to our head and we forgot to use common sense this day.
Our first mistake was being oblivious to what area of the park we wanted to backpack. We hadn’t done our research so we knew nothing about the characteristics of each unit. Heck, we didn’t even know the park was divided into units! Second, we weren’t aware of the rather lengthy process required for obtaining a backcountry permit (plan for around one hour). Needless to say, we missed our scheduled bus and ended up having to rely on a park ranger for guidance on what unit to choose. Lucky for us, everything worked out just fine in the end. The moral of the story, come early and come prepared!
WHAT TO PACK FOR BACKPACKING DENALI
I won’t go through the monotony of listing every item that we used while backpacking in Denali. Most people considering venturing into the wilderness know the basics. Here are the items we felt to be indispensable.
Layers are key
Temperatures in Denali can fluctuate drastically. You have to be prepared for any and all weather conditions. Layers are essential for backpacking Denali. Our thermals were a lifesaver. These merino base-layer shirt and pants were perfect for those chilly September nights in Denali.
Wool everything if your budget allows (if not stick to wool socks and a t-shirt)
Wool provides amazing insulation, is odor resistant and dries quickly. You can wear the same clothing for weeks at a time, sweat like crazy and still you will barely be able to sniff out the slightest sign of body odor. Wool products have become a religion for us while traveling. Our travel wardrobe consists of a mix of Icebreaker and Smart Wool products. They are pricey but worth the investment. Icebreaker seems to hold up better of the two.
Alaska and Denali in particular experiences a lot of precipitation. Chances are you will experience rain during your trip. Rain pants and jackets are a must. It is even better when they are wind resistant too.
An item that you hope to never use but could ultimately end up saving your life. You cannot venture into Denali’s wilderness without this crucial item. Be sure to keep it on your body rather than inside your pack and be cognizant about which way the wind is blowing if you have to use it!
Don’t rely on a battery powered water purifier! We use the MSR Guardian water purifier for all of our backpacking and international travels. Again, this products is pricey but it has been well worth the investment. On a side note, be aware of the difference between a water purifier vs. a filter. Simply put, purifiers have the capability of filtering viruses while filters do not. Filters are considered to offer sufficient protection in the US and Canada.
Personal locator beacon
This item is an investment for your life. Backpacking in Denali means traversing through a vast, remote wilderness, completely isolated from civilization. Exploring the beautiful landscape is an amazing experience but you need to be prepared for the worst. Getting lost or hurt is a real possibility, even for the most experienced backpackers. Purchasing a personal locator beacon will allow you travel into the backcountry with peace of mind.
Although we didn’t have to face these pesky creatures while backpacking Denali in September, we heard horror stories about the aggressiveness of mosquitos earlier in the summer/spring. Come prepared!
Even if you aren’t one who normally uses poles while hiking, you should consider bringing a pair for backpacking in Denali. The terrain is rough, uneven and unpredictable. You will curse yourself if you don’t have them, especially if a river crossing is on your itinerary.
Very helpful for scoping out the terrain for potential threats and wildlife sightings.
OBTAINING YOUR BACKCOUNTRY PERMIT
After you have completed the pre trip research phase it is time to go for those permits! Backpacking units are subject to availability so be sure to have a backup plan in the event that your first choice is full. The earliest you can obtain a permit is the day before your scheduled departure into the park, but many people choose to get same-day permits.
The backcountry unit system does not apply during the winter or shoulder-season months, backpackers can camp anywhere. Our advice, arrive to the visitors center at 8am (opening time) the day prior to your departure for the best chance of getting your first choice unit.
To obtain a permit you must go through a safety briefing about backpacking in Denali
Once you have your permit you will need to go through a briefing about safe backpacking practices in Denali. This is in the form of a video and a discussion with a ranger. You will learn all about how to handle yourself in bear country, what the biggest risks are for backpacking in Denali, and much more. If you don’t have a bear resistant canister for your food, be sure to rent one from the visitors center before venturing into the wilderness.
Obtain your permit before purchasing a bus ticket
Finally, after you have your magic ticket, aka backcountry permit, you are ready to purchase your bus ticket. We did this process in reverse and ultimately ended up missing our scheduled bus into Denali. If this happens, you have to go through the hassle of getting your ticket changed, paying a fee and risking the chance that the next bus is full. Be sure to purchase a ticket for the “camper bus” that allows extra room for your backpacking gear.
Are more Alaska adventures in your future? Check out our comprehensive travel guide for Alaska’s stunning Kenai Peninsula. The perfect complement to a Denali backpacking escapade!
HEADING INTO DENALI’S BACKCOUNTRY
Study the boundaries of your unit
After you have completed the necessary steps for obtaining a permit, you are officially ready to embark on your first backpacking trip in Denali! The area of each unit is quite large. You will need to study the map beforehand so you are familiar with the boundaries of your unit.
As luck would have it, the bus driver turned out to be our very best resource. He knew right where to drop us off and gave us advice on where to hike. Considering our lack of preparation, we had no business being in Denali’s backcountry, but we ended up having the greatest backpacking experience of our life! This being said, it is possible to backpack Denali on a whim but not at all recommended.
Backpacking more than one unit allows you to explore several areas of Denali
Although we chose to focus on one unit, we met others who obtained permits for multiple sites. Rather than hiking one unit, you can opt to split your time between several units. This would entail spending one night in your designated unit, backpacking out the next day, flagging down a bus and moving to the next unit. This option allows you to see different areas of Denali and is a great option for those novice backpackers who don’t want to hike too deep into the wilderness.
Be prepared for inquisitive looks and questions
If you choose to backpack Denali, get ready for the inquisitive looks and questions from other travelers riding the park shuttle! After concluding our backpacking adventure we hopped on the bus, which was full of tourists visiting the park as a day trip. We were soaking wet and a bit disheveled after multiple days of camping. Our sanity was silently being questioned by the looks and judgements we received from the other passengers.
Were we crazy to even consider venturing into this wild wilderness? We were repeatedly questioned… “weren’t you afraid of bears?”… we casually answered, “nahhh, there is no reason to fear bears.” That wasn’t completely accurate. Of course, the thought of a bear attack crossed our mind more than once. We will get into this later in the post.
THE ART OF BACKPACKING IN DENALI
What to expect
Hiking through tundra is an amazing feeling! Imagine the feeling of walking on a memory foam mattress. Your feet sink into the earth with each step, nearly eliminating the harsh impact that often is associated with hiking through unruly terrain. More often than not you will feel as though you are navigating through a landmine of unstable rocks, dense brush, and treacherous river crossings.
If you let your guard down at any time you run the risk of twisting an ankle, getting turned around, or walking straight into a bear’s personal space. Backpacking Denali requires your full attention at every moment.
Navigating off-trail can be a challenge, even for experienced backpackers
For backpackers accustomed to conventional trail hiking, navigation through the backcountry of Denali can be challenging. You need to be proficient at identifying features of the landscape both on the map and on the trail. If you are anything like us and are less than confident about your ability to navigate with a map and compass, not all hope is lost. A few of the units have river beds or drainages that can be followed into the wilderness, making it nearly impossible to get turned around.
We backpacked unit 11 and had the luxury of hiking alongside Stony Creek. This unit is ideal for less experienced backpackers. It is important to be conservative with time and distances when backpacking in Denali. Since most of the hiking is off-trail, travel is significantly slower. Plan for at least double the time it would take you to hike the same distance when following an established trail.
Help to prevent human-impact
The reason that Denali has quotas for most backpacking units is to limit human-impact on the landscape. Denali has made an effort to discourage what they call “social trails,” which form from backpackers consistently walking the same path. These are easy to spot as the vegetation has a matted look to it. Be cognizant of social trails and choose a different route (or walk alongside the same route) if you notice an excess of foot traffic.
Denali requires all backpackers to camp in their designated unit in an area that cannot be seen from the park road. This requires at least 2 miles of hiking before you are out of sight, but most units require more than this.
THE SCIENCE OF STAYING SAFE IN BEAR COUNTRY
It is common to see Grizzly bears and other wildlife while backpacking in Denali
Our first bear sighting was a Grizzly bear several hundred yards above us. We had just sent up our tent by the creek and were scoping out a place to watch the sunset. Naturally, we looked to the tallest peak that surrounded us and begin devising a plan to hike up the hill. In the midst of our planning we spotted a Grizzly bear moving at a rapid pace, seemingly straight towards us!
We quickly made our presence known by making ourselves appear large, waving our hiking poles in the air and shouting as loud as our vocal cords could manage. Luckily, the bear stopped in his tracks, turned around and scurried back up the hill. Knowing how to handle bear encounters is an essential part of backpacking in Denali.
Eating in bear country
Eating in bear country is a scrupulous ordeal that requires preparation and thought. Never leave food of any kind in your tent. All food should be stored in bear-resistant backpackers food cache, which can be rented from the visitors center. All food and scraps kept at least 100 yards from your camp. This goes for the food preparation area as well. Be sure to prepare your food in a wide-open space so that you are able to visualize your surroundings at all times. Avoid excessively fragrant foods, such as bacon (darn!), which can attract bears to your camp.
Imagine a triangle- one angle is your camp, one is the cooking space and the other is the food storage area. Each point should be 100 yards apart. As the saying goes in Denali, a fed bear is a dead bear. Bears that learn to obtain food often become increasingly aggressive, which ultimately leads to the bear being killed.
Be bear aware
The most important thing to remember if you do encounter a bear is… don’t run! If you run it may trigger a predatory instinct to chase and attack. There are different ways to handle an encounter with a black bear vs. a grizzly; this is something you will learn about when obtaining your permit.
Most bears avoid people and many hikers never even know that they nearly encountered a bear. The majority of encounters end peacefully with the bear and human departing in opposite directions. Use common sense and you and the bears will live in complete harmony in Denali’s backcountry.
Rivers in Denali are far more dangerous than bears
Upon registering for a backcountry unit you will learn that it is not bears you need to worry most about, but rather rivers. If crossing a river is on your backpacking itinerary, be sure to know the safest way to do so, i.e., locking arms, unclipping your pack, crossing at the widest point, etc. You will receive an in-depth explanation about safe river crossing practices before heading into the backcountry.
Do you like off-the-beaten path travel experiences? If so, be sure to check out our comprehensive guide for driving Alaska’s Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle– an adventure you will never forget!
A FAREWELL TO DENALI WITH A SLED DOG DEMONSTRATION
Upon concluding your Denali backpacking adventure be sure to stop for a free sled dog demonstration. This is a must for animal lovers! Learn about the fascinating lives of these noble dogs and what it take to become an Alaskan sled dog. After the demonstration you have the option of sticking around and petting these adorable creatures. Read more about the sled dog demonstrations here!
Denali is a place where boreal forests, vivid tundra, snow capped mountains, colossal glaciers, and primitive wildlife all come together for a truly spectacular national park. Backpacking in Denali is an unforgettable experience that allows you to be one with nature on the most intimate level. A complete immersion into the backcountry will leave you feeling liberated, recharged and ready to plan your next Alaska adventure!
Have you backpacked in Denali? If so, we would love to hear about your experiences! What unit did you choose? What did you find most challenging? Did you have any close encounters with wildlife? Tell us about it in the comments section! As always, let us know if you have any questions that we did not cover in this guide!
Looking for more Denali content? Check out our comprehensive hiking, camping and photography guide that highlights the very best of Denali National Park.