Want to experience the ultimate wilderness adventure? Well, look no further than a backpacking trip in Denali National Park, Alaska. About the size of Vermont with no marked trails and a very limited number of backcountry camping allowed, Denali will test even the most seasoned outdoors(wo)man. If well prepared, though, backpacking in Denali National park’s backcountry will give you stories of a lifetime and a new appreciation for untouched landscapes.
I went to Denali for a 3 day backpacking trip in July with little understanding of what I was getting into but it was one of the best trips I’ve taken so far.
Now having gone through the experience, I’ve outlined below important information to know before heading out on your own backpacking trip in Denali National Park.
Permits are assigned by units. Denali is broken up into about 87 different Units, all of which span thousands and thousands of acres of land. Vast and diverse landscapes all with their own pros and cons and difficulty levels.
You can check out the gov site for the park to read up on this. Typically, if your group is larger than the quota, it won’t be a big deal but no other groups will be allowed to go into the unit you reserved. This helps with preservation and allows for a truly remote experience.
Units are available to reserve as early as 1 day prior to your backpacking trip. Try to be prepped with a few different units in mind. We arrived during July 4th and most all the units we wanted were booked even as early as 9am the day of. Luckily the rangers were able to chat with us about some other options and we settled on Unit 3 (a not so beginner-friendly unit but we made do!).
In fact, the park discourages walking in a line with your group to lessen the impact of human presence on the terrain. You are dropped off at your unit and left to your own devices for navigating. Which leads me to my next item…
Understanding the elevations will help you plan your route while in the park. Luckily, our group had *someone* very familiar with topo maps. We were in a unit with lots of ridges and elevation change – the ability to read the map and plan out our route saved us time and energy. Using the map in conjunction with your compass will keep you oriented as you venture further into the unit. Some of the “easier” units may have a river to follow along so navigation isn’t as much of a concern.
Units have difficulty based on water availability, ability to navigate, elevation gain, etc. We had to go with a more difficult unit. Because of difficulty navigating the terrain and the length of time it took us to find a water source for camp, we did not make it very far into the unit. But wow, still such an adventure and what a challenge! We saw so much wildlife that really made up for our struggles in terrain. It makes me want to go back and go further into the park. The park website lists beginner units as 1, 6-13, 18, 31-34.
Bus schedules and prices are available on the park website as well. There is a free shuttle if you choose a unit within the first 15 miles of the park entrance which could save you about $80 per person. Bus rides could take up to 6 hours so if you choose a further unit, you’ll definitely want to plan ahead and get on the bus early if you plan to make some distance into the unit.
The quotas on each unit are there for a purpose – for you to have a full immersion of the outdoors and to protect the land. While this is exactly what makes Denali such a unique and memorable experience, it also requires more prep and knowledge than if you were following simple, out and back or loop trails.
Water should always be top of mind when planning a backpacking trip and it’s no different in Denali National Park. If you aren’t in a unit with a flowing river, you may have to use questionable looking springs that make having a water filter that much more crucial. Or you can chance it (my hypochondriac self would not allow for it). Park Rangers can help identify where you’ll find water sources in your unit if it’s not very obvious.
In most cases, your best bet is to aim for a ridge and follow high ground. Lower elevation means more mud, alders, thick moss, etc. Staying up high allows you to better navigate your course.
Everything looks smaller from far away especially when backpacking in Denali National Park!
If you see dark green, tall looking grass or bushes from afar, in most cases it’s actually thick, muddy alders. We learned this lesson the hard way and had to cut through a seemingly small chunk (maybe .25 – .5 miles) of brush that took us over an hour. *
Hills that seem like a 20 minute walk up, turn into 45-60 minute hikes with thick moss/thawed tundra pulling on your every step like your backpacking in snow or sand.
Apparently only 30% of visitors will get to see the peak of Denali because it’s usually covered with clouds. If you happen to get a glimpse, you’re lucky so snap a photo while you can!
It’s about 30 minutes long, somewhat corny, but most definitely informative and a must. Covering the basics like animal safety, leave no trace practices, and how to help preserve the land; the video is actually very helpful especially for first-time backpacking in Denali National Park.
Make sure to leave room for them in your packs. The barrels will need to hold all food, toiletries, and any other smelly items that could make a curious bear sniff its way to your tent. You should hide the barrels about 25 yards away from your camp so that wildlife won’t associate the smells with your tents.
The units closer to the park entrance are less traveled and have lots of moose!
We were in Unit 3 and ran into moose right away. In fact, we had over 10 moose sightings/encounters. Two wondered into our camp area while we were watching from a safe distance. One startled us as we were going to pick up our bear barrels, so much so that we tore off running in the opposite direction! Luckily no one was hurt and it only provided many laughs and stories to share later.
Click here for more info on the units.
And there you have it – All of the things I wish I knew going into a long weekend of backpacking in Denali National Park. Hopefully this gives you some quick tips for your own adventure or inspires you to start planning a trip to Denali ASAP!