Winter in Yellowstone is a time of solitude and unique beauty. Deep snow, steaming hot springs, freezing temperatures, and wildlife encounters can make for a memorable visit. Few of Yellowstone’s three million annual visitors come during the winter, and even fewer venture away from the main attractions.
The winter backcountry season begins when enough snow covers trails and campsites to make walking impractical. Sufficient snowpack for skiing and snowshoeing typically doesn’t exist until mid-December, and often the base is not sufficient until January. By late-March, lower elevations in the park no longer have sufficient snowpack for skis and snowshoes. Higher elevations may have good skiing and snowshoeing through April, but road closures and spring plowing can prevent access to those areas.
Once the snow starts falling, temperatures range from 0 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 0 to 30 degrees below zero at night (not including windchill). Safely enjoying the outdoors at these temperatures requires special skills and equipment: be sure to evaluate your group’s abilities and gear before undertaking a winter trip.
Backcountry permits are free of charge during the winter and available from the Central Backcountry Office via phone/email only. Currently there are no locations open for in-person permits. Due to limited staffing from November through April, permits must be reserved with the Central Backcountry Office 3-7 days in advance.
Central Backcountry Office
- All groups must carry a backcountry permit. Permits are valid only for the itinerary/dates specified.
- Group size limit is 12 people.
- Stay limit is three continuous nights at any location (winter backcountry travelers do not have to stay in designated sites). You’ll need to provide approximate locations when you pick up your permit. If you are planning a ski trip using park roads, a number of designated locations have a one night limit. Contact the Central Backcountry for a list of locations along the road where camping is permitted.
- Winter camps must be located out of sight of roads and trails, at least 100 feet from water and at least 1/4 mile from other groups. Camping in critical winter wildlife range like Lamar Valley and the Madison River Canyon is not permitted. Avoid camping near dead trees which can fall without warning.
- Snow shelters must be dismantled or collapsed after use.
- Travel and camp on snow: avoid trampling frozen/emerging vegetation.
- Fires are prohibited in the backcountry during winter.
- Food must be stored 10 feet above ground and four feet away from a trunk of a tree, or stored in an approved bear-resistant container.
- All garbage must be packed out of the backcountry.
- Bury human waste in snow at least 100 feet from campsites, trails, or water sources (even if frozen). Toilet paper must be packed out or burned completely.
- Operating motorized equipment in the backcountry is prohibited. A separate permit is required to operate a snowmobile on park roads.
- Feeding or intentionally disturbing wildlife is prohibited.
- Collecting natural and cultural objects is prohibited.
- Bathing, soaking, or swimming in water entirely of thermal origin is prohibited.
- Pets are prohibited in the backcountry.
- Discharging a firearm is prohibited within Yellowstone National Park.
- Fishing is not permitted between the first Sunday in November and the Friday before Memorial Day.
A winter trip into Yellowstone’s backcountry offers an opportunity to explore and experience the land on its own terms. However, sub-zero temperatures, deep snow, blinding storms, icy rivers, frozen lakes, and avalanche-prone terrain pose serious dangers.
Please keep the following advice in mind as you prepare for your trip:
- As with any backcountry travel, always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return.
- Do not rely on your cell phone for emergency communications in Yellowstone. Have an emergency plan in place.
- Everything takes longer during winter: plan to cover a lot less ground, and spend more time prepping/breaking down camp and cooking, than you would during summer.
- Most of Yellowstone is over 7,000 feet above sea level. If you’re coming from a lower elevation, give yourself time to adjust before starting a backcountry trip.
- The performance of camp stoves, fuel, and water filters decreases in cold temperatures. Test equipment in cold temperatures before you have to rely on them in the backcountry.
- Carry something to melt snow or gather water from streams and lakes (purify all lake and stream water). When melting snow add a little water in the pot to prevent scorching or burning the pot. Avoid drinking thermal water.
- Ensure that shelters have adequate ventilation to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Obtain maps and plan your route: pay attention to mileage, elevation changes, stream crossings, and avalanche paths.
- Stream and lake crossings may look safe, but can be deceptively dangerous. Always use caution when crossing snow bridges. Loosen straps and undo your pack belt. Ultimately, you may want to ford rather than risk falling from an unstable snow bridge. Skiing on frozen lakes is dangerous and not recommended.
- Extreme temperatures mean that correct clothing often makes the difference between life and death. Dress appropriately and add/remove layers to prevent overheating or chilling. Learn the symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia and how to treat them in the backcountry.
Suggested Packing List
At a minimum, make sure you have the following items for a winter backcountry trip in Yellowstone:
- Skis or snowshoes
- Supplies to maintain/repair equipment (ski waxes, scraper, cork, maxiglide, climbing skins, duct tape, extra straps)
- Backpack or tow sled
- Tent or bivy (unless you plan to build a snow shelter)
- Map, compass, GPS
- Sleeping bag (suitable for sub-zero temperatures)
- Sleeping pad
- Enough food for an extra day
- Cooking pot to melt snow
- Camp stove, fuel (bring extra), and stove repair kit.
- Rope to hang food or an approved bear-resistant container
- Extra layers of clothing, gloves, and hats
- Matches, knife, first aid kit
- Extra batteries all devices
- Emergency signaling device
- Emergency fire starter
- Lightweight shovel
- Sunblock and sunglasses
- Avalanche beacon and probe pole (if traveling in avalanche terrain)
- A backcountry permit