On this page are some of the most frequently asked questions about backpacking in Denali.
Questions About Backpacking Permits
Q. How far in advance can I reserve my backcountry spots?
A. No advance reservations may be made for backcountry units. You must come in person to the Backcountry Information Center (BIC) no more than one day in advance of the day you wish to begin your trip. All members of your party need to be present in order to have your spots reserved and to receive your backcountry permit.
Q. I'm staying at a park campground, and then starting a backcountry trip. Do I have to come all the way back to the BIC after staying in my campground, to get a backcountry permit?
A. There are normally six campgrounds open in Denali. Two of these (Riley and Savage) are located within the first 15 miles of the Park Road. If you are staying in one of these campgrounds, you must have all members of your party come to the BIC to reserve your permit, no more than one day in advance.
However, if you are staying at one of the other four campgrounds, which are west of Savage River (i.e., Sanctuary, Teklanika, Igloo and Wonder Lake), you may get a backcountry permit as early as one day before you begin your stay at the campground (i.e., if you are camping at Wonder Lake on Thursday night, and want to begin your backcountry trip immediately afterward, on Friday, you may come as early as Wednesday to get your backcountry permit at the BIC).
You must show proof of a campground reservation in order to obtain a backcountry permit in this manner.
You may not leave your vehicle overnight at Teklanika while in the backcountry. If you are driving to Teklanika, you must return to the park entrance at the end of your stay in the campground, park your car, and come to the BIC for your permit.
Learn more about parking your car during your trip
Q. Are permits required for day hiking?
A. No permits are required for day hiking.
Learn more about dayhiking in the park
Q. How long does the permitting process take?
A. The process usually takes about an hour, but may take longer or shorter depending on how long it takes you to plan your itinerary. Generally, when visitors first come to the BIC, they spend time planning their iterinary (i.e., which units they wish to stay in on which nights), based on unit availability. Then all members of the party must watch a safety video (about 30 minutes long), listen to a safety briefing from a ranger (about 5 to 10 minutes), purchase and/or mark maps with unit boundaries and wildlife closures, buy a camper bus ticket (must be done 15 or more minutes before scheduled bus departure), move their personal vehicle into overnight parking adjacent to Riley Creek Campground and then catch their bus.
Q. How much does a permit cost?
A. All backcountry permits are free. The only cost of spending time in Denali's backcountry is the price of a camper bus ticket, plus the park entrance fee.
Q. Which is the best unit?
A. There are 2.5 million acres of land in the Denali Wilderness, and thus each of the 43 backcountry units encompasses thousands of acres. Some units experience more use than others for reasons such as quick access from the Park Road and hikers' familiarity with certain areas. This does not mean that these units are "better" than others. Backcountry rangers can provide information about terrain, vegetation and wildlife you will find in different areas of the park. Backpackers equipped with a positive attitude and a love of the outdoors will rarely have anything but an amazing wilderness experience.
Q. Can I make reservations for a unit and not use them?
A. When one party says that they are in the backcountry, they are occupying spots in the unit quota that might otherwise go to a different party. Therefore, to make backcountry reservations and purposefully not use them may deprive others of taking the trip they would like. However, if you are in the backcountry and decide to come out early for any reason, all you must do is return your BRFC, thus freeing your spots from the unit quota. You may not "double book" any night (i.e., have concurrent reservations in more than one unit or a unit and a campground site). Always cancel unused reservations when you change your itinerary.
Q. How do I know which areas are closed to hikers?
A. You must mark closures on your map during the permitting process. Rangers at the BIC will provide you with recent closure information, and it is your responsibility to be aware of their locations. Closures are often marked with signs only on the most obvious travel routes - but you must avoid them, even if they are unsigned. The best way to do this is to have maps of the area of appropriate scale, so that you may judge the boundaries of the closure by the topographic features of the land.
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Questions About Wildlife and Food Storage
Q. How big are the Bear Resistant Food Containers (BRFC)?
A. There are two sizes of the BRFC that are issued, free of charge, when you receive your backcountry permit. Small containers (dimensions 8"x12") will carry enough food for a single person for 3 to 5 days, and weigh about 3 pounds. These containers may be packed in much the same way as a sleeping bag. Large containers (dimensions 8" x 18") will carry enough food for a single person for 7 to 10 days, and weigh about 5 pounds. The larger containers are more difficult to pack, because of their size.
Q. Can I bring my own Bear Resistant Food Container?
A. You can borrow one for free from us, or bring your own if it is an acceptable make/model. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee is the authority we consult for what is or is not approved. View a full list of approved models and learn more about BRFCs. Be prepared to show the BIC staff your BRFC for approval.
Q. Should I carry pepper spray for bears?
A. The use of pepper spray as a bear deterrent is a personal choice. If you decide to carry it, be aware that wind, spray distance, rain and product shelf-life all influence its effectiveness. Do not let it serve as a false sense of security or as a substitute for recommended safety precautions while in bear country. When you are on a bus in the park, notify the driver if you are carrying bear spray. The driver will direct you to stow it in a storage container under the bus.
Learn more about wildlife safety
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Questions About Camping Gear and Logistics
Q. Can I buy food and fuel once I arrive in the park?
A. Yes. There is a small store located about a quarter mile from the BIC, in Riley Creek Campground. There, you can buy food, bug spray and other last minute essentials. Outdoor gear may be rented from one or more businesses, located a mile or so outside of the park. The mercantile sells fuel in 5 gallon containers. Businesses outside of the park also sell fuel and canisters.
Q. How do the buses work?
A. For your initial ride into the park, you must take one of the camper buses or the free Savage River Shuttle. The Savage River Shuttle does not require a ticket, and travels a loop between the park entrance and Savage River, mile 15 on the Park Road. All units deeper in the park than those along the first 15 miles of the road are accessed by the camper buses, which leave several times a day from the park entrance and travel the entire Park Road. They are specially designed for backpackers and campground users and have extra space for gear. No reservation is necessary or even possible before you obtain a backcountry permit, unless you have already booked a campground stay.
Q. Can I cache food for extended trips? If so, where?
A. Yes. There are food lockers at all park campgrounds, at the Wilderness Access Center, the Toklat River Rest Stop, and Eielson Visitor Center. You may leave bags of food at the bear-proof food lockers in these locations, marked with your name and the date you will retrieve it.
Q. Can I get maps and books on Denali, before I get there?
A. Since you will not know which unit(s) you will camp in until you arrive in person to acquire your permit, it is best to wait to purchase maps until after planning your itinerary at the BIC. Books and other Denali-related information can be purchased at the BIC or from Alaska Geographic.
USGS quadrant maps are sold at the BIC, and you can purchase them in advance if you wish, but be aware that they do not have the backcountry unit boundaries on them - you will draw those on your map after acquiring your permit. The only map with the unit boundaries on it is the National Geographic: Trails Illustrated Map of Denali National Park and Preserve.
Q. How long can I stay out in the backcountry?
A. Any visitor can spend as many as 30 days in the backcountry in a given summer. These days may be in one continuous trip, or may be dispersed over an entire season. You can stay as long as 7 days continuously in one backcountry unit, but when doing so you must move your campsite at least every two days, to minimize the impact created by your site.
Q. I am accustomed to trail hiking, not hiking in trail-less wilderness. Should I be worried about getting lost? How familiar do I need to be with map and compass?
A. Confidence in how to read topographic maps and basic compass skills are recommended for all backcountry users. Generally, it is fairly easy to tell where you are because the small number of densely wooded areas make waterways (creeks, rivers) and dramatic features of the land easily visible. However, basic compass skills may be essential in some terrain and in foggy weather. If you are uncomfortable navigating with a map and compass, it is best to stick to the large river basins, so you can always follow the water back to the Park Road.
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Questions About Regulations
Q. Can I have fires in the park?
A. In summer, open fires are prohibited within the boundaries of the former Mt. McKinley National Park, except in established grates within designated campgrounds. Riley Creek, Savage River and Teklanika River are the only campgrounds with such fire grates. During the winter months (October 1 - April 15), fires are allowed on conjunction with backcountry trips in all of Denali National Park and Preserve.
Between April 15 and September 30, campfires are allowed in the 1980 park and preserve additions, except at the Kantishna Airstrip.
Q. Should I bring my fishing pole?
A. Fishing in the park tends to be poor because of the large amount of silt in the glacially fed rivers and streams. However, there are some lake trout in the Triple Lakes and Wonder Lake, and arctic grayling can be found in some streams.
Learn more about fishing in the park
Q. Can I bring my pet?
A. Pets are prohibited in the backcountry and along all front-country trails.
Learn more about bringing your pet to the park
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Questions About the Weather
Q. What is the weather like?
A. The weather from day to day and week to week tends to be unpredictable, as mountains create their own weather patterns. Very generally speaking, summers are cool and rainy, while winters are dry and very cold. For a visit between June and August, plan for lows in the 30s or 40 Fahrenheit, and highs roughly 15 to 25 degrees warmer. May and September are colder, with snow likely in the mountains.
Read a more thorough description of Denali's seasons and weather.
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Q. What are the mountaineering options in Denali?
A. Special permits are required for climbing both Mt. McKinley and Mt. Foraker; these are available through the Talkeetna Ranger Station.
As for small peaks approachable from the north side of the Alaska Range, there are three that see the most use: Scott Peak, Mt. Pendleton and Mt. Brooks. Before setting out, all visitors wishing to engage in mountaineering must speak with a ranger at the BIC or Talkeetna Ranger Station about specific guidelines for these types of trips. The park requires an inventory of equipment taken and the experience level of all trip members.
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