How Have Yellowstone Backpackers Changed?
by Ray Darville, Pat Stephens Williams, & Ryan Grisham
Yellowstone National Park, comprises 3,472 square miles, is known for its beauty, diversity of flora and fauna, and recreation opportunities (YNP 2016). However, most visitors never go beyond a few steps from the roads and boardwalks in the park. Many visitors appear to be in a hurry and want to see the Yellowstone highlights. Indeed, Yellowstone provides a cornucopia of sights, sounds, and smells. There is much to see from Mammoth Hot Springs to Yellowstone’s Canyon, Lamar Valley to Yellowstone Lake, and, of course, Old Faithful, which is the most visited single thermal feature. In these popular park locations, Yellowstone can be quite crowded. In 2016, over four million recreation visits came through Yellowstone’s gates (YNP 2017). Since 1990, Yellowstone has averaged over 3.1 million recreation visitors per year and cumulatively some 85 million recreation visits in that period (NPS 2017). No fewer than two million annually have come to Yellowstone since 1975. In addition, about 70% of all recreation visitors are in the park during the three summer months.
While there is much to see and hear in and around these main attractions, there is an entirely different experience available in the 95% of the park that is designated backcountry (YNP 2016). Many backpackers (Oosterhous, et al. 2007) seek the more solitary experience found in Yellowstone’s backcountry. Nevertheless, Yellowstone’s backcountry is also heavily visited compared to its capacity. Since 1979, over 1.5 million backpackers have registered in the backcountry offices for an overnight trip and since 1993, the number of registered backpackers has varied between 35,000 and 45,000 annually. In 2016, almost 45,000 backcountry campers (backpackers) were in the park with about 34,000 in the park during June, July, and August alone (77% of all backcountry backpackers for the year). Thus not only are there a substantial number of backpackers, but they are concentrated into three summer months.
Yellowstone has approximately 1,000 miles of backcountry trails and about 300 designated campsites. Advanced reservations are permitted for a $25.00 non-refundable fee. YNP charges backpackers a $3 per person per night fee to help support the backcountry through improvement of campsites, trail maintenance, and other management activities. Maximum limits are imposed on the number of people and stock that may occupy a site and the number of nights they may stay at a site.
Because backpackers’ experiences are different from those of frontcountry visitors’ experiences, this study provides YNP managers insight into this population of visitors. This new study sheds light on not only backpackers themselves, but also on their experiences, their preferences, and their opinions toward Yellowstone backcountry policies and practices. In addition, this study is a follow-up and builds upon the Oosterhous, et al. study conducted in 1999 (2007). The changes in visitors between 1999 and now suggest backcountry managers should re-examine current strategies in planning and management so that backcountry mangers can better optimize backpacker experiences and address backpacker concerns.
Researchers in the Oosterhous et al. (2007) study received survey responses from almost 650 backpackers. Briefly, researchers found backpackers were most likely to be adult, white males, young, not married, and college educated. Visitor trips (defined by Yellowstone Backcountry Trip Planner as “a contiguous itinerary that enters and then exits the backcountry at a trailhead or developed area”) lasted a little over two nights with a party size of just more than three. They typically were experienced backpackers, but were relatively inexperienced in Yellowstone’s backcountry. Furthermore, the results indicated backpackers assigned higher importance to solitude and tranquility compared to other motivations for the backcountry experience. Moreover, they desired avoiding crowded areas, looking at park scenery, escaping from everyday routine, enjoying adventure, and exploring new territory. In addition, some market segmentation existed based on selected socio-demographic characteristics. For example, women gave a greater importance than men on wildlife observation, exploring new territory, relaxing, feeling in tune with nature, looking at scenery and other aspects of the backcountry experience; whereas, men placed more emphasis than women on the importance of fishing as part of their backcountry experience (Oosterhous et al. 2007 for a full description). Our study is a partial replication of the previous work. While a portion of the present study paralleled the previous work closely for data comparison, changes were made as indicated by current trends in visitors in Yellowstone and the needs of management for future planning in policies and procedures. Oosterhous et al. (2007), for example, focused more attention on the motivations and experiences among backpackers, so we focused on whether significant changes have occurred in this 17-year gap.
We conducted a quantitative and qualitative social survey of backpackers in Yellowstone during summer 2016. The survey asked questions about the hiker’s trip, their perceptions of crowding, sense of crowdedness, and preferences for the backcountry experience (e.g., directional signs, food poles, pit toilets at campsites, and designated campsites). In addition, as an exploratory technique, we developed a 10-question survey to measure backpackers’ knowledge of the backcountry. Park staff reviewed the survey and the Office of Management and Budget approved it as well. Once approval took place, we created the survey instrument in Qualtrics for electronic management and delivery to prospective respondents.
We recognize that our study does not address the many day use hikers who hike throughout Yellowstone on a daily basis. In fact, backpackers represent a relatively small number of overall recreation visitors to YNP. However, our study provides valuable insight into this important recreation segment. Backpackers must register for their trip at any of the nine backcountry offices located in Yellowstone. Our study included backpackers registering at YNP backcountry offices (Bechler Ranger Station, Bridge Bay Ranger Station, Canyon Visitor Center, Grant Village Visitor Center, Mammoth Visitor Center, Old Faithful Ranger Station, South Entrance Ranger Station, Tower Backcountry Office, and West Yellowstone Visitor Information Center) during the study period in 2016. Solicitation occurred between early June and early September. When backpackers came into a backcountry office to register for their trip, a backcountry staff member registered them for their trip and then were supposed to solicit one member of each backcountry group for survey participation; the first backpacker to approach the staff member was the first one solicited. If the first group member declined to participate, a second individual was solicited. Once an individual agreed to participate in the survey, the backpacker completed a short form, which included an email address for contact. After backpackers returned home, we sent them an email concerning the survey, which included the purpose of the study, instructions on how to complete the survey, a statement pertaining the anonymity, researcher contact information, and a Qualtrics hyperlink to the questionnaire. Respondents completed surveys beginning in early September through early November 2016. We sent multiple email reminders to prospective participants. We obtained 670 email addresses. Of those, 71 email addresses bounced, leaving 599 solicited for participation. We obtained 307 useable surveys to be included in the data file for data analysis, yielding a response rate of 51.2%, which is considered acceptable (Babbie 2017). Our sample size was smaller than that of Oosterhous; this may be a reflection of the dynamics of our solicitation process. For example, Oosterhous was working as a backcountry staff member during his summer of data collection and was able to engage backcountry hikers; we did not have this experience.In addition, our lower numbers are consistent with a national trend toward lower response rates for surveys (Babbie 2017). Due to constraints, we were not able to examine sampling bias.
While these backpackers came from 46 states, some 50% of backpackers came from only seven states: Montana, California, Idaho, Colorado, Texas, Washington, and Utah. About 64% were male; 95% were white, non-Hispanic; and about 66% were younger than 40 years old. Furthermore, almost 80% had earned at least a bachelor’s degree. Our results are quite consistent with the Oosterhous study, which indicated backpackers primarily came from western states, were young adults, and well educated. One difference was gender. In our results, only 64% were male compared to 71% for the Oosterhous study (t = -2.345, p< 0.01) Thus, our respondents were slightly more likely to be female compared to the Oosterhous study.
In 2016, group size averaged 3.2 (SD = 2.7) members with a minimum of 1 (11%) to a maximum of 23. Oosterhous’ respondents had a mean group size (M = 3.27) slightly greater than our group size (M = 3.21); the mean difference was not statistically significant (t = -0.47, p = 0.636). The most prevalent group size was 2 for both studies with just under 50% reporting that group size.
In Oosterhous’s study, backpackers reported staying an average of 2.29 nights in the backcountry on their trips. In our current study, backpackers averaged 2.62 nights, yielding a mean increase of 0.33 nights. The mean difference was statistically significant (t = 3.053, p< 0.01). Currently, backpackers are hiking on longer trips compared to 17 years ago. In Oosterhous’ study, 83% travelled on foot for at least part of their trip, but in our study 94% travelled on foot; the difference was significant (t = 8.292, p< 0.01).
Changes in Desirability of Backcountry Features
Both studies examined backpackers’ preferences, or desirability, of selected backcountry features (e.g., bridges over creeks, pit toilets at campsites, orange trail markers on trees, and limiting size of groups). Backpackers were asked to rate their desirability of each feature from very undesirable (1) to very desirable (5). The two studies had 12 common features (table 1) with features listed in descending order of mean differences between the two studies. Five of the 12 did not exhibit significant mean differences between the two surveys: aircraft over-flights (low desirability of mean scores under two), prohibiting wood fires (also toward undesirability), food policies (desirable), limiting group sizes (desirable), and having designated campsites (desirable).
Seven features showed significant mean differences (figure 1). For six of these seven, current backpackers were significantly more likely to desire a feature compared to those participating in the previous study. Current backpackers were significantly more likely to want bridges across creeks ( p< 0.01), pit toilets at campsites ( p< 0.01), orange trail markers on trees (p < 0.01), and directional signs (p < 0.01). In addition, they were more likely to find a few trees blown down across the trail as desirable compared to those in the Oosterhous study (p = .049). Finally, current backpackers (compared to the Oosterhous study) were more likely to desire backcountry patrol cabins (p = .003), but were significantly less likely to desire interacting with rangers on patrol (p = .002). It is possible these backpackers wanted the cabins for resting locations or for location markers so that they knew where they were on the trail, but they were not necessarily desiring more interaction with rangers, which is consistent with a general desire for backcountry solitude.
Though backcountry hikes are increasing, current backpackers did not seem to believe crowding was a major problem. Only 3.7% said they experienced either moderately or extremely crowding, while 83% said they were not at all crowded. As a follow-up, we asked their opinion on the number of backcountry trails. Well over 80% said the number of trails was just right, but a substantial number (16.2%) believed there were not enough trails available for backcountry hiking.
Generally, current backpackers were satisfied to very satisfied with their backcountry experience (Figure 2). On a five-point scale from very dissatisfied (1), dissatisfied (2), neither dissatisfied or satisfied (3), satisfied (4), very satisfied (5), all item means were greater than 4 (satisfied). Means ranged from a low of 4.31 (time to obtain their permit) to a high of 4.74 (overall satisfaction).
A sense of crowdedness can have a negative effect on a backcountry trip, especially since a strong motivation for the hiking experience is for solitude (Oosterhous et al. 2007). Though the number of backpackers is increasing, current backpackers clearly believed crowdedness was not a problem. In our study, some 82% said they felt “not at all crowded,” while only 3.7% said they experienced moderate or extreme crowdedness. Moreover, they estimated seeing 2.65 groups per day (SD = 2.114); some 12% of backpackers said they averaged seeing no other group per day on their trip. The degree of crowdedness was related significantly to estimated number of groups seen per day (F = 15.117, p< 0.01). Those who indicated “not crowded” averaged seeing about 2.3 groups per day while those saying they felt extremely crowded averaged seeing 7.5 groups per day.
We compared the estimated number of groups seen per day between the two studies and there were almost no differences between the studies. In our study, 92.3% saw five or fewer groups per day. While generally in 2016 backpackers saw their trip as one that was not crowded, they did express a concern over parking at trailheads. One in seven backpackers said they found parking difficult or non-existent around their trailhead. Difficulty with parking varied by area, ranging from 0% at Thorofare to 25.5% at Canyon. The top five problem areas were Canyon, Pelican Valley, Slough Creek, Lamar, and Old Faithful.
Several respondents commented that commercially guided groups in the backcountry are diminishing the backcountry experience, including some strong opinions. Almost two-thirds said they believe commercial use was not acceptable. We tested 13 relationships between their opinion and selected factors; the only significant relationship was with education. Individuals with a higher level of education were significantly more likely than those with less education to believe commercial use was not acceptable. Written comments based on respondents’ backcountry experiences supported this quantitative outcome. While some comments on commercial use were positive, most were critical of commercial operations. Backpackers wrote comments such as:
“The National Parks should not exist for the benefit of private enterprise/businesses. The National Parks belong to the American public. This especially pertains to the backcountry, where people go to experience solitude and to ‘get away from’ commercialization and the trappings of civilization;”
“Other than the Roosevelt cookout there should not be commercial use because it destroys the integrity of our park. Keep it natural and as simple without crowds as possible. Go to Disneyland if you want commercial.”
Hiking into Yellowstone’s backcountry carries higher safety risks (weather, terrain, and wildlife) than staying on the frontcountry boardwalks. Thus, we wanted to know the level of knowledge of backpackers pertaining to safety in the wild. We gave them a 10-question survey based on information provided by YNP staff to backpackers through the YNP website and in printed materials. Questions pertained to knowledge about bears, bison, coyotes, ravens, and other selected issues; some questions focused on basic backcountry knowledge, while other questions focused on more specific issues such as backcountry safety. We recognize this was a first attempt to quantify backpacker level of knowledge. Given the relatively greater risk to backpackers compared to other park visitors, we believe backcountry users should have appropriate knowledge. While backpackers can gain some of this information through the required backcountry video to be seen during the registration process, we do not see this part of the research as a test of knowledge developed through the video itself or even through the official Yellowstone information for backpackers. Moreover, we simply included this exploratory technique as a way to initially measure backcountry knowledge; however, more research with this approach is needed to develop a stronger sense of backcountry knowledge. Survey scores, using a set of 10 true-false questions, could range from 0 (none correct) to 10 (all 10 correct). Backpackers’ scores (figure 3) ranged from a low of 2 (20%) to a high of 10 (100%) with an overall mean of 7.75 (77.5%); some 63% of backpackers scored 8 (80%) or higher on the survey. Backpackers had the highest mean (99.6% correct) on “when encountering a bear, one should run away as fast as one can” and the lowest mean (29.7% correct) on the number of times bison can run faster than humans (the correct answer is three times). We tested selected factors impact to explain survey score differences. None of the results was statistically significant, suggesting backpackers were consistent in their scores across several different socio-demographic and recreation characteristics.
Backcountry Permit Fee
Yellowstone National Park is now charging a $3.00 per person per night backcountry fee for backpackers and boaters, and a $5.00 per person per night fee for stock parties. Prior to 2015, backcountry permits were free; thus backcountry staff wanted feedback from backpackers on this administrative change. The additional revenue is designated for use to maintain and improve the backcountry and backcountry office visitor services. We asked backpackers if they supported or did not support the new fee and found an overwhelming 93.5% supported the fee. Cross tabulating their opinions by socio-demographic characteristics found no significant differences—support for the fee was nearly universal. Likewise, no significant relationships were observed with trip characteristics. Comments were overwhelmingly supportive, such as: “It's a gift to spend time in the park. worth it!!!” and “What you're doing with the money is positive. You could have an option for people who don't have the money to pay, some volunteer options perhaps, or a scholarship fund,” and “If additional revenue is needed to maintain or increase the quality of the experience, I support it,” and “fine to charge a little bit. Having good trails is not free. But it needs to be cheap so anybody can go.” There were negative comments too, such as “Let nature be free. It's where we all belong. Most of us are broke - it's 2016.”
Conclusions and Recommendations
Our results in some ways are consistent with those of the Oosterhous study and in some ways are different. Our study suggests Yellowstone’s backpackers, while a small percentage compared to the total number of annual visitors, are generally satisfied with their backcountry experience. They are more likely to be male, white, non-Hispanic, well educated, and younger, though the study indicates an increase in female backcountry visitors compared to the Oosterhous study.
Backpackers averaged about three members, which is consistent with Yellowstone staff recommendations; however, 11% of respondents said they hiked alone and over 40% hiked in groups of two. These numbers should be of concern to backcountry managers based on safety grounds. In addition, backpackers are staying in the backcountry for a slightly longer period, which may indicate high overall satisfaction with the experience, but it is also possible the increased use will add additional pressure on the existing natural resources.
The requests for increased amenities is an interesting difference to note between the 1999 and 2016 study, especially given the longer trips spent in the backcountry. Backpackers indicated they would like an increased number of bridges, pit toilets, trail markers, and signage. They also wanted to see evidence of backcountry rangers (though they indicated they did not want to see the rangers themselves). This may indicate a trend toward a marked difference in backcountry users in that there are those who want the backcountry experience of designated wilderness “untrammeled by man” (Wilderness Act of 1964) and those who wish to have a slightly less “wild” experience in managed backcountry.
Given the near universal support for the new backcountry fee and considering the current and anticipated future levels of federal government support for parks, park managers should consider other opportunities to allow visitors to support their parks. Yellowstone backpackers might support modest additional fees. In addition, in an effort to increase communication between backcountry staff and backpackers, we recommend backcountry staff inform all visitors how the fee money is being spent; this is good public relations and may encourage further donations once visitors see their money at work.
Continued education of backpackers should continue to be a priority. Our backpackers made a “C” grade on their survey collectively, despite receiving training prior to being issued their backcountry permits. We recommend backcountry managers review the required video and update it as needed. Some backpackers indicated in comments (not presented here) that the video appeared dated and should be re-done to make it more visually appealing and more informative. While this outcome is within expectations, it is also obvious many backpackers need more education, especially concerning wildlife. While knowledge does not prevent all problems in the backcountry, increased knowledge should lead to better trip experiences and reduce the likelihood of problems. Backpackers’ experiences may also be improved through policy and practice changes based, in part, on backpackers’ preferences and opinions toward backcountry management. For example, a number of backpackers were concerned with pack animals and outfitters as harming the backcountry experience. We hope this study has provided park managers with additional information to continue to make informed decisions for the protection of the resource and enhancement of the visitor experience—the charge of the National Park Service.
Babbie, E. 2017. The basics of social research. Seventh edition. Cengage Learning, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
Oosterhous, T., M. Legg, and R. Darville. (2007). What draws people to Yellowstone’s backcountry? Yellowstone Science 15:20-23.
National Park Service (NPS). 2017. Visitor use statistics. www.irma.nps.gov/Stats.
Yellowstone National Park (YNP). 2016. Yellowstone resources and issues handbook: 2016. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA.
Yellowstone National Park (YNP). 2015. Backcountry trip planner. www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/upload/bctrip-planner_2015.pdf.
Ray Darville is Department Chair of the Department of Anthropology, Geography and Sociology Regents Professor of Sociology at Stephen F. Austin State University and an associate faculty member in the Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture. He holds a PhD in Sociology from University of North Texas at Denton. His areas of expertise are social science research methods and data analysis.