Backcountry Safety

A hiker watches an oncoming storm on Specimen Ridge
A hiker watches an oncoming storm on Specimen Ridge. In Yellowstone, backcountry travelers should prepare for variable weather and encounters with bears.

NPS / Neal Herbert


On any backcountry trip, it’s always a good idea to let people know your itinerary and when you expect be back, and to travel in groups rather than by yourself. In addition, below are some specific best practices for backcountry travel in Yellowstone.


All of Yellowstone is bear habitat, and everyone plays a role in the continued conservation of these animals. Protect yourself and Yellowstone’s bears by learning the best practices for traveling safely in bear country.

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Bear spray is proven to be highly successful at stopping aggressive behavior in bears. Bear Management Biologist Kerry Gunther walks through the steps to deploy bear spray.


Your safety is not guaranteed, but there are several ways you can increase your safety while hiking in Yellowstone. In addition to our main bear safety tips, we recommend the following while hiking in the park’s backcountry:

  • Be alert: Avoid surprising bears by looking for fresh tracks, scat, and feeding sites (signs of digging, rolled rocks, torn up logs, ripped open ant hills).
  • Hike during daylight hours: Avoid hiking at dawn, dusk, or at night when grizzly bears are most active.
  • Stay on maintained trails: Research in Yellowstone has shown that people are more likely to be attacked by a bear when hiking off-trail.
  • Avoid carcasses: Bears will guard and defend carcasses against other scavengers or humans. Dead ungulates will attract and hold many bears near the carcass site. If you find a fresh carcass, leave the area immediately by the same route you approached. Report all carcasses to the nearest ranger station or visitor center.

  • Never camp in an area that has obvious evidence of bear activity such as digging, tracks, or scat.
  • Avoid bringing smelly foods into the backcountry.
  • When not in use, secure all food and other smelly items by hanging them from the food poles provided at backcountry campsites (you’ll need at least 35 feet of rope for this). Everything should hang 10 feet above ground and 4 feet away from tree trunks. Food storage lockers are provided at some backcountry campsites.
  • Certain portable bear-resistant food containers (BRFCs) may be used for food storage in lieu of hanging. BRFCs can be hung or left on the ground underneath the food pole or in the cooking area. Make sure all food and odorous items will fit into a container before starting your trip.
  • If you see a bear approaching your camp, make sure your food is secure and make noise to discourage the bear from entering your camp.
  • If a bear enters your camp, grab packs and food that isn’t hung, then slowly back away. Do not let a bear gain access to your food.
  • Strain food particles from dishwater and pack out with your garbage. Scatter dishwater at least 100 yards (91 meters) from tent site.
  • Remove any food scraps and garbage from fire pits.
  • Sleep at least 100 yards (91 meters), preferably upwind, from the “core camp” area where you cook, eat, and hang your food.
  • Keep your sleeping gear clean and free of food odors. Don’t cook in your tent, and don't sleep in clothes worn while cooking and eating.

In addition to food and garbage, some common backcountry items that you’re required to hang include beverage cans (empty or full), coolers, lip balm, sunscreen, bug spray, and lotions, toothpaste, food panniers, horse feed, some medications, clothes worn while cooking, and eating utensils that haven’t been properly cleaned. Keep all food and smelly items out of sleeping bags, tents, and their stuff sacks.

Learn more about backcountry camping in Yellowstone.

If you’re involved in a conflict with a bear, regardless of how minor, contact us or report it to a park ranger as soon as possible. If cell service is available, dial 911. The lives of other people, and the bear, may depend on it.

Surprise Encounters

Although surprise encounters do happen, it is your responsibility to maintain a minimum distance of 100 yards (93 meters) from bears at all times. If you do have a close encounter with a bear, keep your group together and slowly back away. Do not run or make sudden movements. Draw your bear spray from the holster, remove the safety tab, and prepare to use it if the bear charges.

Charging Bears

If a bear charges, stand your ground, and deploy your bear spray when the bear is 60 feet (18 meters) away or less. If the bear leaves, immediately leave the area. Walk, don’t run.If the bear makes contact, drop to the ground on your stomach and “play dead.” Keep your pack on to protect your back and clasp your hands over the back of your neck with your elbows protecting the sides of your face. Remain still and quiet to convince the bear you are not a threat. After the bear leaves, wait several minutes before moving. Listen to make sure the bear has left the area, then immediately leave the area. Walk, don’t run.

Curious or Predatory Bears

Unlike defensive bear charges, a curious or predatory bear may slowly but persistently approach. If you're approached by a curious or predatory bear, grab your stuff, especially food, and move to the safety of a car or building. Walk, don’t run.If retreating is not an option, group up with other people and yell at the bear. Deploy your bear spray when the bear is 60 feet (18 meters) away or less. If the bear leaves, immediately leave the area. Walk, don’t run.If you’re attacked by a curious or predatory bear, fight back as if your life depends on it, because it does. Use any weapon you can find like rocks and sticks. Predatory attacks usually persist until the bear is scared away, overpowered, injured, or killed.

While there is no statistical evidence that known bear attacks have been related to menstruation, certain precautions should be taken to reduce the risks of attack:

  • Use only unscented or lightly scented items.
  • Place all new and used products in double zip-loc baggies and store them with your other scented items.
  • Pack out all used products. Do not bury or burn.

Drinking Water

As a safeguard against Giardiasis, other parasites and bacteria, we recommend that you boil, filter, or chemically treat all drinking water. Waters may be polluted by animal and/or human waste. Intestinal infections from drinking untreated water are increasingly common.


Rain, wind, sleet, and snow can be deadly if proper precautions are not taken. Always bring rain gear and extra clothes for warmth. To avoid hypothermia, stay dry, stay out of the wind, and avoid getting chilled. Put on rain gear before you get wet and warm clothes before you start shivering. Most hypothermia cases happen in air temperatures of 30–50° Fahrenheit. Wear a hat and gloves to conserve body heat.

If you cannot stay warm and dry, assess and alter your plans. Remember that you are only as strong as the weakest person in your group. Persistent or violent shivering is a clear warning that someone is on the verge of hypothermia. Other symptoms include slow/slurred speech, loss of dexterity, exhaustion, incoherence, and drowsiness. When someone is hypothermic, find shelter and make camp. Get out of wind and rain. Remove wet clothing. Get into dry clothing and a sleeping bag. Provide warm, non-alcoholic drinks.

Stream Crossings

Few of Yellowstone’s rivers or streams have bridges, and many cannot be crossed until July or later. Even in late summer, water levels can rise quickly after rainstorms or from snowmelt in the high country on warm afternoons. The water can be cold, fast, and more than thigh-deep, making any attempt to cross perilous. Trying to ford deep, swift water has resulted in loss of gear, injury, and death. Carefully check your itinerary on a topographic map for stream crossings, and ask about river conditions at a ranger station before beginning your trip. Don’t be afraid to turn around if conditions are dangerous. Before you ford a river, make sure everyone in your group is comfortable doing so.

Thermal Features and Geyser Basins

Burns from thermal features are a common cause of serious injury and death in the park. Check at a ranger station before you go exploring. Foot travel in all thermal areas must be confined to boardwalks or maintained trails that are marked by official signs. Don’t approach or shortcut through geyser basins after dark when there is greater danger of stepping into a hot spring. For your safety and for the protection of thermal features in Yellowstone, it is illegal to swim or bathe in any water that is entirely of thermal origin. Hot springs contain algae, bacteria, and fungi found nowhere else in the world: soaking or wading in springs can destroy these life forms. Throwing objects like rocks or sticks into thermal features is prohibited since doing so can clog vents and alter the flow and temperature of the water. Food and smoking are not allowed in thermal areas.

Ticks and Mosquitoes

From mid-March to mid-July, grassy, brushy, low elevation areas (4,000–6,500 feet) are ideal tick habitat in Yellowstone. Wear repellent even on shoes, socks, cuffs, and pant legs. Tuck your pant legs into your socks and your shirt into your pants. Check your clothes and your body often. During the June and July, mosquitoes may be widespread around lakes and streams, especially in wet areas. Mosquitoes tend to diminish in mid-to-late August. Repellents, netting, and wearing clothing with long pants and sleeves are the best options for enduring insects in Yellowstone.


Yellowstone’s trails may be hard to follow due to infrequent use, missing markers, recent fires, or large meadows where the trail is not clear. We strongly recommend people carry a compass and topographic map and know how to use them.


Yellowstone can experience winter-like weather any time of year. Calm, sunny mornings can abruptly turn into fierce, stormy days. Gusty, south-to-southwest winds are common in the afternoon. Rain and lightning often follow. If you’re hiking or boating when storms approach, get off the water, ridges, and open places. Thick forests of equal height offer better protection from lightning than meadows. Nighttime temperatures can drop into the 30s and 40s. Depending on elevation, temperatures may even fall into the 20s with a light freeze...even in July. Summer daytime temperatures are usually in the 70s and 80s. June can be cool and rainy. July and August tend to be drier, with afternoon thundershowers common.

a person watching two bears from a safe distance on a boardwalk
Safety Tips

Keep these safety tips in mind while venturing in the park!

Visitors enjoying the thermally-heated waters at the Firehole Canyon Swim Area
Swim and Soak

As most of Yellowstone's waters are dangerous, there are very limited opportunities to swim or soak. Always follow park regulations.

Lightning strikes Electric Peak as a dark storm rolls over the mountain.
Backcountry Situation Report

Current conditions for trails and campsites.

A pair of skiers on the Barronette Trail.
Winter Safety

Prepare for cold air, deep snow, and slippery boardwalks.

Last updated: March 12, 2024

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PO Box 168
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190-0168



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