Backpacking In Glacier National Park

This Adventure of the Week comes from Max Neale, review editor for Outdoor Gear Lab, which was recently named Best Gear Website by Outside Magazine. Max regularly contributes reviews and tales from the road on our blog. He has taken us climbing in Turkey, down California’s Lost Coast, climbing up the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome, and now backpacking in Glacier National Park…

Who: Max Neale, Zeb Engberg

What: Backpacking, Camping, Glissading

Where: Glacier National Park, Montana

When: June 2012

If you’re a preserved area aficionado, you’ll love Glacier National Park. Of the twenty-two national parks I’ve been to (America has fifty-eight) Glacier is my favorite for backpacking.

Driving through the rolling fields of central Montana you see can the Rockies far in the distance. Their one billion-year-old metamorphic stones rise abruptly from the ground and create a paradisiacal backpacking playground of peaks, valleys, lakes, and undisturbed rivers. When I was approaching the park with Zeb Engberg, in late June of this year, clouds enshrouded the mountains and teased us like an exotic dancer. They lifted, only occasionally, to reveal a quick glimpse of the topography—of the mountains we wanted to climb— and then returned, obscuring the majestic peaks from sight. 

The route we planned was a loop that crossed several passes, wound around dozens of lakes, and gave us the option to tag several key peaks. Longer continuous loops on trail can be logistically difficult in Glacier; we connected trailheads by hitchhiking. It was early in the season and, by backpacking standards, there was lots of snow. Some passes had been crossed on foot a week earlier and others had yet to be crossed this year. Wildflowers blanketed the lower valleys and snow covered most areas above 5,500 feet. We carried trekking poles and standard ice axes.

Glacier National Park’s backcountry can make you feel as if you’re far, far, away from civilization. The stepped mountains and lush valleys contain grizzly bear, elk, mountain goat, and mountain lion. Glacier could be the best park in the Lower 48 for wildlife watching. We saw, and were scared by, four bears. Bear spray-less, we pondered whether, when faced by a charging grizzly, we would rather have an ice tool or a can of bear spray to protect ourselves. After much discussion and display of the various ways in which ice axes could be employed to combat a bear, we both agreed that we’d rather have ice tools. The effectiveness of bear spray, after all, is dependent on environmental conditions.

Throughout our hike we enjoyed the benefits of early season travel. Besides a few CDT (Continental Divide Trail) thru-hikers, no one else was in the backountry. The large snowfields provided direct ascent options and thrilling glissades, and we slept on a fifteen-foot-deep snowdrift — which is always fun. As the miles racked up we passed through different microclimates and plant communities, and discussed topics of all kinds. We gossiped about our friends from college, about the rock climbs we wanted to do, the unfortunate state of the world, and shared points from our respective areas of expertise. Zeb is a PhD candidate in algebraic geometry, so he told me about the flow properties of certain snowfields we passed. I shared the latest developments and innovations in the outdoor gear world. And we hiked on.

If a successful backpacking trip is one that mixes fun (Type I and II), challenges you mentally and physically, and allows you to explore a new area and learn new things, then our trip in Glacier was successful. We hiked 20+ miles per day (roughly 50% on snow), saw beautiful scenery, were scared by bears, and got shut down on the last pass we tried to go over (we deemed a raging waterfall-like river crossing on the west side of Gunsight Pass to be too dangerous and unnecessary —it was our last day). We hiked out a half-day to a road and thumbed a ride with an elderly woman in a Mercedes. At our car we devoured chocolate and sardines, and left the park with big smiles on our faces.


Mid-July through August is the best time for backpacking in Glacier National Park. Plan to arrive between 7:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. to make reservations with backcountry rangers. There are offices at both the east and west entrances. Bring at least 20 feet of line to hang food. Bear safety accessories are available at the entrance visitor information offices or online through Tahoe Mountain Sports. Backpacker Magazine has some resources on hikes in Glacier, but the backcountry rangers and a map are likely the best resources for trip planning.