Featured picture from Daniel Leifheit via Denali NPS
If you have landed on this post… you are likely very interested in backpacking Denali National Park. Let me say at the outset that planning a Denali backpacking trip is unlike anything else you have done. Over the last eight or so years I have backpacked many National Parks, each of them with their own individual and unique process for planning and permitting, as well as their own distinct rules for the backcountry. With Denali one may as well throw most of that expertise out the window.
Denali is unlike any other National Park in the United States. It is the size of Massachusetts. It’s diversity in terrain, plant-life, and wildlife is second to none. And the trail-less backcountry is as intimidating as it is exciting. So planning for a week-long backcountry backpacking trip can very easily overwhelming.
Before I get into the planning specifics… let me note a few important things that you need to know from the very beginning.
1. You need a backcountry permit to do overnight backcountry camping, whether it is one night or longer. And, the only way to get a permit is to show up in person. That’s right… in person. Unlike other National Parks that allow you to submit permit applications via an online form or by snail mail, Denali only gives out permits to individuals and groups who show up at their Backcountry Office on a first-come-first-serve basis beginning at 9am local time.
2. The entire park is divided into a grid with each part of the grid referred to as a “unit.” There are 84 total units, all varying in size and occupancy limits. As you can imagine, even though each unit varies in size, each unit is quite large. And while the park does not have designated areas within each unit were you have to camp (because you can camp anywhere within the unit), the number of backpackers able to camp in a specific unit is limited, with some units allowing a maximum of two people per night up to twelve people per night. This limitation decreases the amount of foot traffic and impact on the environment. Additionally, these limitations may significantly effect routes and specific areas you may want to pass through or camp within.
3. Being that the Denali backcountry is trail-less (except for game trails and a handful of man-made trails), one should be comfortable using a compass and topographic map to orient and navigate. Additionally, the trail-less backcountry will slow you down. Under normal circumstances and conditions on well-maintained trails (of course depending on elevation changes, fitness, and snack/nature breaks) one may expect to average anywhere from 2-3 mph with a full pack. In Denali, your expectations of daily mileage and speed should be tempered with the challenges of route finding, bushwhacking, stream/river crossings, etc. Anticipating 1 mph is a reasonable expectation. Sure you may move a bit quicker in a gravel bar, but you will be slowed down by the dense brush. It all averages out.
One of the larger challenges with planning a Denali backpacking trip is planning a route. If you are unfamiliar with the park, the variation in topography, and what is realistic in terms of distance and route from unit to unit, you are not alone. This is where we found ourselves at the beginning of our planning. I spent an enormous amount of time searching the internet to find information about the individual units. In my experience, there just isn’t much information out there discussing the units. The very best resource is Denali’s own National Park website that details in specificity each unit in the park (terrain, passageways to other unit, notable features, etc). This proved to be invaluable. While we are certainly at the mercy of the Backcountry Office in securing our route when we get there, because of demand and availability, we want to have each unit researched and ranked (according to the criteria most important for us) so that when we are given different route scenarios we can refer back to our preferences and priorities. If we are going to spend the time and money to get there… we want to have the possibility of the best backpacking trip as we can.
The weather in Alaska can be very unpredictable. In fact, it has been known to snow in any of the twelve months. Not only that but Alaska knows how to rain as well. The rainfall in July and August averages over five inches in each month. Packing the appropriate gear can be tricky because you basically have to plan for every contingency (snow/cold, rain, warm).
Denali Backcountry Office provides a bear canister to each person who camps in the backcountry. Forget finding places to tie off your food. Just throw your food in a bear canister and toss it a hundred yards from your camp and you should be safe from bears through the night.
Keep in mind that you can not take bear spray or gas stove canisters on your flight to Alaska. The good news is that you can purchase gas canisters and bear spray at Denali Mountain Works (http://denalimountainworks.com) located at mile 239 Parks Hwy, off Canyon Dr., about 1 mile north of the entrance to Denali National Park. Phone- tel:907-683-1542.
This one may be a bit strange but river crossings have been one of the biggest issues for us. It’s not that we are concerned with how to cross, because our knowledge of how to cross is fine. It is more about having wet boots. We have looked at this from every angle and still are not satisfied with the conclusions. The bottom-line is that we don’t want to have soaked boots for the duration of our hike. But, we also don’t want to change shoes at every crossing like a bunch of pansies. That just doesn’t seem like a good Alaskan approach. The truth is that we know we are going to get wet in Alaska, that isn’t a big deal. Wet boots are abysmal. We still don’t have a satisfactory approach to this but would love to hear your thoughts.
The Green Bus
The main mode of transportation through the park, after the first dozen miles or so, is the Green Bus. These Green Busses take site seers, day hikers, and backpackers alike all 80+ miles of the park. You can stay on the bus the entire round-trip or you can jump off at any point to hike or backpack. All you have to do is catch a subsequent bus when you are ready to continue on.
For backpackers, who do not know their route or the units they will visit throughout their hike, it is difficult to plan in advance or make reservations until the backpacking route is secured. In many ways, a Denali backpacking trip is a lesson in going with the flow. And this is something I am not used to.
I am sure there is so much more that could be said. This has been one of the easiest trips for which we have planned… and one of the hardest. The easy stuff is airlines and rental cars, but the rest of your trip involves flexibility. The best piece of advice I would give is to read and study as much as you can so that you can roll with the punches.
Do you have additional advice based on your planning to backpack Denali? What is it? Leave comments below.