Backcountry Winter Camping at Glacier National Park
Backcountry camping has to be one of my favorite things to do. When I was a teen, I started backcountry camping with my family. We often go to a local National Park that we were fortunate to have within a several hours drive from our home. Later, in college, my friends and I would dash off to a National Forest or Park on breaks and holidays.
Backcountry winter camping, for me, has always been my favorite type of backcountry camping. For one, it’s less crowded. Second, there are fewer mosquitos (as in none). Backcountry winter camping at Glacier National Park has always been a goal of mine and this year I decided to make it happen.
Glacier National Park is absolutely stunning. It is often said to be the jewel of the National Park system and I can easily understand why. I’ve been to Glacier National Park before in summer, but this would be my first experience with backcountry winter camping at Glacier National Park.
This article will share my experience while backcountry camping at Glacier National Park. More importantly, I think, is that it will also share some mistakes I made and the lessons learned from my experience. This article is more than just my experience while backcountry winter camping at Glacier National Park; it will answer some questions that you may have as well, like:
- Can you camp anywhere in Glacier National Park?
- Is Glacier National Park closed in winter?
- Can you go to Glacier National Park in the winter?
- Can I sleep in my car in Glacier National Park?
Let’s start with those and then continue with the personalized experience I had while backcountry winter camping at Glacier National Park.
Can you camp anywhere in Glacier National Park?
For front country camping in Glacier National Park, camping is permitted only in designated campgrounds. Glacier’s 13 campgrounds provide more than 1000 campsites, with most available on a first-come, first serve basis. There are two campsites that can be reserved in advance (Fish Creek and St. Mary), however, neither can be reserved more than 6 months in advance. The exception to this rule is the group campsite at St. Mary, which can be reserved up to 12 months in advance.
In addition to St. Mary, there are three other campgrounds in Glacier that accommodate group campers. Group sites for 9-24 campers are available at Apgar, Many Glacier, St. Mary, and Two Medicine.
Only two campgrounds are open in the winter: Apgar and St. Mary.
For more in-depth information on each of Glacier’s campgrounds, including a campground locator map, click here.
For backcountry camping in Glacier National Park, you’ll need a permit, which is issued the day before or the day of a desired trip start date, on a first come basis. Online advance reservations can also be made, starting March 15th for groups of 1-8 campers, and March 1st for groups of 9-12 campers, for trips that begin on June 15th through September 30th. Advanced reservations are also on a first-come, first-served basis. Advanced reservation requests are accepted up to seven days prior to a trip start date.
Each campsite is limited to a maximum of four people and two small 2-4 person tents. The maximum party size allowed is 12 persons. Please note that it can be very difficult for a large party to obtain the campsites needed for their itinerary. Backpackers should also note that some campsites have a one-night limit, per trip, in July and August.
Is Glacier National Park closed in winter?
Glacier National Park is open every day of the year and visitors can enter the park at any time. Winter weather tends to dictate when most visitor facilities open and close. Generally from late May to early September, facilities are open to welcome summer visitors.
Going-to-the-Sun Road runs through the middle of the park and provides access to many locations and activities. Ten miles of Going-to-the-Sun Road (West Glacier to Lake McDonald Lodge) are maintained throughout the year providing access to winter recreation opportunities at the head of the lake.
There is no set date for the alpine portion of the road to open. Typically the road has been fully open in late June or early July. Closing portions of Going-to-the-Sun Road are also weather dependent. Typically the road is fully open into October, but that may change due to weather conditions at any point. Be sure to visit the Going-to-the-Sun Road information page for more information.
Can you go to Glacier National Park in the winter?
Glacier National Park is open all year, but there will be some parts of the park that you won’t be able to access during the winter. Some of these include the ever-so-popular Going-to-the-Sun Road and Logan Pass, as well as access to some trailheads.
For a good portion of the winter months, you can usually go as far as Lake McDonald Lodge, which still remains open much of the year. There you can do some snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and drink a cup of hot cocoa.
Can I sleep in my car in Glacier National Park?
According to Glacier National Park: “You can sleep in your car if you wish- assuming it’s not a convertible!”
My Experience While Backcountry Winter Camping at Glacier National Park
A friend and I started planning our winter camping trip over a year in advance. We quickly decided on Glacier National Park as our destination. We are very experienced backcountry winter campers so we were confident that camping in the backcountry of Glacier National Park in winter was something we were capable of doing.
Please note, that backcountry winter camping in Glacier National Park is for very experienced winter campers. Do not try backcountry winter camping at Glacier National Park if you are a novice backcountry camper and new to backcountry winter camping.
The Weather can change in a second
Probably the most terrifying experience we had was not a run-in with a Grizzly or other dangers you would more likely face in other seasons, but it was the day my friend and I went for a hike along one of Glacier National Park’s many mountain ridges.
What started out as a beautiful crisp blue sky day quickly, and I mean quickly, turned into white-out conditions. Although we knew weather can change quickly, going from one extreme to another in a matter of forty-five minutes was quicker than we thought possible.
We were several miles away from our backcountry base camp when the weather started to turn. Once we realized the encroaching danger, we quickly headed back. Our past experience at backcountry winter camping taught us to be prepared and we were. We had the appropriate backcountry gear with us that we quickly utilized.
We made it back to camp safely, but not before the storm’s full fury was on us. The last mile was terrifying. Hiking in white-out conditions at Glacier National Park is not something I want to experience again.
Backcountry winter camping at Glacier National Park has to be one of the best memories and experiences I have had with backcountry winter camping. With proper planning and drawing on previous experience, the trip was amazingly successful and fun; it was an experience I will definitely do again.
Should you want to start backcountry camping, we recommend doing it in the early Fall or late Spring. Backcountry winter camping is for experienced campers that have a lot of experience. Backcountry winter camping at Glacier National Park is for very experienced and well-prepared winter campers.