Are you planning to go backpacking in Denali National Park? This backpacker's guide will help you plan an Alaska getaway!
by Jesse Smith
If you're planning a backpacking trip to Denali National Park in Alaska, you're in the right place!
In this article, you'll learn how to navigate Denali, how to apply for backpacking permits, and get tips on how to have the best backpacking trip inside Denali.
Plus, make sure to check out our park guide for Denali National Park!
Explore Denali Without Trails
Denali is a trail-free park.
That means there are no established trails or routes.
It keeps this park wild and full of adventure. It also means that you, the backpacker, get to choose routes for yourself.
How deeply you want to go inside this park will depend on how much experience you have backpacking in the wilderness.
Before we get in too deep, so to speak, thinking about your skills, let's first understand how to navigate this trail-free park.
2022 update: Due to a gradually worsening landslide, the Denali Park Road is closed after mile 43. Although backcountry hiking and camping are still open, access points beyond mile 43 are not reachable. Check out our post on the top 10 things to do at Denali while the road is closed!
Do Research Before Backpacking in Denali National Park
Without established routes, how will you know where to start planning your trip?
First, get a map.
That’s literally the first step. It's incredibly hard to plan your trip without it.
I recommend buying the map we used, a National Geographic map of Denali.
Next, read everything that the official National Park website has to offer.
However, there's a lot of information out there about Denali.
Here's what seemed most important for our backpacking trip.
Backcountry Units in Denali
Since there are no trails and no backcountry campsites in Denali National Park, the park service has come up with a great way of keeping everyone from going to the same location at once and overcrowding your experience.
They use a unit system to prevent overcrowding in Denali's backcountry.
Denali's backcountry is split into 87 units.
Each unit is quite large with limited entry. Most units allow only to 2-8 people at any given time.
That means that you may not see any other hikers during your entire backpacking trip.
Who Is Going With You?
This park is designed for seclusion and self-reflection. So choose your hiking party members with care.
First, have a good conversation with the people you are hiking with and fully understand what everyone wants to get out of this experience.
Next, I recommend nominating someone as the group leader.
There is a lot of information on the park units, and the planning process can be more streamlined if only one person is making decisions. Think of the saying “too many cooks in the kitchen.”
Then, study Denali's units for the type of terrain and conditions you are hoping to experience on your visit.
Have the group leader get to know about as many units as possible, and then plan a few routes that you would like to potentially do.
Tip: Take notes about the units you'd like to hike in, and then bring the notes with you to Denali!
How Do Backcountry Permits Work in Denali?
Once you get to the park, permits for the backcountry units are given out up to one day in advance.
The permits must be applied for in person with your entire group present.
That means you can not reserve your route before arrival, so come with lots of route options!
This is where the group leader's knowledge can really shine.
It's entirely possible, even likely, that the units you want to go into will already have the maximum capacity of permitted hikers.
Personally, we didn’t get permits for any of the routes I planned.
Thankfully, I had read and written down information on many of the units, not just my top picks.
You don’t have much time to decide once you get to the permitting desk, so come prepared!
After you get your permit, your group will watch a safety video. This is mandatory and helpful.
Then, you just need your bus pass and you are on your way!
Does Denali Ever Run Out of Backpacking Permits?
It's possible in theory, but highly unlikely.
There's only one permit desk, no one can apply for one ahead of time, and it's a large park.
Denali's website doesn't even mention the possibility of running out of permits.
When Should I Arrive in the Park?
If possible, get to the park a couple days before you plan to go backpacking.
That way, you'll have time to go to the visitors center and talk with the park rangers about units.
The rangers won't tell you where to go but are full of information about the most desirable units.
Can I Buy My Backpacking Gear or Supplies in Denali?
Get your gear before you get to the park.
Yes, there is a store in the park, but it's expensive and not always well-stocked with things like stove fuel and bear spray.
Keep in mind that you can't carry propane or butane stove fuel or bear spray onto an airplane, so plan on buying them after arriving in Alaska, but before getting to Denali.
What Gear Do I Need for Backpacking in Denali?
Start with a high-quality backpack.
I’ve used a Deuter Aircontact Lite Backpacking Pack for about eight years, and love it way more than the Osprey pack I used to have.
Bring along a sleeping bag that will keep you warm at night. My favorite bags are Marmot’s mummy bags, and I’d recommend them over the zero-degree bags because they’re almost as warm and way smaller.
Don’t forget a water filter! It might be the most important thing in your bag. We love this Sawyer mini water filter. It’s not bulky, and fits right onto a standard-size water bottle.
Get a few different size waterproof dry bags. These really saved me when we had to cross a river. All my clothes and food stayed dry. These also work great when hanging food in bear country.
A bear canister, or Bear Resistant Food Container, is required in Denali.
You can bring your own canister, or borrow one for free when you check in for your permit. If you bring your own, make sure it’s on the park service’s approved BRFC list.
Gets some gaiters. They are cheap and work so well! You'll be happy you brought them in a park as cold and wet as Denali.
Is It Easy to Get Lost in Denali?
If you're used to simply following trail signs to find your way, that won't work in Denali.
Make sure you can read a topographical map and carry a compass.
If you don’t have much experience doing this, I recommend taking a class or at least practicing with a map in your local area.
Having experience reading topographical maps is key to avoiding injury or just a bad route.
How Can I See It All in One Trip?
Instead, relax and have fun. You will not be able to fully experience this park in one backpacking trip.
Take this wilderness as it comes and enjoy what it gives you.
To me, that meant not trying to do eight units in five days. One unit per day is much more realistic.
That said, don't feel like you have to visit one unit every day.
If you land a highly desirable unit, milk it! Stay in the unit for a couple days and day hike around the area.
For example, the peak of Denali actually coming out of the clouds can be rare, so if you have a potentially great campsite for mountain watching, stay there!
The longer you're there, the more chances you'll have to see the Grandfather of American Mountains called Denali!
Check out my future article about what units we explored and why we loved them!
About Jesse Smith
Jesse Smith was born in St Louis, MO and is a traveler, nomad, and creator. He has a mustache. Jesse is married to the most wonderful woman on the planet. They are learning Chinese and living the best life ever. Follow Jesse at @TheJesseSmithShow.