by Matt & Cheryl
You’ve arranged transportation, booked your lodging, and painstakingly researched the sights and activities for your vacation. Now all you need to do is throw some clothes in a suitcase, right?
Packing the right things for your Yellowstone vacation will greatly increase your enjoyment and comfort. The little things can make a big difference. After many trips to Yellowstone and Grand Teton, here is my comprehensive must-have list.
The key here is layers, layers, layers!! Yellowstone and Grand Teton almost always have 40 degree temperature shifts daily June through September. You are usually looking at temperatures in the 30’s-40’s at night and 70’s-80’s during the day. The rest of the year, it is simply C-O-L-D!!!
I am a big believer in packing light. Less stuff = more fun. In fact, I’ll wear the same pants a couple of days and just bring along a few t-shirts (not what I do at home!) So to get started, pack a comfortable pair of pants, shorts, and couple of t-shirts. You are also going to want to bring a zip-up hoodie. This will keep you warm in the cool mornings and evenings and not be a pain to take off and on during the frequent temperature changes that occur so often in Yellowstone.
This may sound crazy, but you may want to consider bringing a coat as well if you are the type of person who runs cold. Even though you may be traveling in August, in can get below 40 degrees at night.
A ball cap or sunhat can be really nice during the day. Even though the temperature rarely goes over 80 degrees, it’s amazing how hot 70 degrees can feel when you are on the boardwalks viewing the geyser basins and the shade a hat provides is pretty nice.
Storms come and go very quickly in the mountains so a disposable poncho is a must. It takes up so little space and only costs a couple of dollars. This small purchase can save you a lot of misery if you get stuck in the rain on a hike or a long way from your car.
This may surprise you, but unless you are a backcountry hiker going off the beaten path, a good pair of running shoes will be your best bet. Most trails along popular hikes and geyser basins are boardwalks, asphalt, or groomed very well. You’ll love the cushion, coolness, lightness, and flexibility of wearing these shoes throughout your day. Plus, who knows when you’ll need to outrun a bear!! (A little humor for you.) Keep in mind that you do a lot of driving around at both of these parks and hiking boots are really uncomfortable when sitting.
If you plan on doing some swimming, make sure to plan to throw a pair of aqua socks in your bag. All the swimming areas in both parks are covered in rocks and sharp sticks. Ouch!
Besides the typical toothbrush and deodorant, there are some absolute must-haves. Sunscreen will save you from a lot of pain. It may seem a bit crazy when you go out in the morning and are wearing a coat, but by 11:00 a.m. you’ll be patting yourself on the back for being so resourceful. I find SPF 30 is adequate but everyone’s skin is different. My daily moisturizer did the job just fine last time I went.
Mosquitos are everywhere – day and night!! You’ll have times when you don’t see them for a couple of hours but then you change locations and get swarmed. Multiple travelers have complained that they couldn’t even enjoy Mystic Falls or Fairy Falls because of these unwelcome invaders. Bring some good mosquito repellent and you’ll be set.
I live in the Rockies but both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park really dries my skin out. Make sure you have lotion and chapstick in your car – especially if you are from a more humid climate.
At this writing, we are coping with COVID-19. Pack your mask or face shield. They aren’t required in Yellowstone but are encouraged. They are required in Grand Teton although they do make exceptions for kids under 12- I made my kids wear theirs anyway. Grand Teton did have some disposable masks available if you didn’t have your own, but I never saw any at Yellowstone. You can even get festive and order one like this for your trip. You’ll also want some hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Sanitizer was plentiful throughout both parks but I liked having a bottle in my car anyway.
Let’s talk about wild animals, particularly bears. Both of these parks have black and grizzly bears and they come in contact with people often (there are about 700 grizzly bears in the region). After all my trips to these parks, I’ve only ever encountered bears along the road where there were tons of people watching as well. We usually had a ranger or two at the scene joining us. I’ve never felt in danger. The prospect of getting to see a bear is one of my favorite things about these parks.
However…..even though the chance of you running into an aggressive bear is incredibly small, it makes a lot of sense to carry a can of bear spray with you, especially if you are going to do any hiking. Get one that you can wear on your belt or strap to your chest so it’s easy to get to if an emergency arises. Watch a couple of videos on how to use it so you feel confident. One word of caution, airlines will not allow bear spray on flights. Don’t worry though, you can buy bear spray in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton at the visitor centers and gas stations within the park but will most likely pay a little more for it. You can rent bear spray from private businesses near the parks as well (except when we are dealing with COVID).
Trekking poles can really help if you are at all unstable on your feet, and you will see lots of people using them. They are lightweight and collapse down small enough to go in a suitcase. Most of the trails are groomed but you will come across some rocky spots. Plus, doesn’t hiking with a stick or two feel kind of natural? Try these Black Diamond trekking poles or these bargain-priced ones.
Funny fact about national parks: you aren’t allowed to take any rocks, flowers, wood, or the like out of the park. However, they will allow you to pick up a stick off the ground and use it for hiking as long as you leave it in the park when you are done.
Food and Water
There are plenty of gas stations, restaurants, and water bottle fill stations within the parks. During the popular summer months, you may have to wait in some long lines for fast food and pay top dollar but it’s available. The national parks really encourage using reusable water bottles to help conserve resources. I love reusable water bottles because you can get some incredible ones that will keep your water ice cold all day long. How refreshing! My favorite brand, by far, is YETI.
- For day-to-day use, I like the YETI Tumbler. This can also be good for Yellowstone, because you spend a lot of time driving and you can put it in your cup holder.
- If you need it when you’re walking or hiking, or if you’re concerned about it spilling in your vehicle, I like the YETI Bottle with a cap.
I love to pack picnics because it’s fun to eat outside in nature with the amazing scenery it has to offer. It also saves valuable time not having to track down a restaurant and go through that whole process. Don’t misunderstand, eating at a local restaurant can be a really nice break from the elements and fun to experience, I would just rather do that in the evening when I’m done visiting the park for the day.
With COVID-19 going on, many restaurants within the park are closed or have limited seating which adds an extra obstacle to dining out, especially in Yellowstone. You’ll most likely want to plan on packing in your own food or getting something to eat in Gardiner or West Yellowstone. Grand Teton seemed to have some good options at Dornan’s and Colter Bay still available.
Bring snacks so you don’t get too hungry. Sometimes, it’s just not convenient to stop, and eating a little snack can go a long way. Make sure your snacks have minimal packaging as you are often required to pack it in and pack it out.
Fill up on water whenever you get a chance or pack extra with you since many of the fill up stations are in buildings that are closed or are not accessible at this time.
Cell phone charger. Yep, I listed this as a necessity. As much as I like unplugging from the world, I’m not going on my trip without my cell phone. I bet you are the same way. A portable cell phone charger can really save the day, especially if you are camping and don’t get much opportunity to charge your phone besides driving around in your car. We always end up battling over who gets to charge their phone. This charger can charge 3 phones and it does it pretty fast.
At the very least, make sure you have a phone USB charger to plug your phones into while you drive. I don’t think the kind matters much, but we like to have two USB ports, one for each of our phones.
You’ve got all the necessities: food, clothing, and safety. Now lets talk about making sure you are able to have a great experience and do the things you want to do.
When you enter either of the parks, they will give you a pretty nice map at no additional charge. They’ll also give you a newspaper that talks about the things going on that year. Read both of them. The have some great information. Cell phones in general get poor reception in both parks (really bad in Yellowstone) so don’t rely on your GPS.
Winging it is not recommended. Even though we live 4 hours away and visit these parks almost yearly, we always go with a plan. There are tons of websites and YouTube about both places. Read up a bit to see what looks interesting. It will help you determine how much time you will need to get the experience you want. You may want to purchase a pre-made itinerary. Sometimes trying to piece together all the things you want to do can be really challenging if you have never been to an area. I’ve also found that top sights on Trip Advisor aren’t always what I would consider the best use of my valuable vacation time.
A pre-made itinerary is usually inexpensive and can save you from costly mistakes like getting somewhere too late or missing out on something worth seeing that you weren’t aware of.
Both parks require a bit of driving around. Why not purchase an audio guide (and download it – remember, poor cell service in the parks) before you go? Audio guides make the trip that much cooler when you know the stories of your surroundings. Plus, you’ll sound so smart when you tell people about your trip and your little nuggets of information.
Even though my trip research go-to is YouTube, travel books still serve an important purpose. They have great photos, organization, maps, and information about local attractions and animals. They don’t require Wi-Fi and you can usually just check a couple out at the library.
Gear to enjoy the trip
Binoculars. (Vortex Diamondback). There aren’t many places more scenic than Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. From Artist Point viewing the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, to viewing a grizzly bear feeding at Lamar Valley, you won’t want to be limited to what your naked eye can see. A good pair of binoculars can be a real game-changer. I use to decline using them before I tried this model. For some reason, I could never get other types to focus or adjust to my eyes and found it frustrating. I couldn’t believe how clear a picture I could get with these binoculars.
Scope. If you want the most zoom power possible, you’ll need a scope. In the video above, we show a Leupold scope, which is a high-quality item. These scopes can vary from $300-$2000 dollars. The particular model in my video isn’t made anymore, but obviously I think Leupold is a nice brand. I admit I’m not an expert on scopes, so I only have my experience and research to go off of. Here are the two I would suggest:
- Leupold SX-1 Ventana. This has a more powerful zoom than most, AND it comes with the case and the tripod for an affordable price.
- Vortex Viper HD 20-60×85. I recommend this because it ranks high on reviews as being a good value. And it’s the same brand as the binoculars I used (above), so I trust they would make an amazing scope.
Inflatable Stand-Up-Paddleboard (SUP). What an incredible invention! Paddleboarding is so relaxing. You can sit, stand, kneel, or take a nap while gliding across the scenic lakes that Grand Teton has to offer. At 10-11 feet long, the biggest obstacle is transporting your SUP – even if you have a big truck. Inflatable SUPs come in a backpack that includes a pump, collapsible paddle, and some other minor gear you may need. I really had my doubts about being able to stand up on something inflatable but these are incredible.
Non-motorized watercraft are allowed at both Yellowstone and Grand Teton but I don’t see too many people out on Yellowstone Lake…. probably because it is so big and cold!
I promise once you get to String Lake, Jackson Lake, or actually any of the lakes at Grand Teton, you are going to want one of these. I had SUP envy last time I went and I’m not going back without one.
Gear to Capture Memories
You’ve put the time in to plan a perfect trip, are spending time with people you care about, and are going somewhere that you may never be again. It makes sense to prepared to capture the incredible sights and memories in a way that you’ll enjoy for years into the future.
If you have a newer phone, it will generally take some good pictures and video. But if you’re hoping to capture wildlife, forget it. You’re almost never close enough (except maybe bison).
I once traveled to 20 national park sites in one year, seeing some of the most amazing scenery America has to offer…and I only had my iPhone 4 to take photos with. I had regret every time. Finally, I was preparing to go to Zions and I bought a Canon Rebel SL1 DSLR camera. I’ve taken some beautiful images with it and printed some large prints to hang up in my home.
My Canon is now a little old, but if you’re new to this, I’ll save you some time here: the best affordable entry-level “nice” cameras are
- Nikon D3500. You can’t go wrong: just set it to autofocus, point, and click.
- Sony A6100. A little more expensive, but newer technology.
I’ll try to to bore you with the details, but the Nikon is a DSLR camera, and while it takes great photos and video, most of the focus in camera technology is going towards “mirrorless” cameras like the Sony A6100. It’s a little more expensive, but it’s newer technology. To me, it’s a draw. Either way is MUCH better than your phone.
NOTE: if you’re buying these to shoot wildlife, you must also buy the zoom lens with it! The regular lens, although it does zoom a little, will not get close enough.
If you don’t want to spring for a new camera, but you want to take some closer pictures of wildlife with your phone, I would recommend a scope lens you can attach to your phone. Here are two affordable options:
- Selvim Phone Camera Lens Phone Lens Kit 4 in 1. It works with iPhone and Samsung, and it’s only $39. Bear in mind, this isn’t going to be near the quality of the Nikon, but it’s very inexpensive, and it is better than doing the pinch-zoom thing with your camera (which only provides a blurry optical zoom). It also comes with a little tripod, which you will want to use because it’s hard to hold the camera still when zoomed in so far.
- Gosky. This is a big step up from Selvim, and costs $89. Both get very good reviews on Amazon. I’m guessing you get what you pay for here. This one has a closer zoom, and it’s not too much more.
Here again, you can take some nice video with your phone. But if you have to zoom, the pinch-zoom thing with your phone isn’t going to work well.
I’m into simplicity: I want a point-and-shoot that can zoom in close and keep a steady image. Dedicated camcorders are slowly going out of style in favor of the dual camera/camcorders like the Nikon D3500, but I think dedicated camcorders can generally zoom better and provide better image stabilization. I’m not a photography expert; this is just my experience.
This Canon VIXIA gets the best reviews on zoom & image stabilization. It’s small, it’s easy to hold, and it’s affordable.
I don’t use a tripod much because I don’t like carrying it around. But if you really want nice photos or videos, and you’re zooming, then you NEED a tripod.
A basic tripod would be fine in most cases: I bought this basic Fotopro Tripod, and I love it — it’s really adjustable.
BUT, if you are going to zoom way in and track wildlife as it moves (meaning, moving the camcorder from side to side, or panning), then you’ll want to attach a head to it that glides more smoothly.
You’d be surprised how much you can spend on fluid heads for tripods. I scoured Amazon to find the best deals, and based on reading a ton of reviews, I think the Neewer fluid head is the best value. At least, that’s what I would buy. But if it’s really important to you to have a silky smooth shot, the GEEKOTO got slightly better reviews and it was about double the price.
Whatever you decide to shoot with, make sure to share your videos or photos with us after your trip!!
Don’t forget that you’ll need a SD card to store your photos/video!
Travel journal- pictures can say alot but they leave out some important details you’ll want to remember. My little brother keeps a running list throghout the trip that he reads to us the last day. It’s a major highlight and something we use to remember the trip years later. You’re family will thank you for doing the same.
Bonus item for babies and toddlers
Not all of you are traveling with kids. If you aren’t, thanks for reading and I hope you have a wonderful trip! If you are blessed (and cursed) to be traveling with kiddos, read on.
If you are a parent, grandparent, proud aunt or uncle traveling with a child 4 and under- YOU NEED THIS-The Ergo baby carrier-I am eternally grateful to my friend who introduced me to this as a young mother. Not all baby carriers are created equal. It’s common for the weight of the baby to be entirely on the carrier’s back or neck and for the baby to bear their own weight in their crotch. What a painful situation for everyone involved.
The amazing thing about the Ergo baby carrier is how comfortable it is for the baby and wearer. The weight of the baby is all on the carriers hips. The weight the baby bears is on their cute little bottom. This design is so good that it’s comfortable to carry a four year old. Trust me, your 4 year old will like it too. They may want to walk themself part of the way, but they’ll appreciate the ride when they get tired.
Strollers are nice but many of the trails are narrow, rocky, and can include stairs. I once watched my same little brother carry a double jogging stroller containing his two daughters and all their gear on the Mt. Rushmore trail because there were stairs everywhere. That’s a memory none of us will forget! I had two children myself close to the same ages. My husband and I both put a kid in an Ergo and we were on our way- no problem!
The child can be carried in all positions which is great because they want to face out as they get older. By the time they are toddlers, it’s like getting to go on a really fun piggy back ride.
There are baby carriers out there that are cheaper, but this is the one you want. I owed 2 because my children were close in age. When my kids had grown out of them, they were still in great condition so gave them to my little sister who still uses hers to this day.
I sincerely hope that you found this packing list helpful. I also hope you already own a lot of this stuff. If you are needing to order something, please consider clicking on the links in this article. I put a bit of time into making this list (a labor of love) and receive a small commission – at no extra cost to you. My opinions are my own and I hope you will be as happy with these items as I have been.