The Ultimate Backpacking Planning Guide to North Cascades National Park in Washington
North Cascades National Park in northern Washington state is an absolute adventurer’s paradise. With hundreds of glaciers, dozens of alpine lakes, beautiful rugged mountains and the highest degree of flora biodiversity than any other national park in the USA, it is easy to get a little overwhelmed by the adventure possibilities.
In our opinion, one of the best ways to explore this stunning national park is to head out into its backcountry for a couple of days. If you have the energy and the gear, we truly cannot recommend backpacking along its miles and miles of trails enough.
Below you will find everything you need to know to plan one epic backpacking adventure — including, information on how to get a wilderness permit, what backpacking gear you will need to bring, and what trails you should explore.
So with that, keep reading for our in-depth North Cascades Backpacking Planning Guide!
► Pssst, also consider checking out our comprehensive adventure guide to the national park. Explore it here.
\\ Planning Your Backpacking Route
There are a few things you need to figure out before you plan your backpacking route in North Cascades National Park. First, what do you actually want to see? Are you hoping to spot some glaciers, or are you more into alpine lakes. Obviously, each trail is different, so you will want to have a basic idea of what kind of landscape you want to hike through before actually looking at a map.
A few other important questions you need to ask yourself is whether you want to go somewhere busy/popular or somewhere a bit more off-the-beaten-path. Some trails in the park are going to be relatively busy, so if you are looking for some solitude maybe steer clear of those (the PCT is a great example of a busier trail). Likewise, what kind of camping amenities do you want or need? Do you want a campground with bear lockers and pit toilets or are you okay “roughing” it and staying somewhere with less to offer (or even in one of the wilderness areas where there are no amenities).
Finally, the last thing you need to think about when picking your backpacking route is how far you actually want to hike to reach your campsite. Remember, your backpack is going to be heavy, so if you aren’t in the best shape or if you haven’t been backpacking in a while (or ever) maybe consider picking a camping spot that isn’t too far away from the trailhead.
So remember, when figuring out your backpacking route make sure to answer these questions:
| What do you want to see?
| How many people do you want to see?
| What kind of camping amenities do you want/need?
| How far can you reasonably/comfortably hike in a day?
By answering these questions, you can really narrow down your route options until you find the perfect backpacking trail for you.
\\ How Many Days Do You Need for Backpacking
You will need at least 2 days / 1 night in the North Cascades National Park backcountry. Though we highly suggest putting aside 3 days / 2 nights for the trip so you can really head into the rugged wilderness and have a true backcountry experience.
Many of the top trails require a couple of days of hiking — though of course if you only have 2 days definitely still get a permit and hit the trails.
Curious to see what it is like to backpack in North Cascades National Park? Then check out this video we made on our own backpacking adventure. See it here.
\\ North Cascades National Park Backcountry Permits
There are two ways to get a backcountry permit: with an advanced reservation or by walking up the day before or the day of your trip. The main difference here is that the advanced reservation can be made up to two days before your trip, whereas the walk-up reservations are only available the day before or the day of your trip’s start date.
Whichever way you do it, you will still need to stop by the Wilderness Information Center to pick up your permit in person. The Wilderness Information Center is located in the town of Marblemount, which is approximately 7.5 miles from the west entrance to the national park.
📌 EXACT ADDRESS: 7280 Ranger Station Rd, Marblemount, WA 98267
🕝 HOURS: 7 AM — 4 PM, 7 days a week
➳ Learn more about North Cascades National Park Backcountry Permits here.
ADVANCED RESERVATION PERMITS
For the advanced reservations, you will need to head to reacreation.gov to secure your campsite of choice. Once you reserve your spot, you will still need to visit the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount to pick up your permit in person.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: there is also the opportunity to reserve a spot in the park’s early-access lottery. You will need to apply to participate in the lottery (which starts on March 3rd). You can apply for the lottery at the start of the year and if you are successful you will then be given a specific time slot to make your reservation.
If you can’t make a reservation online, either during the lottery or 2 days before your trip, then you will need to go to the Wilderness Information Center the day before or the day of your adventure to get your permit. Roughly 40% of backcountry permits are put aside for walk-ups so don’t worry too much about getting one (obviously still come early — especially on weekends or holidays).
If you are unsure if the campsite you want is available for walk-ups (or if it is already 100% full), simply go onto reacreation.gov to see if it says 0 (zero = full) or W, which means walk-up sites available.
Some helpful tips in securing a backcountry site are to arrive at the Wilderness Information Center early in the day (it opens at 7 AM) OR come near the end of the day before and grab a number tag so you are then first in line the next day, be flexible with your trip planning and have a couple of alternative routes/sites in mind, and finally, if possible, try to begin your backpacking trip during a less busy day (like during the workweek).
💬 INSIDER TIP: we were told by a park ranger that a good way to secure a backcountry permit for some of the busier areas is to show up at 11 AM to see if there are any “no show” permits available. This pretty much means that if someone doesn’t show up to pick up their reserved permit by 11 AM, that permit goes back into the availability pool. If you show up around that time, you have a pretty good chance of getting one of those spots.
➳ Check out North Cascades National Park’s backcountry permit availability here.
\\ Backpacking Safety Concerns
There are a few key safety concerns you need to keep in mind when backpacking in North Cascades National Park. Below are a few of the main ones.
The weather can change quickly in the mountains — especially at higher elevations. Make sure to pay attention to the sky and make plans in case a storm rolls in. Also, come prepared with any gear you might need — including rain jackets, a waterproof fly for your tent and a cover for your backpack.
If you find yourself above tree line when a thunderstorm rolls in, make sure to quickly head for lower elevations. Lightning strikes do happen, so make sure you are below the trees to decrease your chances of getting hit.
The main animal you need to be aware of while backpacking in North Cascades National Park is black bears.
Some key safety measures you need to take are to always use the provided metal bear storage boxes or wires at camp (if available), and/or come prepared with a bear-proof container just in case (we carried a bear box like this).
Bear spray is also not a bad idea. Though it is definitely more important to make sure you are being bear aware — which means focusing on taking steps while hiking so you don’t run into and startle any bears. These steps include always being aware of your surroundings and making plenty of noise in areas where bears might be (including dense forests and shrubbery, near bodies of water, and close to sources of food — like berry plants).
Also, keep an eye out for signs of bears. This can include fresh bear scat (like the pile below) and tracks, recently scratched-up trees, and even carcasses of animals.
Just remember that wild animals are wild and they needed to be treated with respect. Never approach an animal or threaten it in any way. 99% of the time an animal doesn’t want to hurt you — so don’t give it cause to.
For the most part, there is plenty of freshwater available along the hiking trails in North Cascades National Park. As long as you pack a water filter or some filtration apparatus and study your map to make sure you are refilling often enough, you shouldn’t have an issue with dehydration.
That being said, it can get hot and the sun can be intense up at higher elevations. So if you aren’t paying attention to how much water you are drinking you could find yourself a bit thirstier than is likely healthy. Some other signs of dehydration you need to be aware of are dark yellow or smelly urine, dizziness or feeling lightheaded, dry mouth, lips and eyes, and feeling overly tired.
\\ Extra Tips on Backpacking in North Cascades National Park
Below are a few more key things you should know before heading out on your exciting backpacking adventure.
For the most part, within North Cascades National Park you can easily find backcountry bathrooms available. The majority of campsites will have a toilet nearby that you can use. Just look for a wooden sign with an outhouse on it (see photo below).
Using these backcountry toilets instead of just going anywhere is an important way to follow the 7 Leave No Trace Principles. Obviously, if you are in a desperate situation and there isn’t a toilet nearby, then just go for it.
BUT, remember when peeing to always be at least 200 feet away from any body of water and if you are in the alpine where mountain goats may live (like in North Cascades National Park) then it is also recommended that you pee on a hard surface — like a rock — and not plants (goats love urine and they will lick plants until they are destroyed).
For number 2, it is even more important to try to use the provided backcountry toilets while backpacking. But if duty calls and you aren’t near one, then make sure to be far enough away from water (again 200 feet), dig a deep enough cat-hole (6–8 inches is good), and then cover it with dirt and/or rocks. If you use toilet paper, make sure to pack it ALL out with you (a handy Ziploc bag works great).
While the hiking trails are pretty well-marked in North Cascades National Park — especially in the popular areas — it is still a good idea to come with at least one map source. Some people like paper maps, while others only use their phones. We tend to do both, just in case something happens to either.
Having a map will give you the knowledge and peace of mind when out in the backcountry. Even if you have a really good idea of where you are going, it is still smart to have some sort of mapping source just in case something happens (you never know in the backcountry).
We used Gaia GPS for our online map (we downloaded the area beforehand) and then we bought a Green Trails Map that was specifically for the national park (buy yours here). While hiking, we mostly looked at the online map to make sure we were going the right way, to see how far we still had to go, and to check out where we actually needed to hike when we were looking for a good campsite for the night (we stayed in two wilderness zones in the park — meaning there weren’t really any established trails or campsites to head to).
💬 INSIDER TIP: always check to see if you need to download your electronic map before heading into the backcountry. Service is usually spotty at best, so make sure you have everything offline before hitting the trails.
At camp is when we would break out the paper map. While this was more for enjoyment than really planning (we just love looking at maps), it was still nice to have the option to use a large paper map in case the phone died.
Along the trail, you will likely see some key wooden markers. These include the above bathroom sign, a simple tent icon (the sign for a campsite), a bright white and turquoise sign (the symbol for the Pacific Crest Trail) and maybe a yellow and black sign (the symbol for the Pacific Northwest Trail, which runs from Montana to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington).
You will likely also see signs with information on which way to go when crossing a river (hikers vs. stock/animals), specific distances to either mountain passes, campsites, or trailheads, and boundary markers (you will pass many of those in North Cascades National Park).
BACKCOUNTRY PACKING GUIDE | WHAT GEAR & FOOD TO BRING
Below is what we brought with us on our 3-day backpacking adventure in North Cascades National Park.
We have been using a Jetboil for years now and it is still our go-to when it comes to backpacking. This mini stove packs down easily, is super fast at cooking food (very important when you are starving), its lid doubles as a strainer, while the bottom cover doubles as a bowl; and finally, its easy ignition offers a simple, match-and lighter-free operation. Recommended Jetboil cook stove.
A basic cooking set should get you through most meals in the backcountry. This 3-piece eating set by Hydro Flask is super lightweight, made of stainless steel so it lasts longer, and comes with a serrated knife that can cut most food. Recommended eating utensils.
Backpacking is all about being as minimal as possible. If you don’t absolutely need it — it likely is not worth the extra weight. With that idea in mind, we present the Stoic Collapsible Food Container which includes two separate compartments, an easy clip lid and even a handy sport (spoon/fork combo). Altogether, this eating setup weighs around 12 oz. Recommended backpack eating setup.
BIODEGRADABLE CAMP SOAP
While soap is definitely not a necessity while out backpacking — especially if you are only planning on going for a couple of days. If you are someone who likes things to be clean (like dishes), then consider packing this biodegradable soap from Sea to Summit. Just remember, even though it is biodegradable, it still is not safe to use directly in water. Always use soap at least 200 feet from any water source. Recommended camp soap.
ULTRALITE REUSABLE TOWEL
One of the best things about backpacking in North Cascades National Park is the wide array of beautiful alpine lakes. If you are someone who likes cooling off after a hot day on the trail, consider packing a super lite reusable towel — like this one from Packtowl, which weighs only 1.5 ounces. Recommended camping towel.
We also like to pack a small, reusable towel to use to clean up after cooking. Having a small towel that can easily be grabbed while hiking is surprisingly helpful. The one below we picked up in a pack of 12 from a bulk, no-waste store.
Because bears are quite common in North Cascades National Park, you will want to make sure you have a safe and secure way to store your food and other smelly items. A bear canister is likely the easiest way to do this — plus it also works great as a stool. This one from REI is what we have and it works great.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: if you don’t have your own bear canister you can rent some from the Wilderness Information Center. When getting your permit the rangers will ask you about how you are going to store your food, so make sure to have a plan in mind.
A good backpacking tent focuses on two things: it is lightweight enough to easily be carried for miles on end, and it is sturdy enough to handle all kinds of different landscapes and weather. This 3-season, 2-person tent by the North Face pretty much checks both boxes. It weighs just under 6 pounds when packed (which is a bit on the heavier side), but its strong double walls and sturdy design make it great for even the windiest day. Recommended backpacking and camping tent.
Weighing less than a pound, this super comfortable and efficient sleeping pad by Therm-a-Rest is an awesome addition to your backpacking repertoire. Plus, its ThermaCapture lining helps reflect body heat back your way — which makes sleeping up in the high alpine a nice cozy affair. Recommended backpacking sleeping pad.
After a long day on the trail, you will likely be dreaming of a cozy sack to curl up in. This one by Marmot is perfect for evenings spent in the forest — no matter the weather (it is good down to 15° F). The sleeping bag's streamlined waved construction insulates without adding extra bulk, while the large roomy footbox helps your feet stay nice and warm. Recommended backpacking sleeping bag.
OPTIONAL: CAMPING PILLOW
If you are someone who can’t imagine sleeping without a pillow — or if you are someone who frankly just can’t fall asleep without a pillow — then consider also packing a handy, lightweight camping pillow. You can find many options either online or in most outdoor stores (like REI). This one by Nemo packs down to be about the size of a water bottle and weighs under a pound. Recommended camping pillow.
ODSS AND ENDS
A handy headlamp is a true adventure necessity — especially when the adventure requires you to start hiking early in the morning or into the late evening. This headlamp by Black Diamond is a personal favorite because it is relatively affordable, it has multiple light settings and it is rechargeable. Recommended headlamp.
💬 INSIDER TIP: if you can, also bring one set of extra batteries for your headlamp just in case your batteries die halfway through your trip.
For longer trips on the trails — including adventures that last multiple days at a time — you will want a bag that not only carries all of your gear but is also comfortable to wear for hours and miles on end. This large 65-liter backpacking bag by Osprey does just that. Its Anti-Gravity suspension is well-ventilated and has plenty of cushions, and its shoulder straps adjust up and down the back panel for a totally custom fit. The bag also comes with a built-in sleeve for a 3-liter hydration bladder and bottom straps for securing a sleeping pad (super handy). Recommended backpacking bag.
You will probably want to get an actual water filter system when backpacking — especially if you are going with other people. This one by Katadyn allows you to filter lots of water at once in a relatively short amount of time. This filter has actually been our go-to for all hiking and backpacking adventures for many years. Plus, it takes up very little space and is super easy to clean. Recommended Katadyn water filter.
HIKING FIRST AID KIT
This is one of those items that you don’t realize you need until it is too late. Luckily, this lightweight pack comes with (almost) everything you could need if an accident does unfortunately occur on the trail. Recommended hiking first aid kit.
This is another safety thing to have on you just in case something bad happens (the likelihood is very, very low). We carried a can of bear spray with us (for the first time) while backpacking in North Cascades National Park more for the peace of mind than anything else. Find a can of it here.
Another key thing to remember when it comes to hiking in bear country (which the national park definitely is) is to always keep an eye on your food and gear just in case a bear (or another animal, like a squirrel) is around and is a bit hungry. Likewise, when hiking through dense brush, always make noises and keep an eye on your surroundings.
► Read more about hiking and backpacking in bear country in our super handy safety guide.
SUNSCREEN & HYGIENIC PRODUCTS
Definitely don’t head out to backpack without packing at least one bottle of sunscreen — especially if your backcountry route includes heading up to higher elevations or across many wide open spaces (this is where you will get the most sun exposure).
Other things you might want to consider packing is Chapstick, bug spray, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and maybe some hand sanitizer.
Do remember that because most hygienic products have a scent, you will need to put ALL of them into your bear box/storage container at the end of the day. You do not want ANY smelly products with you in the tent while backpacking in bear country (this will attract all kinds of animals).
Backpacking in North Cascades National Park is an absolutely amazing adventure. If you have the desire to head into the park’s stunning backcountry and really get back to nature, then we cannot recommend backpacking enough. Plus, it is really easy to plan your route since there are so many options available.
Hopefully, this comprehensive guide helps you plan an epic backpacking adventure in North Cascades National Park. If you have any further questions please leave a comment below or reach out to us at www.backroadpackers.com.