Planning (Overnight Hiking) for Olympic National Park

Planning for an Overnight Wilderness Backpacking Trip

Preparation is a very important step of your adventure. Doing this should not be overlooked and can mean the biggest difference for a successful trip. I see a lot of backpackers waiting until they are at a ranger station to begin planning which can lead to being sent to over-populated areas or holding up the line behind you while you struggle on deciding on which campground to be at each night. You cannot obtain a wilderness permit without knowing where you plan on camping each night. If you are the type of person that refuses to plan and doesn't want to be restricted to specific campsites each night you should backpack in the National Forest (no permit required) rather than the National Park.

Often people just wing-it (I've done this) and choose a random place on the map, then walk into that location. This can be fine in some occasions. However, you are increasing your risk of having a safe experience in the backcountry. A hiker can get caught in rapidly changing weather (even in summer). Additionally, terrain may be outside of your comfort zone and/or fitness level.

Don't forget about water sources! Seasonal water sources might be dry, especially in the high country. And on the converse you don't want to carry in large amounts of water when you have easy sources along the whole route. So do your pre-research.

overnight hiking guide
Overnight Hiking Guide for Olympic National Park

Choosing a Campsite Location to Visit (Based Upon Time)

Deciding where you are going to spend the night is a very important step. Often you might find yourself in a less comfortable sleeping location, if you haven't done your homework. People live very busy lives and usually have limited free time to backpack in Olympic National Park. So there are several things to consider before heading into the backcountry.

  • How long do you have to walk to reach the campsite? Only you know your own physical abilities. The weight of your pack, terrain and elevation can all be variables, when considering miles per hour. It's better to set your estimate lower and play it safe. Use a detailed topographical map to learn the trail before leaving on your trip. Need help? Grab free maps of the Olympic Mountains here!

  • How much daylight will there be, before reaching the campsite? So often people do not equate travel time in their planning. It's not uncommon for a hiker to arrive late in the day at a trailhead before starting their adventure. It's best to only walk a short distance to your first nights campsite. Leave yourself at least an hour to make your campsite, before it gets dark. Not familiar with the area? Check out these trail guides to the Olympic Mountains!

  • Will a storm move in before setting up your tent? Weather rapidly changes in the Olympic Mountains; even in summer. Knowing the weather before leaving into the backcountry, can save you a world of mental grief. Let me tell you, it sucks to set up a tent in the rain. Bad weather moving in during the evening? Arrive at the campsite early and have your tent set up, before the bad weather moves in.

Check the Current Weather Conditions and Forecast

The weather in the Olympic Mountains can be very dynamic. It is not uncommon that it will be sunny in the morning, raining at lunch and then heavy frost on your tent at night. Need help getting a detailed weather forecast? The National Park Service uses the National Weather Service (NOAA).

I always say to people, "plan for the worst, and hope for the best". As a safe rule, plan for freezing temperatures at night and heavy rain in the day. Yes, even in during the "dry" times of the year. Need help? Learn how to hike in the rain!

rain hiking
Hiking in the Olympic Mountains during a rain storm

What Hiking Gear is Needed in the Backcountry?

There is no one cookie-cutter gear list that works for all hikers or types of camping trips. Only you know what you need in the backcountry. The largest variables are how experienced the hiker is, the time of year and the type of trip.

That being said. I suggest hikers use a traditional gear list as a rule of thumb. Additionally, make sure your backpack is large enough to fit a bear canister.

Get a Wilderness Permit and Bear Canister

Yes, wilderness permits are needed to stay the night inside the Olympic National Park backcountry. There are currently two physical locations on the Peninsula to do so, Port Angeles and Quinault. Need help? Be sure to read my guide on wilderness backcountry permits.

Here are some of the first things a ranger will ask, when you are in a ranger station getting a backcountry permit.
  • What trailhead will you be starting and finishing your hike? Know this before you walk into the ranger station. You will save a ton of time, and the person behind you in line will thank you!

  • Know the campsite name and the distance between them! So often backpackers do not know the name of the campsite. This correlates with map and trail guide pre-research. Still don't know the name? Have it marked on a map, so you can show the permit ranger on duty.

  • Do you have your emergency contact information? One of the last questions a ranger will ask you, is for a name and phone number for point of contact. Save time, and know it before you walk in the door. And anyways haven't you seen the 127 Hours movie where a man has his arm pinned under a boulder for days and ends up having to slice off his own arm- all because he didn't tell anyone where he was going?! Yeah... don't be that guy.

Yes, bear canisters are required in most of Olympic National Park. Most campsites in the Park interior and the entire Olympic Coast, are bear container only camping! Need to know more information? Read my article about bear canisters in Olympic!

A campsite high in the Olympic National Park

Stop Focusing on the "Best" Camping Location

One of the most common mistakes, with regards to someone new to the peninsula. Is trying to find the "best locations to visit". This is kind of a cliche comment. Read about areas and go to a place with features that call to you. This way you will discover amazing, new digs on your own terms and are less likely to be a crowded hot spot where everyone has to go!

The Olympic Peninsula is one of the most diverse and beautiful places on this planet. Pretty much every place you visit, is going to be amazing and awe inspiring. Also consider utilizing Olympic National Forest land, where there are less hikers. So get out there and enjoy nature!

Article by Barefoot Jake