Backpacking in Montana: Tips & Trails

Ultralight Backpacking in Montana: A hiker ascending a steep trail in Glacier National Park

In this post, we'll take a look at:

Backpacking in Montana is a breeze as the state offers thousands of miles of diverse and scenic hiking trails that wind through its mountain ranges, forests, lakes, and parks.

Popular hiking areas include Glacier, Yellowstone and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, with iconic trails like the Highline, Avalanche Lake, and Beaver Ponds Loop.

The terrain varies from easy to challenging, so research trail conditions, watch for wildlife, bring proper gear for changing weather, and get required permits.

In this post, we will explore the realm of ultralight backpacking through the landscapes of Montana, providing you with essential information for your upcoming outdoor adventure.

We will highlight the TOP 5 trails in Montana across two categories: day hikes under 30 miles, and multi-day trips with opportunities to resupply every couple of days.

Key Tips for Backpacking in Montana

  • What to expect: Montana has beautiful scenery and wildlife. There are rugged mountains, clear alpine lakes, meadows filled with wildflowers, and dense forests. The trails vary from well-kept to more basic and challenging. The weather can be unpredictable, with cold nights even in the summer.
  • Essential gear: Make sure to bring a water filter or purification tablets for lakes and streams. Don’t forget important items like navigation tools, a first aid kit, bear spray, bug repellent, and sun protection. If you’re camping in the backcountry, especially in bear-heavy areas like Glacier National Park, you’ll need a bear-resistant food canister.
  • Wildlife: Montana’s trails are home to a variety of potentially dangerous wildlife species that hikers need to be alert for, including bears, mountain lions, bison, moose, rattlesnakes, wolves, and ticks. Bears, including grizzlies, black bears, and wolf packs roam Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. Bison and moose also inhabit the parks and can charge if threatened. Rattlesnakes are common in the grasslands and forests. Ticks can transmit harmful diseases.
  • Wild camping: Wild camping in Montana is allowed in certain areas but comes with restrictions. National forests generally permit dispersed backcountry camping, though national parks like Glacier and Yellowstone only allow camping in designated backcountry sites with permits. State forests and parks along with private lands typically prohibit camping outside of developed campgrounds. If you’re determined to go wild camping, don’t forget to take a look at our post on stealth camping.
  • Best times to go: The top times for backpacking in Montana are late spring to early fall. In late spring, you can see pretty wildflowers, but there might still be snow in higher places. Summer is great for warm weather, but watch out for afternoon thunderstorms and big crowds. Early fall has nice temperatures and colorful leaves.

Top 5 Day Hikes (Under 30 Miles)

Here are the top day hikes where ultralight gear truly enhances your experience:

  1. Grinnell Glacier Trail (10 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  2. Iceberg Lake (9.6 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  3. Highline Trail (14.9 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  4. The Garden Wall (15 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  5. Ptarmigan Tunnel (10.6 miles).
    See on AllTrails.

Top 5 Multi-Day Trips

Top multi-day trails in Montana with resupply options every two days:

  1. Going-to-the-Sun Road (50.1 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  2. Lamar River Trail (32.9 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  3. North Circle Loop (50.4 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  4. Chinese Wall Trail (53.5 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  5. Bangtail Divide Loop (30.9 miles).
    See on AllTrails.

Annual Weather Averages

Montana’s weather varies across seasons:

  • Spring (March-May): Daytime highs range from 40-70°F, with the possibility of snow at higher elevations in March. Wildflowers bloom, and conditions can be variable.
  • Summer (June-August): Warm temperatures prevail, with daytime highs averaging 70-90°F. However, be cautious of afternoon thunderstorms, especially in mountainous areas.
  • Fall (September-November): Daytime highs range from 40-75°F, with cooler temperatures at night. Fall foliage is vibrant, especially in higher elevations.
  • Winter (December-February): Colder conditions with daytime highs around 20-40°F and nighttime lows in the teens and 20s°F. Snow is common, particularly in the mountains, creating opportunities for winter activities.

Before making your gear selection, take a look at the weather statistics for Montana (Missoula):

JanFebMarAprMayJunJulAugSepOctNovDec
High °F333950586775868573584231
Low °F182128334047515042322517
Rain/Snow (D*)767799555688
Note: This table is approximate; weather can change with altitude.
D* – Days of rain or snow.

FAQ

Can I have a campfire while backpacking in Montana? 

When backpacking in Montana, be aware that campfires are limited. In most areas, you can only have fires in established fire rings in specific campgrounds, not in backcountry sites. Some places don’t allow fires at all because of the high risk of wildfires. Instead of fires, use portable stoves for cooking.

What are some safety tips for backpacking in Montana?

When backpacking in Montana, be prepared for remote areas, wildlife, and changing weather. Carry bear spray and know how to use it. Study maps to stay on track. Pack extra layers, food, water, and emergency gear. Hike with others and share your plans. Check weather and trail conditions. Follow rules on food storage and campfires to avoid problems. Make noise on the trail and store food properly at night.

How to deal with wildlife encounters while backpacking in Montana?

When you come across wildlife in Montana, the best thing to do is keep your distance and avoid interacting. Make noise on the trail to avoid surprising bears, moose, or other animals. Stay alert and don’t get too close for photos. Learn how to use bear spray in case of an attack and when to stand your ground or back away slowly. If you encounter a bear, move out of its way calmly without running. Pay attention to signs like antler rubs and droppings, indicating mountain lion territory. Never feed or chase wildlife. Report aggressive animals to rangers.

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