Backpacking in Washington: Tips & Trails

Backpacking in Washington: Two backpackers explore the sunny Mount Rainier in Washington, USA

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

Backpacking in Washington rewards with awe-inspiring scenery – from lush rainforests to towering, snow-capped peaks. Trails range from easy to challenging high-altitude treks demanding navigation skills and gear for unpredictable mountain conditions.

Iconic trails like the renowned Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier offer 93-miles of breathtaking scenery, while permits regulate heavily-trafficked routes through areas like the Enchantment Lakes basin.

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

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

Key Tips for Backpacking in Washington

  • What to expect: Be ready for wet and muddy trails, so bring waterproof gear. Thick forests might block views, but they provide green peacefulness. Watch out for quick changes in mountain weather. Even in summer, high elevations have snow, so plan and pack cold weather gear. Backpacking involves tough climbs over steep, rocky areas. Enjoy beautiful spots like wildflower meadows, glacial lakes, and mountain views during short sunny breaks.
  • Essential gear: In Washington’s rainy and rugged mountains, you need good rain protection, insulation, traction, and navigation gear. Pack a reliable waterproof jacket and pants, warm synthetic or down layers, and a water filter for creek refills. Bring high-calorie food for energy. Always have topographic maps and a compass in case of fog. Consider a GPS or locator beacon for added safety in remote areas.
  • Wildlife: Backpackers and hikers in Washington should be cautious of hazardous wildlife, including bears (black bears, grizzlies), mountain lions, and venomous rattlesnakes. Be well-prepared and know how to respond if you encounter them.
  • Wild camping: Wild camping in Washington state is limited due to strict regulations on public lands, such as national forests and parks. Overnight camping is permitted only at designated sites, with advance permits required. Remote backcountry areas generally prohibit dispersed camping, and illegal off-trail camping can result in fines from agencies like the National Park Service and Department of Natural Resources. Roadside camping in a vehicle is allowed in approved pullouts, but pitching tents away from your car is illegal.
  • Best times to go: The best time for backpacking in Washington is from late spring to early fall, roughly June to September. July and August are the most popular months due to milder weather and accessible mountain trails, offering opportunities to see wildflowers and explore diverse landscapes like the Cascades and Olympics. Fall, from September to October, is also pleasant with fewer crowds and beautiful foliage.

Top 5 Day Hikes (Under 30 Miles)

Elevate your outdoor experiences with these amazing day hikes, utilizing ultralight gear to enhance your adventure:

  1. Snow Lake Trail (6.7 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  2. Mount Si Trail (7.9 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  3. Maple Pass Trail (6.5 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  4. Mailbox Peak Trail Loop (7.7 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  5. The Enchantments Traverse (18 miles).
    See on AllTrails.

Top 5 Multi-Day Trips

The best Washington trails for multi-day hikes with water resupply points accessible at intervals of no more than two days:

  1. The Wonderland Trail (85.8 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  2. Glacier Peak (36.4 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  3. Mount Rainier Northern Loop Trail (30.8 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  4. Hoh River Trail to Blue Glacier Trail (35.1 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  5. Three Fingers via Goat Flats Trail (31.5 miles).
    See on AllTrails.

Annual Weather Averages

The Pacific Northwest’s fickle weather means backpackers should be prepared for sudden storms and temperature drops anytime:

  • Summer (July-early September): Warmest and driest weather, long days for hiking. Bugs are prevalent. Popular trails are crowded.
  • Early Fall (late September-October): Cooler temps, fewer bugs, fall foliage in the mountains. Less crowded than summer. Be prepared for rain.
  • Late Spring (May-June): Wildflowers blooming, high waterfalls and rivers. More ticks and mosquitos. Snow at higher elevations.
  • Winter (November-April): Solitude but very cold and wet conditions. Snowshoes likely required. Short daylight hours.

Prior to choosing your gear, review the weather data for Washington (Tacoma):

JanFebMarAprMayJunJulAugSepOctNovDec
High °F485156606671777721615347
Low °F373740434853565652464036
Rain/Snow (D*)18151815129557131918
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 Washington? 

When backpacking in Washington, building campfires takes preparation. Fires are only allowed in established fire pits within designated campgrounds, never in wildland areas which can ignite easily.

What are some safety tips for backpacking in Washington?

Get ready for weather changes with rain gear and extra food and layers. Bring a map, compass, or GPS, and know how to use them. Tell someone your plans. Watch out for dangers like falling trees, flooded streams, and steep drops. Use a bear-resistant food canister and follow storage rules. Check for ticks after leaving the trail. Carry first-aid supplies. Don’t approach or feed wild animals. Follow burning bans and campfire rules.

How to deal with wildlife encounters while backpacking in Washington?

Avoid approaching or feeding wildlife to prevent aggressive behavior. Black bears are common but usually shy; make noise on trails to avoid surprising them. If threatened, stand your ground and use bear spray. Cougars rarely attack, but be cautious with children and make noise in dense areas. Check for ticks after leaving the trail and remove them within 24 hours to prevent disease. In higher elevations, steer clear of areas with marmots, which can carry bubonic plague. Pay attention to signs about nesting birds, like spotted owls, to avoid disturbing their habitat.

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