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Backpacking in Banff National Park, Canadian Rockies

by K Gordon Schultz

Banff, Alberta’s Backcountry at a Glance

Banff National Park offers a range of backpacking experiences amidst the Canadian Rockies’ stunningly beautiful mountain wilderness. A backpacker will be able to access those exclusive, hard-to-reach areas visited by a limited number of Banff’s tourists.

Backpacking in Banff National Park spans 1,500 km of trails, 50 backcountry campsites, 2 trail shelters, 4 backcountry lodges, several alpine huts, 2 commercial horse outfitters, and numerous licensed guide services.

The more popular and accessible areas have well-maintained trails and designated campsites with amenities such as outhouses, tent pads, food storage cables, picnic tables, and metal fire grates at sites where campfires are allowed. You must camp at designated primitive campsites or stay at trail shelters indicated on your Wilderness Pass.

The trails in the more remote parts of the park are not as well-maintained and backpackers must be prepared for random camping. You will have to cross rivers as there are few bridges. The remote areas may require route-finding skills, and as such, have minimal evidence of human presence.

Permits and Reservations for Backpackers in Banff, Alberta

You can make backcountry campsite and shelter reservations up to 3 months in advance of your trip by phone or in person at Park Information Centres and the Calgary Service Centre. Reservations are advisable during the peak hiking months of July and August.

What Backpacker Passes are Needed?

● The National Park Pass: Required for entering the national parks.
● The Wilderness Pass: A mandatory permit for anyone planning an overnight trip into the backcountry of Banff National Park. This pass specifies the campsites you are using as well as the number of people and tents in your group. If your Wilderness Pass is mailed or faxed to you, contact a Park Information Centre prior to departure for updates on trail conditions, closures and other pertinent information.

Where to go Backpacking in Banff

The vastness of Banff National Park’s backcountry presents the backpacker with many trip options spanning a varied number of days. Trailheads can be difficult to get to without a vehicle. Public transportation to outlying park trailheads is limited. Park Information Centre staff can assist you with information about available options. Take a look at Banff National Park’s backcountry map for self-orientation.

Two-Day Backpacking Trips in Banff National Park
Lake Minnewanka: 8 km one way.
● Paradise Valley: 9.7 km one way with an elevation gain of 291 m.
Egypt Lake: 12.4 km one way with an elevation gain of 655 m.
● Glacier Lake: 8.9 km one way with an elevation gain of 210 m.
● Twin Lakes: 8.7 km one way with an elevation gain of 605 m.
● Elk Lake: 11.5 km one way with an elevation gain of 610 m.
● Fish Lakes: 14.8 km one way with an elevation gain of 760 m.
Some two day trips can be done in a single day.

Three-Day Backpacking Trips
● Bryant Creek: 45 km + with an elevation gain of 455 m.
● Elk Summit-Cascade Mountain Loop: 35.8 km with an elevation gain of 610 m.
● Palliser Pass: 54.4 km with an elevation gain of 400 m.
● Mystic Pass: 36.8 km with an elevation gain of 395 m.
● Skoki Loop: 34.3 km with an elevation gain of 1,136 m.

Four-Day Backpacking Trips
● Sunshine – Assiniboine – Bryant Creek: 55.7 km.
● Sunshine – Vista Lake: 40.4 km.

Five+ Days Backpacking Trips in Banff National Park
● Sawback Trail: 73.5 km.
● Mystic Pass – Flint’s Park – Badger Pass: 76.4 km.
Note: Badger Pass is often blocked by a snow cornice well into the summer months.

When to Go Backpacking in Banff National Park

Banff’s hiking season usually lasts from May to October. From mid-May to late June, many passes are still snow-bound, and most trails are accessible only at lower elevations or on drier, south facing slopes. At springtime, trails tend to be muddier. Towards the middle of July, most passes are usually open.

From September to October, the climate is generally drier but temperatures are lower with a greater chance of snowfall, particularly at higher elevations.

Please note that mountain weather is unpredictable. It may rain or snow at any time, particularly at higher elevations. Freezing temperatures are not uncommon above 1500 metres, even in summer.

Information Resources for Backpackers
in Banff, Alberta

For Wilderness Passes, safety registrations (in person only), trail reservations and information:

Banff Information Centre
224 Banff Avenue
Banff, AB
Tel (403) 762-1556; Fax (403) 762-1551

Lake Louise Information Centre
Samson Mall
Village of Lake Louise, AB
Tel (403) 522-1264; Fax (403) 522-1212


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