Backpacking in Yosemite: The Ultimate Weekend Guide


Backpacking in Yosemite National Park? Oh, you lucky devil! From towering monoliths to plunging waterfalls, California’s famous natural wonder is beautiful at every turn.

Now, you’re probably aware that it’s big. Hella big. 748,000 acres big. Which means you won’t cover it in a weekend. Instead, maximize your adventure with this guide to weekend backpacking in Yosemite.

What to do in Yosemite

Hike the trails

California’s famous national park has – literally – hundreds of miles of trails. Perhaps most famous of all, however, is the Half Dome Trail in the Yosemite Valley. The 14- to 16-mile trek, which should only be tackled by serious hikers, ends with a 400-foot climb to the summit of the Half Dome monolith. Make it safely, and you’re rewarded with views across Yosemite.

A challenging (but still enjoyable route) for beginners is the Yosemite Valley Loop Trail. The full walk, which takes around seven hours, will pass the towering monolith, El Capitan, and the Merced River. Before you go on any hike, make sure to read the National Park Service’s invaluable guide to safe hiking in Yosemite.

Climb towering cliff faces

Pack some bravery into that backpack because Yosemite has some of the most famous climbing challenges in the world. Fancy tackling the vertical 2,307-meter-high El Capitan? Well, if you’re a first-timer, the answer should be: “Absolutely not.”

Thankfully, Yosemite caters to all levels. If you’re a beginner, hire a climbing guide who can show you the ropes and the best beginner routes. Remember, climbing in Yosemite can be dangerous. Make sure you’re with someone who knows what they’re doing! The NPS recommends using the Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service.

Enjoy the waters

When it’s time to cool off – and all that hiking will get you sweating – there are plenty of open waters in which to splash around. Swimming is allowed in most places in Yosemite, but there are a few exceptions. Look out for signs that read “NO SWIMMING”. And, well, you know what to do.

Alternatively, if you’re not much of a swimmer, you can boat down the Merced River during the summer months. Rafts are available to rent. No experience is necessary, but you will need to wear a life jacket. Again, follow all NPS water safety guidelines.

Go stargazing

While many of your adventures will take place during the day, the night brings its own magic. Thanks to a lack of human-made lights, the stars come out in their full shimmering beauty at Yosemite. So stay up and enjoy a night exploring the universe.

To make the most of your galaxy watch, head to an area with unobstructed views of the heavens. Then, switch off your cell and flashlight – you need around 20 minutes to adapt to the dark. If you need a light to see, a red light is much better than white or blue.

Where to camp

There are 13 campgrounds in the park reservation system – four of which are open all year. There are also several backcountry campgrounds at Little Yosemite Valley and near the High Sierra should you wish to go off-piste.

If, like many people, you’ll be heading straight to the wonders of Yosemite Valley, the four sites found there are all fantastic. The Pines (made up of Upper, Lower, and North Pines) offer a chilled place to relax right by the Merced River. 

Or, if you’re into extreme sports, stay at Camp 4 where the rock climbers relax before taking on the park’s famous monoliths. There’s also a giant rock in the middle of the site where you can practice your bouldering skills.

The NPS has a full breakdown of its campsites with locations and open dates. Daily fees start from around $6 per person.

Yosemite Packing List

The last thing you want is to arrive at Yosemite only to find you’ve forgotten something. If it’s toilet paper… you can probably manage. Just don’t let me know how you did it.

However, if you’ve forgotten your tent, you’ll be in a much bigger hole. Use the below packing list to make sure you’ve got everything you need for your weekend.

If you do forget something, there are stores with a limited selection of groceries. Additionally, The Mountain Shop at Curry Village has backpacking gear to buy or rent should you need it.

The essentials

  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Backpack
  • Clothing – Hiking boots, socks, jacket/sweater, rain gear, hat, shirts (long- and short-sleeve), pants, sunglasses, underwear, and shorts.
  • Waterproof matches/lighter
  • Sunscreen
  • Toiletries – toothbrush, toothpaste, medication
  • First-aid kit, emergency survival blanket
  • Repair kits
  • Maps, compass, guidebooks
  • Cooking stove with extra fuel bottle
  • Pans for cooking
  • Water bottle
  • Food and water
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Bear canister
  • Storm gear
  • Knife

 More things to consider

  • Camera
  • Solar panel charger
  • Eating and drinking utensils – cup, bowl, spoon, fork, knife, water, and a water bottle each
  • Water filter
  • Garbage bags
  • Toilet paper
  • Flashlight
  • Binoculars

Top tip: If you’re coming from one of the major cities, San Francisco or Oakland for example, don’t take unnecessary belongings or valuables with you. Instead, keep them at a safe luggage storage facility such as Bounce.

Getting to Yosemite National Park

If you’re coming from overseas, fly into San Francisco or Sacramento. The drive from SF can take up to five hours, depending on where in the park you’re going. The trip from Sacramento can take around two to four hours.

If you’re driving, note that Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road are closed in the winter. You may also need to use tire chains if traveling in the snowy season.


And so concludes our guide to the backpacking essentials for a weekend in Yosemite. Remember, although the national park is a beauty, it can also be a wild place.

Preparation is key. Make sure you’ve packed correctly, know your routes, and have a plan should things go wrong. Once you’ve got all that down, your only job left is to have an incredible time.

Last modified: September 8, 2020