Tip For Multi-Day Hiking In Glacier Park: “Know When To Fold’em”

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Tip For Multi-Day Hiking In Glacier Park:
“Know When To Fold’em”
Glacier National Park offers some of the best overnight backpacking experiences in all of North America. There are seemingly endless trails with countless passes that provide jaw-dropping views of spectacular mountains and lakes, and once you take one of these overnight classic Glacier Park hikes into the backcountry, you’ll know exactly what we are talking about.

Today’s blog discusses a reality that we’ve witnessed over and over again through the years, and have also personally experienced. It’s not a “happy” topic, but we really feel it’s important to discuss with all of you overnight backpackers who are interested in hiking in Glacier National Park.

Perfect Weather “Cells”
Glacier National Park weather is extremely volatile. One moment it can be sunny and 80 degrees, the next it can be raining or snowing. But one thing about Glacier Park during the summer months is that there are what we call “cells” of perfect weather for 5, 6, even up to 8 days in a row with either 0% or 10% chance of showers in the afternoon. These “cells” are when we head into the backcountry and enjoy a wonderful multi-day Glacier Park hiking adventure. If you hit one of these “cells”, you’ll have postcard-perfect photos the entire trip, and you’ll always have a dry tent and dry gear. It’s really wonderful when you luck out with one of these incredible cells, and they actually occur 4 or 5 times a summer. These cells make overnight backpacking an absolute joy. We live for these incredible “perfect weather windows”.

Bad Weather “Cells”
On the other hand, just as Glacier National Park can have a “clear weather cell”, it can have a “bad weather cell” where the weather forecast calls for 90% to 100% chance of rain for 5 or 6 days in a row, with the average high temperature in the 50’s. These bad weather “cells” can literally be “hell on earth”, where ALL of your gear becomes soaking wet, and since you can’t build a fire, you are always cold. Your tent will get soaked, your clothes with be soaked, your sleeping bag will be soaked, and there is not even 10 minutes of sun to dry your gear out. You will also not have any good views of the mountains that surround you because the cloud cover is so low. Fortunately there are usually only a few of these “bad weather cells” each summer.

Now some of you are saying, “rain and cold doesn’t bother me.” Well, after it rains solid for 5 days in a row, sometimes 3 to 4 inches in a matter of hours, and the lakes raise two feet and the streams are overflowing, and you can’t even eat your freeze dried food because it’s raining too hard, and you basically had a “river” running through your tent the night before, and the temperature gets near 30 degrees at night and a high of 50 during the day, on day 3 or 4 we can almost guarantee you’ll stop having fun, and by day 5 you’ll be tempted to sell your backpack on the trail and hike out to the nearest trailhead as fast as you possibly can.

A Quick Story: An Example Worth Discussing
We’ve seen this happen over and over again. A few years ago we were planning an overnight Glacier Park hiking trip to Stoney Indian Pass and then onto Goat Haunt Montana. There was one of those Glacier National Park’s famous 5 day “bad weather cells” where there was absolutely horrific rain and cold predicted for 5 solid days (and it snowed the night of the fifth day). This was in mid-August during the peak of the overnight backpacking activity in the backcountry of Glacier Park. We saw this cell coming in the weather forecast, and our trip was planned right in the middle of this nightmare. So we moved our trip to the day after the “cell” moved through. The forecast then called for 0% precipitation for the next 6 days. The bad cell moved completely through by noon on the day we were scheduled to start our trip, which was when we headed out on the trail. The sky was crystal clear and sunny, and the temperature was about 75 degrees.

As we were hiking into the backcountry from the Chief Mountain Customs Trailhead on our way to our first night at Cosley Lake, an ocean of soaking wet backpackers were heading toward the trailhead. The stories they told of their experiences made us EXTREMELY glad we moved our trip to avoid the nightmare.

One group of three men in their 30’s told us that it rained so hard and so long that Cosley Lake began to spill over into their campsite. They said it didn’t really matter though because all of their gear and clothing were already saturated. They were forced to eat their freeze dried food dry because it was impossible to heat up the food with a stove. These guys were so miserable, they cut their trip short and were hiking out to the nearest trailhead, which happened to be the Chief Mountain Customs Trailhead, and were going to hitch-hike back to their vehicle parked on Logan Pass. They had only been out 3 nights on an 8 night itinerary. We told them that the weather was going to be perfect for the next 7 days, and they said that they were so miserable and so cold and so sick of it that they didn’t care. They wanted to get the heck out of there. And guess what? These three guys were retired Army Rangers!!!!!

Know When to Fold’em
There is no way we can really describe just how bad the weather can be during one of these “bad weather cells”. You’re just going to have to take our word for it. But if you don’t, and you decide to venture into the backcountry of Glacier Park even though the forecast calls for horrible weather, well then you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about. We’ve had our share of bad weather while backpacking through the years, and we’ve learned the hard way that IT’S NOT WORTH IT!

So what if your Glacier National Park backpacking trip happens to be scheduled during one of these “bad weather cells”, we suggest that you either somehow move your trip forward to miss the “cell”, or if you can’t, you might want to consider canceling your trip. We know that sounds really “wimpy”, but in the end you’ll thank us…. that is unless you are among those very few who love to be miserable. “The Joy of Misery” is really overrated in our opinion. We feel that there is absolutely no joy in being miserable.

For Our Favorite Glacier Park Overnight Hikes, click here.
For Glacier National Park Weather, click here.

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