By Michael Lanza
Backpackers planning a trip in popular national parks like Yosemite, Grand Teton, Glacier, Zion, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain, Great Smoky Mountains, and others have one experience in common: A high percentage of them see their backcountry permit application rejected—and many probably don’t realize why.
Countless backpacking trips over more than three decades—during which I was the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years and have now run this blog for even longer—have taught me many tricks for landing coveted permits in flagship parks, which receive far more requests than they can fill. Follow the strategies outlined below for success reserving your next national park backcountry permit.
Just in the past several years, using these strategies, I’ve gotten permits for backpacking trips on two hugely popular trails, the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier and the Teton Crest Trail (a trip I’ve taken multiple times), as well as in Yellowstone, Glacier twice, Great Smoky Mountains, Zion’s Narrows and Subway, Sequoia, both the Needles District and Maze District of Canyonlands, North Cascades, Yosemite three times (this trip, this one and this one), and Grand Canyon five times (this trip, this trip, this one, and this one, and another coming up in 2022)—and I’ve had just two unsuccessful applications, a previous attempt for the Wonderland Trail and one for 2021 in Glacier that was rejected for reasons I fully anticipated and explain in tip no. 3 (below).
And if you want to take a trip in one of those popular parks this year, the time for reserving permits is now or coming up quickly.
A friendly warning: Don’t backpack without a permit. Backcountry rangers might issue you a citation for camping without a permit, which could involve a fine and a court appearance. The more immediate problem with lacking a permit for where you’re trying to camp is that all established campsites there could be occupied, leaving you no option but camping illegally in a potentially uncomfortable spot and causing damage to a sensitive area. That’s not cool and it’s not fun.
When you’re frustrated over being denied a permit for the hike you really wanted to take, keep this in mind: The permit system in parks imposes quotas on the number of backpackers in order to protect the landscape from overuse and give all of us an uncrowded, better wilderness experience. Compare the experience in many parks with places you’ve been that have no permit system and are overcrowded, and you’ll realize: Permits are a good thing.
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#1 Do Your Homework
Research your route in advance. Know where you want to go and how far you intend to hike each day. Keep in mind that your party’s speed will be determined by the slowest person, and factors like the terrain’s ruggedness, total elevation gain and loss on your route, and whether it’s at high elevations. (See the expert tips in my story “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”) Plan daily distances and pick campsites that make sense for your group, to minimize the likelihood of not reaching one and camping illegally.
See also my downloadable e-guides to backpacking trips in several popular national parks for detailed hiking itineraries, expert planning advice, on-the-ground knowledge, and tips specific to getting a permit in those parks.
Don’t have the time or expertise to plan it yourself? Want to make sure your trip is as good as it can be? Visit my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan your next great adventure.
If you sound like you’ve done the research and know your options in the park, in my experience, a backcountry ranger may respect that and more readily share information with you that he or she might not share with a novice.
#2 Know When to Apply
Especially if you’re traveling a long distance for the trip, to avoid disappointment, check the park’s website months in advance for the procedure to apply for a permit reservation, which varies from park to park.
Plan on applying on the earliest date possible—especially for popular hikes in parks that attract a lot of backpackers (like most parks and trails mentioned in this story). Some parks, like Glacier and Grand Teton, provide an online listing of current availability of backcountry campsites.
Some parks still do not have an online reservation system—it’s done in person (not an option for many people), by mail, fax, or over the phone. The National Park Service has an online reservation system, operated through recreation.gov, and it’s one that that many national parks use, an NPS spokesman explained to me via email. But he emphasized that “it is still up to the individual parks and regions to determine what to use to meet their needs.” The NPS anticipates that cost and efficiency incentives will gradually prompt more parks to use the recreation.gov system.
Watch my video “How to Apply for a National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Use a shotgun: Submit permit applications in multiple popular parks for a range of potential dates. At least one may be successful. You can always cancel any you can’t use.
Here are the dates to apply for a backcountry permit reservation in some major and popular parks:
• In Grand Teton, advance reservation applications can be made at recreation.gov from the first non-holiday Wednesday in January (starting at 8 a.m. Mountain Time), which is Jan. 5, 2022, through May 15; after that, all permit requests are handled first-come, first-served. Popular backcountry camping zones, like those along the Teton Crest Trail, get booked up very quickly after the park starts accepting reservations—often within minutes. The park allows one-third of available permits to be reserved in advance, so two-thirds are available first-come, for walk-in backpackers, no more than one day before your trip begins. See my downloadable e-guides to the Teton Crest Trail and the best short backpacking trip in the Tetons, and my Custom Trip Planning page to see how I can help you plan that trip, as well as my stories “How to Get a Permit to Backpack the Teton Crest Trail” and “How to Backpack the Teton Crest Trail Without a Permit.” There is a $45 non-refundable fee if you obtain a permit. Find more information at nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/bcres.htm.
• In Yosemite, wilderness permit reservations are issued based on trailhead quotas, with special rules for backpacking the John Muir Trail. Sixty percent of permit reservations are available by lottery at recreation.gov beginning at 12:01 a.m. Pacific Time on the Sunday up to 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the date you want to start hiking, with the lottery for each specific window of dates closing at 11:59 p.m. the following Saturday. For example, to start a trip between Aug. 7-13, 2022, submit your application between Feb. 20 and Feb. 26. Forty percent of wilderness permits are available for reserving up to seven days before the trip start date. The non-refundable permit fee is $10 for each lottery entered or a walk-up permit plus $5 per person if you get a permit. Permits issued by other national parks or forests in the Sierra for trips extending into Yosemite—for example, a John Muir Trail permit—are valid in Yosemite for the permit dates. See my downloadable e-guides to three stellar, multi-day hikes in Yosemite, including “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite,” and “How to Get a Last-Minute Yosemite Wilderness Permit Now.” Find more info at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wpres.htm.
• To thru-hike the John Muir Trail southbound, apply for a permit from Yosemite National Park at recreation.gov up to 24 weeks in advance of the date you want to start hiking, entering a lottery for a permit within a specific window of dates—for example, you would apply between Feb. 27 and March 5, 2022, to start hiking anytime from Aug. 14-20, 2022. See nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/jmt.htm. Permits for hiking northbound, starting at Whitney Portal, are reserved through a lottery system at recreation.gov; apply online between Feb. 1 and March 15. Visit my Custom Trip Planning page to see how I can help you plan a successful and unforgettable JMT thru-hike or any other trip (as I’ve done for other readers).
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• In Zion, apply for a permit promptly at 10 a.m. Mountain time on the 5th of the month, one month prior to the month in which you want to take your trip—for example, apply on March 5 for a trip in April. Half of the backcountry campsites in Zion can be reserved—and usually get filled within minutes after becoming available each month—and half are available for walk-in permits, obtained in person no more than one day in advance. Zion’s permit-reservation system requires booking each backcountry night separately—creating the possibility of failing to get a permit for one or more nights of a multi-night trip. Apply first for popular camps, such as on the West Rim Trail, and then for mid-trip camps with less demand. If you have any night(s) without a permit on a multi-night trip, email firstname.lastname@example.org about it. There is a fee based on the number of people in your party. See my downloadable e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking The Narrows in Zion National Park.” Find more information at nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/wildernesspermitinfo.htm.
• At Glacier, backcountry sites for trips starting between June 15 and Sept. 30 can be reserved at pay.gov beginning March 15 for groups of one to eight people, and only on March 1 (with a midnight deadline) for groups of nine to 12. All applications submitted on March 15 between 12 a.m. MST and 11:59 p.m. MST will be processed in randomly sequenced order. All applications received after opening day will be processed in the order they are received. The park receives a flood of applications in March and it can take several weeks to get a response at that time of year. For 2022, approximately 70 percent of available backcountry camp availability can be reserved; about 30 percent will be made available no more than a day in advance of starting a trip. There is a $10 fee for a reservation application and a $30 fee for a confirmed reservation, plus a cost of $7 per person per night paid when you pick up your permit. See my downloadable e-guides “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park” and “Backpacking the Continental Divide Trail Through Glacier National Park.” Find more information at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/backcountry-reservations.htm.
• For the Grand Canyon, apply by the first of the month, or beginning on the 20th of the preceding month, four months prior to the month in which you want to start a trip—for example, between Nov. 20 and Dec. 1 for a hike starting anytime in April. The application form must be submitted via fax, mail, or in person and a response can take a few weeks. The fee is $10 per permit plus $8 per person (or stock animal) per night. A limited number of first-come permits are issued in person; that often involves waiting at least a day. See my downloadable e-guides “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon” and “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.” Find more info at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm.
• Starting in 2022, Yellowstone will accept reservations for backcountry permits during the prime backpacking season, May 15 through Nov. 5, at recreation.gov/permits/4675323. For the best chance of getting a permit for a popular backpacking trip like Bechler Canyon, enter the Early Access Lottery, which runs from 8 a.m. Mountain Time on March 1 through 11:59 p.m. Mountain Time on March 20; the lottery awards exclusive times to submit a permit application, giving the best access to popular backcountry campsites. The general reservation season runs from April 26 through Nov. 2. There’s a $10, non-refundable fee for entering the Early Access Lottery and a non-refundable $10 fee for a reservation (not charged if you’ve already paid the lottery fee), plus a backcountry camping fee of $5/person/night. First-come permits are issued from May through October at park backcountry offices no more than two days in advance of a trip. The park says that only “a portion” (no percentage is given) of designated backcountry campsites are available for walk-in permits. Backcountry permits are easier to obtain during the non-peak season of December through May 14. See nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/backcountryhiking.htm and the park’s Backcountry Trip Planner at yellowstone.co/pdfs/bctripplanner.pdf.
• In Great Smoky Mountains, reservations are required for all backpacking trips and may be made up to 30 days in advance. There is a fee of $4 per person per night with a maximum of $20 per person and seven nights. Find more information and the permit reservation form at smokiespermits.nps.gov.
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• Rocky Mountain starts accepting permit reservations at 8 a.m. Mountain Time on March 2, 2022, only at recreation.gov/permits/4675320. That page is visible but the reservation application is not available prior to March 2; however, you can create an account and familiarize yourself with the site before March 2. Permits are issued based on quotas for designated individual backcountry campsites that accommodate parties up to seven people or group sites for parties of eight to 12 people. The total reservation fee is $36. more information at at nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/wilderness-camping.htm and nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/wild_guide.htm.
• For Canyonlands, including backpacking in the Needles District, Island in the Sky District, and Maze District and multi-day float trips on the Green River, apply for a permit reservation at recreation.gov at 8 a.m. Mountain Time on Nov. 10 for a trip beginning between March 10 and June 9, on Feb. 10 for a trip between June 10 and Sept. 9, on May 10 for a trip between Sept. 10 and Dec. 9, and Aug. 10 for a trip between Dec. 10 and March 9. There’s a $36 fee per backpacking permit for parties up to seven people in the Needles and Island in the Sky districts and five people in The Maze District. First-come permits are issued based on availability no more than two days in advance. Find more information at nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/backcountrypermits.htm.
• For Sequoia and Kings Canyon, apply for a permit reservation at recreation.gov up to six months in advance for a trip taking place during the trailhead quota period, generally the Friday before Memorial Day through the second Saturday after Labor Day, or May 27 to Sept. 17, 2022. Permits are issued based on trailhead quotas and can be submitted up to one week in advance—although availability for popular trailheads gets booked up quickly. The park keeps a portion of each trailhead quota available for backpackers seeking a first-come permit (without a reservation) no more than a day in advance. There’s a fee of $15 plus $5 per person for each confirmed permit. Permits issued by other national parks or forests in the Sierra for trips extending into Sequoia or Kings Canyon—for example, a John Muir Trail or Mount Whitney permit—are valid in these parks for the permit dates. Find more information at nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit/wilderness_permits.htm.
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• At Olympic, permit reservations can be made at recreation.gov, where campsite availability is provided in real time, up to six months in advance of your starting date, beginning at 10 a.m. Eastern time/7 a.m. Pacific time. Limits on the number of backpackers are imposed on popular “quota areas” like the Ozette coast, Seven Lakes Basin, and Hoh River Trail. The permit fee is $6 per reservation plus $8 per person age 16 and older per night. Find more information at nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/wilderness-reservations.htm.
• North Cascades accepts permit reservations at recreation.gov/permits/4675322 for backcountry camping from May 27 through Sept. 30, for up to 60 percent of backcountry campsites, while permits for the other 40 percent of backcountry campsites are issued only on a first-come basis no more than one day in advance. Apply for any high-demand areas in the park during the Early-Access lottery from March 3 at 7 a.m. Pacific Time through March 15 at 9 p.m. Pacific (results announced March 18) for the chance to win a timeslot between March 21 and April 19 to make one permit reservation for one campsite per night. General reservations reopen April 26 at 7 a.m. Pacific. There’s a $26 fee for reservations and walk-in permits. See nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/backcountry-reservations.htm.
• Mount Rainier accepts applications for permit reservations at recreation.gov/permits/4675317 for two-thirds backcountry campsites (one-third are issued only first-come), for trips beginning May 27 (May 6 for climbing camps and zones) through Oct. 10. The park holds an optional Early Access Lottery from 7 a.m. Pacific Time on Feb. 21, 2022, through 9 p.m. Pacific on March 7, 2022. Lottery winners will receive a date and time when they can apply for a multi-night backcountry itinerary reservation competing against a limited number of other applicants—improving chances of getting a Wonderland Trail permit. General reservations for all permit applicants opens at 7 a.m. Pacific Time on April 25, 2022. There is a non-refundable, $6 fee for a reservation application and a $20 fee for a permit reservation. One-third of available permits are issued first-come, in person at a park wilderness center, up to one day before starting a trip. Find more information at nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/wilderness-permit.htm.
• In Everglades, backcountry permit reservations can be made online year-round 90 days in advance of your trip’s start date at recreation.gov/permits/4675314, beginning daily at 10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. There is a $21 non-refundable reservation fee plus $2 per person per night in the backcountry. Or you can get a walk-in permit at the park’s Gulf Coast Visitor Center or the Flamingo Visitor Center up to a day in advance of starting a trip. Find more information at nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/permitsandreservations.htm and more about the Early Access Lottery at recreationonestopprod.servicenowservices.com.
For parks like Yosemite, Zion, Grand Teton, and Grand Canyon, and popular trails like the John Muir and Teton Crest, submit your permit reservation application the very minute they begin accepting them. If reservations are accepted online, set up an account at the host website, like recreation.gov, and familiarize yourself with it in advance. You may be able to fill it out in advance and then just click to submit it the moment the process opens.
#3 Request Alternative Itineraries and Dates
If you want to take a popular trip during its peak season, this is the single most-effective strategy for maximizing your chances of getting a permit. Whenever I apply for a permit in parks like Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Canyon, or most others mentioned in this story, I virtually always include at least one or two alternative itineraries and starting date options often spanning a week or more.
In fact, as I mentioned at the top of this story, my permit application for a 2021 trip in Glacier was rejected—and I’m sure it was mainly because I applied for just one specific itinerary that I wanted and our dates were not flexible, which greatly reduced my chances of succeeding. The rejection email the park sent me noted that they received over 2,500 backcountry permit applications just on the first day the process was open, March 15.
Have one or two backup routes or date options in case you can’t get a permit for your first choice. That may be as simple as starting a day earlier or later for the same route, reversing your route’s direction, starting midweek instead of on a weekend, or choosing an entirely different, less-popular route.
At some parks, you absolutely should submit at least two itineraries. Denali and Everglades—which have, since the pandemic, started accepting advance reservations for permits, and where permits are in high demand—familiarize yourself with the park map and submit multiple route options.
When applying for an advance permit reservation in the Grand Canyon, include alternatives outside the park’s popular “corridor” trails (Bright Angel, South Kaibab, and North Kaibab). In Great Smoky Mountains, shelters along the Appalachian Trail are the most popular, but tenting campsites elsewhere in the park are easier to reserve. At many parks, you can get useful help selecting an itinerary from backcountry rangers over the phone or in person.
Start planning now to take one of “The 10 Best National Park Backpacking Trips.”
While first-time visitors to a flagship park tend to gravitate toward its best-known areas—Half Dome and the John Muir Trail in Yosemite, the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails, Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail, the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains—areas that are lesser known are often just as scenically impressive and may give you a more rewarding experience because of a higher degree of solitude. The first time I backpacked in Rocky Mountain National Park, I went on the less-visited west side and saw waterfalls and elk and bagged a summit on the Continental Divide.
In the Grand Canyon, some 75 percent of people who apply for a permit to hike across the canyon on the South and North Kaibab trails are denied. But you will find it easier to get a permit for the 29-mile hike from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trailhead, or the 25-mile hike from Hermits Rest to Bright Angel Trailhead, either of which is done in three to four days and quite beautiful, or two much more rugged trips: the 15-mile hike from the New Hance Trailhead to Grandview Point and the 34.5-mile Royal Arch Loop.
Similarly, about 70 percent of hikers who apply for a permit to begin a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail in Yosemite get denied, but it’s much easier to score a permit to backpack in Yosemite north of Tuolumne Meadows or in the Clark Range, both of which are stunning. Learn more in my downloadable e-guides to three stellar, multi-day hikes in Yosemite.
If you’re determined to backpack in a park, make any permit reservation, even if not for your desired route. When you pick up your permit, ask about altering your itinerary; other campsites may be available due to cancellations and sites held for walk-ins. Ask a backcountry ranger for suggestions.
#4 Think Small
Keeping your party small—at two to four people—can increase your odds of landing a permit in parks where permit quotas are based on the number of campers in an area each night or departing from each trailhead daily.
Parks also generally limit the number of people allowed on one standard permit, often to six to eight; otherwise, it’s considered a group permit, and there are far fewer campsites for large groups.
#5 Think Outside the Box
Each park has it’s own system for issuing permits; examine it and you might think up a way to work within it to get what you want or close to it. For example, in Yosemite, permits are issued according to a maximum quota of hikers starting at each trailhead in the park. Some trailheads, like Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, are so popular it’s very difficult to get a permit to start your hike there; but you might be able to hike the same or nearly the same route by simply starting at another trailhead that accesses that route.
While it’s hard to get a permit to dayhike Yosemite’s Half Dome, it’s probably less difficult to add Half Dome to your backpacking permit because many more people apply for the dayhiking permit than do for backcountry permits. See “Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite.”
#6 Camp Outside the Park
National parks often border on other public lands, like national forests, where there’s no limit on the number of backpackers—which may give you campsite options when sites or camping areas within park boundaries are full on your trip dates. For instance, Alaska Basin, along the Teton Crest Trail, is not within Grand Teton National Park; so if you can’t get a permit to spend a night on Death Canyon Shelf in the park (a gorgeous spot, by the way), Alaska Basin is a very nice alternative and may fit neatly into an itinerary for which you have the other camping zones you need inside park boundaries.
At other parks, like Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon, you can start your trip in a national forest wilderness area—which, in the High Sierra, are just as spectacular as the parks—and permits issued by those national forests are valid for continuing a multi-day hike into either park. That may increase your chances of getting a permit to backpack in the park. Keep in mind that advance permit reservations are needed in many of those national forests, too, often made months ahead of your trip dates.
Want a better backpack? See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and the best ultralight backpacks.
#7 Try For a Walk-In Permit
If all else fails, show up at the park at least an hour or two before the backcountry office opens and try to get a front spot in line for a walk-in, or first-come permit. Parks reserve a certain percentage of permits for walk-in backpackers, issuing those usually no more than a day in advance. The percentage of permits set aside for walk-in backpackers varies greatly between parks. As examples, at Grand Teton keeps two-thirds of available campsites for walk-ins, in Glacier it’s half of campsites, while in Yosemite 40 percent are set aside for walk-ins.
Some parks post the current availability of backcountry campsites online; check that and prepare a hiking itinerary accordingly before you show up.
Start a trip from a less-popular trailhead and you might be able to land campsites in more-popular areas later in your trip.
The difficulty of landing a first-come permit varies during the peak hiking seasons: At Zion, Yosemite, Glacier, and Grand Teton, you might get lucky and score a permit to start that day, but plan on having to wait at least one day. At Grand Canyon, Denali, and Everglades, you may not be able to start your trip until two or three days after you first start waiting in line. If you don’t get one of the available permits the first day you show up—you’ll often know within an hour—you will have to return each morning until you do.
Expect applying for a walk-in permit to take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, possibly longer, especially in parks like Yellowstone, Glacier, and Denali, where you’re required to watch a video about camping safely in bear country.
See my story “How to Get a Last-Minute, National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Get inspired. Read my book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.
#8 Go Outside Peak Season
I’ve always been amazed at how few backpackers there are in the Tetons in September, when, while it could snow, you can more often enjoy perfect weather. In Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon, and sometimes at Mount Rainier and Rocky Mountain, good hiking weather can extend into October. At Sequoia-Kings Canyon, the “quota season” for permits ends on the Saturday between Sept. 23 and 29, and at Mount Rainier the permit-reservation season ends by early October; if you have a good forecast after those dates, you can get a last-minute permit.
I backpacked Zion’s hugely popular Narrows and dayhiked The Subway (which requires a permit that’s hard to get) in early November in very pleasant weather (albeit short days) and low water (a plus); I saw a good forecast and grabbed a permit through the park’s Last Minute Drawing system for claiming unreserved campsites—a good method for getting a Zion permit if you have the flexibility to act on short notice. Good weather and hiking conditions can last into late autumn and return by late spring in Great Smoky Mountains.
In mountain parks, the most popular season extends from early or mid-July to Labor Day. In desert parks like Grand Canyon and Zion, it’s April, May, September, and October. Although summers are too hot for backpacking, watching for a good forecast and going in early spring or late fall means you will have a much easier time getting a permit.
Go where others don’t. See my “Top 5 Backpacking Trips For Scenery and Solitude.”
#9 Go to a Less-Popular Park
Okay, this tip and the next one don’t help you land a permit for a popular hike—but they do offer alternatives worth considering if you fail to get that desired permit. National parks that are off the radar of most backpackers are never a disappointment. At two of my favorite Western parks, North Cascades and Capitol Reef, walk-in permits are relatively easy to obtain (although North Cascades does accept reservations for popular areas).
See some of Yosemite’s best scenery on any of “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite.”
#10 Dayhike It
When all efforts to secure a permit to camp in the backcountry fail, ask yourself: Is it possible to dayhike all or part of my route or another trail in the same area?
It’s often easier to hike a long distance in one day than it is to carry a heavy backpack a shorter distance. Choose well-maintained, well-graded trails and keep your pack light, and if you have the stamina for it and can average even a reasonable 2 mph pace over a 10-hour day, you can cover 20 miles.
If I were to add an eleventh tip, it would be this: When your first attempt fails, find another trip to do that year instead, and try again the next year. Wherever you go, the effort to plan and pull off that adventure will pay off.
See also all stories with my expert tips, including “How to Decide Where to Go Backpacking,” “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”