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 and you can greatly improve your chances when reserving your next national park backcountry permit.
Just in the past several years, using these strategies, I’ve gotten permits for backpacking trips on three hugely popular trails, the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, a long section of the John Muir Trail, and the Teton Crest Trail (a trip I’ve taken multiple times), as well as in Yellowstone, Glacier three times, Great Smoky Mountains, Zion’s Narrows and Subway, Sequoia, both the Needles District and Maze District of Canyonlands, North Cascades, two popular trips in Canadian Rockies national parks (this one and this one), Yosemite three times (this trip, this one and this one), and Grand Canyon five times (this trip, this trip, this trip, this one, and this one)—and I’ve had just two unsuccessful applications, a previous attempt for the Wonderland Trail (under the park’s old permit system, the new one is better) and one for Glacier in 2021 that was rejected for reasons I 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 soon.
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.
Please share what you think of my tips or your own tips or questions in the comments section at the bottom of this story and consider sharing this story. I try to respond to all comments and questions. Click on any photo to read about that trip.
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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 the park—and have good experience overall and perhaps in that park—I have consistently found that a backcountry ranger will more readily point you toward more adventurous route options that they might not suggest to 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.
In some parks, to have any chance of reserving a permit, you must plan on applying at the very minute that reservations open—especially for popular hikes in parks that attract a lot of backpackers (like most parks and trails mentioned in this story).
Fortunately, most parks have now abandoned antiquated apply-only-in-person and apply-by-fax-machine permit systems and moved to online permit reservations operated through recreation.gov, a positive step forward in an era when demand for backcountry permits is skyrocketing in many places.
Still, while some are quite easy to navigate, others are unnecessarily chaotic and frustrating for users in ways that seem clearly avoidable, given the numerous examples within the National Park System of successful park permit systems that work smoothly. The NPS is making progress but could still do much better.
Use a shotgun: Apply for permit reservations in multiple parks for a range of potential dates, hoping that at least one is successful. You can always cancel any you can’t use and often get most of the cost refunded. In parks that conduct early-access permit lotteries, have everyone in your group enter the lottery.
When to apply for a backcountry permit reservation in some popular parks
• In Grand Teton, advance reservation applications can be made at recreation.gov starting at 8 a.m. Mountain Time on Jan. 10, 2024, 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, so two-thirds are available first-come, for walk-in backpackers, no more than one day before your trip begins, from May 16 through Dec. 31. 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 $20 non-refundable fee if you obtain a permit plus $7 per person per night. 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. 4-10, 2024, enter the lottery between Feb. 18 and Feb. 24. The remaining 40 percent of permits are made available at recreation.gov at 7 a.m. Pacific Time up to seven days in advance of a trip start date. The non-refundable permit fee is $10 for each lottery entered or a walk-in 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 my stories “How to Get a Yosemite or High Sierra Wilderness Permit” and “How to Get a Last-Minute Yosemite Wilderness Permit Now.” Find more info at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.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, to start a trip between Aug. 4-10, 2024, enter the lottery between Feb. 18 and Feb. 24. 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 1, with results announced March 15. To start a JMT section hike (or any hike) in the Inyo National Forest between May 1 and Nov. 1, apply at recreation.gov at 7 a.m. Pacific Time six months in advance. See my stories “10 Great John Muir Trail Section Hikes” and “How to Get a Yosemite or High Sierra Wilderness Permit” and all stories about backpacking the JMT at The Big Outside. Visit my Custom Trip Planning page to see how I can help you plan a successful and unforgettable JMT thru-hike or section hike or any other trip (as I’ve done for many other readers).
• Starting in 2024, the Grand Canyon is issuing about 80 percent of backcountry permits through a monthly, early-access lottery at recreation.gov/permits/4675337. Apply for the lottery anytime during a two-week period that ends on the first of the month four months in advance of the month you’d like to hike—for example, between Nov. 16 and Dec. 1 for a trip anytime in April and between May 16 and June 1 for October. The lottery awards up to 750 applicants a date and time between the 4th and 17th of the following month when they can attempt to reserve a backcountry permit. The park expects that most of those 750 applicants will get a permit. The fee is $10 per permit plus $15 per person or stock animal per night. The park holds about 20 percent of backcountry campsites for walk-in permits and issues a limited number of permits for the popular Bright Angel and North and South Kaibab corridor trails; that often involves waiting at least a day. See much more detail in “How to Get a Permit to Backpack in the Grand Canyon” and my 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.
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• At Glacier, as of 2023, 70 percent of backcountry campsites open for permit reservations on March 15 at 8 a.m. Mountain Time at recreation.gov/permits/4675321. One person can apply for a permit for up to four people. Groups of five to 12 would need two or three people submitting separate permit applications; or they can apply for one permit during a one-day lottery on March 1, mid-size groups (five to eight people) at pay.gov/public/form/start/74000984 and large groups (nine to 12) at pay.gov/public/form/start/74000862. There is a non-refundable $10 fee for a permit reservation plus $7 per person per night. During the backpacking season, 30 percent of wilderness campsites are available for walk-in permits no more than one day in advance. See “How to Get a Permit to Backpack in Glacier National Park” and my expert 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.
• In Zion, apply for a permit reservation at zionpermits.nps.gov 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 email@example.com 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.
• For Sequoia and Kings Canyon, apply for a permit reservation at recreation.gov starting at 7 a.m. Pacific Time up to six months in advance for a trip taking place during the trailhead quota period, which is generally the Friday before Memorial Day through the Saturday between Sept. 23-29. 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 non-refundable fee of $15 plus $5 per person (refundable if canceled) 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.
• Mount Rainier accepts applications for permit reservations at recreation.gov/permits/4675317 for two-thirds backcountry campsites for trips from June through September, up to two days before a trip starts. The park holds an optional Early Access Lottery for preferential time slots to apply for a permit reservation, greatly improving chances of getting a permit for the Wonderland Trail and popular climbing routes. The park has yet to release 2024 dates for the lottery; in 2023, it was held from 7 a.m. Pacific Time on Feb. 21 through 9 p.m. Pacific on March 7, 2023, and lottery participants were notified of results on March 14; winners received a date and time on or after March 21 to apply for a multi-night permit reservation competing against a limited number of other applicants. General reservations for all permit applicants opened at 7 a.m. Pacific Time on April 25, 2023. 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 and and more about the Early Access Lottery at recreationonestopprod.servicenowservices.com.
• Yellowstone accepts reservations for backcountry permits during the peak backpacking season, May 15 through Oct. 31, 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, 2024, through 11:59 p.m. Mountain Time on March 20, 2024. Lottery participants are notified of results on March 25 and winners will receive a date and time on or after April 1 when they can apply for a multi-night backcountry itinerary reservation competing against a limited number of other applicants. General reservations open at 8 a.m. Mountain Time on April 26 and end Oct. 31. 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 per person per 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. See nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/backcountryhiking.htm and the park’s Backcountry Trip Planner at yellowstone.co/pdfs/bctripplanner.pdf.
• In Great Smoky Mountains, permit reservations can be made starting at midnight Eastern Time up to 30 days in advance of a trip’s start date. There is a non-refundable fee of $8 per person per night with a maximum of $40 per person and seven nights. Find more information and the permit reservation form at smokiespermits.nps.gov. Reservations and permits can also be obtained in person at the Backcountry Office at Sugarlands Visitor Center. See the park website’s Backcountry Camping—Backpacking page at nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/backcountry-camping.htm.
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• 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 in the Island or Maze. From Nov. 29 through March 9, Needles backcountry permits are only available first-come/walk-in at the Needles Visitor Center. Reservations close two days before a trip start date. There’s a non-refundable $36 permit fee plus $5 per person per night 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.
• Rocky Mountain starts accepting permit reservations at 8 a.m. Mountain Time on March 2 at recreation.gov/permits/4675320, for camping in the backcountry between May 1 and Oct. 31, for a maximum of seven nights. Reservations are accepted up to three days prior to a trip. 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.
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• At Olympic, permit reservations can be made at recreation.gov starting at 7 a.m. Pacific time on April 15 for trips from May 15 through Oct. 15, except in areas under seasonal closures: Backpacking permits are issued for Glacier Meadows/Elk Lake, Grand Valley, Royal Basin, Lake Constance, Upper Lena Lake, and Flapjack Lakes only from June 15 to Oct. 15, and for the Seven Lakes Basin/High Divide area only from July 15 to Oct. 15. Group size limits are 12 people and lower in some camp areas. Permits listed as walk-up can only be obtained by contacting the Wilderness Information Center. 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 and nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/upload/OLYM-Wilderness-Trip-Planner.jpg
• North Cascades accepts permit reservations at recreation.gov/permits/4675322 for backcountry camping from May 17 through Oct. 12, 2024, for up to 60 percent of backcountry campsites, while permits for the other 40 percent of backcountry campsites are issued walk-in/first-come no more than one day in advance. For the best chances of getting a permit that includes popular camps, enter the Early-Access Lottery, which opens March 4, 2024, and closes at 9 p.m. Pacific Time on March 15, for the chance to win a timeslot between March 25 and 9 p.m. Pacific Time on April 23 to make a permit reservation. General reservations open April 29. There’s a non-refundable $6 fee for the Early-Access Lottery and a $20 fee for a reserved or walk-in permit. Find more information at nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/permits.htm and in the Wilderness Trip Planner at nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/wilderness-trip-planner.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.
For parks like Grand Teton, Olympic, Zion, Rocky Mountain, and Canyonlands that open permit reservations at a specific date and time (i.e., they do not have rolling reservations), start your reservation application the very minute they begin accepting them. Set up an account in advance at the host website, like recreation.gov, and familiarize yourself with it.
#3 Have Alternative Itineraries and Dates Ready
If you want to take a popular trip during its peak season, having flexibility with your dates and itinerary is the single most-effective strategy for maximizing your chances of getting a permit.
Since most large, marquis wilderness parks now use recreation.gov or a similar online system that shows backcountry camping availability and processes your application in real time, this requires entering the process with a range of possible start dates and routes in mind so that you’re ready to adjust quickly if your first choice isn’t available. 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 route.
With a park like Yosemite that conducts a weekly rolling lottery for weeklong date periods rather than processing your application in real time, you can improve your chances by indicating that you can start on any date during that week and providing alternative itineraries.
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 that it opened, March 15. That was under Glacier’s previous permit system; the park now uses recreation.gov.
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 Focus on Less Well-Known Areas of Popular Parks
This piece of time-tested advice is also the first of my “12 Expert Tips for Finding Solitude When Backpacking”—which is worth reading for the appeal of solitude as well as the clear overlap between that goal and the objective of getting a backcountry permit.
And you might be shocked at how much permit demand is concentrated in just a handful of enormously popular trails in that national parks that backpackers all want to explore, including,just to name a few, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Great Smoky Mountains, Mount Rainier.
You might also be pleasantly surprised to find how much incredibly scenic hiking is found in less well-known areas of those parks—and how much solitude you can find.
A few examples:
• In Yosemite, about 10 percent of the park’s hundreds of miles of trails—the John Muir Trail from Happy Isles to Donohue Pass and the Sierra High Camps loop—accounts for about 80 percent of all trail use. The Little Yosemite Valley backcountry campground alone accounts for almost 20 percent. Thus, the other 20 percent of all trail use gets distributed over 90 percent of Yosemite’s trails.
• In the Grand Canyon, about 75 percent of applicants seeking a permit for backpacking the three popular corridor trails, Bright Angel and South and North Kaibab, in spring or fall will fail to get a permit. Put differently, there’s about four times more demand for the three backcountry campgrounds on the corridor trails than there is availability.
• In Mount Rainier, close to half of permit applicants want to backpack the Wonderland Trail. The park has campsite capacity to grant about 900 permits annually for the entire Wonderland, while historically three times as many people have sought a permit for the full Wonderland permit (and that number is likely growing). But those 900 permits represent less than 25 percent of the approximately 4,000 backpacking permits issued annually.
• In Great Smoky Mountains, shelters along the Appalachian Trail are far and away the most popular—and that’s the park’s busiest trail—but backcountry campsites elsewhere in the park are much easier to reserve.
But many backcountry areas even in popular parks see far less demand for permits, such as northern Yosemite and a hike I consider Yosemite’s best-kept secret backpacking trip; numerous trails in Glacier including sections of the Continental Divide Trail; the Grand Canyon’s Hermits Rest to Bright Angel Trailhead, Escalante Route, Royal Arch Loop, and Clear Creek Trail and Utah Flats Route; Mount Rainier’s Northern Loop; the Maze District in Canyonlands; and a gorgeous swath of the High Sierra in Sequoia National Park, among numerous examples. I even enjoyed solitude on most of a solo, 34-mile loop in the Great Smoky Mountains—during the October peak foliage season.
See my story “Big Scenery, No Crowds: 10 Top Backpacking Trips For Solitude.”
Start planning now to take one of “The 10 Best National Park Backpacking Trips.”
#5 Think Small
Keeping your party small—at two to four people or even solo—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.
Glacier’s backcountry campsites are sized for a party of four people; in a park where it’s already very hard to get a permit, larger parties face much higher hurdles to getting one than a group of four or fewer. In Mount Rainier and the Maze District of Canyonlands, standard parties are limited to five people. In Yosemite, permits are issued according to a maximum quota of hikers starting at each trailhead in the park—and it’s common for quotas at popular trailheads to winnow down to just one, two or three spots available.
Most parks 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.
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 often 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 a couple of hours before the backcountry office opens and try to get a front spot in line for a walk-in, or first-come permit. Parks hold a 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, Grand Teton keeps two-thirds of available campsites for walk-ins, in Yosemite it’s 40 percent, and in Glacier it’s 30 percent of campsites.
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. Since Grand Teton sets aside two-thirds of available permits for walk-in backpackers, chances are relatively good, especially if you’re flexible about your itinerary and accept what’s available—and any Tetons hike is great. At Zion, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Denali, and Everglades, you might not score a permit to start that same day, but Grand Canyon has a wait list—get on it.
If you don’t get one of the available permits the first day you show up, you will have to return each morning until you do.
Yosemite makes 40 percent of permits available up to seven days in advance of a trip start date—and that’s the correct way to get a walk-in permit there. The park warns at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm: “Do not arrive at Yosemite expecting to get a walk-up wilderness permit. While any unreserved permits will be available in person at wilderness centers on the start date of the trip, few, if any, unused permits will be available.”
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, at lower elevations in Olympic and North Cascades, 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; 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 because there was availability at that time of year, when just a week or two earlier all permits were undoubtedly reserved. Good weather and hiking conditions can also 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 mid-September or later. 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 “Big Scenery, No Crowds: 10 Top Backpacking Trips For 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 excellent alternatives 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 two 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 Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” “How to Decide Where to Go Backpacking,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”