By Michael Lanza
Backpackers trying to plan 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. Countless backpacking trips over three decades—during which I was the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for about 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 these strategies for success reserving your next national park backcountry permit.
Just in recent 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 twice (this trip and this one), and Grand Canyon four times (this trip, this trip, this one, and this one)—and I’ve had just one unsuccessful application, a previous attempt for the Wonderland Trail.
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 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? See 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 (it 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. 6, 2021, 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 in January—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 story “How to Get a Permit to Backpack the Teton Crest Trail.” There is a $45 fee if you obtain a permit. Find more information at nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/bcres.htm.
• In Yosemite, permit reservations are processed by lottery 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the date you want to start hiking, with a 7:30 a.m. Pacific time deadline. You can apply online up to 169 days in advance and you will get a response within about two business days. For example, to start a trip on July 27, submit your application on Feb. 8 or 9. Permits are issued based on trailhead quotas, with special rules for backpacking the John Muir Trail in the park, and the fee is $5 per confirmed reservation plus $5 per person. The park accepts reservations for 60 percent of permits in advance and the other 40 percent are available no more than one day in advance of starting a trip. See my downloadable e-guides to three stellar, multi-day hikes in Yosemite, including “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.” Find more info at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wpres.htm and nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermitdates.htm.
• To thru-hike the John Muir Trail southbound, apply for a permit from Yosemite National Park exactly 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the date you’d like to begin. Increase your chances by applying for a range of start dates in Yosemite. 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). Find more info at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/jmtfaq.htm.
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• In Zion, apply for a permit promptly at 10 a.m. Mountain time on the 5th of the month, two months prior to the month in which you want to take your trip—for example, apply on Feb. 5 for a trip in April. Advance reservations usually get filled within minutes after becoming available each month. Zion’s permit-reservation system requires booking each backcountry night separately—which works fine for backpacking an overnight trip like The Narrows, but creates the possibility of failing to get a permit for one or more nights of a multi-night trip. Park backcountry rangers advise that you apply first for popular camps, such as on the West Rim Trail, and then apply for mid-trip locations like Wildcat Canyon, which has less demand. If you have any night(s) without a permit on a multi-night trip, email email@example.com about it and a ranger may be able to add the missing campsite to your reserved itinerary. Zion also holds a Last Minute Drawing for available permit reservations for one-day canyoneering trips only between two days and seven days before your desired trip date (which is how I obtained a permit for top-to-bottom descent of The Subway). 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. The park receives a flood of applications in March and it can take several weeks to get a response at that time of year. Approximately half of available backcountry camp availability can be reserved in advance; the rest are 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.
• In Yellowstone, apply for a backcountry permit by 8 a.m. on April 1, when the park begins processing applications, for popular backpacking trips like Bechler Canyon. The park accepts reservations by fax or mail only from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31. A non-refundable $25 fee is charged for an advance reservation, and the backcountry camping fee is $3/person/night (with a max of $15/night) from Memorial Day to Sept. 10 (after which no fee is charged). First-come permits are issued from May through October at park backcountry offices no more than two days in advance of a trip. See details at https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/backcountryhiking.htm and the park’s Backcountry Trip Planner at https://www.yellowstone.co/pdfs/bctripplanner.pdf.
• In Great Smoky Mountains, reservations may be made up to 30 days in advance of the first night of your trip. 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.
Want my help planning any trip on this list? Click here for expert advice you won’t get anywhere else.
• Rocky Mountain starts accepting permit reservations online or in person on March 1, starting at 8 a.m. Mountain Time, at nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/wilderness-camping.htm; the reservation application link is not available prior to March 1. Phone, mail, email and fax reservations are not accepted. There’s a $30 fee per trip reservation from May 1 through Oct. 31. Find more information at 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 $30 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 of a trip starting date 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 28 to Sept. 18, 2021. Permits are issued based on trailhead quotas and must be submitted at least two weeks in advance of a trip’s starting date. There’s a fee of $15 plus $5 per person for each confirmed permit. Phone, mail, email and fax reservations are not accepted. First-come permits are issued based on availability no more than a day in advance. 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 advance permit reservations online only, from March 15 through April 15 for camping from May 15 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. There’s a $20 reservation-application fee. Find current information at nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/backcountry-reservations.htm.
• Mount Rainier begins accepting reservation applications on March 15, online only, for up to about 70 percent of backcountry campsites, for trips beginning through Oct. 10, after which permits are issued only through self-registration. All requests received between March 15 and March 31 are processed in random order, so submit a reservation application during that time period: The park stops accepting reservations for the Wonderland Trail on March 31. (All campsites for the Wonderland are often booked for the entire backpacking season by April 1.) There is a non-refundable, $20 fee per confirmed permit. Find more information at nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/wilderness-permit.htm.
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, so that you’re ready to submit the application immediately. You may also 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 include at least one or two alternative itineraries and starting date options often spanning a week or more.
Have at least 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 must prepare at least three itineraries. As examples:
In Denali or Everglades, which do not accept advance reservations for permits, you will find out which backcountry zones have campsite availability when you show up at the backcountry office, so be familiar with the park map and have some ideas on where you want to go.
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—as in 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 or seven; 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 my story, “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 sites 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 camp a night or two before entering the park, perhaps increasing your chances of getting a permit in the park. Keep in mind that accept 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 just 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 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 modest 2 mph pace over a 10-hour day, you can cover 20 miles.
See all of my stories about ultra-hiking at The Big Outside.
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.
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.