How to Backpack the Teton Crest Trail Without a Permit

By Michael Lanza

So you just got the inspired idea to backpack the Teton Crest Trail and discovered you’re months late to reserve a backcountry permit. You’ve probably also learned that it’s possible to get a walk-in backcountry permit for Grand Teton National Park—but competition for those is extraordinarily high, especially for the camping zones along the TCT.

So you’re wondering: Is it possible to backpack the Teton Crest Trail without a permit? In a word, the answer is: yes. It’s somewhat complicated and not easy, but this story explains how to do that.

The Teton Crest Trail deservedly sees sky-high demand for backcountry permits. It’s unquestionably one of the 10 best backpacking trips in America, incredibly scenic virtually every step from start to finish, featuring high passes with sweeping vistas, endless meadows bursting with wildflowers, beautiful lakes, creeks, and waterfalls, a good chance of seeing wildlife like elk and moose—and some of the best campsites you will ever pitch a tent in.

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Backpackers on the Teton Crest Trail on Death Canyon Shelf, Grand Teton National Park.
Backpackers on the Teton Crest Trail on Death Canyon Shelf, Grand Teton National Park. Click photo for my expert e-book to backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.

I’ve taken at least 20 trips in the Tetons and several on the Teton Crest Trail over the past three decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.

See my story about my most-recent TCT trip, “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail,” which requires a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full, including some of my tips and information on planning a TCT backpacking trip. For much more information on planning this trip, get my expert e-book “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.”

I’ve also helped many readers plan a backpacking trip in the Tetons and elsewhere, answering all of their questions and customizing an itinerary ideal for them—whether helping them navigate applying for a backcountry permit reservation in advance or obtaining a walk-in permit. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn more.

Please share any thoughts, questions, or your own tips in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

Dying to backpack in the Tetons? See my e-books to the Teton Crest Trail and
the best short backpacking trip there.

A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.
David Gordon backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park. Click photo to read about backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.

It’s Probably Too Late to Reserve a Permit

In Grand Teton, for trips between May 1 and Oct. 31, permit reservations can be made at starting at 8 a.m. Mountain Time on Jan. 10, 2024, and up to two days before your trip start date. But most reservable backcountry camping, including camping zones along the Teton Crest Trail, often get booked up within minutes after the system starts accepting reservations.

Given the huge demand for reservations and the fact that they get booked up so quickly, there’s effectively just one day every year when you can reserve a permit for backpacking the Teton Crest Trail. Once reservations close in May, the only option left is a walk-in permit.

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A backpacker at Lake Solitude on the Teton Crest Trail, Grand Teton National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm at Lake Solitude in the North Fork Cascade Canyon. Click photo for my Teton Crest Trail e-guide.

You Can Get a Walk-In Permit

Like virtually all national parks, Grand Teton National Park has a walk-in or first-come backcountry permit option that allows you to grab a last-minute permit, without a reservation, based on availability, no more than a day in advance of starting a multi-day hike in the park’s backcountry. Grand Teton National Park sets aside two-thirds of backcountry campsites for walk-in permits—a higher portion than many parks.

Getting a walk-in permit isn’t impossible—numerous backpackers get one every summer. But it requires some flexibility in your schedule and a willingness to accept whatever camping zones have availability when you arrive at a park backcountry desk to speak to a ranger. Plan to arrive hours before the backcountry desk opens (they’re located in park visitor centers) to get a spot near the front of the line that inevitably forms in the wee hours. You might not get the itinerary you want.

See my story “How to Get a Last-Minute, National Park Backcountry Permit.”

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A backpacker above the South Fork Cascade Canyon on the Teton Crest Trail, Grand Teton N.P.
Todd Arndt above the Schoolroom Glacier and the South Fork Cascade Canyon on the Teton Crest Trail. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan this trip.

How to Backpack the TCT Without a Permit

To backpack the Teton Crest Trail legally without a permit you must camp every night outside Grand Teton National Park. And don’t poach backcountry camping in the park without a permit. Backcountry rangers patrol and getting caught risks a penalty and I can tell you from personal experience (long ago), it’s embarrassing.

Fortunately, the TCT wanders in and out of park boundaries and signs along trails clearly indicate when you’re crossing a park boundary. The challenge is that you must be able to hike at least one big day to link up campsites outside the park, particularly through the TCT’s northern stretch—which harbors the most glorious hiking on the trail.

Grand Teton National Park requires storing food in a hard-sided bear canister; although you’re not subject to park regulations when camping outside the park, a canister still offers the best protection. See my favorite bear canister in my review of essential backpacking gear accessories.

See all stories about backpacking in Grand Teton National Park at The Big Outside, including “5 Reasons You Must Backpack the Teton Crest Trail,” The 5 Best Backpacking Trips in Grand Teton National Park,” and “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.”

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Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail—A Photo Gallery

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Leave a Comment

8 thoughts on “How to Backpack the Teton Crest Trail Without a Permit”

    • Hi Dan,

      I honestly have not looked into guide services for the TCT, so I’m not in a position to recommend any, but I’m sure you’d find the same information available online as I would. Good luck.

  1. If I can’t secure the permits and I decide to only stay in the wilderness areas, am i still allowed to park multiple nights at a trailhead in the national park?

    • Hey Lucas,

      I’ve never seen a parking pass issued with a park backcountry permit for backpackers but after reading your question, I just checked the park website and see nothing that suggests there are any restrictions on parking for multiple nights at a park trailhead while backpacking. However, I’d say it’s worth calling a backcountry office and confirming that before you go.

  2. There is a reliable water source near Spearhead Peak and the top of Fox Creek Canyon, it’s a little lake that can’t be seen from the trail but is on the map. I have used it every time I have hiked the Teton Crest Trail. There is also a porcupine hanging out there that will eat your shoes if you leave them out overnight!

    • Thanks for that beta, Randall, you’re right, I see tiny Pass Lake on the map a short walk southeast of Fox Creek Pass and east of the Teton Crest Trail, NNE of Spearhead Peak. Good to know! Much appreciated.

  3. My fiancee and I are trying to hike the TCT from August 7th to August 10th. However, fitting to your article, WE did not reserve a permit to camp. We get into Jackson at noon on Friday August 6th. My assumption is that we will not be able to get a permit at the ranger station at 2pm.

    Do you have any recommendations on how to obtain a permit to camp and backpack the trail?

    • Hi Michael,

      I think you are correct that you’re not likely to get a walk-in permit at 2pm, but it’s still worth stopping in there to at least ask a ranger how early the line will form the next morning (if they have some idea).

      As I point out in my story “How to Get a Last-Minute, National Park Backcountry Permit,” your only option for getting a permit is a walk-in, and that’s by showing up to get in line outside the visitor center really early in the morning and waiting. Have a few ideas of the route and camping zones you’d like to seek for when you speak with a ranger. You will ultimately choose from what’s available to start hiking either that day or the next day.

      My e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail” does describe several itinerary options. And I can help you plan that trip. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how.

      Thanks for the question and keep in touch.