By Michael Lanza
So you just got the inspiring 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.
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-guide “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-guides to the Teton Crest Trail and
the best short backpacking trip there.
It’s Too Late to Reserve a Permit
In Grand Teton, you can apply for a permit reservation at recreation.gov from early January through May 15—and most reservable backcountry camping, including all camping zones along the Teton Crest Trail, often get booked up soon after the system starts accepting reservations (at 8 a.m. Mountain Time usually on the first non-holiday Wednesday in January).
Once reservations close in May, the only option left is a walk-in permit (see below). But 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.
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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 percentage 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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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. 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.
Hiking the TCT south to north—as you should to have the best scenery in front of you rather than over your shoulder and because the views get better every day—you can legally camp in the backcountry without needing a permit reservation on these public lands:
- In the Jedediah Smith Wilderness of the Caribou-Targhee and Bridger-Teton national forests south of the forks of Granite Canyon, including at Moose Lake and south or north of Phillips Pass.
- In the Jedediah Smith Wilderness on the TCT section near Spearhead Peak and Fox Creek Pass, a high, somewhat rocky plateau that’s exposed and has no reliable water sources; or in upper Fox Creek Canyon, west of Fox Creek Pass (hiking a mile or two off the TCT to find camping).
- Most importantly, in Alaska Basin, north of Death Canyon Shelf, the last good camping outside the park before launching into the northern stretch of the TCT (when hiking south to north).
I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip on the Teton Crest Trail.
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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 of my stories about the Teton Crest Trail at The Big Outside, including “5 Reasons You Must Backpack the Teton Crest Trail,” “The 5 Best Backpacking Trips in Grand Teton National Park,” “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail,” “American Classic: The Teton Crest Trail,” and my story about backpacking it with our young kids, “Walking Familiar Ground: Reliving Old Memories and Making New Ones on the Teton Crest Trail.”
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2 thoughts on “How to Backpack the Teton Crest Trail Without a Permit”
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?
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.