By Michael Lanza
You really want to backpack in Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain, Mount Rainier, Grand Canyon, or another hugely popular national park this year—but you didn’t apply to reserve a wilderness permit months ago? Well, you just may be in luck: Most parks have a system for getting a last-minute permit. It requires jumping through some hoops, understanding the system’s ins and outs, good timing, patience, and a bit of luck, but many backpackers get permits without a reservation every year.
This article shares the tricks I’ve learned from numerous backpacking trips to major national parks over more than three decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog. These tricks have helped me get a last-minute, walk-in backcountry permit even in very popular national parks like Yosemite, Grand Teton, Glacier, Zion, Grand Canyon, and others.
Follow these tips and you just might go backpacking this year in a classic national park.
Most parks offer walk-in, or first-come backcountry or wilderness permits, which is simply a permit that you obtain, without a reservation, based on availability, often no more than a day in advance of starting a multi-day hike—but sometimes a bit further in advance, such as in Yosemite, which issues walk-in permits three to seven days in advance.
The number of walk-in permits varies between parks, and availability is affected by advance permit reservations. But in general, parks set aside anywhere from 30 percent (in Glacier) or one-third (in Mount Rainier) to 40 percent (in Yosemite), half (in Zion), and even two-thirds (in Grand Teton) of available permits or campsites to be issued, in most cases, no more than a day in advance.
For starters, go to any park’s website and find out its procedure for obtaining a walk-in permit—especially where and when to do so. Demand for permits typically varies between different areas in the most popular parks—meaning that you may find permits available but perhaps not for the trip you had in mind; so it helps to familiarize yourself with different areas of the park’s backcountry and arrive there with options in mind.
Beyond that first step, four strategies are key to snagging a walk-in backcountry permit. Share your thoughts or questions about my tips—or offer your own tips—in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments. Click any photo to read about that trip.
Don’t like the uncertainty of trying for a walk-in permit? I’ve helped many readers of my blog secure a backcountry permit reservation in the midst of the prime season, even after they had tried and failed. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you do that.
Wondering where you can still go now?
See “15 Great Backpacking Trips You Can Still Take in 2023.”
#1 Go When Most People Don’t
Early or mid-July through Labor Day is the peak hiking season in most mountain ranges. Naturally, summer is when competition for walk-in permits is stiffest.
After Labor Day, though, the number of people seeking backcountry permits drops off dramatically in many parks, especially in the higher mountains of the West—partly because the summer vacation season has ended for many people, and partly because snow can fall in September.
But I’ve backpacked (and dayhiked) many times in September and even October in Western parks, including Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Teton, North Cascades, Mount Rainier, Olympic, and Yellowstone, in glorious, late-summer weather, with sunny, mild days and nights in the 30s to 40s Fahrenheit—although you should prepare for lows below freezing—and seen surprisingly few people on the trails, considering how pleasant it often is out there then.
I’ve long been in the habit of planning a roughly weeklong backpacking trip in the mountains for every September—it’s my favorite month because the weather is often good, bugs are generally gone, and permits are easier to get.
Backpacking in September or October certainly makes it even more imperative that you prepare for any weather, and accept the chance that a severe storm could force you to cancel your plans—or to simply go somewhere else. Still, in my experience, even when planning far enough in advance to book flights to a distant park—and thus, too early to know what to expect for weather—my September trips have had great weather most of the time.
Find your next adventure in your Inbox. Sign up now for my FREE email newsletter.
#2 Go Where Most People Don’t
In many popular national parks, a few trails, trailheads, and areas attract the vast bulk of demand by backpackers. Examples include Yosemite’s core between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows (including Half Dome and the northernmost section of the John Muir Trail); the Teton Crest Trail and Cascade and Paintbrush canyons in Grand Teton; the Highline Trail in Glacier; the Narrows in Zion; the Wonderland Trail at Mount Rainier; the High Sierra Trail in Sequoia; the High Divide-Seven Lakes Loop in Olympic; and the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab, North Kaibab, and Bright Angel trails.
But in those same parks, vast areas—sometimes more remote and difficult to reach, but sometimes simply not as well known—receive far less demand, making it easier to secure a permit for them (whether walk-in or advance). With a park that provides current availability of backcountry campsites online, you can see which areas are the most popular, and avoid them, or at least have alternate hiking itineraries ready if you don’t get a popular hike (see tip no. 3).
Want to read any story linked here?
Join now to read ALL stories and get a free e-guide and gear discounts!
See my All National Park Trips page for a lengthy list of stories, many of them about backpacking trips that are less well-known. A few of my favorites include:
• In Yosemite, the vast wilderness north of Tuolumne Meadows (see my e-guide to that trip and “Yosemite’s Best-Kept Secret Backpacking Trip.”
• The Southern Olympic Coast.
• Bowman Lake to Kintla Lake and other options in Glacier.
• The Northern Loop at Mount Rainier.
• A 40-mile loop from the Mineral King area in Sequoia.
• The Kolob Canyons in Zion.
• The Maze District in Canyonlands.
• Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trailhead, the Royal Arch Loop, the Clear Creek Trail and Utah Flats Route, or the New Hance Trail to Grandview Point in the Grand Canyon.
• Spring Canyon in Capitol Reef.
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
Along those lines, there are national parks, like North Cascades and Capitol Reef, many parks in the Midwest, and nearly every park in Alaska, where backpacker demand remains so low that walk-in permits are easy to obtain. These parks have scenery just as beautiful as the flagship parks at the top of your list. If you don’t have flexibility in your vacation dates and don’t want to risk having to wait more than a day for a walk-in permit, go to one of these parks for an adventure just as memorable as any other.
Not sure how to plan a trip? Don’t have time?
Click here now to get my expert help planning your next trip.
#3 Keep Your Group Small
None of us wants to leave out our favorite backpacking partners, but the hard truth is that the larger your group, the harder it will be to get a permit, whether a walk-in a day in advance or a permit reservation months in advance. This simple statistical reality is based on availability—there are a limited number of backcountry campsites available for walk-in permits, and some of those sites may only have space for two or four people. Plus, many parks define backpacking parties larger than six or seven people as “groups” that require a larger campsite, and so-called group sites are far less numerous than standard backcountry campsites.
Keep your party to four or less, and you will significantly improve your chances of getting a last-minute backcountry permit—possibly even for a popular route like the trip I consider the best first backpacking trip in Yosemite.
Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.
#4 Get in Line Early
A walk-in permit is exactly what it sounds like: You show up, get in line, and see what’s available when you reach the front of the line. At any popular park, that line starts forming at least a few hours before the backcountry center opens. Get up really early and be first in line. Dress warmly and bring a book, a hot drink, food, a folding chair, and a headlamp, and make sure you know in advance where to go so you don’t wander around in the dark.
However, Yosemite National Park more recently launched what I think is a very good model for managing last-minute permits, issuing 40 percent of all daily trailhead quotas for walk-in, or first-come wilderness permits seven days in advance of the date you want to start hiking. See “How to Get a Last-Minute Yosemite Wilderness Permit Now.”
Gear up smartly for your trips.
See a menu of all gear reviews and expert buying tips at my Gear Reviews page.
#5 Have a Few Trip Options Ready
Come prepared with multiple hiking-itinerary options—you may not get your first choice. That can be as simple as reversing your route or having alternative campsite options for some nights, but should include, if possible, alternative routes. Ask a backcountry ranger’s advice on where to go—that person may point you to a great hike that you hadn’t considered and which is available for your dates.
Be prepared to start hiking either that day or the next day; or, if nothing’s available, to return early the next morning to get in line again for a permit starting the following day (although you can usually start your trip by the next day, except in parks with the highest demand for popular hikes, like Grand Canyon and Zion).
One Final Tip
Next year, plan months in advance. Mark your calendar now to remind yourself. See my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit” for my top insights, based on many trips in major parks over the past three decades. Apply as soon as a park starts accepting applications, and submit them in two or three parks.
With luck, you’ll get at least one permit, and if you get more than one, well, that’s the kind of problem a lot of people would like to have.
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”
See a menu of all stories sharing backcountry skills at The Big Outside.