By Michael Lanza
There are two immutable truths about backpacking in Glacier National Park. First, from its stirring landscape, where glaciers hang off muscular mountains and sheer cliffs soar above deeply green valleys dappled with lakes and waterfalls, to almost certain sightings of wildlife like mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, elk, and grizzly and black bears, there’s really no place in the continental United States quite like Glacier.
Second, it’s one of the hardest backcountry permits to get in the National Park System.
In this story, I will offer tips on how to maximize your chances of getting a permit to backpack in Glacier, sharing expertise I’ve acquired from several trips there over the past three decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
Just in recent years, I’ve successfully reserved a Glacier permit on two of my three attempts—and my lone unsuccessful application was rejected for reasons I fully anticipated (and explain below).Plus, Glacier’s online reservation system is actually friendlier to navigate than the process in some parks. But its biggest drawback has been that it can take several weeks to learn the results of a permit application.
Nonetheless, the permit system preserves a wilderness experience for backpackers in Glacier (as well as protecting the park from overuse). That’s a major reason why Glacier ranks among “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and “The 10 Best National Park Backpacking Trips.”
NOTE: As of Jan. 11, 2023, Glacier National Park has posted at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/backcountry-reservations.htm: “Changes are coming to Glacier National Park’s advance reservation system in 2023. As in prior years, there will be a modified lottery for large groups (5-12 people) using the pay.gov website on March 1. We will begin accepting reservations for all others on March 15. Complete details regarding all advance reservation changes will be available by mid-February and will be posted on this webpage at that time.” Under the 2022 permit reservation system at Glacier, backcountry sites for trips starting between June 15 and Sept. 30 could be reserved in advance at https://pay.gov/public/form/start/74000984 starting March 15 for parties of one to eight people and March 1 (with a midnight deadline) for groups of nine to 12. But that page is no longer available at pay.gov.
This story will be updated as soon as Glacier announces the details of its permit reservation procedure for 2023.
See my expert e-guides “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park” and “Backpacking the Continental Divide Trail Through Glacier National Park,” both of which provide all you need to know to plan those trips, including very detailed tips on getting a high-demand backcountry permit, multiple itinerary options of varied lengths, the best campsites, plus expert advice on the ideal time of year, gear, and safety in bear country.
I’ve also helped many readers plan a very enjoyable backpacking trip in Glacier—including tips on maximizing their chances of getting a very hard-to-get permit. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can do that for you.
Please share any thoughts or questions about this story, or your own tips, in the comments section at the bottom. I try to respond to all comments.
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Apply the First Day Possible in March
Mark your calendar for this key date: Apply for a Glacier backpacking permit reservation at pay.gov on March 15 for a party of one to eight people, for trips starting between June 15 and Sept. 30. All applications submitted on March 15 between 12 a.m. and 11:59 p.m. MST will be processed in randomly sequenced order—but get it done that day because all applications received after opening day will be processed in the order received and the park gets a flood of applications throughout March.
Larger parties of nine to 12 people have only one day to apply for a reservation: March 1, with a midnight deadline. All applications will be processed in a randomly sequenced order and only the first five chosen will get a permit reservation.
Approximately 70 percent of available backcountry camp availability can be reserved; about 30 percent will be made available no more than a day in advance of starting a trip. That split was previously 50-50 until 2022, so this change obviously improved the odds of reserving a permit (and reduced the odds of a walk-in permit). Reservations are accepted up to seven days prior to a trip’s start date; while waiting that long leaves very little availability, you should still make a reservation and you can see about modifying it, if you want, when you arrive at the park.
It can take a month or longer to get a response to an application submitted in March. 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.
Find more information at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/backcountry-reservations.htm.
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and backpacking the Continental Divide Trail through Glacier.
Be Flexible With Your Dates and Itinerary
I mentioned at the top of this story that I understood the reasons one of my recent Glacier permit applications was denied: I listed only one itinerary choice and our dates were fixed, not flexible. (I decided to just throw a hail Mary pass and see what happened.) In a park like Glacier, that will almost guarantee you don’t get a permit.
As I write in my “10 Tips for Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit,” the single most-effective strategy for maximizing your chances of getting a permit for a popular trip during its peak season is to have flexibility with your dates and itinerary.
Plan your route in advance and begin the application with a specific, day-to-day itinerary planned out—but also with a range of possible starting dates and two to four itinerary options. The permit application requires you to select the entry and exit/out trailheads and backcountry campgrounds for each night on every itinerary choice you submit.
Get the right gear for your trip. See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 10 Best Backpacking Tents.”
Improve your chances of securing a permit, even if not for your first-choice itinerary, by checking the boxes indicating you are willing to substitute different campgrounds along the same route, reverse the primary route, accept a shorter trip (by one or two days) in the same area of the park. If you’re willing to accept any backpacking trip, especially if you’re applying for a limited range of dates during peak season (July and August), check the boxes under Major Changes indicating the park areas where you would accept substitute campgrounds; or check the Last Resort box.
See the park Wilderness Camping Guide, which shows backcountry campsites and trail mileages between them, at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/upload/Backcountry-Guide-2021Changes.pdf and my story “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites” for my two favorite backcountry camps in Glacier.
I’ve helped many readers plan unforgettable backpacking and hiking trips.
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Try for a Walk-In Permit
You didn’t make a permit reservation but you hope to go backpacking? There is a last resort: a walk-in (or first-come) permit, issued no more than a day in advance of starting a trip.
As noted above, Glacier accepts reservations for approximately 70 percent of available backcountry camps, leaving about 30 percent for walk-in permits. However, some walk-in sites will be claimed by backpackers on multi-night trips that started ahead of yours, so the availability is generally less than 30 percent on any random day.
Naturally, there’s high demand for walk-in permits. Show up at a park permit issuing station at least two to three hours before it opens to get a spot near the front of the long line that will form. Go there with primary and alternative routes in minds. Bring warm clothes, a headlamp, a hot drink, and something to read (or a park trail map to study). There are permit stations at Apgar, St. Mary, Many Glacier, Two Medicine, and Polebridge. See nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm.
You might get lucky and score a permit to start the same day. But expect to have to wait a day—if you’re fortunate enough to get a walk-in permit.
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Go in Late Summer
Glacier accepts backcountry permit reservations for trips starting between June 15 and Sept. 30—dates that span the entire prime hiking season in the Northern Rockies, which begins when higher trails become mostly snow-free, around mid-July, and runs through early to mid-September, when temperatures, especially overnight, can dip below freezing and early-season snowstorms are possible.
But good weather often prevails through much of September and sometimes into early October. In the second week of September 2018, friends and I enjoyed six straight sunny days and clear nights in Glacier, with morning temps in the 30s and 40s and afternoons in the 50s to 60s Fahrenheit and with cold wind at some passes. We also heard elk bugling almost every morning and evening. The week before we arrived, the park got cold rain in the valleys and heavy, wet snow at higher elevations. Fortunately, it had all melted by the day we arrived (and delivered the benefit of greatly tamping down a wildfire in the area, mostly eliminating smoke from our trip).
Although I have not seen statistics regarding demand for backcountry permits in Glacier based on dates, demand is almost certainly highest from early or mid-July through around early to mid-September. While weather becomes less reliable, September dates likely offer a better chance of getting a permit—especially a walk-in permit if you can go on short notice with a good weather forecast. Be aware that the park’s free shuttle buses along the Going-to-the-Sun Road typically operate from sometime in June until the first or second week of September (but the road remains open).
See all stories about backpacking in Glacier at The Big Outside, including “5 Backpacking Trips for Solitude in Glacier National Park,” “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop,” “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier,” and “Jagged Peaks and Wild Goats: Backpacking Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail.” Like many stories at this blog, reading those in full requires a paid subscription to The Big Outside.
See also my expert e-guides “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park” and “Backpacking the Continental Divide Trail Through Glacier National Park,” and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can plan your backpacking trip in Glacier.