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 or wilderness permits to get in the National Park System. And Glacier has just announced its new wilderness permit reservation system for 2023.
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.
And remember this: 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.”
Beginning in March 2023, for multi-day backpacking trips in Glacier National Park starting between June 15 and Sept. 30, 70 percent of wilderness campsites can be reserved starting March 15 at 8 a.m. Mountain Time at recreation.gov/permits/4675321 (details below). During the backpacking season, 30 percent of wilderness campsites will be available for walk-in/first-come permits no more than one day in advance.
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
There are a couple of key dates in March to apply for a wilderness permit: March 1 only for groups of five to 12 people and March 15 for all parties, but especially those with up to four people.
For multi-day backpacking trips in Glacier National Park starting between June 15 and Sept. 30, apply for a permit reservation on March 15 promptly at 8 a.m. Mountain Time at recreation.gov/permits/4675321. The recreation.gov system shows availability in real time; you will either find availability for your dates and campsites and complete the process with a permit reservation or fail to get one. One person can apply for a permit for up to four people and two tents (the capacity of Glacier’s individual wilderness campsites). Mid-size groups of five to eight people would need two people submitting separate permit applications and large groups of nine to 12 would need three people. Set up a recreation.gov account before permit applications open.
Groups larger than four can also apply for one permit during a one-day lottery on March 1, mid-size groups (five to eight people) applying at pay.gov/public/form/start/74000984 and large groups (nine to 12) at pay.gov/public/form/start/74000862. All applications submitted by midnight on March 1 will be randomly sequenced, with 30 mid-size groups receiving permits and just five large groups receiving permits for the entire year. Permit recipients will be notified before March 15 and must complete payment for it within five days or lose the reservation. If you don’t get notification of a successful permit, you can apply again on March 15 at recreation.gov/permits/4675321.
There is a non-refundable $10 fee for a permit reservation plus $7 per person per night, which is refundable if you cancel the reservation seven or more days in advance.
Find more information at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/backcountry-reservations.htm. That page indicates that parties of five to 12 people applying at pay.gov “must create a recreation.gov account in order for wilderness permit staff to finalize permit processing.”
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Be Flexible With Your Dates and Itinerary
I mentioned at the top of this story that I’ve backpacked several times in Glacier over the years—and I’ve failed to get a wilderness permit just once, for a reason I understood when I submitted that application: I sought only one specific itinerary and our dates were fixed, not flexible. (I decided to just throw a hail Mary pass for a trip I wanted and see if I’d get really lucky. I didn’t.) 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 preferred route in advance and begin the application with a specific, day-to-day itinerary sketched out—but also enter the process with a range of possible starting dates and two to four itinerary options. Familiarize yourself with the park’s Wilderness Camping Guide at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/upload/Backcountry-Guide-2021Changes.pdf, which shows backcountry campsites and trail mileages between them. (Glacier’s website indicates that guide and map is found at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/upload/Wilderness-Camping-Guide_Map508-2.pdf, but that link was broken in mid-February.)
Get the right gear for your trip. See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 10 Best Backpacking Tents.”
At recreation.gov/permits/4675321, click the blue “Check availability” button and start by selecting an area of the park, each of which has a list of backcountry campgrounds. Choose dates, enter the group size, and build an itinerary night by night. If you get that far, click the Book Now button immediately to secure your trip details; you then have 15 minutes to complete the process. If you receive an error message when clicking Book Now, you’ve lost that itinerary and must start over with another itinerary.
See my story “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites” for my two favorite backcountry camps in Glacier.
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Try for a Walk-In Permit or Last-Minute Reservation
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.
Lastly, some people with a wilderness permit reservation will cancel prior to their trip, for a variety of reasons. If you don’t have a reservation and are considering or planning to go to the park and attempt to get a walk-in permit, you can still frequently check recreation.gov/permits/4675321 for availability created by a cancellation.
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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.
4 thoughts on “How to Get a Permit to Backpack in Glacier National Park”
Thanks for the great article. So informative. Does a wilderness (backpack) permit also cover the Glacier park entrance fees? Or should I buy a separate park pass? Thanks again! -Andy
Thanks, Andy. A wilderness permit does cover the park entrance fee; you’ll have to buy that. See more about that at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/fees.htm. Good luck!
This is super helpful! What months did you successfully get a permit for?
My last Glacier backpacking trip was in September and while I can’t remember the months that I took every backpacking trip I’ve done in Glacier going back almost 30 years, I’m pretty sure they were all in either August or September.