Permits: Love ‘Em and Hate ‘Em

Backpacking permits….sigh.  I have such a love/hate relationship with them.  To be clear, I really do love them and I know how important they are.  But, MAN, are they frustrating!

Backpacking (AKA: backcountry or wilderness) permits are important.  They regulate how many people can enter the backcountry on any given date, which, in turn, minimizes the impact to flora, fauna and the general ecology of the land.  They also serve to limit what could become crowds of backpackers in popular areas.  There are other, fringe benefits to the permitting process, such as enabling parks to have face-to-face time with you when you pick up your permit so they can provide information about rules, current trail conditions, potential dangers, etc.

But the process of obtaining a permit can range from relatively easy (i.e., walk into a ranger station and ask for one) to downright impossible (i.e., spend years trying to obtain a permit to summit the incredibly popular Mt. Whitney).  Either way, it’s important you know what the process is for the area you want to backpack into, and you need to know way in advance. By the way, if you are in a group of two or more people, you only need one permit that lists all of your names.

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Pristine wilderness along the John Muir Trail

Here are some common ways you might obtain a permit, depending on where you want to go:

  • No permit needed.  Just go hike!
  • Walk into a ranger station on your way to the trailhead and ask for one.
  • Reserve a permit in advance.
  • Enter a lottery for a permit.

If you are just now (in the Spring) thinking about a backpacking trip into a very popular, permit controlled area this coming summer, you might be too late to obtain a permit.  For example, at the time I am writing this, most every trailhead in Yosemite National Park has already hit the reservable quota for every single day this summer.  For the days whereby the website says there is still room left, it’s almost always because they have exactly one spot left for that date at that trailhead.  Great for solo backpackers, but not-s0-great for groups of two or more.  If you want to backpack in a place as popular and as protected as Yosemite, you’re going to have to plan way in advance and preferably be flexible on your dates.

Yosemite is tough, but it’s not the toughest.  Just go ahead and try to get a permit to hike Mt. Whitney in the summer months!  Mt. Whitney is on a lottery system.  People might try for years before they finally “win”.

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Permits help protect this gorgeous part of Henry Coe State Park in CA.

Many places offer reservable and walk-up permits.  They will offer, say, 60% of the permits in advance through their reservation process and the other 40% are available on a first come, first served basis at the ranger station the day before your hike starts.  You can request your permit a certain number of days before you want to start.  In Yosemite, you can attempt to reserve a permit exactly 168 days (24 weeks) in advance.  Which means you need to precisely count backwards 168 days from your anticipated start date and apply for your permit on that day. In Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, March 1st is always the start of the permitting process.  Some parks do the counting for you and list a handy chart online that shows start dates and associated permit request dates.

If you can’t manage to secure a permit in advance, or planned your trip last-minute, you can simply show up the day before your start date (sometimes the day of) and there will be a certain number of permits available.

But there’s a process for that, too, and it’s not exactly comfortable.  Those permits are also going to be very desirable and you will not be the only one looking to secure one.  That means you’ll have to research exactly when the walk-up permits become available and then you’ll probably want to be there many hours before that time.

For example, people looking for same-day permits in Yosemite will usually get in line at the ranger station the evening before and “sleep” in line.  Sleep is in quotation marks because you can’t actually set up camp and go to sleep in front of the ranger station (people try)!  You can have chairs.  You can take turns with your fellow backpackers sleeping in the car and man the line in shifts.  When the doors open the next morning, you hope you’ll get a permit.  If not, you had better be flexible with your dates because you’re going to have to repeat the process that night!

Thankfully, you pick up your permit the day before you want to start; if you stood awake in line all night long, you have a full day and night to recover before you start out.  And most parks have a provision allowing for a free night of camping the night before (and sometimes after) your start date.  So you’ll have a place to set up camp and rest.

Sometimes there are other, ancillary permits you will need or forms to fill out.  In California and many other states, you will likely need a campfire permit, even if you only plan to use a stove and not make any fires.  If you have a service animal you plan to take with you on your hike, most parks will need you to fill out a form. If you want to bring a pack animal, you’ll need to fill out different forms for that, or perhaps a different permit. The good news is that most of these secondary permits or forms are easy, guaranteed and often can be done online.

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This graph from the NPS shows the increase in permit applications received by Yosemite over 5 years.

In order to find out permitting information, you’ll need to go to the individual park’s website and look for a link to backcountry or backpacking permits.  Some websites provide a ton of helpful information, such as trailhead quotas, maps showing trailhead locations, alternative trailheads for popular trails, etc.  Some even provide a daily update of which trails are full so you know which dates not to ask for.  If your trip spans multiple parks or wilderness areas, you usually only need one permit from the park where you will start, but double check that, too.

If you decide to try for a walk-up permit, make sure you know when you need to be there to request one and then plan accordingly to get there earlier than that.

Tip: call the rangers! They can give you an idea of how the season is going.  Are people starting to get in line at 4pm?  9pm? Not until early the next morning? Is there a less busy trailhead you could start at whereby the permit will be easier to get?

If you want to backpack into one of the most scenic/popular areas, get creative! If you have four people in your group and you want to hike a 40 mile, popular trail, see if you can apply for two permits starting from two different trailheads that lead to the same main trail.  Two people in your group start in one spot, two in another spot, but you meet up on the first or second day on the main trail and hike together from there.

Try starting on different days.  If you are doing a lengthy trip spanning many miles over many days, consider staggering when people in your group start.  For example, when I hiked the John Muir Trail, I managed to obtain a permit for one person starting at the proper beginning of the trail in Yosemite Valley.  My two hiking partners got a permit for two starting four days later in Tuolumne Meadows.  Sure, they missed the first 20-something miles of a 220 mile trip, but it’s better than nothing!  If they had managed to get a permit for the proper start, but four days after me, we could still have made it work if I had done very few miles the first few days until they could catch up with me.  Or I could have taken a couple of “zero days” (days where you don’t hike at all).  In other words, there are ways to make it work…sometimes,

Generally speaking, you’ll want to start looking at the permit processes for the places you are interested in a year in advance.  Then you’ll know what you need to do and when.  Put important dates on your calendar so you don’t forget!  Be sure to read all the fine print of how to apply for a permit.  Email the permit or fax it? Important to know as some parks will only accept one or the other.  Some parks will let you send your permit request in starting at 5pm the day before you are actually looking to obtain the permit.  They close at 5pm, so they don’t mind if the fax machine starts spitting out applications to be processed the next day at that point

God never made an ugly landscape.  All the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild. – Atlantic Monthly, January 1869

Next Up: Permits, Part 2 – See How I Just Secured One