Backcountry Permit Guide
Tahoe National Forest, CA - Photo by: Ankit Jain
Backcountry permitting is an important tool used by forest and wilderness personnel to preserve the integrity of outdoor spaces - both the beauty of nature itself, as well as the solitude it provides. Too many people on the trail can lead to damage to plantlife, alienation of crucial wildlife, increased risk of erosion and water pollution, and other various adverse effects on the environment. To ensure the safety of the natural resources we love so well, rangers need to implement permit regulations to help preserve the land for future generations to come.
In speaking with current and former park officials, we’ve found that many people tend to be either unaware of the requirement for obtaining a permit for backcountry hiking/camping, or unfamiliar with the process by which to obtain one. Please consider this article as a resource to help lay out some important considerations, and ideally clear up some of the confusion surrounding backcountry permitting.
White Mountain National Forest, NH - Photo by: Bryan Donoghue
Plan in advance!
Your first step in the permitting process is to do some research on the area you’re planning to backpack in. Find out what land management agency is responsible for the area, so you can determine what sort of permits are required prior to your departure. We’ve provided links to some of the most common agencies at the bottom of this article.
Bear in mind that some of the State and National Parks require reservations to be made anywhere from 3 months to an entire year in advance! You’ll want to check this first - you don’t want to spend all your time researching trails just to find out you won’t be able to hike any of them for months to come. Many of these areas have a lottery system for awarding permits, so if you have your heart set on a particular area, you’ll want to do your homework to figure out what sort of timing gives you the best chance to obtain a permit. Pay close attention to the lottery rules too, as some areas only give you a small window to confirm your reservation after the lottery concludes or else they’ll put it back up for grabs.
If you’re having trouble finding pertinent information regarding your target area, you can always call the local ranger station for details. They’ll be able to direct you to the proper channels for permitting - and may provide you with some good recommendations for trails and campsites for your trip!
Tahoe National Forest - Photo by: Ankit Jain
Map it out!
Get an idea of what trails you’d like to hike, and where you’d like to camp over the course of your trip. While this is a good strategy to identify how to prep and what you want to see in the region in general, in some cases backcountry permit applications require you to identify which dispersed sites or areas you’re targeting for camping when making your reservations.
Recognize that for some parks, reservations are entirely different from permits. In many cases, reservations must be converted to permits at the local ranger station on the morning of your trip (or in some cases 24 hours in advance), or else the reservation will be released for walk-up backpackers. It’s important to read your confirmation letter clearly, to ascertain what time you’ll need to arrive to secure your permit. If there is any confusion about this, contact the ranger station to be sure.
Mendocino National Forest, CA - Photo by: Bryan Donoghue
No reservation? No problem! (Hopefully)
It’s important to note that the vast majority of wilderness areas set aside a good number of walk-up permits on a first-come first-serve basis - anywhere from 40-66% of permits won’t require a reservation in advance… if you can get to the ranger station before they run out. These walk-up permits are often free, and typically only available up to 24 hours prior to the date of your trip - so the earlier you arrive (within 24 hours of course), the better chance you have of securing a permit for yourself and/or your group. This is especially true in summer months, when good weather leads to increased competition for these permits.
Please remember that many locations that have offered walk-up permits in the past may be temporarily unable to offer this service due to office closures related to Covid-19. In some cases, such as at The Enchantments in Washington State, these walk-up permits are being re-released for reservation availability on a weekly basis. Check your destination’s website to see if any concessions are being made while the pandemic persists.
Green Mountain National Forest, VT - Photo by: Bryan Donoghue
It’s always a good idea to call the local ranger station a day or two before your trip for any last-minute information, especially if you’re planning on traveling a significant distance to get there. On rare occasions, disasters such as landslides, wildfires, or global pandemics can lead to trail closures, and may force alterations of your best-laid plans. A budget cut or, again, a global pandemic, could also cause in-person services to be closed, meaning there may be special instructions to secure your permit. A quick phone call in advance can potentially save a lot of hassle later.
Here are some of the most common land management agencies that oversee hundreds of millions of acres of land throughout the United States:
Bureau of Land Management - If you’re looking in the Western US, there’s a good chance you’re looking at BLM land (they oversee 12% of the land area of the country, primarily in the Western and Pacific states.)
US Forest Service - Not all USFS lands require permits for backcountry trips, but many of the more popular ones do, especially in Wilderness Areas. It’s best to check in advance, just in case.
US Fish & Wildlife Service - FWS administers millions of acres of wildlife refuges throughout the country, many of which can be camped on.
National Park Service - The NPS governs many of the larger, more popular parks throughout the country. Keep in mind Covid restrictions tend to be even tighter in these areas, so be sure to do your homework prior to departure! The NPS is also a great resource to learn about proper bear safety techniques.
Recreation.gov - Use this site to book backcountry permits the same way you’d do so for developed campsites.
Pathloom.com - we’re not biased or anything, and we may not manage millions of acres of land, but we think Pathloom is a great resource to help plan your trip!
Tahoe National Forest - Photo by: Ankit Jain
Check out these other articles by Pathloom which you may find helpful:
What to Bring on a Dispersed Camping Trip
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