How To Score a Walk-Up Backpacking Permit Anywhere

I haven’t applied for a lottery backpacking permit since 2018, when my application for a John Muir Trail thru-hike permit was repeatedly denied. That experience forced me to learn how to navigate the walk-up backpacking permit systems offered by many national parks, and since then, I’ve camped at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and along the Wonderland Trail, ventured deep into Canyonlands National Park, and—yes—thru-hiked the entire JMT.

It all started in December 2018, when I anxiously checked my email every day to see if I’d scored JMT permits. After six straight weeks of denial, my best friend Alex and I gave up on the trail’s incredibly competitive lottery system.

Although we’d initially hoped to score permits for July and have ample time to plan in advance, we decided to throw certainty to the wind and try our luck with walk-up permits for a late-season hike in September. We lucked out beyond belief and got coveted SOBO permits from Happy Isles to Whitney Portal with a Half Dome add-on, simply because we got in line before anyone else.

Granted, the spontaneity of walk-up permits isn’t ideal for everyone. However, Alex and I had both quit our jobs and were dirt-bagging for the summer. Our lack of a definite itinerary made it possible for us to acquaint ourselves with the walk-up backpacking permit system in multiple national parks.

Even though I now have a full-time job and limited days off, I still rely heavily on walk-up permits when visiting crowded national parks. These systems are often under-utilized and can add an extra bit of adventure and spontaneity to even just a weekend trip, but navigating them is an art form. Here’s how I do it.

How To Score a Walk-Up Backpacking Permit in Popular US Parks

I fell in love with the walk-up system after we scored overnight permits for this spot on the Wonderland Trail in Mt. Rainier National Park.

Getting Started: Head to the Park’s Website

Each national park and national forest structures its walk-up system a little differently. In more popular areas, you’ll likely want to show up in person early the morning before your trip. Some destinations like Zion and Yosemite also offer last-minute online permits that open up about a week in advance for popular day hikes or timed-entry tickets.

The best way to find this information is to google the national park + “backcountry permit” (or your desired day-hike permit). Be sure to go directly to the agency’s website and read their updated guidelines. Since COVID, a lot of old walk-up procedures have changed.

Does your desired trail require competitive permits? If so, are they required all year or only during peak hiking season? How many are reserved as walk-ups, and how early can you apply for one of those? Try to learn all you can about the trail itself and about how the permit system works.

Plan Your Ideal Trip With Alternates in Mind

a hiker stands at an overlook above Yosemite Valley after scoring a walk-up backpacking permit for the entire John Muir Trail

We got incredibly lucky when we got our JMT walk-up permits as two additional Half Dome walk-up permits were also available for that day. The walk-up system is also very useful for coveted day hikes like Half Dome or Angels Landing.

The park rangers will want to see that you at least have some sort of idea of what you want to do. Even if you’re down to leave your trip fully up to the walk-up backpacking permit fates, you’ll want to show that you at least have done some basic research in the area.

This also helps show the rangers that you’re equipped for your trip if you’re planning a particularly aggressive itinerary. I was able to get walk-up permits for a 47.5-mile Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim hike in September of 2020, but I really had to convince the permitting officer that I was fit enough to spend just one night at the bottom of the canyon.

I’m extroverted as it is and enjoy talking to strangers about the trips I’m planning and hearing their suggestions. However, if you don’t like receiving input or considering alternatives, the walk-up route may not be best for you.

Start by familiarizing yourself with the area.

To “plan” a trip where I hope to get a walk-up backpacking permit, I start by familiarizing myself with the area. I’ll either purchase a map from REI or look at an interactive map online. I find the most popular backpacking trailheads and, based on Alltrails reviews and blog posts, select one or two hopeful starting points for my hike.

From there, based on the number of nights I have to spend in the backcountry and my fitness level, I’ll decide the range of miles I’m shooting to hike each day. With this information, I’ll chat with the rangers to see what’s available and get their route suggestions.

Be Prepared To Wait

Can you tell I had been up since 2:30 a.m.?

In a crowded park like Yosemite, be prepared to wait in line for hours rather than miss out on a permit. Being a walk-up means gambling your entire trip on being close enough to the front of the line to get a workable itinerary, so budget extra time before the start of your hike for getting a permit.

And remember, many parks start giving out permits the day before the hike starts, so don’t count on getting a permit and starting your hike on the same day.

The earlier you can show up to the backcountry office, the better. Back in 2019 when we scored our JMT permits, we lined up in front of the permit office at 6 a.m., even though they didn’t start doling out permits until 11:30 a.m.  In my opinion, this can be part of the fun. However, if you’re on a tight timeline and don’t have room for flexibility, you may not want to go this route.

Flexibility Is Key

view of the grand canyon shot from canyon rim on a clear day

The backcountry permits in many parks require you to specify which campsites you’ll sleep at each night (the Wonderland Trail is a great example).

You may have a plan going in, but you’re more likely to get a permit if you’re willing to change your itinerary. Do you have the fitness and flexibility to stay at different campsites, hike the opposite direction on loop trails, or complete the hike in more or fewer days? If so, you’ll have more options than someone who can’t afford to deviate from their original plan.

“When I hiked the Wonderland Trail in 2019, my daily mileage ranged from 3.6 to 19. It was a weird itinerary, but that was what we could put together from the available campsites when we applied for our walk-up permits,” said Trek editor Kelly Floro.

Furthermore, if the ranger doesn’t have the exact permit that you’re looking for or a suitable alternative, you may have to wait an extra day or two to start hiking. If you have an extended amount of time off work or are in between jobs, this may not be a deal breaker.

However, getting an ideal walk-up backpacking permit may be tricky if your schedule is rigid. If you can’t score a backpacking trip that fits your timeline, it’s still worth talking to the rangers and hearing their suggestions on comparable day-hike and camping options.

You may even want to come into the walk-up experience with a few backup plans in mind, whether that’s a nearby backpacking trip that doesn’t require permits or a different activity altogether.

READ NEXT – How To Hike the Wonderland Trail

Consider the Time of Year

High-mountain trails often see peak visitation in July and August. You’ll face the stiffest competition for permits during these months. If you can plan your trip outside of peak hiking season, you’ll maximize your chances of success.

Alex and I originally wanted to hike the JMT in July, but we improved our odds by applying for walk-up permits in September, just outside the peak hiking window.

READ NEXT – The Best Time of Year To Hike These 23 Popular Long Trails

Putting It All Together

section of trail hemmed in by tall cliffs and cottonwood trees as part of a trip scheduled via a walk-up backpacking permit

The bottom of the Grand Canyon is one of the most beautiful places on this earth. But, it’s an incredibly strenuous day-hike and very hard to reserve online permits. Enter: the walk-up system.

I personally like to learn by example, s I’m going to walk through what my process would be if I were trying to hike Rim to Rim to Rim over three days and two nights utilizing Grand Canyon National Park’s walk-up system.

1. Background research. I google “Grand Canyon Backcountry Permits,” and it takes me to this website. Scrolling all the way to the bottom, you find a section titled “Last Minute Permit for Corridor Campgrounds.” This details the walk-up rules and when the permits are made available.

2. Arrive at the ranger’s office as early as possible. Because it tells me they “cannot be purchased more than one day before the trip” (emphasis mine), I know that I’ll be lining up early the morning before my intended start date. The backcountry office opens at 8 a.m., but I might line up as early as 6 during the busy season

3. Have a tentative plan in mind. To start from the South Rim and complete the full R2R2R hike in three days, the best option would be to spend two nights at Cottonwood Campground. If this were available, I would be stoked. However, I’m prepared to discuss potential alternatives with the backcountry ranger.

READ NEXT – Rim to Rim to Rim: A Backpacking Guide to the Grand Canyon

Know your capabilities.

It’s worth reiterating the fact that backcountry rangers are there to keep us safe. For pretty much every walk-up permit I’ve gotten, a ranger has told me my itinerary is too aggressive. Be confident yet realistic with your fitness and experience levels.

I’ve had to argue my case to do the Rim to Rim to Rim in two days. Though part of me bristles at having to go to these lengths to get a permit, I do my best to remember that they just want to be sure everyone in the backcountry is safe and adequately prepared in challenging terrain.

Why It’s Important To Utilize Walk-Up Backpacking Permit Systems

the author's REI tent at a campsite selected through the Canyonlands walk-up backpacking permit system. Hoodoos and clifs in background

Camp from Devil’s Kitchen in Canyonlands NP. Though this site was booked out for months online, there was still another empty campsite next to us.

Dear readers,

I’m going to stand on my soapbox for just a moment. I think walk-up permits are among the hidden gems of our National Parks System, and it would break my heart for them to disappear.

Many parks are already phasing out their walk-up systems in favor of exclusively online reservation systems. While I believe the online lottery has its place, I think there should always be at least a few spots for the last-minute planners who are willing to wake up before sunrise to stand in line.

True, it’s slightly disconcerting to head out on a road trip with no idea where/if you’ll be sleeping in the backcountry that night. However, it adds an extra level of appreciation and adventure to the trip, in my opinion. I’ve also had amazing conversations with rangers and learned about some magical less-visited spots simply by being forced to stop at the ranger station.

If we don’t utilize these systems, they’re all the more likely to disappear over time. Going for a walk-up backpacking permit doesn’t just take pressure off overloaded reservation systems and give you another shot at a coveted hike after your lottery ticket isn’t picked. Doing so also lets the parks know that the public values these systems.

Moral of the Story

walk-up backpacking permit: two smiling hikers seated on a towel in red sandstone desert

Desert joy is unmatched, especially when you’re camping at a site tucked away with a natural spring with only one other group of people.

About a month ago, a good friend and I sat down to plan our spring backpacking trip in Canyonlands National Park. It had been a couple years since I’d planned any overnight in a national park, and I didn’t even consider looking into the permit situation. Many places in Utah where I’ve backpacked don’t require competitive permits.

We realized that everything in the Needles district (where we were hoping to go) was booked for months. I convinced her to trust me with the walk-up system, and we had an absolutely phenomenal trip.

My friend is now also hooked on the spontaneity of just showing up at the ranger’s station and seeing what’s available. We had a fun conversation with the backcountry rangers who helped us and ended up doing a trip we would never have selected for ourselves. She’s already looking forward to her next weekend getaway using this under-utilized system.

Walk-up backpacking permits aren’t just a last resort: they’re a great way to inject spontaneity into your adventure. And for those who can afford some flexibility, they can be a more viable option than uber-competitive permit lotteries.

Featured image: Photo via Katie Kommer. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.

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Comments 3

  • Miner : Jun 23rd

    I do most of my trips as walk ups. I don’t even think about a major holiday til a month or so before as it’s rate that I know what I want to do months before.

    When I did the Wonderland Trail in September 2022, I checked the reservation system every day the week before seeing if there were cancelations of people who submitted a reservation back in spring but weren’t fully committed t going. Mid afternoon on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, before I was to start the long drive to attempt a walk up permit,I managed to reserve an iternary that started Sunday. There had been no openings for Summerland the day before.

    This technique allowed me to get a permit for Glacier National Park last week to start the CDT this weekend.

    When I did rhe JMT in 2017, I put in my lottery request for Labor Day, knowing ut would rollover for awhile. I was able to get September 19 at Happy Isles with Half Dome. This was the ideal starting time for me as late September in the Sierra is my favorite time, and yes, there are a lot less people trying for permits then.

  • EC : Jun 23rd

    Great ideas – thanks!

  • Michael : Jun 24th

    Awesome article. Thanks for the great tips. I am hoping this summer to get a walk up permit to hike the entire Wonderland Trail loop.


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