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How to obtain a backcountry camping permit


A backcountry permit is required for any overnight camping that you hike to within a national park. It is usually a piece of paper or tag that you attach to your backpack, tent, or hang up at your designated campsite. You are required to make a reservation first, then the obtain your permit at the park visitor center (or online in some cases). You are not allowed to simply pay a park entrance fee, bring your camping gear, and set up your campsite wherever you'd like. That is illegal and you will get slapped with a hefty fine for camping illegally in a national park. It is important to visit and/or to learn what is required to obtain a backcountry permit.

This guide here is a basic overview of what the process typically looks like, and some tips on what to look for when obtaining a permit and selecting a campground. Keep in mind, a reservation is NOT a permit. A reservation simply holds the campsite in your name, and you must pick up the permit 24-48 hours in advance. Permits are typically not available prior to that designated window.

Table of Contents

  1. Advanced Reservation Permits

  2. Walk-in Permits

  3. Lottery Permits

  4. Fees for Permits

  5. Campsite Regulations

  6. Selecting a Campground



Every National Park has a slightly different system

Some campsites may be reserved in advance, while others only offer a first-come first-serve basis within 24-48 hours of your desired trip date, or require you to enter a lottery system. This can be confusing. I will go over the process for all of these different options to obtain a permit.

Advanced Reservations

This is of course the easiest, and most stress free way to reserve your campsite. You simply go online to the national park backcountry permit site ( or, fill out the dates you wish to stay overnight, select the campground, and check for availability. Easy, right? Well, yes and no. Yes because less populated national parks offer this and its very easy to secure a campsite. No because the more populated parks (Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, etc.) either do not offer advanced reservations, or require you to secure a permit 24-48 hours prior to your trip as a first-come first-serve basis. Other camping options may require advanced reservations VERY FAR in advance. For instance, if you want to hike down into the Grand Canyon and stay at Phantom Ranch, a lodge at the bottom of the canyon, reservations open 14 months in advance and fill up in a matter of hours, sometimes even minutes!

Walk-ins (First-come First-serve)

This is a great method to obtain a backcountry permit. A majority of National Parks set aside nearly half of all backcountry permits for walk-ins. These can be obtained from the park visitor center as early as day-of, or 24-48 hours prior to your trip. Depending on the time of year and National Park, there can be a line of hikers waiting for the park visitor center to open to secure their backcountry permit. So it is best to arrive early, up to an hour or two before the visitor center opens. You can call the day before and ask how many people are being granted permits versus how many are being denied. That way, you can gage how early you'd need to stand in line to get a permit. Now, this can be an issue if you are flying in from elsewhere and planned on beginning your hiking trip the very next day. If you are obtaining a walk-in permit, be sure to check the park's site on how early you can secure a permit. Be prepared to tack on one or two extra days to your trip to accommodate for the "24-48 hour waiting period" of obtaining your permit and beginning your hiking trip.

Lottery System

Lottery systems are offered at some of the more well-known National Parks, like Grand Canyon National Park and Yellowstone National Park, in lieu of advanced reservations. Here's how a lottery system works: A window of dates open (let's say, Jan 1 thru March 15) where you can apply for a backcountry permit and select the campsite of your choice for future dates that year. You print out the form online through or and fill it out, choosing a few date options. Then you fax, mail, or email it to the appropriate park office via the information provided on the form. All lottery applicants that submit their form by the March 15 date, are entered into the lottery and drawn at random. If selected, you will received your reservation (not permit) via email or mail with the dates of your trip in the few weeks after the lottery is drawn. You will receive your backcountry permit 24-48 hours prior to your trip date either emailed or in-person at the park visitor center. If you are not selected for that lottery, or you submit your application after the window closes, you will be entered into another lottery, entirely at random, regardless of the date you submitted your application. You may get lucky, or you may not. Either way, if you do not win a permit via the lottery system, you can still obtain one as a walk-in.

Fees for a backcountry permit

Fees for a backcountry permit vary by park, but they are inexpensive across the board. An advanced reservation may cost $25 + permit can be anywhere from $3-$15 per person per night. If you walk-in, you don't have to pay the reservation fee, so you just pay for the permit. Example - I hiked in the Grand Canyon for 1 night with 3 people. We received a walk-in permit after being denied the lottery, so I only had to pay for the permit. The cost was $8 per person per night. So for all 4 of us, it only cost me $32.

Campsite Regulations

Every National Park has designated campsite areas (i.e. you cannot pitch a tent anywhere), so be sure you have properly located your campsite when you arrive and have your permit visible for the park ranger to see. Each campsite has a maximum limit for the number of people and stock allowed per night. These vary from 1-6 people, or sometimes more for designated group sites. Some parks allow campfires and provide firepits in designated areas. Others do not allow fires, so please be aware, as starting a fire in an illegal area can cost you a fortune in fines, not to mention potential wildfire damage. Most campsites provide food storage and/or food storage poles to protect against bears and other animals from digging through your food/trash.

Things to be aware of when selecting a campground:

1. Campground appearance 

  • Is there shade?

  • Is the ground made of dirt, clay, or rocks?

    • This is important for the kind of stakes you need​

  • Is there running water nearby, like a river or creek?

    • This may attract animals, but also great to cool off after a long day of backpacking​

2. Bathroom situation

  • Is there a bathroom?

    • If so, showers?​

  • Is there an outhouse?

  • Is there a designated area to do your business?

3. Food/Water​

  • Is there a firepit?

  • Is there a designated food preparation area?

  • Are there designated trash bins?

  • Is there a park table nearby?

  • Is there a water filling station?

4. Lodging nearby

  • Some campgrounds are located near park lodging where other tourists are staying. Usually these are found closer to roads, and not as common in the backcountry. However, some parks offer backcountry lodging that you hike to and/or use mule to transport your belongings

  • In this case, if you are camping near a lodge, you may be able to grab a hot meal (a reservation may be required) - check park site or call the backcountry office to confirm

  • Example - On the Grand Canyon backpacking trip, we stayed at Bright Angel Campground, which is very close to Phantom Ranch Lodging at the bottom of the Canyon. We were able to reserve, in advance, a hot breakfast for the second day and a sack lunch as well

When backpacking in the backcountry, please remember to be respectful of the wilderness and other hikers along the way. Be sure to clean up after yourself, and leave nothing behind but your footprints.

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