A Brief Intro to Hiking Permits

A Brief Intro to Hiking Permits

A Brief Intro to Hiking Permits


If you’re a serious backpacker, then it’s likely you’ve had to deal with getting a permit before. However, for someone who may have not had to do it yet, there’s a lot of information out there that can just be confusing. Getting a hiking permit is essential if you’re looking to stay overnight in national parks or wilderness areas. Each park has different rules regarding their permits, and it’s important to do your research long before you plan to hike.

What is a permit?

A permit grants you permission to be in the park, generally after 24 hours. You might wonder why you need permission to play outside. Well, for one thing, a permit is for your safety. By registering for a permit, the trailhead or national park you’re hiking in knows who you are and what you’ll be doing. This helps if you get lost or find yourself in danger.

The other reason is because the government protected land you’re hiking on needs to be conserved. After all, if the land wasn’t maintained or taken care of, you might not be interested in hiking it. Permits help limit the amount of people hiking in a place at once, in order to do some damage control when it comes to keeping the area as beautiful as it’s always been. For more popular areas, a permit is like your ticket. There’s only a certain amount available, and if you don’t get it, you’re not getting into the main event! Simple as that.

What am I getting out of it?

Usually, enforcing rules doesn’t benefit anyone, just that it keeps you out of trouble. However, could you imagine hiking a trail that was so crowded you couldn’t even enjoy it? That would really take away from the whole ‘backcountry’ experience, wouldn’t it? The benefit you get from having a permit means you really get to enjoy your hike in solitude, without having to wait in line to get up that mountain, or meditate in the wilderness without the noise of footsteps bothering you.

When do I need a permit and when do I not need a permit?

Typically, a permit is required for thru-hikes. If you’re going to just hike for the day, it isn’t likely that you’ll need one. However, some hikes, like the one to Half Dome, do require permits even if you’re just going for the day. Of course, if you’re planning on doing rock-climbing, fishing or anything else of that nature, you’re going to need a permit for that as well.

If you’re just going on a casual stroll or camping overnight at a campground nearby to the trail head, it’s again likely that you won’t need a permit.

What happens if I don’t get a permit?

You can’t really say you care about protecting wilderness areas and you don’t care about permits in the same sentence. Failure to obtain a permit means that you’re hiking illegally. There’s no other answer to it. If you get caught, expect to receive a hefty fine and a court date.

hiking permits

How far in advance do I need a permit?

That of course all depends on where you’re going. However, checking as soon as you’re thinking of making a backpacking trip is advisable; roughly around four months in advance. This would be a good time to check for what areas you need one, when to apply, how to apply, and to make sure you guarantee yourself a spot. If you’re planning on going with a group, it’s important to check your destination’s policy on groups. Some are stricter than others, and it’s essential that you give everyone more than enough time to apply. In most cases, you’ll have to make a reservation first, and then follow the steps.

What are the different types of permits?

There’s permits you can get long before hitting the trail, and then there’s others. For example, if you happen to find yourself in the area, you can get a walk-in permit the day before a hike. Of course, there’s no guarantee it would be available, but it doesn’t hurt to try. There’s also first-come, first-serve basis permits, for people who decided last minute they wanted to hike somewhere and a spot is available based on the trail’s quota. There’s also lotteries, which are common for very popular areas during the high season. Again, every place is different (some places only do walk-ins), so get there early!

What should I do before applying for a permit?

Plan, plan, plan. Most permits are for specific areas of a park or trail. Make sure you figure out how many permits you need depending on where you’re going, and try to map out how long you think it would take to get from one point to another. Make sure you have enough time to hit the campsite your permit lists, so you’re not stuck hiking somewhere you shouldn’t be. Also, have a backup plan, so you don’t get disappointed if you can’t get the exact permit you wanted.

How much does a permit cost?

Not much. About $10 per person!

How was your first experience with a permit? Let us know!

hanalarock I'm Hana- a freelance travel writer and teacher who currently lives in South Korea. I'm originally from New York, but have spent the last two years traveling and living abroad. My first time hiking in the US was when I traveled around the country as a teenager. Though, my first adult backpacking trip was a year ago, when I hiked from Thailand down to Singapore for a month. I'm looking forward to many more adventures in the future. Visit my site for more information.