What if you don’t have a permit?

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Home Forums Campfire Trip Planning What if you don’t have a permit?

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    Paul Wagner
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wine Country

    Have you ever gone backpacking without the required permit? Would you? We got to thinking about this after a recent trip to the Ansel Adams Wilderness. We had arranged for our permit to be left for after-hours pickup at the Mono Lake station. But when we got there, the permit box was empty. We looked and looked. Poor Mother Hubbard!

    It wasn't a big deal. We were camping at Silver Lake, about fifteen minutes away, and so we simply got up the next morning and drove back to the ranger station and picked up our permit from a live and slightly apologetic ranger. The phones had been down the night before, and they never got the word from the main office. End result? We hit the trail about an hour later than planned. As we said, no big deal.

    But what if the situation had been different? We once called the El Dorado National Forest to make sure that we could pick up a permit at the trailhead for a trip we were going to make out of Carson Pass. We were assured that it was not a problem–the Carson Pass station was open 9-5 or so. We left home early the next morning, and drove to Carson Pass…only to find that the USFS station up there was not open during the week (This was in the fall. Summer hours may well be different.) The station was boarded up, there was no phone (or cell phone coverage) and not even another car in the parking lot.

    Our only option was to drive another hour or more back down to Placerville, pick up a permit, and then drive back up to Carson Pass and start hiking. We'd already been in the car for more than three hours, and it was now 11:30 in the morning. If we drove to Placerville, we would not get on the trail until 2 p.m. or so. We read the warning signs carefully, all of which stressed that we could not make a campfire (or cook on a stove) without a permit. But we did have our CDF campfire permit. We get one of those every year.

    So we decided to hit the trail. We spent three lovely days in the not yet established Meiss Meadow Wilderness Area, and hiked back out on Saturday afternoon. We'd seen very few people, and by the time we got to the car, we'd forgotten that we didn't have a permit.

    No, we didn't get stopped at the trailhead and arrested. In fact, we weren't noticed at all.

    Clearly, this is not something we would consider in Yosemite National Park or other high traffic and highly regulated areas. And some of the other areas allow you to simply self-registed for a permit at the trailhead. We did that at Leavitt Meadows. But now you know our secret confession. We once backpacked without a permit.

    We expect to appear on the next season of America's Most Wanted.

    Art …
    BPL Member


    I believe the military will soon be lending their unused drones to the Forest Service and Park Service for permit patrol.
    Embedded in the permit is a magnetic strip that can be read from the air.

    Jeffs Eleven
    BPL Member


    Locale: NePo

    I went with a guy who assured me that we didn't need permits and dogs were fine. (had one in our group)

    Guess what we came across on the hike out? -Ranger

    It was awkward, and the ranger said "I don't write tickets" I don't know what he meant- He, personally, doesn't or its not his job. But he gave us a talkin'.

    It was on the west coast (like walk down the beach for miles) and maybe the overall foot traffic isn't so bad. I bet in Yosemite they'll write a ticket in a second.

    I agree its probably fairly foot-trafic dependent. (and a ranger in a good mood prob doesn't hurt) I bet if you told your 'looked for a permit but it was empty" story they'd be OK with it. Especially if you had your other permits. {parking /fire permit (whatever that is)}

    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    If your story sounds true and sincere, "Went on-line, paid the fees, but it wasn't in the box when we looked." you're probably fine even in Yosemite. But in the future, print out all the computer screens and proof of payment forms that say, "this is not a permit, you need to pick up your permit" to show that you went through the process. Toss that stuff once you have the actual permit.

    5 days ago, I saw the Ranger letting people up Half Dome if they could give the name on the permit, but then he an iPad with all the records on it. He also seemed pretty forgiving in that he'd use unused quota (like two from our permit of 6 as only 4 of us made it) to let people without a permit go. But I'd guess he'd grant that only to people who were honest and upfront, "We don't have a permit, we wanted to see how far we could get, and if we keep going that would be lovely." The same Ranger was writing citations to people who summitted early to avoid being checked by catching them on the Subdome or on their return down their cables after he'd come on duty.

    Jim Colten
    BPL Member


    Locale: MN

    believe the military will soon be lending their unused drones to the Forest Service and Park Service for permit patrol.

    NOPE, won't happen, won't need to … at least not exactly.

    The FAA is on the verge of allowing limited use of unmanned autonomous aircraft (UAV) in civilian airspace (limited as to who can do it and other limitations such as maximum altitude). Law enforcement is the next growth area for UAVs and some technical colleges are already piloting certificate programs training folks in their use.

    Nico .
    BPL Member


    Locale: Los Padres National Forest

    My local National Forest, where I do most of my trips, does not require any permits for backcountry hiking other than having a free CDF Campfire permit on you. There's no quotas to worry about, or fees, or reservations, etc. Heck, I have yet to even see a paid USFS Ranger out in the backcountry in my local forest.

    Anyway, I've become so used to not needing permits that I sometimes forget to apply for one when heading out on trips in other areas. It's always turned out to be a non-issue. Most of my Sierra trips are late in the fall and the Rangers (along with the hikers) seem to be long gone for the season.

    In the last few years, the couple of times we obtained a permit, we never came across anyone during the trips that asked to see our permit(s).

    Seems like it's more of an issue in high profile areas (like the NPs) or during high season (June-Sept). Early or late season, or when visiting an off the beaten path area or trail, I'm not sure anyone is around to care…

    Anyway, I'll be doing a trip in a few weeks behind Mammoth. Since it will still be September, I'll probably take the time to grab a walk-up permit… just in case…

    Bob Gross
    BPL Member


    Locale: Silicon Valley

    Many years ago, the first time that I was in a national park, the wilderness ranger saw me and asked to see my permit (which I had). That reinforced to me to always have a permit where they are required.

    I've watched backcountry rangers in Yosemite enforcing the permit rules. In some cases, they are carrying a sidearm, and that keeps the offenders from getting too belligerent.


    Paul Wagner
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wine Country

    As a result of this conversation, I have learned that in Carson Pass, you only need a permit if you hike SOUTH inthe the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.

    If you hike NORTH, as we did, you only need a valid USFS campfire permit.

    Which, I believe I mentioned, we already had.

    Dang. Still perfect. :>)

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