Unpacked: Reservations Required

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable Unpacked: Reservations Required

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    Mark Wetherington
    BPL Member


    Locale: Western Montana

    Companion forum thread to: Unpacked: Reservations Required

    From first-come, first-served to limited lotteries and everywhere in between, permits are increasingly becoming a fact of life for backcountry adventures

    Jenny A
    BPL Member


    Locale: Front Range

    Interesting article, and very timely.  The year 2019 might be remembered as the last year it was possible to plan a spur of the moment camping or backpacking trip to many destinations that used to be relatively easy to access, at least in Colorado.  Covid has changed all that, probably forever, and it is sad.   I’m not sure that requiring reservations for everything is the best answer, and it has some unintended consequences, one of which is  pushing people ever further into areas that don’t require reservations.  As those areas get trashed, they reservation system follows in an ever-expanding circle of areas requiring reservations.  I predict that the days of dispersed camping on ANY public land ANYWHERE will be only a fond memory in the not-too-distant future.

    In my own quest to try to make some plans/reservations for this summer, it has occurred to me that the reservation system itself is antithetical to the idea that our parks, forests, and outdoor spaces exist for all to enjoy.  Rather, it caters to those who can plan far in advance, have fast internet connections, can plunk down a chunk of change for a reservation, have flexibility in their schedules, can work at a computer where they can hit “refresh” every few seconds, or can check their cell phone every few moments.   In other words, people with the luxuries of time and money.   It was very difficult to try to reserve a backcountry site in Rocky Mountain Park because I HAD TO WORK during the initially posted reservation openings.   Or, if you want to pay for it, there is at least one app that notifies you when/if a desired camping spot opens up in a place you want to go.   The more you pay, the more options you will have.  Awesome.

    And I’m sorry, but I don’t see that dumping millions of more people into the outdoors so they can somehow magically appreciate it and care for it and behave themselves is really working.  Quite the opposite.

    As someone who grew up with the luxury of NOT having to make online reservations to go anywhere, I am not happy or optimistic.

    BPL Member


    I know National Park visitation is up, but are more people going backpacking now than in the past? Is the use more concentrated? Are we more sensitive to land damage? This website shows the number of US backpackers increasing by about 50% from 2006 to 2019, but I don’t know how accurate those numbers are or how they’re calculated:

    I personally observed a large increase in hikers/backpackers in my area last year (due to COVID). Now it seems like that bump has faded and trails are mostly back to normal.

    One of the most frustrating things about reserving permits is that it’s mostly done on and the fees they collect don’t go to the public land area your permit is for.

    Philip Tschersich
    BPL Member


    Locale: Kodiak Alaska

    I just did a quick reservation check of 8 of Alaska’s Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge public use cabins for July, August, and September. Of 736 total possible reservation nights, as of right now 145 (20%) are booked. The Bluefox Bay cabin (the most beautiful location and best for exploring in my opinion) currently has 11 nights out of the next 92 reserved. And I’m not even talking about KNWR wild camping which is totally permit free and completely unregulated. The AK State Parks cabins on Shuyak Island are similarly languishing with few visitors, and again, no permits for visiting or camping.

    “I predict that the days of dispersed camping on ANY public land ANYWHERE will be only a fond memory in the not-too-distant future.”

    No, not everywhere.

    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    I always just got a same day permit at the wilderness center when I hiked out of Tuolumne meadows, which I did a LOT over decades. And only twice that I recall did I ever have to wait a day before starting.

    –I hiked solo

    –often the rangers knew me

    –I would rise early and be at the entrance station on 120 just before noon

    –I was polite and undemanding and carried a canister

    –I would enter on a week day

    –on the two occasions when the trailhead I wanted was full, I slept at the backpackers site and showed up at the wilderness station an hour before opening and got a permit. A number are always held for same day hikers.

    So this notoriously overbooked trailhead location was actually a breeze to enter on the same day that I drove up.  It was really just a matter of becoming familiar with the system and learning how to work it.

    Jenny A
    BPL Member


    Locale: Front Range

    It is hopeful that not all areas are as crowded as what we are seeing here.  Enjoy them.

    Karl Keating
    BPL Member


    I hike chiefly in the Sierra Nevada and Grand Canyon. The latter still uses a clumsy permit reservation system in which you must mail in or fax in your application, and then it can take weeks to learn whether the hike you applied for is available. Some national forest jurisdictions in the Sierra Nevada have permit reservation systems that are little better, while others–particularly Inyo National Forest, which I use most often–have moved to

    Overall, I’m pleased with, though the site isn’t as well structured as it could be. The cost of a permit is trivial: the several permits I’ve obtained for this summer cost me $11 apiece, a tiny fraction of what I’ll spend in gas money to reach the trailheads. No one, I’m sure, has had to forgo a backpacking trip solely because of the permit fee.

    There is an unavoidable tension between wanting more Americans to learn about and to enjoy the wilderness and having them actually take up the offer and “crowd out” those who have been hiking the backcountry for years. Unless we’re willing to settle for unrestricted numbers, permits are a necessity.

    Rex Sanders
    BPL Member


    Managing agencies have required permits on popular Western U.S. whitewater rafting rivers for decades. Some keep changing the rules, like the Grand Canyon, due to extreme popularity. At one point, they had a 20-year private-boater waiting list! On others, your chances of getting a randomly-drawn permit in the “peak season” are 1% or less, like the Middle Fork Salmon River in Idaho. I watched many progress from overloaded call-in lines, to mailed forms, to faxes, to online applications of varying infuriation.

    As others have mentioned, you learn to play the games to increase your chances. And I wouldn’t want to see a free-for-all in any of those places. I’ve spent too much time on other rivers where you could almost walk from raft to raft for a quarter mile (400 meters) or more.

    Many companies with very expensive commercial permits set aside some trips or seats for less-privileged groups. Maybe The Authorities should reserve a certain percentage of all wilderness permits for guided trips of less-privileged groups?

    — Rex

    Jerry Adams
    BPL Member


    Locale: Oregon and Washington

    They just started requiring online reservations to a limited number of permits for each trailhead in Three Sisters and Mt Jefferson Wildernesses

    I’ve been hiking there for years and I don’t think the use is so heavy as to justify

    There are some areas like Green Lakes or Jefferson Park that only allow camping in designated sites.  That seems reasonable.

    I’ve always been able to find places to camp that offered some amount of solitude.  I just stay away from Green Lakes and other overly busy areas.

    I think the Forest Service has over-reacted by restricting entry at all trailheads

    Instead, they should figure out how to deal with crowds.  Make trails wider.  Develop new trails nearby.  Let people know which areas are busier so if someone wants more solitude they can go somewhere else.

    Also, there should be scientific studies whether wildlife populations are long term stable and whether humans walking around in the wilderness are causing a big problem.  I can think of a couple trails that are seasonally closed because birds are nesting nearby, that makes sense.  Humans mostly stay on trails, which are a tiny amount of the total area of the wilderness so probably aren’t a big factor, but this should be studied.  I’ve seen many animals walking on trails so in some ways we’re actually making it better for animals.

    Paul Wagner
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wine Country

    Good article.  I am willing to accept a “2% chance” of getting that perfect campsite, if it means that said campsite will be uncrowded and clean.  I certainly prefer that over the same campsite, overrun with people and trash.  As noted, many places already have reservation systems in place, and we’ve never really been disappointed because we couldn’t get the exact spot we wanted.  We’ve always been able to get out and enjoy ourselves, wherever we’ve been.

    And yes, I tend to hike weekdays, small groups, and less famous destinations.  I don’t think what I see in the wilderness is measurable less wonderful than those who do the John Muir Trail with its attendant crowds (not to mention PCTers on the same route.)

    Should we tell people about the places we go?  We do.  We post them on our website (backpackthesierra,com) along with nearly 200 other trips we’ve taken.  We think that spreads out the attention, and prevents one single trip or place from becoming the prime icon of social media.  And we also stress the LNT principles from beginning to end–which is the one area your article could address more fully.

    LNT means more than just leaving a clean campsite.  It means being considerate of others and of the wilderness. And that includes everything from boom boxes to making reservations for trips that you never take.

    We’re all in this together, and we all need to act like we know that.

    Scott Chandler
    BPL Member


    Locale: Reno area

    And then there are places like the Wind River Range where no permits are (or at least weren’t) required, so they have no idea of impacts on the range, yet on the mainstay trails there isn’t a single piece of downed wood in sight, there are fire rings everywhere and there is no shortage of trees chopped off by someone with a ring saw. In other words, it’s overused and there is no interest in finding out if usage correlates with clear impacts.


    AK Granola
    BPL Member


    Great article for stimulating conversation about public land; it’s always good to discuss how to manage them. Perhaps eventually we’ll stop letting a few people or corporations utterly destroy them for personal profit, and come to agreement that they truly belong to all of humanity.

    One assumption made in this article was “There’s enough public land for all of us” and I question that statement. Is there enough, as our population continues to boom? As more people discover that buying crap or eating crap doesn’t make them healthier or happier, they may discover that being out in nature does do both. There may in fact not be enough public land to satisfy 300 million “peak baggers.” I have a hypothesis that as people new to the outdoor life get used to being out there, those who stick with it gradually find that it wasn’t bagging the peak or counting the parks and checking them off a list that really made the experience more satisfying. But the consumption-oriented backpacker may not be content with the lesser known places until they’ve “bagged” the more popular trails first. Americans are acquisitive people; we always want more. Until we can change our mindset from “gimme” to “let’s share” we will see the permit system as necessary in more and more places.

    Philip – don’t give away our secrets up here! shhh.

    Karl Keating
    BPL Member


    Allow me to make a few precisions here, if I may:

    1.  The article is about reservations for permits on lands overseen by agencies such as the National Park Service and the national forests. For decades there have been no cases of “a few people or corporations utterly destroy[ing] them [public lands] for personal profit.” Whatever the agencies’ inefficiencies, they have protected the lands under their purview well. There has been no “utter destruction” by private interests in any national park or forest.

    2. “Is there enough [public land], as our population continues to boom?” The population of the U.S. isn’t booming. From 2010 to 2020 the increase was 7.4%, the slowest rate recorded since the census began in 1790. All of that increase can be attributed to immigration, legal and illegal. Without immigration the U.S. population actually would have decreased during the last decade.

    obx hiker
    BPL Member


    Thank you Mark for a well-researched, nuanced and balanced article! What a complicated, timely and controversial subject. At first glance I skipped right on by thinking it was an article about some trip you had taken. Haha

    Thanks to Karl ^^ above for pointing out or clarifying that the cause is almost certainly the increased numbers of people using natural outdoor recreational ‘sites’; not some dramatically increased population.

    Plus the numbers of international vacationers visiting the same outdoor recreation sites has virtually plummeted to zero. I am aware first hand of tourism related businesses in the southwest where this is having a tremendous impact. A significant # of their annual guests/clientele came from international travel during July and August when many Americans would generally not prioritize travel to the “hot” southwest.  Here in the thick of a large East Coast tourism mecca connected to outdoor recreation (the beach… it’s all about the beach!) we are so slammed that in the face of the kind of demand that would normally have restaurant owners jumping for joy instead they are forced to close 1 or 2 days per week due to to being unable to staff-up to meet the over-whelming demand and one popular local spot just shuttered completely because they couldn’t staff up to operate. We’re almost drowning in success.

    My strong suspicion? belief? theory… is that social media and the desire to self-promote as well as the desire to participate or personally experience something or someplace discovered via social media that was really appealing is the big driver of both the obviously increased use as well as the increased limitations through permits. My perception is that demand driven use, particularly of the more remote but spectacular locations as well as use of appealing and more accessible near-country sites ( you can get there in a day or 10 miles)  has been significantly growing driven by social media. Then we had sort of a shot-gun wedding with this once in a lifetime covid experience that eliminated other recreational outlets/diversions; also created more fluid job/work and also parenting/schooling situations for parents. The relative safety of outdoor recreation during covid was like a giant booster rocket to the already launched social media driver for outdoor recreation.

    The article discussed the effect of social media on the types of situations and locations that are having a detrimental affect on the backcountry experience, and provided helpful inks to several useful, informative and thought provoking articles and sites.

    It’s a lot to digest. Did the outdoor world as we know it (and maybe just the world writ large*) really completely change starting in 2020?  So far apparently. It’s hard to believe when one steps back and considers.

    Thanks for a really great and thought provoking article.

    PS: Agree as well with JS Scott that there are almost always ‘work-arounds’; particularly if one is willing to walk past that 10 mile/2000 feet etc and so forth barrier/border. OTOH certain spots within somewhat easier access are definitely being wayyy way way over-used and more than trivially damaged.

    BPL Member


    Locale: The West is (still) the Best

    Think if an area is getting trashed a permit system should be considered.  This could result from more use-caused erosion to actual trash.   However,  I’d be leery of wide-ranging permits, if the problem area is relatively small geographically, as it runs contrary to the idea of wilderness.

    Those are permits to minimize overuse which were started, in part, to prevent trashing of the Grand Canyon in the ‘70s reportedly.

    Permits to minimize danger and potential rescue/recovery were debated even before then (the late founder of NOLS was a proponent in the ‘60s iirc).  Of course now there’s miniature cameras (where use can be “tagged” to a license plate for example) and trailheads start where public roads end with no expectation of privacy (getting into another topic though).

    Ben Kilbourne
    BPL Member


    Locale: Utah

    Great article Mark!

    Jane Baack
    BPL Member


    Another problem that can occur with “reservations/permits required” is that some people don’t cancel their permits/reservations when their plans change, etc. Some cancellations cost more than the original reservation/permit cost. On a May backpack trip at Pt. Reyes National Seashore I noted that several campsites near ours were empty yet had listed Coast Camp as “full”, no sites available. This is so discouraging when so many people want to get out there after the fire last Aug.-Sept. I have found that to be true in a few other locations, too, especially at Trailhead campgrounds used before heading out on a backpack trip. Wilderness permits for Yosemite backcountry trips are inexpensive and can be reserved months ahead of trip start. If plans change, not all backpackers cancel their coveted permits.

    Logan K
    BPL Member


    Locale: Florida

    Thanks for a great article! This topic has been one of the biggest adjustments in moving from Maine to FL actually. It seems like everything down here has to be reserved well ahead of time, which plays havoc with my last-minute planning style or habit. In my limited view, places down here not requiring reservations (Hidden Pond in Ocala NF, for example) are where issues arise, so I see the benefits, though the required longer-range planning has really proved tough for me personally.  I also see popular areas being overrun and loved to death here as well.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have much in the way of solutions to offer – I suspect the trend of tighter regulation by management agencies will have to continue and increase. It would be helpful if there was only one reservation platform serving “everywhere” though I suppose.


    Rex Sanders
    BPL Member


    Can’t remember the name of the private web site that monitors the California State Park reservation system looking for cancellations. Sign up with them for text or email notices when your desired spot becomes available. But don’t dally, even cancellations go fast now, thanks to this new service. Free for a few notices, pay monthly for more.

    So if we want to maximize packing of parks, wildernesses, trails, and campgrounds with higher-income tech-savvy people, that’s one solution.

    — Rex

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