Although snow and frigid temperatures continue to buffet us here in Alberta (and our minds are more on snowshoeing and skiing), winter is when you need to begin thinking about your summer camping adventures.
The summer has many chances for quick overnights, or weekend trips, however, if you’re eager to explore some of the more popular areas of Western North America, it’s something you need to be thinking about now (and in some cases it may be too late).
Many land managers open summer bookings and reservations during the first 3 months of the year. Backcountry reervations are already open in The Grand Tetons, West Coast Trail and Jasper National Park. Starting March 1st you’ll be able to start booking the backcountry in Banff, Yoho, and Kootenay National Parks. Glacier National Park in Montana and Mt Rainier begin accepting permit applications March 15. Yosemite National Park takes permit applications 24 weeks in advance, and Alberta Parks (frontcountry and backcountry) use a rolling 90 day advance booking window (meaning mid May dates are now open). As you can see, many areas start taking reservations early in the year and often, they book up fast. Case in point, the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island is now almost completely booked for he summer.
As you look into various parks and trails, what becomes abundantly clear is that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to advanced reservations. Some areas use rolling windows (e.g. allowing you to book 90 days in advance), others allow the entire summer to be booked at once. Managers often use different methods to manage the number of trail users, some limit the number of daily trailhead starts (such as WCT) with no restriction on what site you can camp at, more comonly you’ll need to book each site along the trail individually. Trail reservations can be based on number of tents, campers, or both. Many managers hold back a number of sites (or starts) for first come first serve, walk ups, while others allow the entire trail to be fully booked ahead of time. Some locations allow you to get your permits immediately, others require you to submit an application for permits which is reviewed, then either granted, adjusted, or denied. Lastly while some parks are fully online, others are only contactable by email, phone (and some cases only by fax). Thankfully most land managers post the details on their processes and particulars online.
What can you do if you’re looking to hike one of the many famous or popular trails this summer?
Many iconic backpacking trails have seen skyrocketing demand in recent years, be it the Wonderland Trail around Mt Rainier, the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park, Yosemite Valley in California or the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. For example, applicants for the John Muir Trail jumped from 14,000 in 2015 to 29,000 in 2016. In a future posting, we’ll talk about how to pick a trail, but once you do, you’ll want to check out the website of the land manager to understand what you need to do, and when you can make an advanced booking.
Trails are generally their busiest on weekends (particularly long weekends). Being able to start a hike mid-week can give you additional options. Some popular trails have nearby trails that offer similar vistas, but are not as well known (or busy), such as the North Coast Trail. These alternatives may be more remote and offer fewer improvements but they can offer a great experience without the name cache. In some cases there may be Crown, or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land just next door that allows random camping or doesn’t require permits. For example, the Alaska Basin in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest offers access to portions of the Teton Crest Trail without needing a permits.
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR CANCELLATIONS
The upside of early bookings is that you can’t always predict the future. Be it an unplanned busy time at work, unexpected family obgations, there are a whole multitude of things that can change when someone books a hike for August in January. If your dream hike is already fully booked, see if the land manager has a waiting list, or check back frequently for any cancellations. Folks have also been known to advertise their permits for sale online if their plans have changed.
Note: Before buying “used” permits, check with your land manager as several do not allow permits to be transferred.
IF YOU’RE TRAVELLING, DON’T COUNT ON WALK UPS
When we travelled to the Tetons in 2016, we were surprised to see the line up outside of the Jenny Lake Ranger Station for walkups. We had pre-booked our permits for the Teton Crest Trail, but for those who hadn’t, many were being offered their 3 or 4 choice of itineraries (even those who had lined up in the middle of the night).
If you need to travel long distances to get to your destination, we strongly recommend booking ahead. The West Coast Trail is another good example, while people generally reported good success with walkups (sometimes having to wait a day or two to start), the increasing popularity of the trail has led to more and more folks being turned away. It will be moreso this year as Parks Canada is now allowing the trail to be fully advanced booked.
The sooner you start planning, the better chance you’ll have in exploring the trails you desire. In some cases, getting permits for popular trals is like getting concert tickets for popular bands (including scalpers).
We’ve already booked Jasper Skyline trail and fingers crossed we’ll get permits for Glacier National Parks Northern Circle route. To avoid dissapointment, start your planning today.
Good luck and let us know how it works out for you.
Canada & US
Our Backpacking Trail Reports are mainly from Western Canada and the United States.
Our 2020 & 2021 backpacking hiking on the Great Divide Trail. View our planning and trail reports for sections A-G.