Glacier Park Backcountry Permits/Reservations: How It All Works

Glacier National Park

Glacier Park

Glacier Park Backcountry Permits & Backcountry Campground Reservations How It All Works

Wild Goose Island on St. Mary Lake, Glacier National Park

Hiking In Glacier Park: View of Heavens Peak from Highline Trail.

Anyone camping in the backcountry of Glacier National Park must have an NPS backcountry permit to do so.  This permit specifies where you will be camping each night, and this itinerary cannot be changed once your hike has begun.  Also, keep in mind that there are two types of permits:  Advanced Reservation or Walk-in.  Each backcountry campground has approximately half of its sites available for advanced reservation, and the other half available for walk-in.  

Advanced Glacier Park Backcountry Reservation Permits

The advanced reservation permits are based on a “first-come first-serve” basis, and can only be applied for online.  The deadline for advanced reservations are typically in the month of March.  Advanced Reservation Permits are highly sought after, and there will be many people competing for the same itinerary.  So to even have a fighting chance to get the itinerary you want, you need to submit your application as soon as possible once they begin accepting the applications.  And because there are so many applications that need to be processed, it is not uncommon to have to wait a month or more to hear back from the NPS on whether you got what you wanted, or not. 

Shannon on the Stoney Indian Pass in Glacier National Park.

The application will ask for 4 different choices of itineraries, the first being the one you truly want.  The second choice is an itinerary you can live with, and so on and so on.  When you hear back from the NPS, you might have gotten EXACTLY the hiking itinerary you wanted, or one of your alternate itineraries.  You may also end up with an itinerary that was put together by the NPS if none of your other options were available, so you at least have something.  There is also a chance that you won’t get anything that you want or you may not get anything period.  It all depends on your competition.  If enough people around the country or the world want exactly what you want, and the NPS received their applications before yours, then that’s the way it goes.

Backpackers at Fifty Mountain along the Northern Highline Trail in Glacier Park.

Glacier Park Backcountry Walk-In Permits

Each backcountry campground also has walk-in availabity each night in addition to the advanced reservations.  Appoximately half the sites at each backcountry campground are set aside for walk-ins, and these permits are available the day before or the day of your trip starting date.  This sounds great, but the reality is that there are six backcountry permit offices located throughout the park, and there are hikers waiting in line when they open these offices up in the morning.  Because of this, the walk-in permits get snatched up really fast, so you need to get up really, really early, especially for the popular hikes, and hope for the best.  (We’ve stood in line several hours before the office opened to try and get what we wanted.  The other challenge is the fact that backpackers taking longer trips, typically 4 or more nights, may snatch up these walk-in sites well in advance.  So even though walk-ins are available, you may still have a challenge getting what you want.

Link To Glacier Park NPS Official Backcountry Camping Page

Choosing Your Glacier Park Backcountry Campgrounds

Choosing which campgrounds to use completely depends on how many miles you feel you and your party can comfortably travel in a single day.  For example, the Stoney Indian Pass Trail has many backcountry campgrounds along the Cosley River Valley that are fairly close together.  Some are only 2 to 3 miles apart.  So when you’re planning this hike, determine what distance you want to cover in a day, and then choose the campgrounds accordingly.  And obviously, it depends on whether you want to make this hike a 3 day hike, a 4 day hike or longer.  Many times, it’s entirely your decision which campgrounds best work for you.  On the flip side, there are trails that give you absolutely no choice as to which campgrounds to choose from. The classic example of what we’re referring to is the Highline Trail.  There are only two campgrounds (Granite Park and Fifty Mountain) between the 27.2 expanse from Logan Pass to the Kootenai Lake Campground near Goat Haunt.

Shannon at Mokowanis Lake Campground along the Stoney Indian Pass Trail.

“Frankenstein” Itineraries

If things aren’t going well as far as getting either advanced reservations or walk-ins, the NPS will help come up with what we call a “Frankenstein” itinerary, where you will be camping and hiking in all sorts of directions and configurations.  Some of these “Frankenstein” itineraries have hikers crossing three passes, or having an extremely long hiking day that is really beyond a normal, enjoyable day.  Our advice to you is to carefully look at these “Frankenstein” itineraries anc make sure you don’t end up hating the trip because it’s so spread out or too physically demanding and/or senseless.

Link To Glacier Park NPS Official Backcountry Camping Page

Glacier Park Backcountry Campground Layout:

Tent Site Areas
Every backcountry campground in Glacier Park is laid out just about the same. Each campground has individual tent sites where hikers can grab any available one they want  because they are all based on a “first come first serve” basis each night, regardless if you have a reservation or if you’re a walk-in.  Some campgrounds provide a fair amount of privacy, whereas other campgrounds have everyone right next to one another with no trees in between.  The number of tent sites vary from two to five.

Pitching our tent at Mokowanis Lake Campground on the Stoney Indian Pass Trail.

Food Storage Area
Every backcountry campground provides a place to hang your food, whether it be a cable strung between two trees, or a tall metal pole with place to hook your storage bag to via a long skinny pole.  Whichever the case, you will need to bring a 25 foot rope with you to properly hand your food... And here’s one of the NPS backcountry rules:  Hang your food first before you go to your campsite to prepare your camp.  Food is not allowed at your campsite at any time.

Food Preparation Area
Every backcountry campground as a central food preparation area where all meals are to be prepared.  FOOD IS NOT ALLOWED AT YOUR TENT SITE.  There are wooden benches or large tree stumps for everyone to sit on, and some of these food preparation areas have a firepit in the middle of it for hikers to enjoy.  Near the food preparation area is a place to hang your food, whether it be a tall metal pole or a cable running across two trees.  If you like socializing, you’ll love this set up.

Food Preparation Area and Food Storage Area at Kintla Lake Head on the Boulder Pass Trail.

If you don’t like to be around other people during your wilderness experience, sorry to say but you’ll just have to put up with it, no matter how uncomfortable you are.  And it’s a lot easier to be nice to everyone instead of being stand-offish.  Our tip to everyone is this: Be nice, and if you sense someone at the food preparation area isn’t being very sociable, stop trying to talk to them and leave them alone.  It’s kind of like sitting on an airplane.  Most people can immediately tell if the person sitting next to them wants to talk or wants to be left alone. Be respectful of other people’s space and desire for privacy.

Link To Glacier Park NPS Official Backcountry Camping Page

Final Thoughts

The process of making your Glacier Park Backcountry Campsite Reservations, and the whole Glacier Park Backcountry Permit Process can be a bit unnerving.... so stay calm, do your homework, and hope for the best.  In the last several years, more and more people are wanting to hike in the Glacier Park Backcountry, and therefore it's becoming more and more difficult to get the Glacier Park Backcountry Itinerary that you want.  By understanding how the system works, this will help you at least get SOMETHING that you can look forward to.  Choose your alternative itinerary choices wisely.  And we realize that the Glacier Park Walkin Permits are great if you have time to be flexible.  But we understand that you're probably vacation in Glacier for a week, maybe a little longer, and there is not a lot of wiggle room to make a walk-in permit plan work for you.  All we can say is be flexible, come up with alternative itineraries in case your first choice doesn't pan out, and cross your fingers.

Our Favorite Glacier Park Multi-Day Hikes

Hikers just beginning their Glacier National Park backcountry hiking adventure.

Hikers just beginning their Glacier National Park backcountry hiking adventure.

Shannon at Sue Lake Overlook, Glacier National Park

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