It’s easy to get excited about backpacking in Glacier National Park’s backcountry, but obtaining a walk-in permit can be a bit stressful and tricky. Here are a few tips and tricks to help out. (Resources below the video.)
Anyone who backpacks in Glacier National Park needs a backcountry permit. They come in two flavors: advanced and walk-in. I’ve already done a video discussing the advanced reservation backcountry permits here including a little bit of overview, so make sure you check that one out. This blog is going to focus on a few tips to get a better walk-in permit.
A walk-in permit is for someone wishing to backpack in Glacier, but hasn’t secured one in advance. To get one, you’ll go into one of the six backcountry permit offices, see what’s available, and formulate a trip. For each backcountry site, about half are reserved for advanced reservations and the other half are saved for walk-in. Below is a list of backcountry permit locations, some tips for getting a trip, and resources to get prepared.
Backcountry Permit Office Locations
- Apgar Backcountry Office – West Glacier
- Polebridge Ranger Station – North Fork
- St. Mary Visitor Center – St. Mary
- Many Glacier Ranger Station – Many Glacier
- Two Medicine Ranger Station – Two Medicine
- Waterton Lakes National Park Visitor Reception Centre – Waterton, Alberta
Tip #1 – Arrive at the backcountry office before 7am
The backcountry offices open at 7am, but lines begin forming earlier than that. While you don’t need to spend the night outside, getting there at around 6am isn’t a bad idea during peak season.
Tip #2 – Know what’s available
Check the park’s Walk-In Availability page to see what’s available. This page has walk-in site availability for about 5 days in advance. Keep an eye on it as your trip gets closer so you can be formulating a plan. They also post walk-in availability outside offices, so you can see what’s available while you’re waiting for the office to open.
Tip #3 – A walk-in permit can be obtained the day before a trip starts
While you might show up at 6am and be first in line, someone the day before might have already picked up the site for that night. You can reserve your first campsite for the following night, so if there’s a trip you have to have, you may need it to begin tomorrow night.
Tip #4 – Know what you want
After you have checked the availability, formulate your plan so when you go in, you have an idea of what you are going to do. While you’re fumbling around with what different options you have, someone else is getting spots. This leads us to tip # 5…
Tip #5 – Have alternatives and backup plans
It’s always a good idea to see what’s available and make your plan, but look for creative ways to have alternatives. A trail may have gotten closed or someone might have snatched up a site from underneath you. Think of ways that you could start a loop at a different spot, do the trip backwards or have an alternative site. Also have a couple of completely different trips thought out. The linchpin site you were going to get suddenly is gone, so you may need to go in a different area.
In addition to the Backpacking Page here on the Hike 734 site, the following resources should help you in planning your backpacking trip:
- Backcountry Permits of Glacier National Park – this is the original blog discussing a couple more details of the permit process
- Official National Park Backcountry Page – This page is the main repository for Glacier’s backcountry office. Here you’ll find their very important Backcountry Guide, campsite availability, trail status and closures, and safety videos that you can watch now or when you pick up your permit
- Walk-in Availability Page – this is the official walk-in availability status for up to 5 days out. Check this as your trip gets closer to begin formulating your plan
28 responses to “Walk-in Backcountry Permits of Glacier National Park”
Thank you for this!
I was wondering though, are walk-in permits just for one night or can you get one for multiple sites and nights?
They are for any backcountry stay, whether an overnight or multiday/multisite trip!
Thanks for clarifying!
Most of your tips are correct however, #3 has a glaring error. Walk-in permits are available up 24 hours in advance. You can get a permit the day before you want to start your trip. Please make this correction on your website.
My apologies. In my head, it made more sense (but 48 hours is wrong) as I know it’s the day before… which is a better way to communicate it. In the video, I can’t change the tip, but I do say it correctly and will annotate it. The site itself has been updated. Thank you for the notification and sorry for any confusion on your end if you’re working with folks getting permits.
Thanks for making the correction. The day before is a way to say that.
Thanks so much for this great website! I just booked ELL in advance and plan to do a 2 day, 1 night across the Gunsight Pass from W to E as part of a stop over in Glacier. Wish I could do a longer trip, but not this time.
We’re arriving mid-day on our first day and plan to head out on our hike the next day. We’re hoping for a walk-up after 3PM to Reynolds for a same-night spot, and are likely going to book a spot in St. Mary’s campground to be sure.
One thing I was wondering: In the Tetons we found it was really easy to wild camp on public land East of the park in the days between when you request a permit and when you can start hiking. Is that true at Glacier? It looks like it’s an Indian Res to the East, so I am not holding much hope.
Did you already get the ELL trip? If you’re trying to get an advanced reservation permit for it, I don’t think you’ll get it as I believe it’s all booked out for the summer for advanced reservation permits. I only tell you that to make sure you have other plans just in case. 😉
As far as “wild camping” east of Glacier, I’m not aware of any place.
Dang. I wish I had other news for you. 🙁
The good news is that you’ll have a great trip! Glacier is amazing. 😀
This website has been so helpful and informational. Thank you for taking the time to post this for all of us. I am planning to go the glacier the last week of Aug with 3 others. I tried to reserve campsites from McDonald to Logan’s pass going over gunsite, but was not able to secure any campsites. Looks like most reservable campsites are also already booked during this time. What are the chances of getting an extended day trip (hopefully a loop, but I could do an out and back) that is 5 nights from the walk-in permits? I’m nervous that we’ll fly out there and there will only be disjointed one night trips, or no campsites available at all. What is your experience with getting extended trips with a walk in permit in late Aug? Thanks so much!
I’ve never gotten an advanced reservation permit during the lottery and now first-come, first-served system. I’ve always either picked up the crumbs left over (twice), but most of the time, I do the walk-in. I think your chances are pretty good. Keep an eye out on the walk-in availability as your trip gets closer and have a few itineraries!
Hi! I am heading to Glacier next week and, unfortunately, didn’t reserve any campsites ahead of time. One question I haven’t been able to find an answer to: Can campsites anywhere in the park be reserved at any permit office? I.e. can a campsite in Many Glacier be reserved from Two Medicine permit office? I am staying in a hotel near Two Medicine and want to start backpacking in Many Glacier the next morning. Because I won’t have a car, I won’t be able to get to Many Glacier until later in the day by shuttle. If I could reserve the spot from Two Medicine I can get there early and have a better chance. Thanks so much!!
Yes you can! Any ranger station can book any campsite. The Two Medicine one is much less busy than the Apgar one, so make sure you know what is available when you go to bed that night, then wake up early and head there with a plan, then hustle with them to make it happen. 😀
thanks a lot! will do
Most of your tips are great but #3 has a glaring error. People can only get a walk-in permit up to 24 hours in advance from their start date. Please make this correction so people don’t come in under false pretenses.
My apologies. In my head, it made more sense (but 48 hours is wrong) as I know it’s the day before… which is a better way to communicate it. In the video, I can’t change the tip, but I do say it correctly and will annotate it. The site itself has been updated.
Does the entire group have to be present to obtain a walk-in permit or just a representative for the group? Thanks!
Just one person who will be considered the trip leader. I would also have everyone watch the videos in the backcountry section of the park’s site. You’ll have to watch them before you can go. If you watch them online, you can let them know you saw them already this year. (and that everyone in your group did as well)
Hi Jake! I’m planning on showing up bright and early the day before my start date to Apgar. How early would you recommend going to ensure I get something on my list (I have 5 backup itineraries)? I was thinking about 6am, or should I be lining up earlier?
6am sounds about right. If you could swing 5:30 at Apgar, it might be even better. Not sure how early the kids are lining up these days. 😉
Thanks for all the great info here! When I look at the Backcountry Campground Status page and it shows a number (1, 2, 3, etc). What does that mean? Is that the number of sites available? How many campers can be on one site? We are a group of 3.
That’s the number of sites available. You can have up to two tents and four people at a site. I’ve found that two tents are cozy and can be a challenge to squeeze in on some sites, but still doable. Complete info here (which I recommend reading): https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm
I received an advanced permit for the northern traverse in Glacier ( Chief Mtn to Kintla Lake). Originially I wanted Many Glacier to Kintla lake via the highline trail. Do you think I should stick with what I have or change. The second half of the trip including Janet Lake, Hole in the Wall and Kintla wont change but the first 2-3 days would
That’s a great trip! You’ll be in the Belly River area which is close to my heart… I love the northern highline too, but you’ll love the Mokowanis drainage. The hardest part of the trip (other than getting the permits) is figuring out shuttles. If you have that and the permits, you’ll have an epic trip. When you get your permit, try to swap Janet to get Francis if it’s available. 😀
I really love hike734. You’ve done some outstanding work. The site has so much information, and it has, so far, been by go-to for beta for my August 2019 trip to Glacier National Park.
I will be arriving in East Glacier Park Village on the 11th on Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Seattle, WA. After applying for a backcountry permit and upon receiving my itinerary, I didn’t get the route that I had wanted, TMC to OLD to ATL to REF (reverse as well). What I did get, based on my “last resort” options, is the Coal-Nyak loop which is less amenable to someone who would like to be mostly car free out of East Glacier Park Village. So, my plan is to rent a car for a day and drive to either Two Medicine ranger station or St. Mary visitor center very early on Aug 12 in an attempt to obtain a permit via walk-in for my preferred route (or slight variation of) with the first night being on the 13th. What are your thoughts on my plan? Would one permitting site be better than the other? Two Medicine would be closer to me, and I assume that both are on the same computer system for permit issuance.
Thank you so much for your website and the wealth of information on it. Me and a group of friends will be coming to GNP in mid-August this year. There are 6 of us total. Unfortunately, we did not hit the lottery with advanced reservations so we plan to get to there super early the day before our trip to try and get walk in permits. We have a primary and many different backup routes ready to go.
One question…When I look at the availability chart in the walk-in availability page I am confused as to what the numbers mean. Is that the number of “sites” available or the number of “people” that can camp at those locations? If it is the number of sites then how many people can camp at each site? I am a bit concerned that with there being six of us this will be a bit tricky but I just want to be prepared on what these numbers mean before we go it.
The number on the availability is the amount of campsites available. Each campsite can have a maximum of four people and two tents. Two tents seems like a squeeze to me on some of the camping pads IMHO. What that means is that you’ll need two campsites for six people.
Thank you for the detailed information, I appreciate it.
I am shooting for walk-up permits during the first week of August. Our dates are flexible. Do you think it is best to apply for permits on a Sunday, and hit the trail on a Monday, or apply for permits midweek and start the trail midweek? We are looking at the northern Loop over 5 days.
Was wondering if which backcountry office you go to will affect how likely you are to get a desirable campsite. We’re going to roll the dice in early Sept on Walk in permit. Will be staying in Lake McDonald the night before. Apgar is by far closest office, but I can get up early and drive to Polebrige or Two Medicine if it would improve our chances.
I guess what I’m asking is if I’m getting up early regardless, am I better off being in line at Apgar at 5:30, or Polebridge at 6:30?