If you want to backpack in a National Park, you need to plan ahead and get a permit. Or at least that’s what they say.
But planning ahead when you live in a van and don’t have a fixed itinerary is tricky.
Plus, planning ahead requires sending a Fax to the park’s Back Country office and I’m allergic to fax machines.
I did just backpack for two days in the Grand Canyon and here are some logistics that I don’t think are obvious. (I’ll post separately about how worthwhile, epic, amazing the experience was — I’m still processing some of the video).
First, if you’re planning the trip at the last minute then start by calling the backcountry office. Here is the number for the Grand Canyon: 928–638–7875. You want to find out what back country camping spots are still available.
I found calling later in the day was more effective for reaching a live person.
After you’ve talked to the backcountry office, you need to fax them your permit application.
There are a lot of online fax services that let you upload a PDF and then the service faxes that PDF for you. Some of these cost money. I used HelloFax. It was simple and free. I’d recommend it.
The park website will have a backcountry permit form. Just fill that out, add your credit card information, upload it to HelloFax, and press send. Two days later you’ll get an email saying your spot is confirmed.
Then, once you have a confirmed spot, try calling back every day looking for cancellations. This did not work for me. But it did work for my friend Molly, who got her preferred spots just two days before her trip started.
Spring break lasts at least four weeks, maybe more.
This is a busy time in the national parks, but it’s hard to avoid. My friend above, Molly, said it was crowded because of spring break. And now, several weeks later, I’m still hearing that same excuse.
Popular National Parks are just crowded.
You want to carry 4 liters of water per day. That’s about eight pounds of water per day.
I carried six liters for my trip and it was not enough.
If you’re doing an out and back, which is what I did, I noticed some locals pull off a neat trick. They stashed some water half-way down the trail so they could retrieve it on the way back up. I’m sure this is frowned upon.
The rim of the Grand Canyon is packed with tourists, tour buses, cars. However, I didn’t notice that until I was leaving.
That’s because I arrived at 10:30pm. I didn’t see anyone on my way in. There were no rangers at the gate (I just drove straight through). There was no traffic. It was nice to have the entire canyon to myself.
The rules are optional.
I was really anxious about various rules. I forgot to print my permit — I noticed at the last minute that you are supposed to have it printed, in a ziplock bag, and displayed at all times.
However, I did not see a single park ranger on the entire trip.
Continuing on the theme of optional rules, I think the limited camping spots have more to do with parking spaces than camping spaces.
I camped at Horseshoe Mesa and heard from many people that it was booked. But the Mesa is at least 20 acres, and I camped on one leg of the horseshoe without seeing a single person.
There were many through hikers who had stopped short of the Mesa who could definitely have come up and found space.
Last on the theme of flaunting the rules, I didn’t have a reserved camping spot for the night before my hike. I arrived at night, tired. I didn’t want to drive back out of the park and boondock.
So I just parked in the parking lot at the trailhead and slept there. I’m sure this is against park regulations. But I’m also sure those regulations aren’t being enforced.
It’s actually the back country office who clued me in to this. I’d asked if I needed to post a permit on my van. His response, verbatim, “Bro. We won’t notice a car’s been parked too long in the parking lot unless it’s covered in dust and the tires are flat.”
Have there been layoffs at National Parks? If so, this might be an example of smaller government being good. Less rule enforcement and more pressure on you to just be a good, reasonable person.
Hiking poles. This is the first time I’ve used them. They are amazing for taking the pressure off your knees when you have big step downs. My trail had many 2-foot drops.
They’re also great for dragging yourself back up those 2-foot steps.
I use carbon fiber poles from Hiker Hunger. They’re full featured (you’d be surprised how many necessary features you’ll want) and reasonably priced at $69.
Last, I couldn’t get my tent stakes to dig into the ground. No worries, I just weighted the four corners of the tent with big rocks.