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The NPS, backcountry permits, and "excessively dangerous hikes"
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David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
The NPS, backcountry permits, and "excessively dangerous hikes" on 04/28/2010 21:50:26 MDT Print View

In my NPS BC permit collection, I have several from the Grand Canyon that carry the notation: "Excessively dangerous hike. Hiker insisted on itinerary." For any day of 20 miles or more they are obliged by policy to add that. Grand Canyon BC desk staff also gave me a lot of grief when I showed up in mid-August wanting a permit for the Tonto. I got one, but only after a lot of discussion of my experience in the canyon and a lot of lecturing.

It got me thinking about the vicissitudes of obtaining BC permits in parks when ones mileage and seasonal preferences are outside the norm, especially in the litigeous world in which the NPS must live today. In the last few years I have on numerous occasions lied about the route I was going to take in order to secure permits in the locations I wanted. When I wanted to do the Royal Arch route in two days, for instance, I just said I was doing an out and back on the South Bass. In Glacier I've done the same.

It makes me wonder if I ought to be more straightforward, and put up with the lecturing in the short term to make life easier for ambitious hikers in the long term. I'm curious about other folks experience with this, and especially if anyone has ever had a permit request denied due to the perceived risk of a planned hike.

The concrete side of this is that I don't reckon the NPS in Yellowstone is going to be too keen on me going down the Thorofare and across the east side of Yellowstone Lake, by myself and in late May. Lots of bears, snow, and high creek crossings. On the one hand I could say I'm doing an out and back to the one site I need in the park. On the other, I could float the idea and potentially be told I can't do my hike.

All thoughts appreciated.

Mike McHenry
(mtmche2) - F
NPS on 04/28/2010 22:04:57 MDT Print View

I just think its amazing that our NPS can tell you how far is too far and how dangerous is too dangerous. If you believe you are at risk of being told you can't go on your planned hikes, I would continue lying about your itinerary. Who does it hurt?

Miles Barger
(milesbarger) - F - M

Locale: West Virginia
From someone who's issued permits on 04/28/2010 22:51:23 MDT Print View

I spent a summer issuing permits in Yellowstone and am close friends with lots of NPS Backcountry Office staffers.

First: Neither I nor my friends have ever denied anyone a permit for perceived danger. In fact, I was explicitly told that I couldn't stop someone from doing a hike they wanted to do as long as the sites were available and the visitor listened to 'the spiel' (bear safety, river crossings, etc.). Of course, I'm a lightweight hiker who puts in long miles, as are most of my friends, so we're open to pretty much any trip idea.

However, I've certainly run into skeptical Rangers who looked at me like I was a crazy fool and asked a lot of questions before finally, begrudgingly issuing the permit. I feel your pain.

Issuing permits is tricky. While it's ultimately not your job to stop anyone from doing what they want to do, you have experience with people venturing into the park and getting hurt. You and/or your fellow Rangers have likely participated in long, grueling, potentially dangerous search and rescue missions for just such people. And when you only spend 10-20 minutes with someone in an artificial situation, it can sometimes be awfully hard to tell someone who has the experience to pull off big trips from someone who doesn't.

Luckily, however, people often self-categorize by asking certain types of questions, mentioning certain details, etc. "Yeah, I was planning on crossing X River and heading up Y Pass" with no apparent knowledge that X River is literally impassable on foot that time of the season—that kind of detail raises a red flag. You try to help the visitor realize not only that X River is impassable but also other important facts. Many people take this advice, realistically judge their own experience and abilities, and reassess their plan. Some don't. In the end, a good BC Ranger should only be trying to maximize visitors' overall safety and experience.

The difficulty is that it's a person deciding what sounds reasonable and what doesn't, and we all have different opinions about these things. This is unavoidable.

As to whether or not to lie: Most parks won't initiate search and rescue. They'll usually take down some information about you—tent, pack, and rain jacket color and general physical features come to mind—but not keep a record of your exact route. It's your job to make sure someone you know has that information and knows when to initiate S&R. If you don't have questions for the Ranger and feel confident in your ability to do what you're requesting permits for, I don't think you have any responsibility to provide more information than the bare minimum required. If the Ranger seems very unreceptive, I think fudging's just fine. I've certainly done it.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: The NPS, backcountry permits, and "excessively dangerous hikes" on 04/29/2010 01:18:52 MDT Print View

I think a lot of rangers are just trying to help people. They cannot really judge how experienced the hiker is. And if they discourage you, and you are not sure of your skill, you might take their advice.

Over the years I have gotten push back from Mt San Jacinto Rangers when winter hiking, and storms were in the forcast, as it can get downright dangerous. One year a ranger spent twenty minutes trying to talk me out a solo trip. I got pinned down below the peak with several feet of snow in a nasty storm, but was just fine. A couple days later, when the weather broke, a couple rangers made a strenous trip to make sure I was okay (I was the only hiker in the wilderness). I appreciated their concern and dedication.

Cragin Wisner and I are going to do a pretty tough hike in May. Permits are required from two angencies. For the first time ever, I got a call from the NFS to discuss my permit, as the entry and exit did not seem logical to them. When I explained the route, the ranger asked me if I knew how far the hike was on day two and three. I said yes, told her it was 44 miles and had done it before. She said, fine. Just wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
re: permits on 04/29/2010 09:43:54 MDT Print View

Interesting thoughts Miles, I appreciate your experience and insight. In the end I don't like being hassled (which is the exception rather than the rule), but I also don't like fibbing.

Things to think about.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: re: permits on 04/29/2010 10:00:31 MDT Print View

I had a similar "are you crazy!" GC experience at the BC Office. They insisted on something like "...has been advised of the aggressive nature of this hike..."

After I finished the hike I went back to talk to them because I was a little put out by "aggressive". We chatted for about 15 minutes. The folks there at the window said they go round and round, about every six months, on what words to use to indicate the nature of the hike.

They struggle on how to protect, how to convey, and how to CYA. I don't envy their job when "one of us" shows up, and now try to be as open and understanding as possible.

And as mentioned above, if space was available, I've never been denied.

Edited by greg23 on 04/29/2010 10:01:48 MDT.

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
The NPS, backcountry permits, and "excessively dangerous hikes on 04/29/2010 11:37:07 MDT Print View

I encountered this a lot when I was living and working in Glacier Nat'l Park some years ago. Of course I was talking to the same permitting rangers every Thursday night acquiring a permit for my three day weekend so after awhile they began to understand I was apparently a capable hiker.

I think the best solution is to simply answer their questions honestly. If they inform you that your mileage is far longer than the average person respond to them that you understand and perhaps quote what your daily average is. Same goes with difficult terrain, lack of water, and dangerous wildlife. Answer straightforward that you are aware of these concerns and that this is not the first time you've done a trip of this variety.

Lying to the rangers that you're going for an out-and-back hike will ultimately be a bad idea on the off chance that you're stopped by a backcountry ranger during or after the trip who asks to check your permit.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: The NPS, backcountry permits, and "excessively dangerous hikes on 04/29/2010 13:15:28 MDT Print View

Some of us backpack in Yosemite N.P. or Sequoia/Kings Canyon, so we find ourselves going to the same permit stations over and over and getting wilderness permits from some of the same rangers over and over. By the second time within a month, the rangers will recognize me and then not hassle me over details. In fact, they don't even bother to do the required bear canister talk. However, I have often thought that NPS could do something like this. Issue a "frequent flyer" backpacker ID. In the NPS computers for each park, they could record your backpacker history. If they have a newbie with a zero record, then they will have to lecture a bit on details. If they have an old pro with a history going back 20 years, they may skip the lectures. It would save time for NPS and also for the backpacker.


David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
frequent hiker database on 04/29/2010 15:46:40 MDT Print View

I believe that most parks keep records of your permits, in that park and for that year only. Last year in Glacier and Yellowstone I only had to watch the bear safety videos once. A national system would be helpful in that regard.

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: The NPS, backcountry permits, and "excessively dangerous hikes" on 04/29/2010 17:33:42 MDT Print View

"All thoughts appreciated."

Save yourself a lot of grief and lie, Dave. You generally can't reason with bureaucrats. Anything .0005 standard deviations outside their preconceived norms gets a ration of $hit, IME, especially if you're going in solo. It's for your own good, of course. ;}

Miles Barger
(milesbarger) - F - M

Locale: West Virginia
BC Permit Thoughts on 04/29/2010 19:21:04 MDT Print View

"Lying to the rangers that you're going for an out-and-back hike will ultimately be a bad idea on the off chance that you're stopped by a backcountry ranger during or after the trip who asks to check your permit."

Just to be clear, I would never advocate lying about something that is directly regulated and/or important to conservation goals. If a park permits for specific trail uses on specific days, certain peaks, etc. in addition to campsites, those are details you need to provide truthfully, hassle or not. If those things aren't regulated, the BC ranger will just want to see that you have a permit for the sites/units/whatever you are using; everything else should be cool, fun conversation.

As to a national backpacker inventory: Most parks have systems in place for repeat users; I've used such systems in Yellowstone, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Denali. However, a national version of that system would require all parks to agree on the exact same educational criteria to be conveyed for every park in every ecosystem, which isn't feasible.

Hikin' Jim
(hikin_jim) - MLife

Locale: Orange County, CA, USA
The NPS, backcountry permits, and "excessively dangerous hikes" on 05/01/2010 05:10:24 MDT Print View

Thanks for posting about this. I was rather put off a couple of years ago when the ranger at the GC wanted me to stick to the Bright Angel Trail since I hadn't overnighted at the GC before. Explaining to her that I had BP'd before and had been doing so for a number of years didn't seem to go too far. I finally did a trip elsewhere in the area. I guess I should have insisted.


Piper S.
(sbhikes) - F

Locale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
Re: The NPS, backcountry permits, and "excessively dangerous hikes" on 05/01/2010 17:46:42 MDT Print View

I remember I sent away for a permit to hike a section of trail solo. I was inexperienced and expected to get some grief even through the US Mail for wanting to go solo. I wrote something in my application, I forget what, but the ranger just wrote me back to have a great trip. I guess "excessive danger" is relative and I was still at the low end of that.

David T
(DaveT) - F
NPS rangers on 05/01/2010 19:39:51 MDT Print View

I for one appreciate all the hard work those folks do in trying to keep hikers happy, perhaps even alive, with all their route assistance. The only real questions I've ever gotten was heading into the SHR in 2006 while it was "still continuous snow over 9,000 feet" according to the ranger in Kings Canyon. Once I showed her the trip planning, route maps, and let me know about my experience and the equipment we had (crampons, ice axes, etc.) she was fine with signing off on it. I think it's a nice reality check, even for experienced hikers, and I'm sure it's not an easy job, given the huge range of folks that walk up looking for a permit.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: NPS rangers on 05/01/2010 20:45:26 MDT Print View

Yes, most of the time the NPS rangers are doing a good thing when they ask questions of us. One time I went to a Yosemite permit station and asked for a permit to go to XYZ Lake. The ranger thought for a second and asked me where it was (in his park). I pointed to a place on the map and said, "Here."

He looked at the map for a second and then said, "But there is no trail to that lake."

I replied, "Exactly."

He didn't seem to know how to do a wilderness permit from a trailhead where there is no trail.

Ryan Corder
(demo) - MLife

Locale: Arkansan in Seattle
Re: The NPS, backcountry permits, and "excessively dangerous hikes" on 05/05/2010 16:16:47 MDT Print View

I too have had to lie to get a permit. After reading a trail report of the very trail I wanted to go on just a day before, I had the ranger tell me that it was a lie and that it was still under "feet" of snow. No amount of convincing or explaining of my experience was going to get him to grant me permit unless I had crampons, snow shoes, and an ice axe.

I walked out, went to the next ranger station, lied, got my permit and had a wonderful trip. The other hiker's trip report was correct; the closest snow to the trail was about 10 feet away, not feet of it covering the trail.

Kevin Lutz
(mtntrailrunner) - F
Re: The NPS, backcountry permits, and "excessively dangerous hikes" on 05/12/2010 20:08:55 MDT Print View

I too was "hassled" by the GCNP permit for each of my 3 trips there. Just last month I walked into the backcountry office and told the person at the desk that I wanted to hike to the North Rim. The first two words out of his mouth were "you can't"!!!! I had to fill out a special form describing my equipment and my itinerary in detail. I just bit my tongue. A lot of people die in that place. There's a whole book about it. They are just practicing good CYA techniques. The bottom line is, I was never denied the permit I wanted.

Edited by mtntrailrunner on 05/25/2010 17:06:59 MDT.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Re: The NPS, backcountry permits, and "excessively dangerous hikes" on 05/12/2010 20:37:05 MDT Print View

I created an "information sheet" that describes me physically, the clothes I wear, my shoes, by shelter, and my pack. For any trip I just add my itinerary by zones. It's a lot easier to do at home than standing at the window.

I print it, give one to my wife, and when I get to the BCO I hand it to the ranger, who staples it to my appliation.