I recently read an article stating that to access Banff National Park, you need several permits: A park permit, a backcountry permit and, if you want to, a fire permit. I also read about these permits frequently on TGO, for example here and here.

For me, this system is completely new, since everywhere I visited so far things either had been allowed without permit or forbidden (maybe apart from fishing, but I never did that). In my understanding, a permit is something you apply for, and which can be declined.

How can I understand the concepts of these permits? Are they more like a fee or can the permit be declined? Do I get a piece of paper I need to carry around?

I understand some of the answers may vary for different types of public land, for the US and Canada or even for different national parks. I try to understand the general concept.
Also, I know this question is very close to the first linked question, When do I need a permit to go into nature?, but I want to know how this system works/looks like from a practical point of view rather than when I have to care about it.

  • to be clear, a national park is not public land. One of the ways you can tell that is the need for a permit to camp on it. Crown land in Canada is public and you don't need permits. Commented Jul 24, 2014 at 12:38
  • @KateGregory thanks for that addition. I used "public" in the sense of "owned by the state/country/crown/public", but that is probably not very accurate or just plain wrong. Commented Jul 24, 2014 at 13:06
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    In Canada Public or crown land is understood to mean government owned land that is generally open for any non destructive recreational use ie, camping, hunting, 4x4ing. Park land, while technically public is generally heavily restricted in what you are aloud to do. National parks often require payed access passes, but often are better developed and supervised than say, a forestry campsite. Commented Dec 13, 2020 at 7:43

2 Answers 2


As I understand it the permits have a couple of goals:

  1. It's a revenue stream to pay for the maintenance of the areas
  2. It's a way of controlling numbers
  3. It's a way of enforcing that the person with the permit has an understanding of the activity they are undertaking and has agreed to some kind of terms and conditions for said activity, it also means that if you don't have a permit or break these conditions you can be convicted
  4. Counting people in and out to ensure people return when expected (sometimes this may trigger a search)

Different permits cover slightly different aspects of the above, for example a fire permit covers all three, a park permit is primarily a revenue stream, a back country/hunting permit is primarily about limiting numbers, etc.

The US's complex justice system also makes it easier to prosecute people if there is some kind of formal system that people have signed up to.

Yes, if you have a permit you need to carry it around.

Yes, some permits may be declined, this is typically because of numbers, i.e. they will only allow x number of people a wild camping permit from y trail head, so the area doesn't become saturated.

  • 2
    Usually the permits may be bundled; e.g. for a backcountry trip in Yosemite your wilderness permit also acts as your campfire permit and hits all three of Liam's points. (Yosemite also has a separate park entry fee.)
    – requiem
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 17:28
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    also for backcountry trips the permits not only ensure there will be a campsite for you (by limiting numbers) but can be a way to ensure rescue if you don't come out when you said you would. (Can: not all parks check exits.) Commented Jul 24, 2014 at 13:12
  • Good point, I forgot about that @KateGregory. Added.
    – user2766
    Commented Jul 24, 2014 at 13:48
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    Re "check exits": We've never had our exit from the backcountry checked -- never. (Yos.; Rocky; Shen.) As for exiting the park, often no one is at the exit booth. We were queried by e-mail once because our wilderness permit was for the general area from which a person had not returned . He was reported by family as not returned from his trip. We were asked if we had seen a person answering to a rather vague description. Another time, we met a ranger who was looking for someone had been caught unprepared in a sudden snowstorm -- the person had been reported by friends as missing.
    – ab2
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 22:35

There are really no general principles.

  • Some permits are free and self-issued: you pick up a form at the trailhead and fill it out. This is really more of a registration system, so that the authorities know who is out there, but it's still required. Example.

  • Some permits are automatically issued to anyone who pays a fee, so it's really a way of requiring the fee to be paid.

  • Some permits have a numerical limit; the first N people to apply for a permit automatically get it, and everyone after that is denied. This is a way of limiting the number of people using the area.

  • Some permits have more stringent requirements, and each request is considered separately.

You just have to learn about each permit individually.

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