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Your coworker strolls into the office after a week off, radiating energy (or maybe just a bad sunburn), hair bleached from the sun. They plop down next to you and start swiping through a stream of pictures from their latest backcountry escapade, obviously pleased (or a little annoyingly boastful) of their recent adventure. Finally, after realizing they turned the conversation to a monologue-brag, they turn to you with mild interest and ask, “So, where did you go this summer?”
That’s when it hits you: “Well, I finished the fourth season of Stranger Things this summer, but I haven’t really done much else.” Don’t panic; there’s still time to get out there. Here are five ways to find last-minute backpacking spots before the autumn nip creeps in.
Look for first-come, first-serve permits.
Your summer doesn’t have to be boring because you forgot to spend one morning on Recreation.gov. If you have flexibility and you’re willing to take a chance, you can access the most coveted destinations by just showing up. Hikers’ plans often change, especially when the weather is not perfect, so you might be able to backpack in bucket-list areas like Grand Canyon National Park or Yosemite without planning six months ahead.
The Enchantments in Washington state’s Cascade mountains, Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and Hawaii’s Na Pali Coast are all prized destinations that require permits obtained through a lottery system. If you’ve missed it, there’s a way around it: You can stop by the ranger station day- or week-of and ask about cancelations or no-shows. If there are any open spots, you’ve earned yourself a highly coveted backpacking trip without much work. But, if you don’t get lucky, it never hurts to have a backup hike lined up.
Go to Canada or Mexico.
Don’t let boundaries restrict your backpacking options. If you live near any border, you can find a whole new slew of destinations. Often, U.S. national parks or reserves connect with Canadian or Mexican parks that are less crowded. Up north, Glacier National Park is right next to Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park. In the southernmost part of the U.S., Big Bend National Park connects with Mexico’s Cañón de Santa Elena. There are countless amazing parks to find hidden gems across the border’s latitude. If you have a passport, put it to good use and explore the wilderness.
Use watercraft to access backpacking locations.
If all the most beautiful and convenient backpacking spots are booked up, think outside of the box. Using a canoe, stand-up paddleboard, motorboat, or raft to carry you and your backpack is a great way to find unique backpacking locations far from the crowds. Ross Lake in North Cascades National Park is a prime example of reaching water-accessed backpacking locales. Here, there are 19 boat-in camps along the shore, as well as backpacking trails that will take you to spectacular places like the Pickets, one of the most remote and rugged mountain ranges in the Lower 48. Don’t have your own boat? There are often outfitters at popular lakes that will drop you off via boat or offer SUP boards or kayaks for rent.
Go during the week.
This may seem obvious, or perhaps privileged, as few of us can go on adventures during the workweek. But if you have midweek days off or a little more vacation to burn, planning trips into the backcountry during the week opens more opportunities. As a part of a trail crew working in Devils Postpile National Monument, I was amazed to see the stark difference in the number of hikers on the weekend compared to the weekdays. Trails that seemed completely spilled over with human footprints on the weekend became ghostly by Monday morning. If you can, don’t be afraid to take a sick day or two during the week before the summer is over and hit the dusty trail (I’ll write you a doctors note later).
Take a chance on smaller destinations.
I recently became a father, and gone (at least for now) are the days of 20-mile backpacking trips in remote areas. Instead, my family and I have been discovering destinations that we would’ve passed by (or even scoffed at) in the past. Furthermore, we’ve been uncovering gems that seemed too obvious or too simple in our past life. Sometimes taking a chance on a place you’ve never heard of—that state park or recreation area you’ve driven by a thousand times—or any place that has openings, will allow you to discover the next best backpacking spot that you had no idea was out there.