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How to Score a River Trip Permit

A Boater’s Guide to Permits & Lotteries

Any rad adventure requires planning, but river trips, in particular, involve significant preparation, group coordination, and a little luck. In order to protect fragile river ecosystems from an unsustainable number of recreationists, most rivers require a permit to limit the number of people passing through at any given time. 

Obtaining a permit to run a river can be daunting because just about every river has a different permit process, from lotteries to online reservations. And depending on the managing organization of the river, the dates to apply for a permit can vary. If you’re dreaming of rafting trip this spring or summer, read on for everything you need to know about permits, lotteries, and how to increase your chances of getting on the river. 

The Scoop on River Trip Permits

Most major rivers in the U.S. require permits. The question becomes how to obtain one. Government agencies, like the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, or the Forest Service, run the permitting process for rivers within their jurisdiction. 

For permit applications, many of these agencies use Recreation.gov, a portal for trip planning, reservations, and permits. It’s a great tool because it has all the information in one place—from application dates to driving directions. Bookmark the link because you’ll be using this website a lot. 

Another awesome resource for river permit information is American Whitewater, a river conservation nonprofit. You can find a list of all the rivers that require permits here, along with direct links to the governing site for each river.

Some rivers, like sections of the Bruneau River in Idaho or sections of the Owyhee River in Oregon, only require self-issue permits that you must fill out and file prior to your put-in date. There are even a few rivers that simply require an online reservation and cap the number of reservations they give out per day. 

But if you want to run one of the more elusive rivers, you’ll have to enter a permit lottery—a randomized drawing that caps the number of boaters allowed to put in a river at any given time. Waterways that draw a lot of boaters, like the Grand Canyon section of the Colorado River, operate on a weighted lottery system to give everyone a fair chance. Rafters who haven’t been down the river are given more “points,” which increases their chance of obtaining a permit. 

When to Apply for a River Permit

Rivers that operate on the permit lottery system require the most advanced planning because lotteries open mid-January and close the beginning of February, for put in dates that spring. If you want to run one of the more popular rivers during peak dates (usually mid-May through June), you need to have a group selected and decide which dates you want to apply at least three to five months in advance. 

Some rivers, like the Grand Canyon, have become so popular that a lottery is held every February for launch dates the following year. That means rafters with their eyes on a Grand Canyon river trip have to plan well over a year in advance! 

Because permitting varies so greatly from river to river, the best way to get the most up-to-date information is to check Recreation.gov or American Whitewater’s permit information page. 

Tips & Tricks for Scoring a River Permit

You’ve gotten your group together, decided on dates, and put your name in the hat for a permit lottery. By all standards, you’ve done everything right. But chances are still low that you’ll win a permit. So, what can you do to increase your odds of getting to put in? 

Tip 1: Host a permit party. Round up all your river-rat friends, drink some brews (or sparkling water, if that’s your jam), and have everyone apply for the same dates. You’ll increase the odds of someone in your group scoring a permit instead of you braving chance alone. 

Tip 2: Didn’t manage to score a permit? There’s still hope. If a permit-holder cancels their trip, some river managing organizations will release the permit back to the site, where you can snag them when they come available. Check the reservation site every minute to increase your chances. Cancelled permits might also be released back onto the site in follow-up lotteries, where you can try your luck again. 

Tip 3: Hop on someone else’s trip. Reach out to all your river friends and friends of friends to see if someone else got a permit and if they have room for you to jump in. Scour rafting forums for kind strangers who are willing to let you join their crew. Beg. Barter. Advertise your cooking skills. Do whatever you need to do to get on that trip. 

Tip 4: If you’ve exhausted all the above possibilities and have some extra cash to spare, you can always consider a commercial trip. While pricey—remember, you’re paying for the guide, the permit, food, and the use of gear you might already own—a commercial trip gets you on the river. Plus, sometimes it’s nice to leave the more daunting details like planning, finding campsites, and navigating rapids, to the professionals.

River Trip Permitting Checklist

Step 1: Choose the river you want to run 

Step 2: Check the website of that river’s managing organization to find out how and when to seek a permit

Step 3: If the river requires a lottery, mark your calendar with the lottery dates

Step 4: Get your rafting group together and decide which dates you want to put in for 

Step 5: Consider planning a permit party for the lottery date

Step 6: Try to score a permit

Step 7: Stay optimistic if you didn’t win—there’s always next year 

Need help outfitting your river trip or just have questions on how and where to get on the water? Our Gearheads are standing by to help. Find out more about our Gearhead program or chat with a river rat (a.k.a. expert) by clicking this link