Camping permits are required in a growing number of parks, especially those that receive heavy use, as well as some private areas. There are still a large number of places in the country where you can camp without a permit, however. Since permits can be introduced at any time, it's always best to check directly with a park regarding current regulations before paying a visit.
Sometimes a permit may be or must be obtained in advance. This can often be done by mail and occasionally by phone.
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In other cases a permit has to be applied for in person at the start of your trip, or picked up at that time. If you're visiting a large forest or park this could involve a little inconvenience, as you may have to travel out of your way to reach the necessary facility. In a popular park you might have to wait in line for the permit. Try to get it ahead of time whenever possible.
Sometimes the reason for requiring permits is to limit the number of campers in a wilderness area, or within different regions of a large park. There may be a chance that your permit request could be turned down, which is most likely if you've chosen a popular trail or time period. Apply early if you can.
Permits in some parks require that you specify exactly where you'll camp each night for the duration of your trip. For other permits you need only designate a general area, or you may be entitled to camp just about anywhere within a park's boundaries.
Usually there's no charge for a permit, although on occasion a nominal fee is charged for making an advance reservation. Many state parks and private areas do charge a camping fee, however, and this is sometimes on top of an entrance or admission fee.