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5 Tips to Winning the Grand Canyon Lottery

Number 5 could change the game …

Photo by Jack Shurman
Story by Kenny Unser

There's a lot of buzz each February as hopeful boaters around the world cast their bids to win a coveted chance to float the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Each year, the US National Park Service (NPS) holds a lottery to award launch permits for the following calendar year. This year's lottery ends at noon MST on February 24, 2016 and will award launch dates in calendar year 2017. Have you set your sights on a non-commercial Grand Canyon launch? Here are a few tips to help get you there:

1. Pool Your Points
Launch permits for the Grand Canyon are awarded through a weighted lottery. Applicants have reduced odds if they have floated the Colorado River through the canyon in recent years. The NPS will assign you as many as 5 points during online registration depending on your launch history. You can increase your odds of winning a permit if you combine your points with a group of friends and submit multiple applications.

#protip: When building your group, you want trusted friends that are very likely to go on the trip if you win a permit. Your elderly grandmother may be sitting on 5 points but she'll need to go on the trip if you want to hold on to her launch date.

2. Don't Spread Yourself Too Thin
Your application is the only chance to name one or more "Potentially Alternate Trip Leaders" (PATLs). Once the permit is awarded, you can only transfer the launch date to the PATL(s) named on your application. There are a couple tricky rules about PATLs:
• Your PATL is not allowed to submit an application of their own.
• The application receives the lowest number of points held by anyone named on the application. This means that your 5 point application can be reduced to 1 point if your PATL recently floated the ditch.

#protip: Though it may cost your group points during the lottery, name at least 1 PATL on your application. In the long run, it will make your launch date more secure.

3. Pick a Realistic Time of Year
Your application can list up to 5 launch dates. Your odds of winning a launch permit during peak season can be less than 1 in 100. If your group has a lot of points or if you are willing to wait a few years, you might consider going for peak season launch dates. If you are playing the lottery solo or with a smaller group, consider launch dates from late fall to early spring. The toughest times of year to win include May to June and mid-September to mid-October.

#protip: The NPS has 10 years of detailed lottery data available for you to review. You can find this data on the NPS website. There is a goldmine of insights for the eager statistician.

4. Size Matters
A "standard" permit has slots for you and 15 of your besties. From April to August 2017, the NPS has additional launches for "small" groups of 8 people. The odds your points will win a small permit can be as much as double the chance of winning a standard size permit on the same day.

#protip: If you want a better shot at a peak season launch date, keep your crew tight and go for small launch permits.

5. Double Your Permits, Double Your Odds
Hidden in plain sight on the NPS website is a list of available launch dates. If you look closely, several standard size launch dates in January, March, September, and October appear twice. This is not a mistake! There are more than 50 dates in 2017 on which the NPS will launch 2 standard size trips. Historically, these double launch dates have as much as twice the odds of winning compared with single launch dates in the same week of the year.

#protip: Know the available double launch dates because they may not be obvious when you are picking dates in the lottery application's calendar.

Kenny Unser is a data scientist with 15+ years experience in the financial industry. He launches March 5 from Lee’s Ferry on a permit won pooling points with Demshitz (Check out the Demshitz 2013 run of the Grand).

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