From health and safety to comfort and fun, the National Park Service recommends packing your common sense and the right clothing, gear, and food.
When it comes to America’s national parks, we wear our heart on our sleeve: For natural beauty, wildlife appreciation, and value, there may be no better vacation choice than, say, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, or the dozens of other national parks that stretch from the Caribbean to the South Pacific and from Maine to Alaska.
But there’s something else we wear, not just on our sleeve: Climate-appropriate clothing, which usually means layering and sun-protection. The right apparel is just one of the must-packs for a safe and comfortable visit to a wild and sometimes unpredictable environment. As the summer travel season approaches, we want to share the number-one NPS safety tip all travelers must know, plus 10 essentials to pack to ensure health, safety, comfort, and fun.
1. Follow Park Rules & Ranger Instructions
This should go without saying, but the number-one item to pack for a successful national park visit is your common sense. When you visit a national park, it’s vital that you follow all posted rules and directions, and follow any verbal instructions given by park rangers. Often, the rules boil down to staying on the park paths and keeping a safe distance from all wildlife. No problem, right? But, unfortunately, each year park visitors are injured or killed because they wander where they don’t belong or get too close to wild animals.
2. Prepare to Navigate
Pack a paper map and compass in addition to your GPS device—not coincidentally, some of the most beautiful places in America are far from Wi-Fi hubs. Review driving and hiking directions in advance, from the comfort of a Wi-Fi-enabled hotel room or rental property, and be prepared to navigate the old-fashioned way when you hit the trails.
3. Protect Yourself From the Sun
The sun’s heat and damaging UV rays pose both short- and long-term risks. UV-protective sunglasses, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and sun-protective shirts and pants will keep you cool and energized on your day hikes, and protect your skin from premature aging and skin cancer.
Even in summer, some national parks become chilly in the evenings and sometimes dangerously cold at elevation. Insulate yourself by packing a jacket, hat, gloves, rain shell, and thermal underwear.
5. Get Illuminated
Packing a flashlight, lantern, and headlamp may feel like a throwback, but illumination that doesn’t require an electrical outlet can come in handy for campers, cabin renters, cavern explorers, and just about everybody else from time to time.
6. Bring a First-Aid Kit
Sure, you are trying to limit what you have to stuff into your car’s hatch or your checked bag. But a small first-aid kit that can supply antibiotic and bandages while you’re out hiking, padding, or engaging in other summer activities can help keep cuts and scratches from turning into a much bigger deal.
7. Be Ready to Build a Fire
This tip applies mostly to campers and those who plan on exploring park backcountry, where waterproof matches, a lighter, and kindling can help with cooking and, in a pinch, staying warm. (If you pack matches and lighters, keep them locked away where kids can’t get to them.)
8. Bring a Repair Kit
Duct tape, knife, screwdriver, scissors. No, you’re not preparing to appear in an episode of MacGyver. But outdoor activities from camping to kayaking to hiking can sometimes require last-minute repairs to equipment, and most travelers just don’t think of packing these handy tools.
9. Pack Nutritious Snacks
The NPS suggests having at least one day’s food on hand in the event of an unforeseen change of plans, which can happen in the blink of an eye thanks to changing weather, wildfires, and flooding. Packing nonperishable foods can be easiest, but do strive for high fiber carbs such as woven wheat crackers, lean proteins such as jerky or cheese sticks, and easy healthy snacks such as trail mix, nuts, and granola bars.
10. Stay Hydrated
Water can sometimes seem like an afterthought to travelers who are lucky enough to take access to abundant drinking water for granted at home. But staying hydrated in the wild requires some planning and is crucial to health and safety. In the hot summer sun, you should sip water regularly, not waiting until you feel thirsty. Park rangers suggest a gallon of water per person per day. That’s a lot of water. Campers and backcountry hikers will do well to pack water-treatment supplies and to research nearby bodies of water. (Never drink untreated water in a national park—as clean as the water looks and feels, it may carry bird-borne microbes that can upset your digestive system.)
11. Carry Your Own Emergency Shelter
This may not be necessary if you’re planning to hit the park highlights via car or park shuttle, but those going farther afield should carry portable shelter such as a tent, space blanket, tarp, or bivy in the event that they get stuck out in the great outdoors longer than they expected.