So, you’re finally doing it.
Maybe you’ve been motivated by the current administration’s attacks against our public lands and want to see them for yourself. Maybe you’ve taken inspiration from the various guides we’ve published. Or, maybe they’ve just been on your bucket list for awhile, and it’s time to pull the trigger. Whatever your reasoning, you’ve finally decided to visit a U.S. National Park, and that’s terrific!
But don’t lace your hiking boots up just yet. The national parks are brilliant and beautiful, but exploring them without a bit of planning can be dangerous. If you’re not careful, even a quick day trip could turn disastrous in an instant. After all, these places are wild. To make sure you’re properly prepared, here’s everything you need to know about visiting your first U.S. National Park!
Picking a Park
There’s a lot to consider when deciding which national park to visit. Most likely, your number-one consideration will be location. How far are you willing to travel for this first foray into our public lands? If you’re located west of the Rockies, you’re in luck. California has the most parks of any state with eight, while Utah offers five, Colorado has four, and Arizona and Washington both feature three. Those on the east coast, however, have a lot less to choose from. If you’re in the northeast, you’ll have to decide between Acadia in Maine, Shenandoah in Virginia, or maybe even Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio. If you’re willing to travel a little farther, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, and Tennessee all offer worthwhile options as well.
Once you’ve eliminated parks that are too far away, the next thing you should consider is why you’re visiting. Different parks offer different experiences. For example, if you’re looking to attempt a leisurely day hike, you should probably stay away from Gates of the Arctic, a rugged expanse of wilderness that features no roads or trails. If you’re not much of an outdoorsy person and would prefer to admire the scenery from the comfort of your air-conditioned car, check out Acadia, Capitol Reef, or Rocky Mountain, all of which offer beautifully scenic drives. If hiking is your thing, opt for Arches, Grand Canyon, Zion, or Glacier — although almost all 59 parks offer impeccable hiking trails. Or, if you’re hoping to venture into the backcountry, try for Shenandoah or Great Smoky Mountains, both of which have extensive backcountry trails and helpful rangers who can assist you in planning your trip.
For more detailed information on which park may be best for you, check out www.nps.gov.
Planning Your Route
Once you have your park picked out, you’ll need to determine the route you’ll take through it. If you’re driving or going for a day-hike, this is as simple as finding a park map online, picking one up at the visitor center, or talking to a ranger on-site to find out what your best options are. Factors to keep in mind when choosing a hiking trail include distance (expect to cover roughly two trail-miles every hour), elevation change (the higher this number is, the more uphill walking you’ll be doing), and difficulty (which ranges on a scale from easy to moderate to strenuous, factoring in elevation change and trail terrain).
If you’re preparing for a backcountry trip, you’ll need to do a little more legwork — both figuratively and literally! The official websites of most parks offer pre-planned routes you can choose from, but if you want, you can also examine a park map and link together different trails to design your own journey. You should plan modestly, especially if this is your first time on a multi-day backpacking trip — don’t overextend yourself on your first time out. Plan to cover, at most, eight to 10 miles a day, and if the park offers backcountry huts, try to hit one of those at the conclusion of each leg, so you don’t have to worry about setting up or breaking down camp every day.
Also, keep in mind factors like park terrain, wildlife, and water sources. Are you prepared to lug all of your gear up and down mountains every day, or would you prefer a flatter trail? If you’re planning to hike in bear country, do you know how to bear-bag your food at night? Are there rivers or streams near the trail that you can use to refill your water along the way?
Again, the park rangers are your friends! Their job is to help visitors enjoy the beauty of these national parks safely and responsibly. If you’re worried about any of these questions, just ask them for help!
What to Bring
If you’re simply going for a day hike, you don’t need much — a small backpack, plenty of water, snacks, comfortable shoes, and good hiking clothing (see below). So, for this section, I’m going to focus solely on what you need if you’re exploring the backcountry. The short answer? A lot. To keep things somewhat organized, I’ve broken them up into specific categories. Here’s what you need to survive in the wilderness.
My golden rule with water is to always bring more than you think you’ll need. Yes, it will be heavy, but it is your most valuable resource. You’ll need it to cook, clean, and drink — after walking with a heavy pack all day, you’ll require more hydration than usual. Plan to carry at least three liters of water, either in water bottles or in a Camelbak, and make sure to bring a filtration device (there are many options) so you can refill at rivers and streams.
When considering how much food to bring, prepare for three meals a day, and pack snacks that you can munch on anytime you stop and rest. For snacks, opt for energy-dense treats such as granola bars, trail mix, nuts, peanut butter, and jerky. For meals, I’ve found that the best course of action is to invest in a Jetboil system and make instant-style food that requires you to only add hot water (e.g. ramen, mashed potatoes, oatmeal, instant coffee, etc.).
If you’re planning to stop at backcountry huts, you likely won’t need to pack a tent, but if availability is not guaranteed, it’s good to have one with you just in case (just make sure you know how to set it up!). Additionally, you’ll need to pack a sleeping bag and sleeping pad to stay comfy at night. Pro tip: It sounds counterintuitive, but the fewer clothes you wear inside your sleeping bag, the warmer you’ll be. The bags are designed to radiate body heat.
Do not wear cotton! The material will retain the sweat you produce during the day, meaning that you’ll be wet and cold come nightfall. Rather, your best option is to wear multiple layers of dri-fit clothing — that way, you can add or shed layers as needed throughout the day. You’ll want to bring multiple pairs of socks and underwear, but as for clothes, don’t worry about packing a variety of outfits. The judging eyes of the fashion world are nonexistent in the backcountry, so it doesn’t matter if you wear the same thing over and over again. And never forget to pack a rain jacket!
Again, comfortability is the key word here. You’re going to be wearing these for miles of tough terrain, so you’ll want to make sure they feel great on your feet. Your best option is a good, sturdy pair of hiking boots that will keep out both mud and water. Some hikers, myself included, prefer the flexibility of trail runners or even just sneakers, though if you fall into that camp, you’ll have to be willing to forego the privilege of staying waterproof. Whatever you’re going to hike in, do yourself a favor and break them in before your trip! Nothing can ruin a hike quicker than raw blisters.
There are no nightlights in the backcountry, so you’ll have to bring your own. I would suggest investing in a decent headlamp so as to see around camp at night, but for shorter trips, you can rely on your phone’s flashlight. Just be sure it’s fully charged!
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you don’t need a map. Even if the trail is well-marked, by mile two, you’ll find yourself wondering how far you are from your next camp, and you’ll crave the visual that maps provide. If you’re embarking on a serious expedition, you should pack a compass as well so you can work your way back to the trail should you get lost.
Now that you have all of your gear, you’re going to need some way to carry it. While there are countless backpack options online, you should invest in this important piece of gear in person. You’ll want to try it on, adjust all of its straps, and see how it feels — after all, you’re going to be carrying it for miles on end! Also, if you’re expecting rain, be sure to grab a pack cover while you’re at the store.
There are plenty of other items to consider bringing with you on your backcountry adventure. Among them are a first aid kit, toiletries, sunglasses, sunscreen, bug spray, a hat and gloves, a portable charging port for your phone, a multi-tool, duct tape, a camera, a pack of cards, a frisbee, ziploc bags, camping cups, bowls, and utensils. The key is to remember that backpacking, like anything, is a learning experience. You’re bound to forget something your first time out and won’t realize it until you need it most. Just make a mental note of it, and plan ahead next time!
What to Do Before You Leave
Your most difficult pre-trip task will likely be packing. You’ve acquired all of this gear, have it all laid out, and now you have no idea how to get it all into your pack. Here are a few tips:
Everyone overpacks — I’ve been on tons of trips in the backcountry, and I still have a nasty habit of packing about three times as much food as I end up needing. Once you’ve compiled everything you think you’ll need, cut it down by a third. Again, if you don’t believe me, remember that this is a learning experience. If you pack too much the first time out, just keep that in mind as you prepare for your second trip.
Put the heavy stuff at the bottom
You don’t want a top-heavy pack, unless you want to be the one in the group who keeps falling over. So, pack the heavier stuff down toward your hips, and try to keep the weight evenly distributed along the horizontal plane as well. Additionally, make sure anything you might need quick access to (extra layers, snacks, your hat, your first aid kit, etc.) is packed near the top or in one of your pack’s side pouches.
Utilize the outside of your pack
Most packs come equipped with plenty of extra straps that can help you attach gear to the outside. For instance, rather than trying to stuff your sleeping pad or tent deep down into your pack, attach it to the outside, either down by your hips or under the pack’s brain (the top lid that folds over the body of the pack). This will free up more space inside for your other gear.
Before you head out, there are still a few things to take care of. Most parks, for instance, require backcountry permits if you’re going to be camping overnight, so be sure to check with a ranger to see if you need to acquire one of those in advance. They are usually free of charge.
Additionally, as with any trip, you’ll want to do a routine double-check before leaving to make sure you have everything you might need. Finally, ensure that somebody back home is aware of which route you’re taking and where you’ll be each night. That way, if something goes wrong or you get lost, they can help rangers pinpoint your location.
Expect the Unexpected
As I’ve mentioned several times, this is a learning experience. Before you hit the trailhead, make a mental note that something is probably going to go amiss. When it inevitably does — when you get a blister, you end up off the trail, your pack strap rips, you find out that you forgot a rain jacket — the last thing you’ll want to do is panic. Instead, be ready to adapt (you’d be surprised how many problems can be solved with duct tape), move forward, and plan better the next time around.
Leave No Trace
John Muir once said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Enjoying the U.S. National Parks is a privilege; it’s up to those who use them to preserve them. You might not think that tossing an errant granola bar wrapper or stepping off the trail for a little bit is going to do much harm to these vast swaths of wilderness, but everything has an effect. With that in mind, here are some principles of the Leave No Trace policy that you should always practice in the backcountry.
Dispose of waste properly
The major rule here is “Pack in; Pack Out.” Everything you bring into the park should leave with you. This includes toilet paper, hygiene products, and food wrappers. I recommend using a gallon ziploc bag as a trash bag that you can toss all of your waste into. Additionally, if you need to go number two, venture at least 200 feet from a water source, dig a hole 6-8 inches deep, and bury it.
Travel and camp on durable surfaces
If you’re not using backcountry huts, try to set up camp where there’s already an established site (look for flattened leaves and campfire rings). When hiking, stay on the trails, even if this means walking through mud. Otherwise, the trail just gets wider and wider as people skirt around the puddle in the middle. Pretty soon, you’ll have a highway instead of a trail.
Leave what you find
You’re going to see a lot of pretty things out in the backcountry — but it’s important to leave them there. Apart from photos and memories, you shouldn’t be coming home with any souvenirs.
This doesn’t just mean you shouldn’t harass the animals, although that’s important as well. (Whatever you do, do not antagonize a bear.) You should also refrain from leaving any food scraps lying around your camp. Even a few handfuls of trail mix can throw off an entire ecosystem. So, even if you ignored my previous advice and packed too much food, don’t be a litterbug!
I’ve hit you with a lot of information here, and while it’s all important, don’t get caught up in the details. Remember why you’re there in the first place — to enjoy the natural beauty of America’s Best Idea. Don’t be afraid to follow side trails to mountain vistas, or to take a moment to enjoy the smell of the forest. Whenever you’re feeling stressed out or overwhelmed, just pause, put your pack down for a moment, and appreciate the wonder of America’s playground.
Cover Photo by Ana Pereira