10 Essentials to Take to a National Park

Gear Guide — By Alexi Ueltzen on July 16, 2009 at 9:56 am

“Take Only Memories, Leave Only Footprints, Pack Only…”

Any visit to a National Park requires a bit of preparation. The very idea of vacationing at a park implies that you will be in the wilderness. Toilets don’t flush. Showers are few and far between. Food cannot be refrigerated. The level of ruggedness required varies from park to park, since some, like Arches National Park, are adjacent to bustling towns (Moab) and others are somewhat more remote.

Regardless, there are some essential items that everyone should take during their time away from amenities like dishwashers and wall-to-wall carpeting. And few things you should leave behind, too. Read on for 10 items that should be on your packing list for a visit to any outdoorsy destination.

The top 10 things to take with you on a trip to the great outdoors:

1. Sunblock. Not only will you be spending lots of time outside, but many parks are at a high elevation. That means a higher UV index and more intense sunburns. Banana Boat has a great variety of SPF’s, a drier finish and different sizes of bottles (little ones for an already-heavy backpack, big ones to leave in the car for the kids). Note that sunblock has a shelf life; if last year’s bottle is oily and the consistency is somewhat chunky, you’re due for a new one.

2. Moleskin. I’d love to know how often this brilliant invention has saved a hiking trip (the number for me is in the dozens). If there’s even the smallest chance of getting a blister, throw some in your pack.

3. A Multi-tool. I’m not asking you to cut down trees and spear fish with this thing during your trip, but I am asking you to be prepared for pulling splinters, performing quick fixes on gear and whittling marshmallow-roasting sticks.

4. An extra plastic bag (or two. or three.). Whether it’s for holding wet socks from your fall in the river, those sap-filled pinecones you collected or a makeshift poncho, a plastic bag can be as invaluable as your hiking boots. Well, almost.

5. Water Bottles. You know this. We all know this. You don’t need to be reminded about the importance of staying hydrated, reducing waste, etc. Just be sure you take something that can withstand the rigors of the trail and can be easily refilled. If it fits your water filter/pump, bonus.

6. A map. A GPS. Your iPhone. Something that will help you navigate this fairly unpopulated corner of the world.

7. Snacks. The odds of passing fast food or grocery stores significantly decrease the closer you get to the park. I suggest durable bars (whether you’re a Clif Bar devotee or a Quaker Oats traditionalist), fruit that can withstand some jostling (apples, oranges, dried variations of your favorites) and trail mix. Low blood sugar is a pain (take it from a diabetic) so keep your body fueled.

8. A good jacket. Whether you’re in the mountains or the desert, it gets cold at night. A quality fleece or sweater can turn a night from miserable to bearable. My favorites? Northface and Patagonia. They’re available in lots of styles and colors, they’re designed to take some abuse and the companies often devote lots of time/energy/money to preserving the very national parks you’re visiting.

9. Something which which to record your memories. Camera, journal, scrapbook… there aren’t going to be as many chances to buy flashy souvenirs in a national park, so keep track of your experiences some other and, many would argue, more meaningful way.

10. Some emergency supplies. This could be anything from jumper cables, to a first aid kit, to 10 rolls of duct tape. Remember that if something goes wrong, you may need to depend on yourself to fix it. Think about the activities you have lined up and plan accordingly.

Leave behind:

1. Your gun. Hunting enthusiasts, be warned: Since it was signed into law in 1983, guns must be disassembled and kept out of reach while within the boundaries of all American national parks. Play it safe around the globe and leave the gun at home as well.

2. Your dog. Most national parks don’t allow your four-footed friend on their trails. Dogs that are present in the parks must be kept in the car, in the parking lot or on a 6-foot leash and within 50 feet of the road. A select few national parks will not even allow you to drive through the park with your pet in your car.

3. Your makeup. Even if if you feel “naked” without your mascara, leave the Maybelline at home. No one expects you to look made-up on the trail. In fact, they might judge you if you do. Guys, same goes for you. Hair gel, cologne and any neck wear other than a bandanna are distinctly out of place.

Do you have something that you think should be on our top 10 list? Leave a comment and let us know!

Packing photo courtesy of mil8/Creative Commons,
Plastic bag photo courtesy of How can I recycyle this?/Creative Commons,
Journal photo courtesy of fonticulus/Creative Commons
Tags: Arches National Park, hiking, Jacket, maps, Moab, Moleskin, multi-tool, national parks, northface, packing, Patagonia, snacks, sunscreen, top 10, water bottle


  • Amy says:

    Good call on leaving the makeup behind. A month or so ago, we hiked Half Dome and camped in Yosemite for a week. The day after the hike, I was achy, smelly, dirty – basically, feeling pretty hardcore. I walk into the bathroom, and there were three girls applying mascara and whining about the lack of hair dryers. I laughed out loud, it made me feel even more awesome about our accomplishment!

  • Nicole Lerner says:

    If you’re camping away from an outhouse, it’s always a good idea to bring a small plastic shovel to dig a hole and *ahem* bury your business when nature calls.

  • Sophie says:

    Bring a real map! Don’t count on getting service for your iPhone or GPS.

  • Suzi says:

    These are terrific suggestions! I agree about the map – we’ve become so dependent on our electronics, we sometimes forget they don’t always work. 🙂

  • MARY DYE says:

    Sunglasses, especially the amber-lens fit-over type by Solar Shield, are invaluable for viewing vistas, whether cloudy or sunny. I live with them closeby, all the time!

  • Elizabeth says:

    Waterless sanitizer, cleaning moist wipes, and Bug repellent (deep woods) would also be on my list. And lastly, depending on your age and fitness level, Aspirin. If chest pain developpe, chewing on 2-3 aspirin can save your life.

  • Liz Kao says:

    A little ziploc baggy of TOILET PAPER. Key if the visitors’ center is a ways off. 🙂

  • Alexi says:

    Great idea, Liz. Goes along with Nicole’s suggestion above…

  • Julie Trevelyan says:

    Note that the rider to Obama’s recently-signed credit card holders’ bill of rights will ALLOW licensed gun owners to carry concealed, loaded weapons in American national parks (state laws permitting), beginning in February 2010. It’s a very controversial topic at the moment.

    Read more here: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gqTKOeslTxBjgqOxM9ctosgBKHmAD9A3DE6G0. (sorry, couldn’t figure out how to make that a link in this comments field)

    Also want to add that carrying lip balm with at least 15 SPF has been essential for me many times! Burned lips, common at higher elevation parks, just aren’t fun.

  • Neely Chandrasekara says:

    Great info, thanks for the post!

  • Vella Zwack says:

    Another Great wordpress post, I will be sure to save this post in my Newsvine account. Have a awesome evening.


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