Just over 100 years ago, America´s National Park Service celebrated its one hundredth anniversary. On August 25th, 1916, then-president Woodrow Wilson established the new federal bureau to oversee the 35 national parks that were in existence at that time.
In the 100 years that have passed since then, the park service has grown to 58 national parks along with hundreds of other wilderness areas, national wildlife refuges, and other protected areas.
ⓘ ALSO READ: 10 Best U.S. National Parks for Wildlife Viewing
From the majestic peaks of Yosemite, to the grizzly bear habitats of Glacier National Park, to the arid desert canyons of Zion and the Grand Canyon, to the marshes of the Everglades, to the coastal beauty of Acadia National Park in Maine, our national park system is incredibly diverse and protects the most amazing natural places around the country.
Even though the 100th anniversary has come and gone, the 101st anniversary is still a great reason to celebrate and come and explore. If you aren’t fortunate enough to live close to a national park, planning a several week summer vacation will allow you and your family to visit not just one, but several national parks where you´ll be able to find great hiking, exotic wildlife, and a chance to experience the wonder and awe that the natural world provokes.
ⓘ TIP: The National Park Service’s Passport To Your National Parks will help you find all the parks along your route.
If you are finally ready to embark on a trip of a lifetime, you will want to be adequately prepared. Once you hit the road for your national park road trip, heading home for a piece of gear that you left behind isn’t possible.
Unless you plan a trip through a major city, you’re probably not going to find any custom outfitters in the middle of the wilderness. Below, we offer a succinct packing list for the most important items to bring along with you when visiting national parks.
Camping equipment checklist
When heading to the national parks, camping is almost a necessity. Unless you are going for some winter exploring when temperatures can be well below freezing (not exactly camping weather), sitting around a campfire while listening to the sounds of coyotes howling underneath the starry sky is an experience that you won´t want to miss.
When packing, then, you will want to bring along some basic camping equipment to enjoy those nights under the sky. Just remember to pack light.
If you are not selective about what type of camping equipment you bring, however, you will quickly find that you´ll have to bring along a trailer just to pack the hundreds of camping products that are on the market today. And when you get to the campground, it might take you longer to set up camp than the actual time you get to spend enjoying the evening.
A basic camping equipment checklist should include:
- A tent: Make sure to find one that has a quality rain fly that can be removed during fair weather. You’ll want to enjoy the clear, starry night sky before falling asleep. Read this article for tips on choosing the best backpacking tent.
- Sleeping bags: Research the average nighttime temperatures for the area where you are planning to go. There is no reason to bring along your minus-20 sleeping bag if you’re heading to the Grand Canyon, where all you’ll need is a lightweight sheet.
- Fire starting equipment: Camping without a campfire is like going to an outdoor concert where the speakers don´t work. If you head to an area where rain is common, finding dry kindling to get your campfire started can be a challenge. Bring along some sort of fire starter so that you can enjoy the warmth of a campfire without smoking yourself out.
- LED battery lantern: While enjoying the dark night sky is certainly a special moment for any authentic camping experience, it is also nice to have a bit of light, especially for those long family dinners while playing cards around the picnic table. The old-time kerosene lanterns work, but will leave your camp with that peculiar smell of gas. Today’s LED battery lanterns are energy efficient and will easily give you enough nighttime light on one battery charge for the whole of your vacation.
ⓘ TIP: If you plan on sleeping four people, consider getting a six-person tent, or going with an even larger one. The little extra space can go a long way and won’t add any significant weight to your packing.
There is nothing worse than showing up to a trailhead and finding that the complimentary maps that are sometimes provided by the National Park Service are gone. The thrill of trying to find your way through the mountains while reading topographical maps can make you feel like a real-life MacGyver.
While planning your national park getaway, make sure to download (or purchase) both trail maps and topographical maps of the places you are planning to hike.
ⓘ TIP: Always pack a compass and map, in the event your cell phone loses signal or power.
A quality backpack
When hiking, you are going to want a good backpack to carry with you plenty of water, snacks, photo equipment, and whatever else you need to keep you and your family happy while on the trail. The best backpack for you and your family will depend largely on where you are hiking and how long you plan to be on the trail.
If you are only planning on day hiking, you can probably get away with a fairly small backpack. If, however, you will be heading out for a several day backpacking trip, you will want a larger pack to carry along your tent, sleeping bag, and other necessities.
ⓘ TIP: Check out this article about hiking backpacks to find the right one according to size, carrying capacity, and what type of hike they are best for.
Of course, you will want to document your trip to the National Parks you visit. While you can simply rely on your phone to capture some of the most memorable moments, once you get to the top of that beautiful peak where the sun is setting over the distant horizon, you might wish you had brought along your tripod and DSLR camera to help you better capture the beauty before you.
Some basic photo equipment and a good camera bag won´t add much weight to any pack and will allow you to save for the ages your memories.
ⓘ TIP: Remember to bring backup batteries and extra memory cards for your camera.
Absolute essentials when packing for a National Parks trip
Instead of packing hundreds of knick-knacks and items that you probably won´t ever use, bringing along these bare necessities, and perhaps a few other specialty items that your family needs, will allow you to enjoy the natural world without being burdened by unneeded and unnecessary stuff.
The only other things you’ll need to enjoy the beauty around you are an open mind and a spirit open to the experience.
Here are a few more tips to make your next outdoor excursion enjoyable:
- Break in your sneakers or hiking boots before leaving home. Check out these Rocky Military Boots for your National Park hiking.
- Don’t forget to wear sunscreen and a hat for sun protection.
- Pack a large water bottle … and use it!
- Be sure to bring your National Parks passport book. Passports are available online and at most National Park visitor centers.
- Our guest author’s website, Live Once, Live Wild, is a good resource for lovers of the outdoors.
- National Parks of America: Experience America’s 59 National Parks (Lonely Planet)
- National Geographic Guide to National Parks of the United States
- Your Guide to the National Parks: The Complete Guide to all 59 National Parks by Michael Joseph Oswald