Grand Canyon

An essential guide to enjoying
US National Parks
responsibly

Map of USA

01.

The value of spending time outdoors

When was the last time you enjoyed the
great outdoors?

Going outside and getting some fresh air makes us feel better – we all know it. The time we spend outside, relaxing or exercising, is often a welcomed relief from daily stresses. We arrive back at home feeling refreshed.

During the lockdowns, you may have felt the benefits of spending time outdoors. Perhaps you want to encourage your whole family to enjoy nature more. This guide will explore the value of spending time outdoors in US national parks – including a look at why we feel so good outside, why US national parks are some of the most amazing outdoor spaces, and how to enjoy them safely.

After all, the US is home to some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. The parks are the country’s treasures. From Yosemite’s mountains and ancient sequoia trees to Acadia’s rocky headlands along the Atlantic coastline, US national parks are loved by locals and feature on the bucket lists of many travelers. They are some of the most breathtaking places to spend time outdoors.

Great Outdoors
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Spending at least two hours a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing.

Source: Nature.com Scientific Reports

The Impact of COVID-19

While we have become somewhat used to the challenges coronavirus has thrown at us, the initial impact of a global pandemic was overwhelming. Our daily lives were overhauled, with families working and learning from home, people’s travel plans halted and many states in lockdown. Households were restricted in terms of what they could do, and activities allowed to continue were under new social distancing guidelines.

But even in states with the strictest lockdown rules, where people were asked to remain indoors except for essential activities, the importance of going outdoors was emphasized. Walking, running, hiking and cycling, while practicing safe social distancing, were seen as essential activities.

And we all began to see why. When you have to spend a significant amount of time indoors, you start to value the time you get to spend in nature.

Not only does spending time outside often encourage exercise, something we all needed to keep up during lockdown, but it can also be relaxing. Forbes also spoke to Dr. Keith Tidball, PhD, and author of Greening in the Red Zone, who believes part of the reason that going outside is such a good fit for the current situation is because connection to nature fulfills a deep evolutionary need.

Dr. Keith Tidball told Forbes:

"We spent thousands and thousands of years among the rest of nature, that’s how we were designed, It’s only in the last couple hundred years that we’ve become separate from it. But we’re compelled to affiliate with nature, which comes to the fore with urgency in times of crisis, because we associate nature with the healing aspects of hope and optimism."

Dr. Keith Tidball

PhD, and author of Greening in the Red Zone

Indeed, an unexpected consequence of the pandemic for many has been a renewed or reinforced connection with nature. Something dubbed “quarantine fatigue” began to set in, where people were growing increasingly restless, we started to venture out more frequently – and further from home.

Dr Sadiya Muqueeth

Dr Sadiya Muqueeth told Forbes:

"In this time of crisis, we are seeing people across the country visit their parks to seek out exercise, community and healing"

Dr. Sadiya Muqueeth

DrPh, MPH, and Director of Community Health at The Trust for Public Land

The benefits of time
outdoors

The best thing about spending time outdoors is that almost anyone can reap the rewards. It’s accessible. And the study which proved a two-hour dose of nature a week significantly boosts health and wellbeing, confirms that you don’t need to exercise to see the benefits. You can simply sit and enjoy the peace.

Dr Mathew White, who led the study, said:

What really amazed us was this was true for just about every group we could think of."

Dr Mathew White

University of Exeter Medical School

The benefits were the same for both young and old, wealthy and poor, and urban and rural people, as well as those with long-term illnesses and disabilities. Spending time outside is pretty much good for everyone – regardless of whether you go to a city park, the beach or to the woods.

And with the average American spending 87% of their time indoors, 6% of it in a car and just 7% of their life outdoors, there’s a lot to be said about emphasizing the benefits of time outside.

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The average American spends 87% of their time indoors.

Source: Opinium.com

You could expect to experience any of the
following benefits:

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Improved mood

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Reduced stress
or anxiety

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Increase in calmness
and relaxation

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Encouragement to
be more active

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Improvement in
physical health

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New connections

But what’s the science behind this? Let’s take a look at some of the more detailed studies into spending time outside:

Japanese Forest Bathing

Japanese forest bathing

Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is any mindful time spent under and around trees for health and wellbeing purposes. The benefits, including research that it reduces blood pressure, lowers cortisol levels and improves concentration and memory, are so great that many people believe it should be prescribed by doctors to combat stress – similar to how the Japanese government has incorporated it into the country’s health program.

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Exposure to nature

Urban populations may feel limited in terms of what nature or outside space they can access. But studies have found that greater nature exposure – including nature visible from the home and the accessibility of nature in your area – is associated with health benefits. Hearing bird song, seeing the trees sway in the wind from your window, watching the sunrise – it’s all exposure to nature. Don’t feel deflated if you live in an urban area. Once you start looking around, you will find nature and be able to reap the benefits.

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A rise in vitamin D levels

Most vitamins are necessary, but don’t have disease-fighting powers. Vitamin D could be the exception. According to Harvard, studies have shown it may have protective effects against everything from osteoporosis to cancer, depression, heart attacks and stroke. And to get enough vitamin D, all you need is to get outside a few times a week and expose your arms and legs for 10 to 15 minutes. Of course, it has to be sunny and you should always use sunscreen when you’re outside for prolonged periods of time.

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Ecotherapy

A type of therapeutic treatment which involves doing outdoor activities in nature, ecotherapy is used to support good mental wellbeing. It always takes place in a green environment and focuses on exploring and appreciating the natural world. Many advocates say it’s improved their mental health and increased their confidence.

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The benefits of exercise

While the goal of being outside doesn’t have to be exercise, even a gentle walk to a bench is better than sitting in front of a screen. The more you can get moving, the more you’re replacing your inactive pursuits with active ones. And physical exercise has been shown to:

  • Keep your thinking, learning, and judgment skills sharp
  • Reduce your risk of depression and anxiety and help you sleep better
  • Lower your blood pressure and improve your cholesterol levels
  • Reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome
  • Slow the loss of bone density that comes with age
  • Help with arthritis and other rheumatic conditions affecting the joints
  • Play a critical role in maintaining a healthy body weight, losing excess body weight, or maintaining successful weight loss

Whatever your motivations are for heading outside, there’s something about nature that is contagious. Once you start feeling the benefits, you’ll be back for more.

02.

Insights into popular US national parks

So you want to spend
more time outdoors?

Whether you're a local or a visitor, the US is home to 62 national parks. Yellowstone became the world’s first national park in 1872. And in the years that followed, numerous other areas became national parks and, as part of the Organic Act 1916, the US National Park Service (NPS) was created in 1916 to:

"conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

NPS is now responsible for more than 400 separate areas making up about 85 million acres, including national parks, national preserves, monuments, recreation areas, seashores, lakeshores, historic parks and sites, parkways, scenic trails, and battlefields.

Within the system, 62 sites are designated as national parks. The selection criteria for national parks includes aspects like unique geological features or unusual ecosystems, recreational opportunities, and, of course, natural beauty.

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The US is home to 62 national parks.

Source: NPS

Yosemite National Park Yellowstone National Park Everglades National Park Acadia National Park Grand Canyon National Park Death Valley National Park Zion National Park Rocky Mountain National Park Crater Lake National Park Olympic Park National Park Big Bend National Park
chevronSee the groves of giant sequoia trees, arguably the world's largest living things.

Yosemite

California

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Yosemite has it all – mountains, waterfalls, meadows, wilderness and forests. And all the natural features are among the world’s most exceptional. Half Dome and El Capitan, two vertical rock formations, are the park’s landmarks and attract talented climbers from all over the world who dare to tackle the monoliths. There’s also Yosemite Falls, one of North America's tallest waterfalls at 2,425 feet high, and a wide variety of rare plant and animal species, including three groves of ancient sequoia trees.

It’s a paradise for any traveler who loves the outdoors, with numerous activities available across the nearly 1,200 square miles. They include hiking, rock climbing, horseback riding and rafting, as well as skiing and snowboarding in the winter.

The importance of
conserving national parks

If you’ve ever visited one of the national parks, it’s likely you’ve shared or recommended the experience to others. Indeed, the beauty and wonder should be conserved for all to enjoy. Conservation efforts seek to promote and encourage the proper use of nature and natural resources.

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), founded in 1919, three years after NPS, is an advocacy group which works on behalf of the NPS. It raises awareness and advocates on different issues surrounding national parks and public lands – for example, it protects iconic places from development which may threaten park air, water or wildlife, such as mining or logging. Here’s just some of the work they’ve done in the last century:

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Defending wildlife

  • Restored migration routes for the Yellowstone pronghorn antelope
  • Fought for hunting regulation to protect Alaska’s bears and wolves from hunting, in an ongoing battle
  • Led the debate about dwindling wolf and growing moose populations at Isle Royale National Park, and advocated for a science-based plan to restore the ecosystem’s wolves
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Protecting natural wonders

  • Protected the Grand Canyon from a proposed mega-development, resort and tramway
  • Pushed for a sensible alternative to keep massive utility lines out of Everglades National Park.
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Restoring waters

  • Defended the Buffalo National River from commercial hog farming operations that threatened its waters
  • Supported the restoration of Olympic’s Elwha River through the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams
  • Led efforts to create a marine reserve at Biscayne National Park, protecting coral reefs and their inhabitants
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Preserving antiquity

  • Challenged oil and gas lease sales that threatened Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the sacred ancestral home of Pueblo peoples
  • Highlighted the threat oil and gas leasing poses to the sensitive cultural resources of sites like Mesa Verde National Park

NPCA regularly works with partners, businesses and locals to achieve big things. They also rely on volunteers. Volunteer opportunities are available at parks around the country and you can get involved with restoration efforts, planting, clean ups, and removal of invasive species.

What is
responsible tourism?

National parks tend to exist with a built-in paradox. They often depend on tourism for their upkeep, which is stimulated by the public being interested, intrigued and wanting to visit. But the preservation of nature and wildlife depends on minimal interruption.

In the past, most national parks were quieter. Bill Diak, 73, has lived in Page for 38 years, the town closest to Horseshoe Bend, a patch of public land with an iconic view of the Colorado River as it makes a U-turn. It’s just a few miles outside Grand Canyon National Park.

“It was just a local place for family outings. But with the invention of the cell phone, things changed overnight,” Diak told the Guardian. According to him, there were only a few thousand annual visitors historically. In the year Instagram was launched (2010), 100,000 people visited. By 2015, there were an estimated 750,000 visitors and by 2018, predictions were closer to 2 million. The 7,000 residents of Page were caught off guard by the rising popularity – something they put down to photos spreading like wildfire on social media.

So what other problems are there in national parks across the country? People wanting to catch a glimpse of bison in Yellowstone cause queues miles long, and there have been reports of fights over the limited parking spaces in Glacier National Park in Montana.

In Yosemite, one of the most visited national parks, the growth in visitors can also be seen in the increase in facilities, with numerous food spots and a particularly controversial Starbucks. Although this rapid modernization, including enhanced WiFi services, makes visiting Yosemite more convenient, the park still struggles to cope with the growing numbers.

"Social media is the number one driver. People don’t come here for solitude. They are looking for the iconic photo"

Maschelle Zia

Manages Horseshoe Bend for the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Most visited national parks

Recreational visits

Great Smoky Mountains

12.5 million

Grand Canyon

5.97 million

Rocky Mountains

4.7 million

Zion

4.5 million

Yosemite

4.5 million

Yellowstone

4 million

Acadia

3.4 million

Grand Teton

3.4 million

Olympic

3.2 million

Glacier

3 million

Source: NPS

Some even claimed Yellowstone could start limiting the number of people who can visit each day. But this was back before the coronavirus pandemic. Now getting people to reserve a slot online and keeping visitor numbers lower is commonplace.

Back in 2018, Muir Woods National Monument in California became the first national park site to require reservations all year. Aiming to tackle the issue of illegal parking, visitors have to either reserve a parking space in advance or book a seat on the park’s shuttle bus. There’s a cost for both. Slots are available up to 90 days ahead of time and you can make a reservation the same day – but only if there are slots available. If you turn up in a car without a reservation, you’ll be turned away.

Since then, and increased by COVID-19, reservation systems have been cropping up across national parks. Although the reason for this intensifying couldn't have been predicted, it does feel long overdue. Having to reserve a time to visit could curb crowding and encourage people to plan a visit for a less busy time, although it may frustrate impulsive travelers.

At the same time, numerous park improvements have been taking place – safety railings, increased toilet facilities, improved signs and parking expansion. All of these efforts are in place to encourage responsible visits to the park.

Back in 1983, Wallace Stegner, novelist and environmentalist, famously said:

"National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."

For our national parks to continue reflecting the best of us, we need to be responsible and find a balance between visitor numbers and park preservation. If reserving a parking slot or getting on a shuttle is what’s necessary, it’s a small price to pay in ensuring the continued enjoyment of national parks.

03.

Spending your time responsibly

The time you spend in national parks should only be beneficial. These are places of real beauty that have been around for centuries – and should remain around for future generations. When you visit, you have a role to play.

Respecting the area and being a
responsible visitor

It’s likely you’ll have heard of the ‘leave no trace’ principle. While most of us don’t intend to harm our surroundings, spending time in the great outdoors can impact the immediate environment. Litter, invasive species, habituated wildlife, trail erosion, and polluted water sources – these are all problems which can occur in national parks as a result of ill-informed visitors.

That’s why the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace are so important. They provide the information and instructions necessary to avoid potentially harmful behaviors. Although its roots are in backcountry settings, the principles are a framework for anyone visiting the outdoors – anywhere. They’re widely known, but the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics continually examines, evaluates and reshapes the principles for modern life.

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The Seven Principles of
Leave No Trace

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1. Plan ahead and prepare

When you’re poorly prepared, you’re much more likely to run into problems. Tiredness or fear can lead to poor choices. So you’re advised to plan ahead to ensure the safety of your group and the protection of the environment.

This involves identifying the skills within your group and planning a trip which matches these abilities. You should also know the regulations and any concerns of the area you’re visiting. This may involve getting information from land managers, maps, or literature. You’ll also need to check the weather, but prepare for extreme weather, hazards and emergencies.

Planning allows you to consider meals, too. One-pot meals and lightweight snacks are easy to prepare and decrease garbage.

Picture of a campsite

2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces

Whether you’re simply setting up for a picnic or finding an overnight camping spot, you should seek out resilient terrain. Ideal surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow.

When hiking, you should always stick to constructed trails. It reduces the likelihood that multiple routes, paths and tracks will develop, potentially scarring the landscape if surface vegetation is trampled beyond repair.

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3. Dispose of waste properly

You’ll often hear the motto ‘pack it in, pack it in’. It summarizes the responsibility anyone visiting national parks has to clean up after themselves. All trash and leftover food should be taken away with you.

To dispose of human waste, you need to dig a cathole. It should be 6 to 8 inches deep and at least 200 feet from water, camp and trails. Some parks require human waste to be packed out, so always check the park’s requirements. When washing yourself or dishes, take water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and only use small amounts of biodegradable soap.

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4. Leave what you find

It can be tempting to take a natural ‘souvenir’ home with you as a memory of your visit. But it’s important to leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them – take a photo if you wish to remember the moment. If there are cultural or historic structures and artifacts, you can look at them, but you shouldn’t touch them.

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics also recommends cleaning boot soles, kayak hulls and bike tires off between trips to national parks to avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.

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5. Minimize campfire impacts

Campfires are one of the most magical moments of any trip. But they are also one of the most potentially destructive ones. For alternatives, you could use a stove for cooking and a candle lantern for light. Remember there’s a certain magic to stargazing in the darkness, too.

If you need to light a campfire and it’s permitted in the national park you’re visiting, try to use established fire rings, fire pans or mound fires if you can find them. Use firewood from a local source or gather it responsibly.

When you’re done with the fire, burn it to ash and put it out completely. You can scatter the ashes once they’ve cooled down.

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6. Respect wildlife

Wildlife should always be admired and watched from a distance. If you pack a camera with a zoom and a pair of binoculars, you’ll be able to see some spectacular wildlife – without disturbing them. Being approached or followed can be incredibly stressful for animals. During sensitive times (such as mating, nesting, or when raising young), you should be extra vigilant.

You should also be careful with how you store food or trash. And never feed wildlife. It can be bad for their health and affect natural behaviors.

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7. Be considerate of other visitors

There are remote, quiet parts within most national parks where you could walk for miles without seeing another person. Nature should be a place for everyone to enjoy – we all have the same right to be there. So even if you don’t see anyone else, let nature’s sounds prevail and avoid loud noises. Take your breaks away from the main trails.

And if you do see other visitors, make sure you’re courteous and let others pass. The quality of their experience deserves to be the same as yours.

Taking dogs to national parks

Most national parks welcome dogs, but typically require them to be on a leash no longer than 6 foot. It’s also your responsibility to pick up poop and ensure your dog is vaccinated.

Camping and
campfire safety

If you fancy an adventure, you might decide to camp in a national park. After all, many of them have designated camping areas. Don’t just do it on a whim, though, as you do need to prepare and bring the right equipment. Most national parks have poor or no cellular service, so you can’t rely on the internet for the answers.

What’s more, some popular camping sites – such as those in Yellowstone and Yosemite – get booked up an entire year in advance.

The full experience of a national park is really completed once you’ve seen the starry skies, heard the wildlife come alive at night and woken with the sunrise. But it can be spoiled without preparation, so make sure you find out about the campsite’s facilities and regulations. Are showers and toilets available? Is there potable water available? You get the idea.

Campsites have designated sites that are numbered or lettered – you’ll be assigned a site when booking, or it’ll operate on a first come, first served basis. In frontcountry campsites which you drive to, there should be a post with paper attached indicating when the current occupants are leaving. In backcountry campsites which you hike to, you should get a permit to display on your backpack while you’re on the move, or on your tent while you’re camping.

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In 2019, there were 13,860,047 overnight stays (recreation and non-recreation) in US national parks.

Source: NPS Government

Once you’ve set up camp under the Leave No Trace principles, you may want to light a campfire.

Always check with the campsite or national park rules to see if they’re permitted. In some places, particularly those which suffer from dry periods, campfires are prohibited. In others, a campfire permit may be required.

If fires are allowed, consider the following:

  • Check the site

    Avoid starting a fire where there are brushes around or low-hanging branches. In dry conditions, embers can fly and ignite wildfires.

  • Use existing fire rings where possible

    If no fire ring exists, make sure you dismantle yours before you leave.

  • Think about the wood you need

    A successful fire needs three types of fuel: tinder, kindling and firewood. At campsites, you should only use local firewood. In the backcountry, you should forage for firewood – but make sure it’s not too large, otherwise it won’t burn down into embers you can scatter.

Being aware of
wildlife

National parks are full of wildlife. It’s one of the reasons spending time in them is so enjoyable. Catching a glimpse of a bear, wolf, moose or any other animal is likely to be a memorable experience. But these animals deserve to be treated with proper caution and respect. Their – and our – safety depends on it. After all, wildlife can be unpredictable.

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Give them room

You can watch wildlife from a distance. In fact, most parks will set out requirements for how far away you need to be. For example, it’s 100 yards from predators like bears and wolves in most parks and 25 yards for other animals. If wildlife approaches you, move back. And if you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re definitely too close. It’s also worth noting that it’s illegal to feed, touch, tease, frighten, or intentionally disturb wildlife.

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Be careful on roads

If you’re driving through a national park, take extra care. It’s a big risk for wildlife, as roads often cut through their habitats or routes. So stick to the speed limits and be aware that animals may dart into the road. And if you’re planning to stop, use designated pull-outs.

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Store your food and trash

Once animals have learnt that people are a source of food, problems can occur. That’s why parks are quite strict on feeding wildlife and removing waste. Even crumbs can attract animals, so store your food well and pack up all your leftovers.

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Tell a ranger

If you see any dead animals or animals looking sick or acting strangely, contact a ranger.

And there’s another reason to take extra care around wildlife too. Because of park closures due to the initial outbreak of coronavirus, many parks have seen wildlife numbers increase – with many animals venturing into the typically busier visitor destinations. While parks have been reopening, visitors should take extra care, particularly around any young wildlife.

Lindsay Rosa

Lindsay Rosa told the Guardian:

“Individuals who have lived in the national park area will likely readjust pretty quickly to the return of recreators after quarantine, but newcomers, particularly juveniles born this spring, may take a bit longer to learn since they haven’t yet had the opportunity to encounter many humans.”

Lindsay Rosa

Conservation scientist with Defenders of Wildlife

Hiking health and
safety

43% of Americans aged 13+ said they'd be doing more outdoor activities because of COVID-19 social distancing rules - the most popular being hiking. Whether you’re a regular hiker or are trying to fight cabin fever, it’s worth reminding yourself of what you need to take.

The ‘ten essentials’ is a list originally assembled back in the 1930s by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based organization for climbers and outdoor adventurers. The list was designed to equip people with the tools they needed to safely spend a night (or more) outside and be prepared for emergency situations in the outdoors. It’s since been updated with modern items that could be essential to your survival. These are:

Ten Essentials List

  1. Navigation: map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger
  2. Headlamp and extra batteries
  3. Sun protection: sunglasses, sun-protective clothes and sunscreen
  4. First aid, including foot care and insect repellent (as needed)
  5. Knife, plus a gear repair kit
  6. Fire: matches, lighter, tinder and/or stove
  7. Shelter: carried at all times (can be a light emergency bivy)
  8. Extra food: beyond the minimum expectation
  9. Extra water: beyond the minimum expectation
  10. Extra clothes: beyond the minimum expectation

Obviously you probably won’t need all of this for a day hike. The list can be tailored to the type of trip you’re taking, accounting for factors like weather, difficulty, duration, and distance from help. But it’s a good point of reference to check.

There are risk factors for all hikers to consider, even if they’re spending a small amount of time in national parks:

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Dehydration

If you’re hiking in the heat, you could sweat out between 0.5-1 litre of fluid every hour. If you’re heading uphill in direct sunlight, it could double. And you might not even notice the extent to which you’re sweating as it evaporates quickly. So never wait until you’re thirsty to drink. Keep drinking regularly or consider rehydration powders for long, hot hikes. Try to stay in the shade where possible and wear a hat.

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Altitude sickness

In parks with high peak regions, such as the Rocky Mountain National Park, altitude sickness isn’t uncommon. If you’re planning a hiking holiday at altitude, then give yourself enough time to adjust. As a rule of thumb, it’s often recommended that once you are above 9,000 feet do not increase the altitude at which you sleep by more than 1,600 feet a night. You might hike further up during the day, but should come back to a lower level to sleep.

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Ticks

Prevalent in numerous national parks, ticks are an increasing public health concern. Take precautions such as:

  • Walk in the middle of trails
  • Avoid tall vegetation
  • Wear pants which can be tucked into socks
  • Wear light-colored clothing so you can spot ticks easier
  • Consider spraying a repellent

Water safety and
wild swimming advice

Many national parks have lakes, rivers, streams or oceans suitable for swimming, but they all have their own rules on whether it’s allowed. Generally if swimming isn’t permitted, it’s because it’s not safe enough in and around the water. For example, flash foods can happen in parks with canyons and water can rise quickly. Always check the NPS website for details on water recreation regulations in each park. Destinations include:

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The Buffalo River swimming holes

Buffalo River National Park

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Medano Creek

Great Sand Dunes National Park

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The Sinks

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Seven Sacred Pools

Haleakalā National Park

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Hot Springs

Big Bend National Park

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