How to Go Camping in National Parks: Tips and Tricks for the Best Experience

If you missed National Park Week, you can still celebrate by camping in one of the country’s pristine national parks

Did you know you can camp overnight in many national parks? It’s one of the best ways to enjoy a national park—you can spend a night under the stars far from the noise and traffic of busy cities and enjoy an immersive experience instead of simply passing through.

The National Park Service (NPS) recently commemorated National Park Week which ran April 20-28 this year with a slew of celebrations. If you missed out on the fun, you can still celebrate by visiting a national park and even camping in one. Here is some advice for having the best experience camping at a national park.

Camping at Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to go camping in national parks

1. Reserve a campsite

Not every national park has a campground, but most do. You can find which parks have campsites on the NPS Find a Campground locator.

Once you’ve chosen your desired campground, make sure to reserve a spot. NPS campsites can fill up quickly, so you should always have a reservation before you arrive at the campground.

Some campgrounds are closed during certain times of the year because of weather so spring through fall is generally the best time to camp in a national park.

Keep in mind that the remaining national park free entrance days in 2024 are June 19, August 4, September 28, and November 11—this could be an optimal time to go if you want to avoid park entrance fees but a bad time if you want to avoid crowds.

Camping at Pinnacles National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Do your research

Once you’ve confirmed your reservation, read up on the campsite’s rules and regulations. This information available on the park’s website will let you know whether campfires are allowed (and if so, whether you can buy firewood in the park), if there are food lockers, what sort of bathrooms are available, and whether the site has potable water. This will help you plan what to bring on your camping trip.

You should also research the park itself. Each national park’s website has “plan your visit” and “learn about the park” sections which are great resources to help you prepare. Learn what the park has to offer so you can plan hikes and other excursions and study the flora and fauna so you can identify the native plants and animals you come across while there.

Camping at Sequoia National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Pack for the weather

The park’s website should also have information on weather patterns so you can get a general overview of what to expect from the conditions when you visit. This will help you guide whether you need rain gear, how insulated your sleeping bag needs to be, what kind of shoes and clothes you should bring, and more. Don’t forget sunscreen and bug spray!

Even if you’re camping in the middle of the summer and rain isn’t in the forecast, you should always be prepared with a rain cover for your tent, an extra blanket and a rain jacket.

Camping at Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Bring food

Some national parks have restaurants on site, but many don’t. Again, do your research before you go to see what options are available within the park you’re visiting. However, in case of unexpected closures, it’s safest to bring your own food.

Nonperishable food is always great for camping but if you have the space, you can bring a cooler and have more options. If campfires or camping stoves are allowed in your campsite, you can cook something over the fire or bring packaged backpacking food and reheat it in minutes.

5. Be prepared for wild animals

If your food looks or smells enticing to you, it’ll be even more so to the animals in the parks. Make sure you keep all food safely stored—some sites have food lockers and in others you’ll want to bring a bear box.

Never keep food in your tent and make sure to clean up your food and wash all plates and utensils immediately after eating. Dispose of any trash in designated garbage bins and clear everything out before you leave your campsite.

Camping at Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Leave no trace

This is one of the most important elements of visiting any natural area but especially in a national park. These areas are beautiful, diverse environments and it’s important to protect and preserve them for future generations to enjoy and for the good of the ecosystem. Furthermore, national parks are protected by law and causing any harm to them could leave you subject to a pricey fine.

To keep them safe, follow the seven basic principles of Leave No Trace which are:

  • Plan ahead and prepare: If you know where you’re going and what the rules and regulations are, you are less likely to cause accidental harm to an area.
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Never go off trail in a national park, as you can disturb the environment. Even if an off-limits area seems like plain dirt, you may actually be looking at something like cryptobiotic soil crusts, which are full of biotic organisms that hold the soil together and prevent harmful erosion. Make sure you stay within designated areas at all times.
  • Dispose of waste properly: Waste can attract animals causing dangerous situations for them or you. Additionally, garbage and other waste can pollute the local environment causing additional harm to animals and nature and making the park experience less enjoyable for others.
  • Leave what you find: While it may be tempting to pluck flowers for scrapbooking or take home a giant stick, these things are all essential parts of their respective ecosystems. Leave them where they are to avoid affecting the environment and to allow others to enjoy them.
  • Minimize campfire impacts: Nearly 85 percent of wildfires are caused by humans according to the U.S. Forest Service and unattended campfires are one of the biggest culprits. If you make a campfire, make sure you watch it constantly and keep flammable items far away from it. When you put out the fire, don’t just douse it with water; mix in cool ashes and make sure you see no smoke or glowing coals before you leave.
  • Respect wildlife: While it may be tempting to offer a squirrel your leftover sandwich crusts, it’s best not to feed animals. If you see any, make sure to admire them from a distance. If you bring any pets with you, make sure they are on a leash and stay close to you.
  • Be considerate of others: Don’t be that person that brings a loudspeaker on a hike and don’t stop to take pictures in the middle of the trail if there are people trying to get past you. Be courteous and do your best to stay out of others’ way.
Camping at Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. DIG DEEPER: The Ultimate and Complete Guide series

I have written two series of guides on national parks to help you explore these protected areas in greater depth. Each guide helps you plan your adventure and discover the magic of the park.

The Ultimate Guide series of National Parks include:

The Complete Guide series include:

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome