Guide to Journaling

What’s the deal with journaling? It seems like everyone’s talking about it, yet there’s this foggy understanding of what the practice actually entails.

Journaling is not just a little thing you do to pass the time, to write down your memories—though it can be—it’s a strategy that has helped brilliant, powerful, and wise people become better at what they do. 

Oscar Wilde, Susan Sontag, W.H. Auden, Queen Victoria, John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, John Steinbeck, Sylvia Plath, Shawn Green, Mary Chestnut, Brian Koppelman, Anaïs Nin, Franz Kafka, Martina Navratilova, and Ben Franklin. All journalers—just to name a few!

For them and so many others as Foucault said, it wasa “weapon for spiritual combat.” It was part of who they were. It made them who they were. It can make you better too.

Whether you’re brand new to the concept of journaling or you’ve journaled in the past and fallen out of practice, my guide to journaling will inform you of everything you need to know to help you make journaling one of the best things you do in 2023 and beyond. You’ll learn not only how to journal but also about the benefits of journaling, the famous journaling of the past 2,000 years, the best journals to use, and more.

Journaling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The benefits of journaling 

The scientific research to support journaling is extensive and compelling:

  • According to a study conducted by Harvard Business School, participants who journaled at the end of the day had a 25 percent increase in performance when compared with a control group who did not journal.
  • The Journal of Experimental Psychology found that journaling before bed decreases cognitive stimulus, rumination, and worry, allowing you to fall asleep faster.
  • Research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that reflective writing reduces intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative events and improves working memory. These improvements in turn free up our cognitive resources for other mental activities including our ability to cope more effectively with stress.

Bring your problems to your journal

On June 12, 1942, Anne Frank made her first entry to her famous, existentially essential diary, “I hope you’ll be a Great Source of Comfort and Support.” Twenty-four days after that first entry, Anne and her Jewish family were forced into hiding in the cramped attic annex over her father’s warehouse in Amsterdam. It’s where they would spend the next two years.

According to Anne Frank’s father, Otto, Anne didn’t write in her journal every day. She wrote when she was upset or dealing with a problem. She wrote when she was confused. She wrote in that journal as a form of therapy so as not to unload her troubled thoughts on the family and compatriots with whom she shared such unenviable conditions. One of her best and most insightful lines must have come on a particularly difficult day. “Paper,” she said, “has more patience than people.” 

Your journaling is not your performing for history. It’s you reflecting. It’s you working through your thoughts. It’s you figuring things out and clearing your head.

Journaling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Journal for your future self

Produce something that will give you something to look back on and learn from. The musician, producer, circus performer, entrepreneur, and author, Derek Sivers, wrote an article that began, “You know those people whose lives are transformed by meditation or yoga or something like that? For me, it’s writing in my diary and journals. It’s made all the difference in the world for my learning, reflecting, and peace of mind.”

For over 20 years, every night, Sivers takes just a couple minutes to jot down a few sentences to recap his day, how he felt, and thoughts he had. What’s so transformational about that? As Sivers explains:

“We so often make big decisions in life based on predictions of how we think we’ll feel in the future or what we’ll want. Your past self is your best indicator of how you felt in similar situations. So it helps to have an accurate picture of your past. You can’t trust distant memories but you can trust your daily diary. It’s the best indicator to your future self of what was going on in your life at this time.

If you’re feeling you don’t have the time or it’s not interesting enough, remember: You’re doing this for your future self. Future you will want to look back at this time in your life and find out what you were doing, day-to-day, and how you felt back then. It will help you make better decisions.”

Journaling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forget all the rules about journaling. Do what works.

What’s the best way to start journaling? Is there an ideal time of day? How long should it take? How many pages? 

Forget all that. Who cares? How you journal is much less important than why you are doing it: To have quiet time with your thoughts, to clarify those thoughts, and to review the day that passed. There’s no right way or wrong way. The point is just to do it.

When Charles Darwin began keeping his little diary at the age of 29, he filled the pages with everything he could remember from his life, until eventually, he was up to date and shifted his journaling to daily notable events.

Thomas Edison made it his objective to record the most mundane events and details of his day. “Went into a drug store and bought some alleged candy, asked the gilded youth with the usual vacuous expression, if he had any nitric peroxide, he gave a wild stare of incomprehensibility,”

Thomas Jefferson’s morning journaling routine began taking weather measurements such as temperature, wind speed, and precipitation.

Ben Franklin used his journal to chart his progress with his personally constructed improvement program of living his thirteen virtues.

George Marshall jotted down the names of everyone he met in his journal and made notes of the character traits he observed.

Leonardo da Vinci’s habit was to write little fables to himself.

Susan Sontag typically journaled lists—movies seen, books read or to read, places to eat and drink, cities she hoped to visit, notable artists, words, and phrases she liked.

As Virginia Woolf’s husband observed in the introduction to Woolf’s collected journal, A Writer’s Diary, she used her journal for “practicing or trying out the art of writing.”

There are no rules in journal writing. The pages are for your eyes only. Be your weirdest self. Be your most curious self. Be your most prolific horrible idea-having self. Dump out everything and anything that comes to mind. There’s no one way to journal. There’s no right way to journal. There’s only your way of journaling. Make it weird. Make it fun. Just do it. 

Journaling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to Journal

Start Small

Tim Ferriss states in the 5-Minute Journal which he uses for prioritizing and gratitude:

“The 5MJ is simplicity itself and hits a lot of birds with one stone: Five minutes in the morning of answering a few prompts and then five minutes in the evening doing the same…Think of it as my boot-up sequence for an optimal day. The rest varies wildly but the first 60 to 90 minutes after waking are what I focus on most.” 

Your journaling does not need to produce Nobel Prize-worthy prose. You don’t need to commit to a life practice right now. Start with one line—about how you are feeling, something you did today, something you are excited about, or someone you met.

Start by doing it for one week. Start by writing a few things you are grateful for. Start with a sentence about the mindset you are going to attack the day with, about something interesting you learned, or about your plans for the day. Whatever it is, start ridiculously small. You’ll know when you’re ready to build on it and write in more depth.

Track something in your journal

Most people drop the journaling habit, or never begin, out of intimidation. The blank page is scary. Where do I even start? I have nothing important to say. Take the pressure off by creating an easy metric to track each day as the first line of your journal entry.

Nobel Prize winner Danny Kahneman suggests keeping track of the decisions you’ve made in your journal.

Neuroscientist Dr. Tara Swart lists what she is grateful for and what she accomplished.

Bestselling author and avid runner David Epstein tracks workouts and training goals.

 Bestselling author and artist Austin Kleon keeps a logbook — writing down each day a simple list of things that have occurred. Who did he meet, what did he do, etc.?

Why? For the same reason many of us struggle with keeping a journal: “For one thing, I’m lazy. It’s easier to just list the events of the day than to craft them into a prose narrative. Any time I’ve tried to keep a journal, I ran out of steam pretty quick.”

You can track what time you wake up and how many hours of sleep you get. You can log everything you ate that day. You can record the tasks you accomplished, the hikes you took, and the places visited. The point is to know where to begin when you open the blank page each day. 

Journaling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use your journal to review your day

Seneca seemed to do most of his journaling and reflection in the evening. As he wrote, “When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.”

He would ask himself whether his actions had been just, what he could have done better, what habits he could curb, how he might improve himself.

Winston Churchill was famously afraid of going to bed at the end of the day having not created, written, or done anything that moved his life forward “Every night,” he wrote, “I try myself by Court Martial to see if I have done anything effective during the day. I don’t mean just pawing the ground, anyone can go through the motions, but something effective.”

Journaling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Copy down important quotes in your journal

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius twice quotes from the comedies of Aristophanes, the Athenian comic playwright. Half a dozen times we see him quote the tragedies and plays of Euripides as well as the teachings of Epictetus. He quotes the tragedian Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. He quotes philosophers Democritus, Epicurus, and Plato. He quotes the poets Empedocles, Pindar, and Menander.

Petrarch kept one. Montaigne, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Ronald Reagan, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Ludwig van Beethoven—they all kept a journal, a depository of quotes and anecdotes. 

According to his biographer, the author and columnist H.L. Mencken “methodically filled notebooks with incidents, recording straps of dialog and slang,” and favorite bits from newspaper columns he liked. Record what strikes you, quotes that motivate you, stories that inspire you for later use in your life, in your writing, in your speaking, or whatever it is that you do.

In 2010, when the Reagan Presidential Library was undergoing renovation, a box labeled “RR’s desk” was discovered. Inside the box were the personal belongings Ronald Reagan kept on his office desk including several black boxes containing 4×6 note cards filled with handwritten quotes, thoughts, stories, political aphorisms, and one-liners. They were separated by themes like “On the Nation,” and “On Liberty.” “On War,” “On the People,” “The World,” “Humor,” and “On Character”. 

Journaling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Brainstorm ideas in your journal

 Ludwig van Beethoven was rarely seen without his notebook, not even when out to drinks with friends. One of his biographers, Wilhelm Von Lenz, wrote in 1855, “When Beethoven was enjoying a beer, he might suddenly pull out his notebook and write something in it. ‘Something just occurred to me,’ he would say, sticking it back into his pocket. The ideas that he tossed off separately, with only a few lines and points and without barlines, are hieroglyphics that no one can decipher. Thus in these tiny notebooks, he concealed a treasure of ideas.”

Pliny the Younger, a prominent lawyer and prolific writer in ancient Rome, was another to keep a notebook always at hand. In one letter to the eminent senator and historian Cornelius Tacitus, Pliny describes a morning hunting trip. “I was sitting by the hunting nets with writing materials by my side,” he writes, “thinking something out and making notes, so that even if I came home emptyhanded I should at least have my notebooks filled.

Don’t look down on mental activity of this kind, for it is remarkable how one’s wits are sharpened by physical exercise; the mere fact of being alone in the depths of the woods in the silence necessary for hunting is a positive stimulus to thought. So next time you hunt yourself, follow my example and take your notebooks along with your lunch basket and flask; you will find that Minerva walks the hills no less than Diana.”

Thomas Edison kept a notebook titled “Private Idea Book” in which he kept different ideas that popped into his head, possible inventions he’d later work on, such as “artificial silk” or “ink for the blind” or “platinum wire ice cutting the machine.” 

Entrepreneur and Bestselling author James Altucher carries with him a waiter’s pad and forces himself to come up with at least ten ideas per day.

Worth Pondering…

Keeping a journal is the veriest pastime in the world and the pleasantest…Only those rare natures that are made up of pluck, endurance, devotion to duty for duty’s sake, and invincible determination, may hope to venture upon so tremendous an enterprise as the keeping of a journal.

—Mark Twain

Outdoor Activities Bucket List: 18 Fun Things to do Outdoors

From chasing fireflies to floating down a river, this list can break you out of a summer rut

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

Not only can heading outside inject excitement into a blah-feeling day, but it can also deliver serious health benefits: Exposure to greenspace is linked to a whole slew of physical perks including reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress hormone cortisol, according to a 2018 meta-analysis of 143 studies published in the journal, Environmental Research

Separate research supports the outdoors for your mental health too. Time in nature can decrease mental distress while boosting happiness, subjective well-being, cognitive functioning, memory, attention, imagination, and creativity, a 2019 review in Science Advances concluded.

In short, there’s a lot to gain from stepping out of doors. And with a handy list of outdoor activities at your fingertips, you can soak up all the awesomeness of nature.

From chasing fireflies to birdwatching, here are some pretty amazing things to do outside. Let this article be your outdoor activities inspiration guide.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Lace up for a mindful nature walk

Feeling on edge or unfocused? Slip on your sneakers, head outside, and get in some steps. Not only is walking an excellent form of exercise but intentionally strolling through a natural setting can help you chill out.

When people with chronic stress walked outdoors for 40 minutes, they decreased their cortisol levels more than those who did likewise on a treadmill or who watched nature programming on TV for the same amount of time, a 2020 study published in Environment and Behavior found. They also experienced more a mood improvement afterward. 

To make the most of your stroll, tune into the present moment including what you see and hear around you. Mindful hiking is the perfect way to explore how being present in nature can transform how you feel. For more on mindful hiking you can read these two articles:

2. Gaze at the night sky

Stargazing, one of the most underrated outdoor activities has much to offer: It’s free, accessible, and can be incredibly calming. For an optimal experience, try to get as far away from city lights as possible and turn off all sources of manmade light.

The ultimate stargazing spots are fittingly called Dark Sky Places, designated pockets where light pollution is at a minimum and the stars can shine in all their glory. And the keeper of those Dark Sky Places is the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). 

Across the 94 Dark Sky Places in the United States, you’ll find friendly amateur astronomers and ample opportunities to gaze uninterrupted into the heavens. Consider picking up a red light headlamp—a hands-free way to illuminate your path but not obstruct the experience. Check the weather forecast, bring layers and plenty of water, tell someone where you’re going, and don’t forget to look down every once in a while. You can fall off a cliff if you’re not paying attention.

For more on stargazing and Dark Sky Parks check out these posts:

3. Chase fireflies

Remember how magical the outdoors felt when you were little? Recreate some of that wonder on a summer night by catching fireflies in a jar and briefly observing them before setting them free. 

There are a number of different species of fireflies, none of which are actually flies—they’re beetles. They get the names firefly and lightning bug because of the flashes of light they naturally produce. This phenomenon is called bioluminescence and the bioluminescent organs in fireflies are found on the underside of the abdomen.

A similar group of organisms are glowworms. The term glowworm can refer to firefly larva or wingless adult females—some of which are not in the firefly family lampyridae.

Both glowworms and fireflies are bioluminescent. The important distinction is that fireflies have wings and glowworms do not. Fireflies can reach up to one inch in length.

Biking the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Dust off your bike and go for a ride

Cycling is a healthy exercise that can be enjoyed by people of all ages from young children to older adults. Cycling strengthens your heart muscles, lowers resting pulse, and reduces blood fat levels. A Danish study conducted over 14 years with 30,000 people aged 20 to 93 years found that regular cycling protected people from heart disease.

If you want to blend low-impact exercise with quality time outdoors, make biking one of your go-to outdoor activities.

5. Be a tourist in your town

Can you confidently say that you know your city in and out? Take the time to visit more than just your usual hangout places. 

Be a tourist in your city, go someplace new and you may be surprised by just how wonderful that old town can be. Most cities have free tours too. You could discover streets, shops, and landmarks that you never knew existed. 

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

6. Go camping

Camping could mean different things to different people. It can be a chance to bond with family or friends, rediscover yourself, or take a break from regular routines and away from distractions. Nevertheless, it is one of those outdoor activities that could spark that adventurous spirit within you.

You may be wondering, “What are the best places to camp near me?” One of the greatest things about traveling around the U.S. and Canada is that from coast to coast there’s no shortage of beautiful places to camp. Nature lovers can enjoy fresh air, glorious mountains, and clear lakes and streams during a weekend (or longer) camping trip.

Not only can you set up an RV or tent at these picturesque locations, but they also come with plenty of picnic areas, hiking trails, and ample opportunities for fishing, swimming, and other outdoor activities. From scenic forests in New Hampshire to peaceful beaches in Florida and majestic Rocky Mountains in Alberta, there amazing places to camp in the U.S. and Canada.

For more on camping, check out my other posts:

Exploring Enchanted Rock State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Explore a state park

If you are interested in the outdoors, being active, or exploring something new, or the combination of all three, perhaps it’s time to take your day exploring the nearest state park. Whether you are looking to explore the mountains, woodlands, or prairies, hike, mountain bike, or horse ride there’s a state park for you. 

From my many articles on state parks here are a few to get you started:

Birdwatching at Bisque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Go Birdwatching

You could go birding right now—this very moment—no matter who you are, where you are, or what stuff you do or don’t own. The most important thing—and really the only thing—you must have as a birder is yourself and your awareness.

There are certain tools that you’re going to want to enhance the experience although the list is short. You don’t need to start out birding by splurging on binoculars that run well above $2,000. Quality binoculars for birding cost between $100 and $400. You’ll also need a bird book (it can be an app as well) and a good amount of patience. You can also connect with any local birders in your area for tips and more.

Here’s more on birding:

9. Float down a river

For super-adventurous folks, whitewater rafting may make the list of ideal outdoor activities. But for people seeking chill time on the water, a gentle river float may be just the ticket. And don’t forget to grab life jackets and tie a whole bunch of inner tubes together and then float on them down a river.  

Rivers are trails. They invite a visitor to put in and travel a distance to a destination or simply float to another landing upstream or downstream. 

The National Water Trails System is a network of water trails open to the public to explore and enjoy. National Water Trails are a sub-set of the National Recreation Trails Program. National Water Trails have been established to protect and restore America’s rivers, shorelines, and waterways; conserve natural areas along waterways, and increase access to outdoor recreation on shorelines and waterways. The Trails are a distinctive national network of exemplary water trails that are cooperatively supported and sustained.

I have an entire article on river trails. You can read it at National Fishing and Boating Week: Exploring National Water Trails

You’re bringing sunscreen, right? Okay, good. Just checking! Additionally, you should bring a hat. And although you may feel tempted to leave your shirt back in the car, take it. At some point, you may want to cover up.

Canoeing Stephen C. Foster State Park, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Go Kayaking

Kayaking, as well as canoeing, is a physical outdoor activity you can do in any type of space with water, from a river to the sea. It’s a great way to exercise and improve your body’s strength, all the while being a low impact activity that can offer a whole lot of peace of mind. 

Kayaking can be a great way to get out on the water whether for a leisurely morning paddle or a more rigorous overnight adventure. When kayaking, it’s good to have clothing that you can easily move around in, dries quickly, and will help protect you from the sun. Since you’ll likely be getting wet, you want to stay away from anything cotton which will leave you dripping and soggy all day (and could cause chafing).

Zip line in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Go Ziplining

No outdoor activity bucket list is complete without zip lining included on it! This is an extreme sport where you are attached to cords that zip you from one tree to the next. It has grown so popular over the years it seems to be possible to do just about anywhere! And while it can get your nerves on overdrive before setting off, it’s usually totally safe to do.

Fishing Parker Canyon Lake, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Go fishing

Another outdoor recreation idea is fishing. Regardless of whether you catch anything, it can be a fun and relaxing experience. There’s something about just being out there in nature and the feel of the cold water rushing by you and the sound of the river. Fishing can also be a great way to find a sliver of solitude especially if you go in the early morning when few other folks are out. 

Hiking Thumb Butte Trail, Prescott, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Hike a new trail

Each season of the year offers something different for your hiking experiences from the nature around you to the trails that are best to be taken. Hiking offers amazing landscapes with the flowers and the returning greenery! This is your sign to hike a trail you’ve never tried before.

Check these out to learn more:

14. Journal

Journaling allows you to express your innermost feelings and ideas without fear of being criticized or seen by others. It may also assist you in better organizing and comprehending those items. It’s similar to maintaining a diary, except with more freedom. You are free to write (or even draw) whatever you like, so just scribble down any thoughts or emotions as they occur to you!

15. Take a bike ride

Biking is such a great outdoor activity, no wonder it’s so popular. Not only can the bike actually take you to the same places you might otherwise go by public transportation or a car but it’ll keep you fit as you do so. On top of which you might also get some great scenery to enjoy during your bike ride!

For many people, bicycling never stops and continues right into their 80s and 90s and has been an intricate part of their entire life.

Horseback riding Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Go horseback riding

Whether it’s a forested trail or along the beach, horseback riding is another amazing way to enjoy time outdoors and in nature. Horseback riding has an inherent relaxing effect. According to Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, Rheta D. Connor, “The natural rhythm of the horse aids in circulation and relaxation while gently exercising and massaging the rider’s joints, muscles and spine”. These physical motions bring about feelings of relaxation naturally without any thought on behalf of the rider.

Wildlife World Zoo, Litchfield Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Visit a zoo

What is your earliest recollection of going to the zoo? It’s likely that you were on a field trip with your class or your family, being fascinated by the many different creatures that make the place their home.

From thrilling encounters with lions to petting rabbits to holding a snake and more, a trip to the local zoo is an entertaining, educational experience for people of all ages.

Sunset Usery Mountain Regional Park, Mesa, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

18. Watch a sunrise or sunset

Whether you’re catching it from a mountain top, the beach, or someplace else, sunsets and sunrises are the days at their most beautiful. So find a spot from where you can clearly see it, preferably against nature’s beautiful backdrop, and perhaps bring along a picnic basket and a mat to fully immerse in enjoying the sight.

Worth Pondering…

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is a society, where none intrudes,

By the deep sea, and music in its roar:

I love not Man the less, but Nature more

—Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

30 Tips for Making the Most of Your National Park Trip

Tips for making your next trip to a national park even more amazing

Mountains, seashores, grasslands, wetlands, coral reefs, and glaciers.

With sweeping vistas, stunning wildlife, and rugged landscapes, America’s national parks are truly a collection of national wonders. Whether you’re visiting for the first time or are a regular at the country’s national parks, planning ahead is the best way to ensure your trip goes off without a hitch.

Following are 30 ways to ensure that your trip to a U.S. national park is great from planning your route in advance to making sure you bring the right supplies and why it’s really important to pay attention to those safety rules. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Choose a time to visit that’s best for your park and travel style

First and foremost, make sure that the park you choose is open at the time of year that you’d like to visit. Several national parks are located in regions that can be dangerous, inaccessible, or uncomfortable if you select the wrong time. For example, you may not want to experience Death Valley National Park—the driest, hottest and lowest national park—in the heat of summer. Some parks such as Lassen Volcanic National Park are completely snowed in and unavailable in the winter.

2. Find out if the park you want to visit requires reservations

During peak seasons, many parks require timed-entry reservations that can be made in advance on each park’s website. You may not need to make that reservation in advance but checking before your trip is a good way to avoid disappointment at the gates. 

Camping in Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. …especially if you want to go camping

Because many parks have limited camping space, reservations fill up quickly especially on major holiday weekends. It’s best to start checking at least a few months in advance for camping sites and though a last-minute spot might open up, don’t count on getting lucky at many of the busiest parks.  

4. Research the best hikes

National parks offer some of the country’s best hiking opportunities and websites like AllTrails can help you find hikes that suit your abilities and sightseeing wishes. By planning your hikes in advance, you’ll be able to strategize and maximize your time in the park. For more on hiking in national parks check out these articles:

Scenic drive in Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. …and don’t forget about the scenic drives

If hiking’s not your thing, don’t let that keep you from checking out the country’s incredible national parks. Almost all the parks offer scenic drives, many of which will get you up close and personal with nature without requiring a long trek. These scenic drives make an ideal start:

6. Consider traveling during shoulder season to beat the crowds

During the busy season, crowded parking lots and so many tourists can put a damper on your enjoyment of the outdoors. Consider planning your trip during shoulder season or just before or after the busiest times for the park you’d like to visit. A quick Google search will reveal when the park is busiest and also let you know about any weather conditions that may result in closures or other limitations on your visit to the park. 

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Prepare yourself for the elements

Hiking even short trails at national parks requires the right equipment and weather conditions can change rapidly depending on the climate. Make sure you’ve got good shoes, essentials like a rain jacket and sunscreen, and a first-aid kit in the event of any mishaps. 

8. Bring plenty of snacks and water

Most national parks don’t boast a ton of services like restaurants which means that you’ll need to bring your own (healthy) snacks. Water is especially important, especially if you plan to hike — plan on bringing about 1 gallon per person even if you’re just going on short walks, and more if you have more strenuous activities in mind. 

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. …and don’t forget to pack out all your trash

Leave no trace is an essential principle of being outdoors responsibly and that means getting rid of all your trash—all of it! Pack a trash bag in the car and toss your waste in only approved containers. Don’t toss out food scraps, either. They may be a detriment to the animals that live in the park. 

10. Be respectful of wild animals and keep your distance

The animals you encounter in national parks are wild; they’re living in their natural habitats and they behave accordingly. Respect the full-time inhabitants in the parks. Don’t attempt to touch them or point a selfie stick at them. Don’t chase them and stay the recommended number of feet away from them. Even though they’re cute or really majestic, never touch a wild animal, no matter how small or docile it seems. Wild animals are wild and contact with humans can endanger their lives — and the lives of the human.

11. …and take good care of the land you’re visiting

National parks are protected sites and the rules exist for a reason. Stay only on marked trails, don’t take rocks or other souvenirs from the ground, and never carve into any trees or rock formations. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Consider buying an annual park pass to save money

If you’re planning to visit multiple national parks this year, consider investing in an annual park pass. Costing around $80 per year, these passes provide access to all parks managed by the National Park Service (NPS) along with parks managed by other agencies, and are a real bargain considering that many can cost upwards of $20 per visit. 

13. Check to see if you qualify for any national park discounts

Veterans, seniors, people with disabilities, and some students are eligible for discounted national park passes, some of which are good for a lifetime. Check out the NPS website for details on these discounts. 

14. Don’t forget to fill up your gas tank before beginning the drive

As with snacks, gas stations aren’t always abundant near national parks and you’re probably going to do a ton of driving. Fill up the tank before you head out and make sure to keep an eye on the gas gauge throughout your trip. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Know your limits in the outdoors and operate within them

The beautiful scenery of many national parks can also mean some pretty rugged, unforgiving terrain. If you’re not an experienced hiker, make sure to stick to shorter, safer treks, and don’t forget to bring plenty of water and a wide-brimmed hat. Don’t take unnecessary or stupid risks. And don’t expect to rely on your devices if you get into trouble; in some national parks, cell and data service is negligible. Know your limits and stay within them, especially with children.

16. …and follow all the safety guidelines

In national parks, the rules are there to both preserve the gorgeous landscapes and also keep you alive. In addition to avoiding fines and other penalties, closely following all posted safety guidelines will also prevent you from ending up in a seriously dangerous situation. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Don’t expect great cell phone service

Thanks to the remote nature of most national parks, cell phone service can be sketchy, especially at high altitudes or in really rural areas. Make sure to download offline maps from your favorite navigation app, or make use of the paper maps provided at most ranger stations. 

18. Travel the right time of the year

Whether you’re looking for great fall foliage or a warm trip in the summer, choosing the right time of year at your park is essential. Going too early (or late) can mean road and trail closures so make sure to do your research in advance. 

19. Check in with park rangers when you first arrive

Stop at the visitor center when you first arrive. Often, you’ll find interesting exhibits and artifacts that will help you learn more about the land you’re visiting. The park rangers there will have current insider information that you’ll need such as which hiking trails, roads, and areas of the park are closed and what special ranger programs are being offered during your stay. Park rangers can also help you figure out what hidden trails to try or the best place to watch the sunset (or sunrise). Consider a ranger-led hike or nature talk. While there, pick up any needed guidebooks and maps.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Practice trail etiquette

Stay on designated trails. By doing so, you’ll help prevent erosion and damage to vegetation. Do not litter, pick flowers, or use the outdoors as your personal gift shop. Be aware of your surroundings and make room for quickly approaching groups, fast-paced cyclists, or horseback riders. Take a moment to move to the side and politely let them pass.

 21. Stay at a national park lodge

If you really want to immerse yourself in a national park, consider staying on property. Many parks offer hotels and other lodging and of course camping is an option. Being in grand old lodges literally surrounds you with park history. An added benefit is that you have the early mornings and late evenings in the park. There’s nothing like waking up and seeing the Grand Canyon or Zion Canyon right in front of you.

22. Camp for at least one night—or several

The ultimate thing to do when visiting a national park is to camp under the stars. By unplugging, you’re forced to be present, you more easily connect with nature, and you engage with other people more fully. But, do plan in advance and book a site early.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Tend to campfires and cooking stoves with the utmost care 

In 2013, a hunter’s illegal fire got out of control in the Stanislaus National Forest in California. For nine weeks, this Rim Fire burned the backcountry areas of Yosemite National Park consuming 257,314 acres. In 2018, Yosemite National Park closed for the first time since 1990 due to the nearby Ferguson Fire which burned 96,901 acres. In that same year, the Howe Ridge Fire, ignited by a thunderstorm, burned more than 12,000 acres of Glacier National Park. Read more on wildfire safety.

24. Have a mission in mind…

When in nature, there’s a lot to be said for being spontaneous and making discoveries by chance rather than overscheduling yourself. But when you show up at a national park and don’t have any idea about what you want to do, you might end up not doing much. On the other hand, making a list of everything you want to do in a sprawling national park can be overwhelming and cause you to become overly concerned with time allotments. So, go with at least one mission in mind to accomplish on your trip.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

25. … But don’t forget there are wonders—and place to wander—away from the famous sites 

Rather than sticking to the most popular sites, go out a bit and hit the trails (or water), particularly those routes that are longer than three miles. They may not be listed as the park’s top must-see locations but they’re almost guaranteed to be just as spectacular, yet apart from the crowds.

26. Journal every day

Make sure to record your memories in a journal each day so you don’t forget the good times—and the bad. They’re all part of your experience and your story. Journaling is also a great way of releasing any anxiety or stress.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

27. Go with a good attitude

Remember that the national parks belong to all of us. Its part of their appeal and what makes them so special. Undoubtedly, there will be times when the places you’re visiting will get uncomfortably crowded. Meet those challenges with a smile. It’s important to remember our joint venture in these places and play well with others.

28. Passport to your national parks

A National Parks Passport is a really fun memento and a great way to mark each park you’ve visited. You pay $10 for the passport and each park will have a stamp you can put in your book. You can look back and see the exact date you visited different places.

29. Share your experience

If it’s possible, take a family member or a friend along with you on your adventure; there’s no better way to share your experience.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Leave the park better than you found it

My final piece of advice is to leave the park better than you found it. This also means knowing and committing to the National Park Service’s Leave No Trace principles. They range from minimizing campfire impacts to disposing of waste properly. By being a good steward of these national treasures, those who come after us can continue to enjoy them as we do now.

In my opinion, visiting just one national park is almost impossible. They quickly become addictive.

Worth Pondering…

I encourage everybody to hop on Google and type in national park in whatever state they live in and see the beauty that lies in their own backyard. It’s that simple.

—Jordan Fisher, American actor and musician