15 Essential Items You Should Pack When Visiting a National Park

From food to clothing to personal items, here’s what to bring to stay safe and comfortable during your next park visit

National parks give people the opportunity to learn about and explore nature up close. However, visitors often forget these stunning destinations are more than tourist attractions. They’re also wild landscapes with animals, rugged terrains, and intense weather conditions that can all be dangerous if not respected and properly prepared for. 

Weather, region, and elevation are important to consider when packing for a national park trip. Weather can be unpredictable any time of year, so be sure to check the forecast and pack accordingly.

If a trip to a national park is on your road trip itinerary, here are a few items that you should pack to be prepared for weather conditions, hiking trails, pesky bugs, and unexpected situations.

Food and gear

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

1. Water and snacks

Whether you’re exploring for an hour or an entire day, you should always bring water and food or healthy snacks along for your journey. Pack foods that will keep you moving such as nuts and trail mix, fruits and veggies. And you shouldn’t expect these items to be readily available at a moment’s notice. While some parks have food and drinks for sale in certain areas, others have limited (if any) shops or restaurants. You should always stay hydrated and pack enough food to keep yourself fueled throughout the day. 

2. Backpack or waterproof bag

Even for short park trips, you’ll want to bring a backpack or waterproof bag to keep your belongings safe and distribute weight evenly on your back which is especially important when you’re hiking. And if you’re hiking through water or in a rainy environment, a waterproof backpack can help ensure your gear stays dry. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Phone charger

Don’t plan on being close to power outlets or other areas where you can charge your phone. Bring a portable or solar charger with you if there’s an emergency and you need to reach out for help. If you’re visiting isolated areas of a park with no cell phone service, you should consider packing some type of GPS beacon for safety. This allows you to reach emergency responders without a cell phone signal.

4. Park map

When you enter the park, grab a map to carry with you during your visit. While maps on your phone and hiking apps are helpful when your phone is charged and there’s cell service, if you’re unable to use your phone, a paper map can help you find attractions and navigate trails. Plus, these can be fun souvenirs to keep track of park visits and the trails you’ve hiked.  

5. Sunscreen

Sunscreen is important year-round. Even on cloudy days, sunscreen will protect you from the sun’s harmful UV rays. Not only does sunscreen help prevent damage to your skin, it also protects from painful, irritating burns that can put a damper on any outdoor activity. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Bug spray

Insect repellent is another essential for your packing list. You’ll want to avoid pesky bugs throughout your hiking adventure. Protecting yourself from constant bug bites is key to an enjoyable park experience, from mosquitoes and ticks to biting flies and gnats. Before your visit, research the types of bugs you can expect to encounter and purchase repellents for those specific insects. Not all repellents are made the same, so it’s important to have one on hand that’s formulated to deter the environment you’re visiting. 

7. First aid kit

Be prepared for cuts, scrapes, and blisters with a small first aid kit. Keep a larger one in your RV.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Photo equipment

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 D-SLR 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.

Clothing

9. Hiking boots or comfortable shoes

Come prepared with hiking shoes or boots that are durable and comfortable enough to wear for the duration of your visit. Unless you’re simply driving through the park, you’ll likely be on your feet most of the time. Flip flops, open-toed shoes, and other casual footwear aren’t recommended even if you’re not hiking. You should also consider bringing an extra pair of shoes if you’re walking through wet areas or hiking trails like Zion’s Narrows which requires you to submerse your feet in water for most of the journey. 

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Layers

Elevation change, desert landscapes, cold fronts, and other factors make temperatures fluctuate significantly. Pack an extra warm layer to keep on hand for unexpected temperature drops. This could be anything from a jacket to a thermal shirt depending on where you visit and during what season. While it may not make sense when hiking in the heat during the day, if you become lost or stranded outside after the sun sets, an extra layer could become a vital piece of gear.  

11. Protective hat

Aside from shielding your eyes from glare, a good protective hat will have a brim wide enough to protect your nose, ears, and neck from sunburn. If the temperature is cold, you’ll likely want to wear a beanie or other winter hat to stay warm and protect your head from the sun. In warm or mild climates, you should wear a brimmed or billed hat for sun and bug protection. Hats can be an easy way to prevent ticks and other bugs from disturbing your visit. 

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Change of clothes

Bring along a change of clothes or store them in your car or a park storage locker (if available). When you’re out in nature, you and your clothes may get wet, muddy, sweaty, or all of the above. Having a spare set of clothes, especially dry socks and shoes can keep you comfortable and your day on track, no matter where you’re headed next. 

Personal items

13. Identification

Keep some form of identification with you especially if you’re traveling solo. If you sustain an injury or become unresponsive, this will help emergency responders identify you and potentially notify your loved ones of the situation. Be sure to store it in a protective case or wallet along with other important personal belongings.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Credit/debit cards

Many parks are going cashless. The idea is that by freeing national park staff from handling and processing cash they can spend more time improving visitor experiences and making park upgrades. So far this year, more than a dozen national park units have opted to go cash-free including Mount Rainier, Badlands, and Crater Lake. That’s on top of various other NPS units including certain monuments, historic sites, lakeshores, and recreation areas which no longer accept cash.

15. Medications

If you take any prescribed medications, keep them with you when possible. From hikes taking longer than expected to long lines at the park entrance, even well-planned itineraries can encounter an obstacle. Having your medications on your person helps keep you safe and provides peace of mind.

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