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What to Pack

Top 10 Essentials

Packing lists for any trip vary according to the individual and his or her needs, of course, but here are 10 essential things to include in your luggage for a national parks vacation.

1. Binoculars. Many of the parks are a bird- (and animal-) watcher's dream. A pair of binos will help you spot feathered friends as well as larger creatures. Binoculars are sold according to power, or how much the objects you're viewing are magnified (i.e., 7x, 10x, 12x), and the diameter of objective lens, which is the one on the fat end of the binoculars; 10x is a good choice for magnification, field of view, and steadiness.

2. Clothes that layer. In much of the West (especially at higher elevations), days are often warm while nights turn chilly. The weather also can change quickly, with things going from dry and sunny to windy and wet in a matter of minutes. This means you need to pack with both warm and cold (as well as wet and dry) weather in mind. The easiest solution is to dress in layers. Experts suggest synthetics such as polyester (used in Coolmax and other "wicking" fabrics that draw moisture away from your skin, and fleece, which is an insulator) and lightweight merino wool. Look for socks in wicking wool or polyester. Don't forget a waterproof poncho or jacket.

3. Long pants and long-sleeve shirts. It's wise to minimize exposed skin when hiking, especially in areas with poison ivy and/or ticks and at higher elevations, where the sun’s radiation is much stronger. Convertible pants (the bottom portion zips off, leaving you in a pair of shorts) are another good option—they’re often made of quick-drying and rugged material and allow you the flexibility of pants or shorts at a moment’s notice.

4. Sturdy shoes or sandals. If you plan to do any hiking, be sure your footwear has rugged soles, a necessity on unpaved trails. Be sure to break in your shoes before the trip.

5. Insect repellent. If you're hiking or camping in an area with lots of mosquitoes, a good bug spray can help keep your trip from being a swatting marathon. A repellent also helps deter ticks. Most experts recommend repellents with DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide); the higher the level of DEET, the longer the product will be effective. Just be sure to use a separate sunscreen, not a single product with both ingredients (this is because you're supposed to reapply sunscreen every few hours, but doing so with DEET could deliver a dangerous dose of the chemical).

6. Skin moisturizer, sunscreen, and lip balm. In the parks, you're likely to be outside for longer—and in higher altitudes and drier climates—than you’re used to. All of this can leave your skin and lips parched and burned. Sunscreen should provide both UVA and UVB protection, with an SPF of at least 15; look for a lotion marked "sweatproof" or "sport" and be sure to reapply throughout the day.

7. Sunglasses and hat. Higher elevation means more ultraviolet radiation; research shows there’s an 8% to 10% increase in UV intensity for every 1,000 feet in elevation gain. Look for sunglasses that provide 100% UV protection.

8. Journal and camera. When your jaw drops at the glorious vistas and your head clears from all the fresh air, you may want to try your hand at sketching what you see or jotting down your thoughts. And of course, you'll want to get photographs.

9. Snacks and water. National parks by their nature are remote, and some are lacking in services. Bring plenty of water, along with healthy snacks (or meals, depending on how long you plan to be out and what you’re likely to find in the park). When hiking in hot weather, experts recommend ½ to 1 quart of water (or another fluid) per person, per hour, to prevent potentially dangerous dehydration. The risk of dehydration is greater at elevations above 8,000 feet. Even if you're not hiking, have some water and food in the car for long drives through the park, where facilities might be scarce.

10. First-aid kit. A solid kit should contain a first-aid manual, aspirin (or ibuprofen), razor blades, tweezers, a needle, scissors, adhesive bandages, butterfly bandages, sterile gauze pads, 1-inch-wide adhesive tape, an elastic bandage, antibacterial ointment, antiseptic cream or spray, antihistamines, calamine lotion, and moleskin (for blisters).

Hiking Items

For vacations where you'll be hiking for longer than an hour or two at a time, consider investing in the following:

  • a compass and map
  • a daypack with enough room for everybody's essentials
  • energy bars (they may not be five-star dining, but they do give you energy and keep your kids—and you—from getting cranky)
  • a hiking stick or poles, especially if you've got bad knees
  • a water filter to treat water in the backcountry
  • bear bells if you're in bear country
  • reusable water bottles

Camping Gear

Planning on roughing it on your national parks vacation? In addition to a working tent (check the zipper before you go!), sleeping bags and pillows, and, of course, the ingredients for s'mores (graham crackers, chocolate bars, and marshmallows), here are some things veteran campers recommend be among your gear:

  • camping chairs (folding or collapsible)
  • camp stove and fuel
  • cooking and eating utensils, plates, and cups
  • duct tape (great for covering tears)
  • flashlight, headlamp, and lantern
  • matches
  • paper towels, napkins, wet wipes
  • a multipurpose knife and cutting board
  • a rope (for laundry or to help tie things down; pack clothespins, too)
  • a sleeping pad or air mattress
  • a tarp (will help keep the bottom of your tent—and you—dry)
  • a cooler
  • toilet paper
  • a shovel (to bury waste) or plastic bags (to haul it out)

Park Passes


Staying Healthy, Playing It Safe


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