As the heavy snowfalls have closed parts from Yosemite National Park in California, it’s a good reminder that when you visit any of the 63 national parks in the United States, always have a back-up plan.
National parks are a wonder to behold. They help preserve pristine natural areas and the organisms that live there. However, they are also subject to extreme and unpredictable weather and are home to wildlife that you often won’t encounter anywhere else, which can hamper your visit. The best way to have a fun and safe trip to one of these natural beauties is to be prepared.
The National Park Service (NPS) has several resources to help you prepare for your trip to the park. They include what to bring and what to do if you get lost or go missing.
Cynthia Hernandez, spokesperson for the National Park Service, and Joelle Baird, public affairs specialist at Grand Canyon National Park, offer tips on how to stay safe and prepare in national parks.
Stay safe when visiting national parks
National parks are great for outdoor recreation such as hiking, biking, climbing and water sports. They are even perfect for winter activities like skiing and snowshoeing.
Learn more: 5 of the best winter activities to do in national parks
According to Hernandez, “national parks are generally safe places” — especially for those who plan ahead. So if you are planning to recreate, make sure you are prepared for the activity you are considering.
In addition to the national park website, the NPS app has lots of safety information for each park. You can easily find all important news, such as park closures, precautions and events. It’s free to download and even has a list of all the parks so you can check off the ones you’ve visited.
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Always check the weather before your visit to the park, as it can be unpredictable. According to Hernandez, you can even call the park to check the weather and see if there are any additional essentials to bring.
Some parks have significant elevation changes. For example, when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, the temperature in Estes Park – the town at the entrance – can be very different from inside the park itself. It can be hot and sunny at the base of the mountain, but it snows halfway up.
Baird says weather is a factor that can delay search and rescue (SAR) from reaching someone if they are lost or injured in the parks. In case of bad weather, have a backup plan to protect yourself.
(Credit: Rachel Martin/Shutterstock)
Throughout the parks, there are information boards that provide facts about the parks, as well as safety precautions. At each entrance station, park staff also distribute a map and important information to know about the park. Taking a few moments to read these materials will help you prepare even more for your adventure.
Dehydration occurs when the body loses more fluid than it takes in. This can happen during physical activity in hot weather, such as hiking or biking. According to Hernandez, you should bring more water than you think you’ll need when visiting the parks. If you are outside in warmer temperatures, it may take 30 minutes to a few hours feel the effects of dehydration.
(Credit: Tim Malek/Shutterstock)
National parks are home to thousands of unique species you can’t see otherwise. From tiny american pika to towering moose, all wildlife in the park deserves respect.
Feed the wildlife, antelope squirrels to bears, can cause great damage to this animal. When animals start eating human food, their behavior may change. A bear, for example, might start approaching humans for food. They can quickly become unpredictable and eventually cause damage. Often bears will be euthanized to prevent a threat to the public. To avoid this, you can remember that “a fed bear is a dead bear.”
Learn more: What to do if you encounter a bear
Although it may be tempting, you should also be careful when approaching wildlife. The parks are home to large animals including moose, bison and bighorn sheep. They may not seem dangerous, like bears and cougars, but these animals can become aggressive if they feel threatened and are large enough to cause serious injury.
If you want to get close-up photos of wildlife, it’s a good idea to invest in high-quality photo equipment and shoot these animals from a safe distance or the safety of your vehicle.
The weather in the parks can be unpredictable and sometimes change due to the altitude. Having the right kind of clothing while exploring the parks can help you feel more comfortable and safe. It’s always wise to bring extra pants, shorts, socks, and a jacket, just in case. Remember to wear appropriate shoes if you plan to hike in rocky terrain. Decent hiking boots can help protect your feet and provide ankle support.
tell someone where you are
If you’re visiting the parks, let people who aren’t traveling with you know your travel plans and when they can expect to hear from you. This way they can immediately alert the authorities if you get lost.
Along with these tips, Hernandez also recommends that all park visitors check out the list of 10 essentials.
Safety in the parks: an ounce of prevention
The NPS has compiled a list of 10 essentials take away no matter which park you visit. The list includes:
Navigation: Something other than your phone.
Insulation: Bring several layers of clothing.
Lighting: Again, something other than your phone (flashlight or headlamp).
First aid kit
Fire: Carrying matches or a fire starter can help provide a source of heat and a lifesaving signal. However, use with caution; fires can quickly get out of control in some parks and light a forest fire.
Repair kit and tools
Nutrition: It is wise to pack more food than you think you will need, without wasting it. Non-perishable items like trail mixes and granola bars are good examples. Remember to store all food in a bear-proof container and follow no-trace practices.
Hydration: More water than you think you need.
emergency shelter: A tent, bivy bag or space blanket will do.
(Credit: Milan Ivosevic/Shutterstock)
If you get lost
Even if you come prepared, there may be times when you need help in the parks. Maybe you twisted your ankle or got lost. If so, Hernandez and Baird have offered tips to help SAR locate you faster.
Baird suggests wearing bright colors, like oranges and yellows, to help the SAR team spot you more easily. This also includes the use of a brightly colored backpack.
(Credit: Aleksey Matrenin/Shutterstock)
A whistle can help SAR hear you more easily, and you’ll also save energy by not shouting.
Unless there is an immediate threat to life, Baird recommends staying in one place. However, if staying in place is not a valid option, it is advisable to move to a safer place, in the shade or out of danger. Straying too far can delay the SAR from finding you and wear you out.
Enjoy your trip!
Check the NSP website for more information, including recreate responsibly And leaves no trace practices. The NPS is also working on a project for 2023 called, “Your park storyAfter enjoying your National Parks adventure, share with everyone the highlight of your trip and what the parks mean to you.
“Our parks belong to everyone,” Hernandez says. “There are so many wonderful, beautiful experiences people can have. As the National Park Service, we’re here to help you plan the safest trip.”
Learn more: Why You Should Visit National Parks After Dark