Are you looking for the best National Park packing list? In this guide we will tell you all the essentials you need to pack and what you should wear to a US National Park no matter the park or season you are traveling.
Now as someone who has been ticking off a lot of items from their national park bucket list, I have learnt a lot of lessons about what are national park essentials and what things you can leave at home. In this guide we will tell you what are national park essentials and what not to take to national parks so you can pack light for your trip.
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Ultimate US National Park Packing List
To make this list more navigable we have split it up into sections. These are essentials for your National Park daypack, what to wear in national parks and what else to pack for your national park trip whether you are taking a road trip or flying to your destination.
Note: this list does not include a National Park camping packing list as this is quite different to those visiting national parks for the day and staying off-site.
What to pack for National Park Trips (Essentials)
So the first thing we will look at is what to pack for national park trips no matter the park you are going to.
America the Beautiful Pass
The first thing I always make sure I have when I am planning a national park road trip is my America the Beautiful Pass. This is the US National Park annual pass and costs $80. This gives you unlimited access to all the national parks in the country. Now this can seem expensive as an upfront cost, however if you plan on visiting 4 or more national parks in one year then this can be a real cost saving.
The pass can be purchased at most national park entrances, as well as online at the National Park website and REI.
Note: Remember that some parks require you to have timed reservations. This is an essential even if you have an annual pass. Therefore be sure to make your reservations early to avoid disappointment.
A day pack is an essential no mater the park you are visiting. This is the place you will store all your essentials for long days in the park. The Osprey backpacks are a very popular amongst serious hikers in national parks.
Note: I recommend checking the weather forecast 7 days before travel so you can pack appropriately for the conditions. If you see rain in your forecast be sure to also pack a waterproof backpack cover so you stuff doesn’t get soaked on your hike.
Although in most places when I travel I just use my phone for navigation. However national parks are remote so wifi or even 4 or 5G is not always guaranteed. To make sure I have a back up to any information and downloaded maps have on my phone, I always have a map in my backpack.
Reusable water bottle
A reusable water bottle is a must for any national park. National Park vacations involve a lot of walking, and it is important to stay hydrated. This is true for all parks but is especially important for those visiting desert national parks such as Joshua Tree and Zion National Park, and for visitors in Summer.
Also, you want to help preserve the national environment especially when you are in beautiful landscapes such as national parks, so be sure to have a reusable water bottle with you instead of having to rely on single use plastic bottles.
Tip: be sure to make an ample supply of water in your car and some surplus should you require it. Shop water bottles here.
Coffee Thermos and Mugs
My number one tip for visiting national parks is to get up and into the parks early to see the sunrise. The parks at beautiful at this time of day and is a great way to beat the crowds in the parks. However if you are like me you will like to have a coffee to start you day.
For early starts in national parks I recommend having a coffee thermos and mugs with you
Therefore an essential to me is having a coffee thermos and mugs. I always fill up a coffee thermos before we go into a national park to help with the early start.
Depending on which national park you are visiting will depend on what amenities there are in the visitors center and parks itself. For this reason we recommend you enter the park with an ample supply of food, drink and snacks. And to keep them fresh and prevent smells from attracting bears we recommend taking a cool box in your car with bear proof food containers.
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Quick Dry Towel
It’s amazing how often quick dry towels come in handy. Whether you are having to use a camp ground shower, just want a dip in a river, or want to go kayaking in the park, a quick dry towel is essential.
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Camera, Spare Batteries, Lens
National parks are one of the most beautiful places in the US and trust me when I say you will want to take a lot of photographs. If you want to use something other than your phone remember to pack a camera, spare batteries and any speciality lenses you have for wildlife photography etc.
You will be outdoors a lot even in winter, therefore it is important to protect your skin with suncream.
Lip Balm with Sun Protection
As important as it is to protect your skin from the sun it is equally as important to protect your lips. And in Winter lip balm will protect your lips from cracking in the cold conditions.
Phone and spare battery pack
Even with poor signal and internet, it is worth keeping your phone on you at all times and have a spare battery back and car charger with you.
Travel First Aid Kit
No one wants to get injured on vacation. However the activities you are doing and the remoteness of the location mean it is advisable to always travel with a travel first aid kit in national parks. And they are so small that they won’t take up any room in your luggage.
Shop travel first aid kits here.
Although there are lots of toilets in the park at major view points, the cleanliness and facilities vary. For the reason we always pack hand sanitiser and some spare toilet roll in our day pack.
Even if you aren’t planning on camping in the parks, which is something I never do, a flashlight is an essential if you plan on getting into the parks early and staying for sunset. A headlamp style torch is also very handy for those that want their hands free.
One of the highlights of any national park trips for me is viewing wildlife. If you want to get the best view of wildlife, especially birds you will want a pair of binoculars with you.
What to wear in National Parks
So now you know the essentials to pack for a national parks vacation, we will turn our attention to the best national park clothing to add to your packing.
Obviously the amount of layers and thickness of those layers, will larger depend on the season you are traveling and also the park you are visiting. Obviously the clothes you are packing for Yellowstone in Winter is very different to the Utah parks in summer. However there are some things that should always wear in a national park.
I always pack a lightweight micro fibre fleece with me when I go to national parks. Even if I am one of the notoriously hot desert national parks, you will find the parks chilly before the sun rises. A lightweight microfibre fleece is the perfect solution.
It is lightweight so is easy to pack away as the temperatures rise, and will also dry really quickly if it gets wet or damp.
T Shirts are a perfect base layer for national parks in summer and the shoulder seasons.
Hiking trousers are perfect for national parks. For those visiting desert parks and hot weather locations we recommend packing zip-able walking trousers that can be converted into shorts when the temperature rises. They are also easy to clean should the bottom part of your pants get muddy on a hike.
Any national parks vacation will involve a large amount of walking. To ensure you hiking boots don’t rub pack a plentiful supply of hiking socks with you too.
And remember to check for plenty of blister plasters in your first aid kit.
These are probably only necessary for some parks however they are essential for parks where it may be wet.
This one is optional for some depending on the park and accommodation you are staying at, but I think I have always used swimwear on my national parks vacation. Whether that being taking dips in hot springs and rivers, or just at our national park lodgings with a pool.
Even in Winter, it is a good idea to have sunglasses to protect your eyes from UV rays.
A hat is an essential no matter the time of year you visit. However the season will dictate the best time of hat. In the summer we recommend packing a sun hat or baseball cap. While in Winter something like a beanie is a good idea as it will keep your head warm.
Best Shoes for National Parks
Shoes are probably the most important part of a packing list for national parks as you will be doing a lot of walking. For this reason my number one shoe for a national park is:
Hiking boots are a good idea for any national park especially if you plan on going out on longer trails or primitive trails. They also provide good traction if you are on slippery boardwalk trails.
If you are visiting in Summer you may also want to consider a hiking sandal which are more breathable.
Again, this one is entirely dependent on the park you are heading to and the activities you are doing. However when we were at Yellowstone boiling river was a big draw. Given the rough surface at the bottom of the river it was advisable to protect your feet with watersheds.
What to pack for a family national park vacation
Generally speaking the car essentials are the same as are the clothing principles. However the additional thing we recommend packing for kids in particular are:
Baby Carrier / Hiking Backpack
Now depending on the age of your toddler, their walking ability and the trails you plan on hiking it is advisable to bring either a baby carrier or hiking back pack with you to carry them in.
If you are going to one of the Utah parks or a park in summer with hot weather, we recommend getting a carrier specifically designed for hot weather.
I know toddler reins are a divisive item, however at some parks I find them an essential. For instance at Yellowstone there are lots of geysers and hot springs that are very dangerous for small children. For this reason we used backpack reins at Yellowstone as a safety precaution.
What to pack for National Parks in Summer
It is unlikely you are going to need insect repellant if you are traveling to cold weather national parks in Winter. However if you are traveling in summer, to a park like the everglades with lots of water and more temperate conditions I would always add insect repellant to your list.
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What to pack for National Parks in Winter
So now you know the items we always take with us, we will turn our attention to what to pack for national parks in Winter, and for parks where you may experience snow and extreme conditions.
Thermal Base Layers
If you are going somewhere cold, I recommend having a thermal base layer with you. I like to pack merino wool base layers as they are thin and easy to pack, but also are good for wicking away sweat and not absorbing bad smells.
Winter Footwear Accessories
Although hiking boots are still an essential for winter, we also recommend adding some winter footwear accessories with you.For instance if you are going to somewhere very snowy or icy we recommend packing crampons, spikes or even some snowshoes with you.
Nice to have things on your packing list
So now you know all of the essentials, we will turn our attention to some of the nice to have items we like to add to our packing list.
National Parks Stamp Book
While this is in no way an essential, our family love to get a stamp at every national park we go to as a souvenir. So if you like us are trying to visit all the national parks and want a memento from each one we recommend buying and always packing your national parks stamp book on every visit.
So there you have it. This is what we consider to be the Ultimate US National Park Packing List. But if you want some specific national park packing lists we recommend checking out the below:
- Yellowstone Packing List
- Badlands Packing List
- Moab Packing List for Canyonlands and Arches National Park
As we visit more national parks this list will be updated.
What are your essentials for visiting national parks?