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Visiting National Parks: The Essential Gear and Packing List

When heading out with your family to visit any of our national parks for an extended stay, it's good to have everything you need -- not too much, and not too little.

With good reason the Boy Scout motto is "Be Prepared." When heading out with your family to visit any of our national parks for an extended stay, it's good to have everything you need -- not too much, and not too little.


Lots of magazines and websites ( in particular), as well as Camping and Backpacking with Children by Steven Boga, offer more advice for buying stuff. Here are a few of our family discoveries:

  • A high-quality baby-carrying backpack is worth the money. The less expensive models (under $100) tire you and the child more quickly and wear out fast. With a heavy-duty pack, you can carry much larger children and carry them farther, greatly extending your freedom in the toddler years. Kelty makes good ones.

  • Bring an inexpensive umbrella stroller for trips to town and while traveling; baby backpacks don't belong in crowds, shops, or airports. We also have a jogger stroller that we use at home, but it takes up too much space and weighs too much for longer trips.
  • A portable crib enhances safety for toddlers. This is a dangerous age when they can wander into trouble. When we're car or boat camping, the portable crib is the "baby jail" to keep Becky safe while we're busy.
  • A reliable camp stove is not optional. You need to be able to heat drinks and meals fast in damp weather when hypothermia or fatigue threatens.

  • Sleeping pads are more important than bags. Everyone in the family needs a good pad. The ground can sap a child's body heat at night. In the summer you can get by with thin, compact bags (we use fleece sleeping bag liners) if you have good pads and one large bag to spread over all of you on cold nights.
  • A car-camping tent should be big enough to be your home, where you can comfortably change clothes or take a sponge bath. It also needs a fly to keep you dry and should be strong enough to withstand windstorms. It doesn't need to be light; you can save a lot of money by buying a sturdy car-camping tent that's not light.
  • A backpacking tent does need to be light, but it need only be large enough to lie down in. In the backcountry, you don't have to worry about privacy: You can change or bathe outside. Strength and a waterproof fly are still important.
  • A screen tent protects your picnic-table area from bugs and rain. We have taken ours into the Alaska wilderness by boat and across the country by car and air on long national park trips. It is our living and dining room, a place to write in journals, play cards, and eat meals when, without it, we would be miserable.
  • Waterproof your tents before you set out. Bring a plastic ground sheet. Fold it under so the edge of the outer fold is 3 inches from the outer edge of the tent floor. This will prevent the sheet from channeling water into the tent.
  • Get wide, long aluminum tent stakes designed for snow. The inch-wide, spadelike blades hold in sand and loose soil and don't break. You can purchase them at mountaineering stores such as REI (
  • Bring a nylon tarp and lots of cord. You can create a shelter outside the tent, or cover gear overnight in case of rain.
  • A cellular phone is reassuring to have in the event of an emergency or even a minor crisis (especially when boating or hiking), but don't count on coverage in the backcountry; most big western parks don't have good coverage.
  • A collapsible fabric cooler works almost as well as a hard-sided cooler and takes up much less space.
  • For water in the backcountry, the best solution is a pump water filter, a fabric bucket to gather the water, and plastic water bottles to store clean water. A filter will handle bacteria such as E. coli and protozoan cysts such as Giardia. A more expensive purifier also uses a chemical to kill viruses, such as hepatitis A, which are much less common in water because they don't reproduce there. Boiling works, too, but you end up with hot water and you have to carry a lot of fuel. Iodine tablets produce odd-tasting water and are not recommended for use with children.
  • Synthetic thermal underwear is like magic. It keeps you warm even when you're wet. And, for the amount of warmth it provides, it is far more compact and less expensive than equivalent outer layers. You can sleep in it, too. We take it along whenever cool, damp weather is possible.
  • Cover your butt. If you don't bring rain pants, bring a raincoat that will keep you dry when you sit down.
  • Light is important. When you're car camping, a propane lantern extends the day. Battery-powered headlamps should go car camping or backpacking; they allow you to work with both hands and to read without holding the light.
  • Don't buy until you know what you need and like. Everyone has different tastes in gear. If you're just starting out, rent or borrow the gear you need to get an idea of what you like and what kind of stuff you should buy later.

Cold Weather Preparations


We're active outdoors in Alaska winter and summer, but preparing for cold is just as important at any high-elevation park in the Sierra Nevada or Rocky Mountains. It's simple to prepare for inactive time in the cold: You just need heavy parkas, snow pants, boots, and so on. The real challenge is staying warm while active and potentially wet and in situations with changing temperatures. Perspiration is your biggest enemy, so you must choose layers that stay warm when wet: synthetics and wool -- never cotton. Quickly change layers whenever you start to get sweaty or chilled. Our everyday inventory includes synthetic thermal long underwear; wool socks, hats, and mittens; fleece pants and coats; breathable wind-resistant outer jackets and pants; and warm boots. You can cross-country ski well below zero in that outfit. A wool sweater adds even more warmth. For summer in the mountains, add shorts and T-shirts, swap the wind layer for a rain layer, and leave the fleece pants, wool mittens, and warm boots behind. The underwear layer is the most important, great for sleeping on cold nights.

Packing To Fly & Camp

When you're camping far from home, especially if you get there by air or in a small car, you try to do without anything that's heavy, bulky, or hard to carry. At the same time, you may need to be ready for hot, frosty, wet, or buggy weather. Here is some of what we learned about balancing those two needs on many flying-camping trips:

  • Start with a list. A list keeps you from forgetting things, and makes it easier to decide what not to take.
  • Figure out your limits. Will you need to be able to move everything by hand all at once, to get on a train or boat, for example? If so, assign bags to each person in the family. If you fly and then drive, you don't have to carry everything at once, but it does have to fit in the trunk of the rental car.
  • Start packing early. You won't believe how much space all your stuff takes until you see it all together. If you start early enough, you'll have time for alternatives, such as buying smaller gear, mailing some of it ahead, or arranging to rent gear at your destination.

  • Use big, flexible bags. Duffel bags and hockey goalie bags are inexpensive, hold a lot, and get smaller when there is less in them.
  • Bring an extra collapsible bag for items you pick up on the way, for dirty clothes, or for mailing items back home that you don't need to carry with you.
  • Folding, waffle-pattern sleeping pads, called Therm-a-Rest Z-Rest pads ($30 at Campmor), take much less packing space than pads that roll up.
  • Bring mailing supplies so that you can send home any souvenirs you buy or items you aren't using.

  • Don't bring what you can buy cheaply. For example, skip the water bottles -- you can buy them everywhere. Use a bottle for a few days while you're in camp, then throw it away and buy another one at the next stop.
  • Prepare for temperature changes with layering. This works for clothing and bedding. You can deal with cold weather with layers of thermal long underwear, a shirt, a sweater, a raincoat, and a hat; the total bulk is less than one heavy coat. On temperate nights, sleep in light, summer-weight bags or fleece bag liners, then deal with cold weather by putting on your thermal long underwear or warm pajamas, hats, and a single large winter-weight bag that you can unzip and spread over all of you while you snuggle up.
  • Bring only a few toys, those you need for the first leg of the trip, then send them back or give them away and buy more. This saves space, and new toys are a lot more fun to play with and make good remembrances of the trip.

Packing Checklists

We keep a packing list on the family computer that we print out before each trip, marking off the items as we pack them. During the trip, we edit the list, adding or deleting items as we find out whether we need them, then type those changes into the computer when we get home. The most common mistake beginning backpackers make is taking too much. It's hard to have fun when you're carrying an uncomfortably heavy pack. After you're comfortable with your car-camping skills and have your own list of essentials, pare it down to the bare necessities, then add items you may need from this list.