What to Pack When Heading to a National Park

Sunrise on Yosemite Valley

Written by Justin Fricke on

Justin traded in his cushy desk job for a life on the road. He's spending a full year living in a converted Sprinter Van with his brother while they climb, surf, and explore all 50 states in one year. Follow his blog, The Weekend Warrior, where he keeps tabs on their adventures. You can also find him on Instagram and Twitter.

Sunrise on Yosemite Valley

The U.S. National Park System is over 100 years old and there is a lot going on in every park across the country—and not just in the summer months! Before packing your kids into the car and exploring America’s natural beauty, make sure you’re geared up properly. This complete packing list for a U.S. national park trip will help you have the best time at whichever park(s) you choose to visit.

Nothing quite says childhood like memories of a family road trip to explore the great outdoors and revel in natural beauty. Sure there were long days entertaining yourself the back of the family station wagon, but there were camping adventures (s’mores!), family hikes, and silly photos lined up in front of major U.S. landmarks.

Now it’s time to pack the car and treat your own kids to their own memories.

The U.S. national park system is an American legacy dating back to Yellowstone’s establishment in 1872 and more formally established in 1916. Since Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, the U.S. boasts more than 84 million acres of public lands—that’s a lot of area ripe and ready for epic family adventures!

Before you hit the road, here’s a list of the basics you should pack before venturing into any U.S. national park.

1. Pack the Right Clothing

Even though in the summer, a crazy storm could roll through and bring with it frigid weather. And in the winter, depending on the park you choose, nights could get pretty darn cold as well. Analyze park temperatures online a week ahead of time and bring versatile clothes for the entire family to reduce your packing load.

● lightweight, long-sleeved shirts that are good both in warm and cold weather

● lightweight pants/shorts with SPF protection since you'll be out in the sun/elements all day

● windbreak or solid outer layer with a hood to not only fend off the cold wind, but to doubles as a raincoat

● sleek middle layer clothes in the winter or high-altitude destinations will keep your core warm without adding bulk (so it will fit underneath your outer layer!)

● short-sleeved SPF shirts or rash guards for summer water or hiking

Pro packing tip: Use packing cubes to keep clothes neatly organized within your bag. When packing for a family, use a differently colored cubes for each member of the family for a flawless system that will make the packing process smooth and easy.

2. Pick the Right Luggage

Before you pack the fun stuff—I'll get to that in a minute!—you need the right bag, one that is versatile enough for your family, but rugged enough for the wind, rain, dirt, sun, and any other elements you might face while exploring the national parks.

Rolling Luggage - Wheels are the right option when you’re either juggling a lot of luggage, or if you’re flying to your destination and want to easily navigate the airport.

Duffel Bag - Sling an all-weather duffel over your shoulder when unloading at your campgrounds for the night, and rest assured that you can quickly repack in the morning.

Large Day Pack - If you’re going on a longer day hike, especially with kids in tow, bring a 30L day pack big enough to fit snacks, water, camera, light, and any extra clothing.

Medium Day Pack - A 12L bag is the ideal size for any on-the-go adventures, and be sure to select one with moisture-wicking shoulder straps and back panel for ultimate comfort.

Shoulder Bag - Select a minimalist option small enough for your kids, but also designed for adult comfort. A swivel chest clip ensures a comfortable fit and water-resistant materials means your cell phone and other essentials are safe.

Waist Pack - Keep your essentials handy with a waist pack durable and light enough for hiking. You’ll love having quick access to your camera for those special memories, but also items to help you face the outdoor elements: sunscreen, lip balm, first aid supplies, and more.

3. Protect Your Feet

Sturdy hiking shoes are always important. They give you ankle support when you’re out exploring, and they also protect your feet from things like rocks, plants, and even animals. And keep in mind that you need a great pair of sweat-wicking athletic socks to go along with your sturdy shoes as well—wool socks are best for hiking and active adventures.

Bring along shoe sacs to ensure dirty boots don’t spread grime to other items in your bag or car.

4. Let there Be Light

Stay up after dark and you’ll see a whole new side to the park. In order to do that, you’re going to want to pack headlamps or flashlights for the whole family. Choose lights that contain a red light, which allows you to see what’s in front of you without messing up your own night vision. (The red light doesn't cause your pupils to shrink, but regular white light does.)

5. Select the Right Camera

With all the amazing sights you’ll be seeing, you'll be dying to take pictures to share with friends and family when you get back. Browse the Internet and you’ll find thousands of options to go with, from an old-school Polaroid to a top-of-the-line DSLR or mirrorless camera that’ll set you back a couple thousand dollars.

There’s no need to run out and buy a new camera just for your trip (unless you really want to). Take what you have or even bring your phone to snap some photos. And if you are interested in getting into photography, snapping pictures at a national park is a great way to start. Since the parks have so many breathtaking landscapes, you'll have many wonderful photo opportunities to improve your travel photography.

6. Choose a Great Travel Journal

To help yourself remember all of your amazing adventures, grab a small, light, notebook before you head out, toss it into your daypack, and keep running tabs of what you do each day. One day, when you're sitting around an open fire telling stories with your friends and family, it may come in handy. If you’re looking for a more minimalist option, you and your kids and document the trip together digital travel journal options.

This list covers the specific considerations for packing for a national park trip—check out the complete packing checklist for even more packing tips.

And no matter which national park your family decides to explore, the National Geographic Adventure series makes packing for road trips, camping, and day hikes easy and light.

Related Links (from Eagle Creek blog):

6 Tips for Hiking With School-Age Kids

3 Educational Trips the Family Will Actually Enjoy

Tips for an Are We There Yet-Free Road Trip With Kids