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How to Stay Safe When Visiting National Parks (General Guide)

A visit to any national park poses its own safety concerns, from unpredictable weather to the dangers of wildlife. Be prepared before you go by checking out these general safety tips and guidelines for visiting national parks.

Be mindful of signs regarding safety when visiting national parks

Wildlife

It should come as no surprise that every national park is filled with wildlife specific to its region! Be prepared to encounter your share of wild animals during your trip. It’s important to know what to do you if you have a run-in with a potentially dangerous creature. 

Some basic tips for wildlife safety are as follows:

  • Avoid bears and other animals attacking your tent or campsite by
    • either storing any food, cooking materials, or scented items (including deodorant, lotions, toothpaste, food wrappers, trash, etc.) in a certified bear bag or storage container.
    • or if you’re traveling with a car, locking your food and anything aromatic inside, especially at night.
  • Know what to do if you see a bear, mountain lion, or other potentially threatening animal. Some of these things include:
    • making yourself look as large as possible by spreading your arms wide and yelling
    • throwing objects to scare it away
    • backing away slowly
    • avoiding making eye contact
  • Make plenty of noise while hiking. This will alert animals to your presence so you don’t sneak up and scare them. Keep a safe distance from any and all wildlife when you do encounter it. 
  • Do your research before heading to a national park to know what types of wildlife you may encounter there so you can prepare accordingly.

Weather

It’s important to be prepared for ever-changing weather when visiting any national park. The nature of high altitude or rugged destinations is often characterized by frequent and unpredictable changes in weather. If it’s sunny one minute, don’t be surprised if it becomes windy and rainy the next! Come prepared by wearing plenty of layers and be ready for rain and snow as well as heat and humidity.

Depending on which national park you’re visiting, your region could be prone to wildfires, landslides, earthquakes, or avalanches. Pay attention to notices of hiking trails that are closed for the season or have been impacted by flooding, snow, or any other natural hazard. Make note of any guidelines in place before you arrive and be sure to follow them to keep out of harm’s way.

On the Trails

It is essential that hikers remain on the designated trails in all national parks. This is both for your safety and for the preservation of the natural lands you’re visiting. Be sure to heed park guidelines regarding trail closures as they relate to the time of year and weather conditions during your visit.

If there are restrictions in place regarding swimming in rapids or waterfalls, avoid swimming at all costs! These precautions are put in place for the safety of park visitors and are best observed to avoid any accidents.

Don’t forget to live by the principle “Leave No Trace” when visiting any national park or natural area. This means avoiding littering, disposing of waste properly, and not causing any harm to the fragile ecosystem you are visiting.

Finally, remember to “pack it in, pack it out”, meaning that if you brought it with you to the park, be sure to take it with you when you leave! This includes all trash, food remnants, wrappers, empty containers, etc.

Law Enforcement

US national parks follow US Federal Law, and you’ll need to check ahead for each park’s rules on fishing, camping, etc. It’s also useful to note that every national park has its own rules and regulations when it comes to drugs and alcohol in the park and on campgrounds, so look into that before you go to avoid hefty fines!

Being Prepared

The best thing you can do for yourself before visiting a national park is to do your research ahead of time and be as prepared as possible before you go.

Here are some useful things to bring and look into to prepare for your trip:

  • Bring these items to help your trip run smoothly:
    • Flashlight and extra batteries
    • First aid kit
    • Bug spray
    • Sunscreen and sun hat
    • Proper hiking shoes or boots
    • Emergency whistle
  • Bring plenty of water and sufficient food to last the duration of your trip and a bit longer, just to be safe.
  • Research your route before you leave and have a physical map of the area with you in case your technology gets lost, broken, or isn’t working
  • If you plan to go camping, make sure to reserve your campsite ahead of time and familiarize yourself with your route. Plan to arrive at your campsite during daylight hours so you’ll have time to set up safely.
  • If you’re not planning to stay the night in the park, be sure to set a turn-around time for your hike so you don’t get stuck after dark without proper lodging and provisions.

Other Concerns

If you plan to visit the more popular US national parks during peak season, you’re likely to encounter tons of other visitors which can pose significant safety risks. Watch out for petty theft and remember to secure your belongings and always lock your car doors. 

Be cognizant of the altitude at your national park and take proper precautions against altitude sickness. Take time to acclimate to rising altitudes and don’t push yourself too hard too fast. Hydration is key for avoiding and treating altitude sickness, so remember to bring plenty of water, electrolytes, and altitude sickness medication. Do not rely on water you find along your way for drinking water; always boil or purify even fresh-looking water from streams, rivers, and lakes to avoid waterborne illnesses.

Lastly, avoid hiking solo whenever possible. If it can’t be prevented, make sure to tell someone of your plans and share your itinerary with them before you leave. If you do plan to head out alone, be sure to keep an emergency whistle on you and consider bringing a satellite phone for communication, just in case.

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