National Parks FAQ Guide
During this year’s National Park Week, April 16-24, we mark the 106th anniversary of the United States’ National Park System. Once called America’s Best Idea, the United States National Park System is made up of 423 areas that span more than 85 million acres. Last year, 297,115,406 people explored the NPS, and experienced national park visitors would tell you that being equipped with the right gear and the right information can make your trip even better.
Reservations: what do I need to know about permits, campsites, and timed entry?
Depending on the length and type of stay you plan to have at a National Park, you may need some combination of the above. Some parks like Canyonlands require special use permits for things like vehicles on backcountry roads, river trips, or overnight backcountry stays. Parks like Carlsbad Cavern or Arches that need to manage crowds require timed entries (note, Arches requirement is a new pilot in 2022). Many parks offer campsite reservations through Recreation.gov, but there are also many parks that have campsites on a first-come, first-serve basis. In short: with hundreds of parks, there is no single rule and it’s worth researching the specific parks on your list to see what you might need to obtain in advance of your visit.
Camping in National Parks can be an amazing experience, but it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the competitive nature of the reservation system or the speed in which campsites fill up - don’t give up! Here are a few pieces of advice to snag that spot:
- Set a calendar reminder in January and February for when the reservation systems open
- Tried for a first-come, first-serve and they’re all booked? Try undertagging. This means scoping out the in-use campsites and seeing if anyone is planning on leaving the next day (often displayed by a post right by the campsite entrance) and ask the campers if you can leave a tag under their reservation for the next morning. Note: it’s good form to ask the on-site camp manager if you can do this. Some are cool with it, some aren’t.
Ask your local park ranger about nearby campsites and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) camping. Yeah, it’s a bummer to not be immediately in the park, but there are often several nearby campsites just outside the park, including acres of BLM land open to free dispersal camping. This can be a great solution if you’ve successfully undertagged and need to find one night somewhere else.
Gear: what should I bring with me?
Again, this is going to depend on the duration and season of your stay, but let’s answer this through the lens of a multi-day trip in a single park:
- Good footwear. Flip flops are only going to take you so far on that hike. (We’re fans of the Vasque Breeze series over here, both men and women models. Also good socks, like those from Smartwool are equally important)
- Layers. Temperatures can fluctuate greatly depending on sunshine, altitude, and your exertion levels.
- Food & Water. We’ll get more into food later, but always always bring water, even during cooler months - arid landscapes and high altitudes are going to dehydrate you faster than you think.
- Sunscreen and Sunglasses. Again, even in cooler months, this protection is crucial when you’re in wild spaces for long periods of time.
- Map: Analog or Downloaded, but all offline. Don’t try to rely on real-time data or wifi to orient yourself. Most parks have excellent printout maps and a quick chat with a ranger can give you some highlighted routes to make the most of your trip.
- Backup power. For many of us, we’re using our phone as a camera and (let’s be honest) some of us are doing real-time TikToks or IG stories if we find some service. Don’t let your phone drain unexpectedly, keep it charged up with a BioLite Charge 20, Charge 40, or Charge 80 quick-charging powerbank series.
- A Headlamp. During the daytime? Yes. Why? Because sometimes that hike back to camp takes just a little bit longer than you planned and you don’t want to be caught in the dark – national parks can get really, really dark. Our recommendation: the USB rechargeable HeadLamp 750 stashes easily in your pack, at 750 lumens it’s bright enough to light a path for the whole crew, and the model features a rear red light for group visibility.
- Your campsite setup: Tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, you know the drill. Our added rec? Research nighttime temperatures which may often differ dramatically from your daytime experience. That can make a significant difference in the tent you bring or the rating of your sleeping bag or pad.
- Firewood and firestarting supplies: Lucky enough to have a fire ring (or a FirePit) at your campsite? Chances are you’ll need to buy some firewood locally (emphasis on locally, don’t want to bring any foreign species in) at the park store or a nearby shop prior to your arrival. Will be very hard to acquire a bundle deep in the park at 9pm at night.
- Area Lighting: As we mentioned earlier, National Parks can get really really dark at night. It’s part of what makes them such a unique experience. But you’re on your own for illumination after the sun goes down. Think about the ‘zones’ of your campsite and what you might need: food prep area, tent area, and maybe a more mobile solution for those trips to the outhouse? We recommend the rechargeable AlpenGlow 500 or 250 lanterns for easy ambient lighting, the StringLight series for overhead lighting (toss it on a branch and voila), and a few HeadLamp 330s for folks to grab easily for hands-free wayfinding. Bonus: AlpenGlow and HeadLamp both offer red night vision so you can keep light pollution to a minimum on those particularly starry nights.
Food: how should I plan to feed myself at a National Park?
During the daytime, picnic it up with pre-packed meals and make sure you practice leave-no-trace policies. Also recommend stashing a few energy bars in your pack for when you realize you could really use some extra calories on that out-and-back.
For morning and nighttime, a “home-cooked” meal at your campsite can really go a long way in terms of group morale, family activity, and energy-dense nutrition to power you up for your adventures.
The BioLite CampStove Cook Kit* is a great table-top solution that can boil water for coffee & oatmeal in the morning and heat up hearty tetrapacked soups and stews in the evening - toss in a few fresh vegetables and take all the credit. The included grill attachment can come in handy for more slightly more ambitious but equally classic outdoor cookout meals like burgers or hot dogs. Get your tabletop cookfire going with food-safe pellets and you’ll be boiling and grilling in no time.
For more interactive group experience, try the BioLite FirePit+* with its cast-iron griddle and lid accessories and enjoy morning feasts like pancakes and eggs or nighttime nachos that can feed a whole crew in one go. Our favorite hack: cook your meals over some charcoal and when you’re done, the leftover embers serve as perfect firestarter - toss in a few logs and you’ll have beautiful, smokeless flames going for the rest of the night.
And lastly (we’re a broken record here) but keep an eye on your water supply: make sure you’ve got a reliable source to fill up, be it from a tap at a campsite or with a reliable filtration system and body of water approved by local rangers.
*Always check your local state and park fire regulations prior to your visit. Rules can vary based on seasonality, weather, and other factors.
How does the America The Beautiful Park Pass Work? When is it worth getting it?
If you’re planning on visiting a handful of parks in a 12 month period, the America The Beautiful Park Pass (also known as the Interagency Pass) can be a fantastic deal. It’s a flat $80 and can gain you entry to hundreds of parks, monuments, and sites across the country. Single-entrance fees at parks like Bryce Canyon can be upwards of $35, so if you think you’ll be hitting 3+ major parks in a year, this pass can create a lot of savings. The 12-month window starts the day you buy your pass (ranger will punch a hole in your card), so you can start the clock whenever you are ready.
Note, the pass covers vehicle/people entrance fees only and will not cover things like permit, camping, and ticket reservations. Still – a solid deal.
What are National Parks like after dark?
Pretty incredible. In fact, the International Dark-Sky Association has designated 27 national parks as Dark Sky Parks and Sanctuaries, including Arches, Canyonlands, Death Valley, and Joshua Tree National Parks. Some parks, like Great Sand Dunes, have guided recommendations for how to experience the park after dark and include really helpful tips like planning your visit around moon cycles, dressing for temperature drops, staying safe, and how to preserve night vision and protect against light pollution with appropriate personal lighting (hint: don’t use your cell phone flashlight, use a dimmable headlamp with red night vision like the HeadLamp 200 or HeadLamp 330)
Experiencing parks after dark can be a really special experience and a clever way to hit some of the favorites without the overwhelming crowds.
What are the lesser-known tips I should know about? (lightning round edition)
- Headed to White Sands or Great Sand Dunes? Pick up a sled at the local Target or Walmart and avoid serious markups at the park shop (local stores stock up on these popular accessories knowing their proximity). Better yet, if you’re willing to chance it, hang out at the park’s parking lot and keep your eyes peeled for folks walking back from their adventure with a sled in tow – chances are they’ll sell you their lightly used sled for half the price.
- Get to know your rangers! Sure you may have done tons of research, you’ve got all the reservations locked, you’re fully prepped, but rangers knows their park inside and out. They can offer tips on ideal routes, any special programming, trail changes, as well as surrounding BLM information if you’re looking to do dispersal camping.
- A mile on a park road ≠ A mile on a highway. You might look at a park and see a 20 mile stretch and think easy, we can make it top-to-tail in 20 minutes. Not the case. Many parks have strict speed limits, winding curves, and can get backed up when traffic is high. Leave ample time for your trip including preparing for daylight hours and your comfort levels driving in pitch black.
- Make sure that tank is full. Some of the more remote park entrances are many miles in off a local road and won’t have a gas station nearby. If you make it in, remember you need the same amount to make it back out.
- Plans are great, adaptability is excellent. Roads get washed out, trails get shut down, crowds get too big. Sometimes your dream itinerary may not be possible, but with the right gear and the right attitude, adventure will find you.
What tips to do you have for fellow National Park visitors? Share your advice and expertise with the community by contributing to the conversation over on BioLite’s Instagram or Facebook posts about National Parks Week.
Going on an NPS adventure of your own? Tag your posts with #biolite so we can celebrate you in our National Parks Week roundup.