What to Pack for a National Park Trek, According to a Backpacking Expert
The best backpacks, hiking boots, tents, and headlamps for your next outdoor adventure.
Our country is a complicated place. It’s no secret that, as a nation, we have plenty to work on. But within all that surface area for improvement, there are a handful of American things that are completely and objectively good—national treasures that we can still take pride in while we take care of cleaning up the rest. Off the top of my head, some members of this camp include Toni Morrison, Hamilton, Dolly Parton, Kentucky Bourbon, the Back to the Future franchise, Texas BBQ, the song “O-o-h Child,” Clayton Kershaw’s left arm, New Haven apizza, and, perhaps most of all, the absolutely overwhelming spectacularity of the U.S. National Parks.
There are 63 parks in the National Parks System scattered throughout every region of the U.S., ranging in size from Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska (which is bigger than each of the nine smallest states) to Gateway Arch in Missouri (which is less than a quarter of the size of Central Park). As you can imagine, with so much diversity in the terrain and scope of each park, it can be tough to suss out just what to pack for any given visit.
To give you a little help, we talked to Michelle Stelly, aka The Wandering Queen, a Seattle-based, Panama-born backpacker who has conquered 27 parks in the past 10 years, starting with Zion, her first (and still favorite) national park. Through her platform, Stelly aims to help women get outside and hike, camp, or backpack for the first time, and covers what to pack along to what to expect.
“[When you’re starting out] it can be overwhelming trying to choose the best gear, because every manufacturer claims to be the best,” Stelly says. “It isn’t always easy to decipher good quality, and a lot of the gear can get really expensive.”
Fortunately, Stelly was willing to share the insights she’s picked up over the years from comparing notes with other hikers, poring over product reviews, and good old trial and error out on the trail. We talked about the challenges that come along with choosing gear, along with how the right stuff can elevate your experience.
If those national park mountains are calling out to you, read on to get out there with everything you need.
Stelly starts every trek with her Ten Essentials, but unless you plan on wearing pants with massive pockets, a pack is the true first step. She says that you probably don’t need anything fancy if you’re starting out with day hikes, but that the longer the trek goes, the more essential a good backpack becomes.
“The first time I backpacked, I bought the most inexpensive [pack] I could find,” Stelly says, “My back was still hurting for days after the trip—this is not supposed to happen.”
Stelly says you can mitigate the risk of facing a similar fate by planning ahead. Don’t be afraid to head to REI and ask for some expert guidance to ensure you pick a pack that works for you and your body.
Equally essential to a successful and comfortable trek is what you choose to put on your feet. According to Stelly, this is often where you make or break your national park adventure.
“National parks have the most epic hikes, so you need good-quality boots to make the most of your trip,” she explains. “Your feet will be working the hardest while exploring the parks, so take care of them.”
Just keep in mind that heading out for a multi-day trip with a brand new pair of boots is not advisable. Break them in on day hikes first, or you’ll be spending your downtime nursing your blisters instead of enjoying the campfire.
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To those who haven’t spent much time at a campsite, headlamps tend to look pretty silly. But to those of us who have, they couldn’t be more serious. To illustrate the importance of some extra hands-free light, Stelly once again takes it back to her early days on the trail.
“[When I first started] I was on an 8-mile hike in Yosemite, and didn’t realize we would be hiking in the pitch black night,” she recalls. “Out of five people, only two had charged phones, and we had no headlamps. We were struggling to get back to the trailhead.”
Even outside of potential emergencies like this one, a headlamp is a handy tool to have no matter what. Whether you’re setting up camp or looking for a woodsy bathroom in the middle of the night, you’ll be glad you brought it.
To round out your packing list, you’ll need a place to lay your head at the end of a good long day in the park. Of course, you usually only need a tent if you’re planning an overnight trek, but in some of the bigger parks, it’s never a bad idea to bring one either way (just in case). Much like a backpack, you don’t necessarily need anything fancy, but you do need something reliable.