' AllThingsJacq.com - Essay | Tips for visiting America's National Parks: 1998 or 1999

Essay: Tips for visiting America's National Parks

First posted in 1998 or 1999

This originally appeared on an outdoor e-zine site that I maintained, though I have no idea of the original posting date. I believe it was sometime in 1998 or 1999.

At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Always be prepared for adverse weather conditions!Whenever I find myself driving through a storm, I invariably think of outdoorsmen that might have been caught off-guard. It is not uncommon that people visit a large outdoor preserve, such as a National Park or Forest, without properly preparing for every possible scenario. This applies not only to hikers and campers in backcountry areas, but to those driving the roads as well. Whether you're planning on spending two hours or several days within an outdoor area, there are a few key things to keep in mind.

For those visiting by car:

There are lots of things to remember, even when travelling by car.Even if you intend on staying within sight of your vehicle at all times, there are a few things to keep in mind. When planning a drive through a National Park, consider your vehicle's capabilities. Has the car been given proper preventative maintenance? Do you have any reason to suspect that the car might not be able to handle the difficult terrain or weather you might encounter? For example, it is not uncommon for temperatures to reach in excess 120 F in Death Valley during the summer months; will your vehicle be able to stay cool in such extremes? In the Smokies, the change in elevation from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to the highest point on Newfound Gap Road is over 4000 feet in a mere fifteen miles; is your car capable of pulling such a grade without overheating? It is not unusual for the temperature to fall below -40 F in Denali National Park; is your car capable of keeping you warm in such low temperatures?

Such questions are best addressed well in advance, and even after anticipating such problems, it is still possible for your vehicle to give you unexpected trouble. Again, planning ahead is the key to safety. Do you have enough water in the car to keep you cool while you await help (or enough clothing to keep you warm)? Do you have a flashlight on hand in the event that you break down after dark? Do you have some form of roadside assistance, such as AAA, and, if not, do you have sufficient means by which to pay for a towing bill or other assistance?

Being prepared will make for a better trip.Anticipate other possible problems as well. For instance, have you got a spare set of keys that you can keep on your person in the event that a child locks the door with your primary set in the ignition? It is not advisable that such a set be attached to the exterior of the car, as many a car thief has thought of all the possible locations you might use for such a purpose.

In short, be proactive. Anticipate problems that might arise in advance and take action to prevent such problems. In the event that you are not able to anticipate a problem, keep in mind that you may have to wait some time to receive help. Some Parks are rather large, and it might be a few minutes or a few hours before a Ranger or other passerby spots you. While cellular phones are an excellent way to obtain help, be aware that they may not receive a signal in some remote areas.

For those visiting on foot:

Know your limits. If you are not accustomed to hiking or camping, choose more heavily used trails to improve the chances of coming in contact with others. Make certain that you have the appropriate gear for your hike; such help is available at a number of online sources, but your local outdoor outfitter would also be happy to help you prepare for your trip. If you are unsure about whether or not you can handle a certain terrain on weather conditions, it's probably wise to choose an alternative route until you are more confident. Above all else, don't hike alone. While this should apply to all but the most experienced hikers and campers, it is of the utmost importance to the less experienced outdoorsman. See if you can find a friend with a little more experience who would be willing to show you the ropes. Experience is the best teacher, but it can also be unrelenting if you're not properly prepared.

The same holds true for the experienced outdoorsman: know your limits. No matter how much time you've spent outdoors, Mother Nature always has a lesson to teach. Avoid being over confidant, and use your head at all times. Should you find yourself unexpectedly in over your head, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Avoid getting lost at all costs.Avoid getting lost at all costs. Make certain that every member of your group carries a map and compass, and that everyone knows how to use them. Remain on the trail system at all times. Off-trail short cuts often lead to disaster.

  • Avoid becoming separated from the group. A good rule of thumb is to put the most experienced hikers in the front and at the rear of the group, and to make sure that you can see the person in front and behind you at all times. Do not allow members of your group to say, "You go ahead, I'm going to rest a minute and then catch up". Always stay together, no matter how slow or how fast someone in your group might be.

  • Plan ahead and let someone know your itinerary. Most National Parks require a backcountry permit when spending the night in the backcountry, but it takes a phone call from a concerned friend or relative before anyone will start looking for you. Make sure you inform someone of your plans before entering the backcountry. This applies for dayhikes as well. even those hikes that you anticipate will be short and uneventful.

  • Carry a little more food and water than you think you'll need.Carry a little more than you need to complete the hike. Should you become lost or suffer an injury, a little extra food and water is a valuable commodity.

  • Carry a first-aid kit and know how to use it before you hit the trail. Even the most experienced hiker can find themselves injured. If you are unable to make it out of the backcountry without further injury, stay put and send a friend back for help. It should be noted here that simple fatigue is not a reason to ask for assistance; no one will come carry your pack for you. Again, know your limits. Do not attempt a hike that is clearly beyond your current abilities.

For further advice on backcountry safety, look into books on such topics as edible plants, first aid, orienteering, and other outdoor skills. Read books about search and rescue, which often point out the many possible scenarios that can occur and how to deal with them.

Stay safe, and happy trails!