Visiting a national park is an affordable vacation option filled with endless opportunities to create memorable experiences. Unfortunately, some of these vacations end unhappily with injury, illness and sometimes death. Practicing common sense and following these safety tips, a national park vacation can be a happy journey.
When driving in a national park:
Stay alert and drive defensively. Roads within national parks can be congested with animals and cars. Wildlife in the road or alongside can cause traffic jams. Excited tourists seeing their first bear, elk or bison may stop their car abruptly in the roadway, causing traffic accidents.
Park visitors tend to cross roads without looking for traffic. Drive slowly in congested areas, especially parking lots, to avoid hitting pedestrians.
Exercise caution while driving through a national park at night. Not as many tourists are traveling at this time but wildlife tends to frequent roadways. A large animal colliding with a car can cause serious damage to the vehicle as well as the driver and his passengers.
Stay on appropriate roads and park in designated areas. Roads within a national park can be winding and narrow, running along steep cliffs and fragile landscape. Driving off-road can cause the vehicle to get stuck in mud or over rocks and may lead to damage. Parking at a cliff’s edge makes it difficult for passengers to exit and enter the car and puts the vehicle at risk of rolling into the valley below.
When hiking in a national park:
Stay on the trail. Hikers can incur injury by stepping into animal burrows or through thin earth crust over boiling hot springs, such as in Yellowstone National Park. Switchback trails up mountains may be steep, narrow footpaths. Stepping off the trail may cause the hiker to lose their footing and cause injury.
Staying on the trail also minimizes contact with poisonous plants such as poison ivy or poisonwood.
Keep yourself hydrated. Bring an adequate supply of bottled water based on the terrain and temperature. Consider bringing a sports drink or salty snack if hiking in intense heat and high humidity to replace sodium lost through sweating.
Do not drink water from rivers, streams, lakes or ponds as it is most likely contaminated with the Giardia parasite which causes severe diarrhea. If it is absolutely necessary to drink water in the backcountry, purify it with iodine tablets, a water filter or boil it for at least 10 minutes.
Apply and reapply sunscreen. Even during overcast days, the sun’s intensity can be deceiving and can still cause sunburn. Protect the top of your head and face by wearing a broad-brimmed hat. The sun’s radiation is more intense during high-altitude hikes.
Prevent insect bites and be prepared to treat them. Pesky insects cause uncomfortable, itchy bites and can carry diseases. Like sunscreen, apply and reapply bug repellent. Make yourself less attractive to bugs by not wearing perfumes, colognes or scented lotions. Wear light-colored clothing and stay away from dense vegetation.
If hiking in a mosquito-infested area, such as in Everglades National Park, consider wearing mosquito netting, such as a head or full-body covering. Prevent tick bites by thoroughly applying insect repellent to your hiking boots and wear long pants to cover your ankles.
Share your hiking itinerary. Be sure to let someone know where you plan to hike. Most national park trails have registration stations to log your party’s entry and exit from the hiking trail.
Wear proper footwear. Tennis shoes are appropriate for low-impact trails but sturdy hiking boots with ankle support are advisable for medium-to-high-impact trails, such as climbing over rugged, rocky terrain or up mountainsides. Footwear should be broken in prior to your national park visit, this will prevent blisters. Just as important are comfortable, natural-fiber socks.
Keep the appropriate distance from animals. Check with the park visitor center to learn the appropriate distance to maintain. The National Park Service prohibits approaching, feeding, chasing and molesting wildlife (yes, there are signs warning against molesting animals).
While hiking in bear country, make noise. A startled bear can mean an aggressive bear. Carry bells or sing songs to alert wildlife of your presence.
While visiting a national park, obey the park rangers:
Law enforcement park rangers are tasked with protecting the park and its visitors. If found in an emergency situation, such as a forest fire or oncoming hurricane, listen to and follow the orders from the National Park Service. They are committed to your safety.