what to bring to the national parks lead

Earth Day is finally here, and with it, the return of warmer weather, spring wildflowers and the annual rush to plan an adventurous national parks getaway. It’s the perfect time to update your gear closet too, whether you’re planning an epic mountain biking trip in Moab or on the hunt for an ultralight backpack for Yosemite.

In 2020, I set out to visit every one of America’s national parks, and along the way, I had my fair share of shivering, sleepless nights, collapsed tents, weird smells and straight-up gear fails. To save you from the same headaches I endured, I’ve compiled a list of what I consider to be the most essential items for anyone heading out into the parks this season.

If you’re new to camping, you just want to day hike or you consider yourself a gnarled old-timer, there’s sure to be some swoon-worthy gear on this list that’ll take your next outdoorsy vacation from great to outstanding.

First things first­­­­ — you’re going to want a solid backpack for day adventures with loads of pockets and a hydration sleeve to serve as a mainstay on sweaty desert excursions and rainy days in the redwoods. With a breathable mesh back panel, an adjustable harness and plenty of pockets to stash your essentials, these gender-specific packs (you can find the men’s version here) will keep you nimble and happy on the trail. Plus, that mesh back panel is perfect for stashing wet or dirty gear separately. Tack on a rain cover, and it’s a match made in heaven.

Nothing beats the cozy glow of a campfire after a long day of adventure. But sometimes, you need a more reliable and portable source of light for your tent or van. That’s where the BioLite Alpenglow 500 comes in. This rechargeable lantern offers 500 lumens of dimmable light, with a festival-worthy full-color spectrum that you can customize to suit your mood.

• Related: The BioLite AlpenGlow 500 turns your campsite into an instant party

Touted as being “like two alpaca hugs for your feet,” Paka has upended the traditional wool sock game by utilizing the ancient knowledge of Peru-alpaca fibers. Lighter than your traditional sheep’s wool slip-ons and virtually impossible to stink up (two things that truly matter on a long road trip), these babies are just as cozy ripping up dirt singletrack as they are snuggled up at camp.

When you’re out on the trail for days on end (like I was), wearing nerdy clothing in favor of sun protection starts to become the norm. Thankfully, Patagonia has a bevy of sleek, colorful 40+ UPF hoodies in their lineup (for both men and women), so you don’t have to forgo style in favor of skin safety. And, in true Patagonia fashion, the shirts are eco-friendly and Fair Trade Certified.

Lightweight, stretchy and supremely weather-resistant, Outdoor Research’s Ferrosi Pants have been a huge bestseller in the outdoor world for years, and it’s easy to see why. With just enough pockets to comfortably stash your valuables, they come in a wide variety of earth-toned colors. Best of all? The latest version is made with 46% recycled materials, so you can feel good about your purchase. A men’s version is also available.

While we’re on the topic of sun protection, let me just be the first to say that having an excellent daily face shield against harmful rays is essential in outdoor adventures, and not all sunscreens are created equal. Some are greasy or sticky, or, worst of all, some make you break out. Not so with EltaMD UV Daily Broad-Spectrum SPF 40. This lightweight, moisturizing sunscreen blends seamlessly into your skin, leaving no residue or shine. It contains hyaluronic acid to hydrate and plump your skin as well as zinc oxide and octinoxate to block UVA and UVB rays. It’s also fragrance-free, paraben-free and vegan.

Eating on the ground or a random moldering log can be messy and uncomfortable, so I used the Alps Mountaineering Camp Table virtually every day of my parks journey. This sturdy, lightweight table folds up easily and fits in an included carry bag for convenient transport. It’s got a durable aluminum frame and a smooth tabletop that can hold an impressive 25 pounds. That’s a whole lotta chili mac. Another good option? REI Co-op’s Camp Roll Table.

Camping is simply more fun when you can cuddle up with your partner, bestie or pupper. That’s why the Kelty Loveseat is my all-time favorite camp chair. This cozy, double-wide sofa-style lounger has a steel frame and a quilted seat that can support up to 400 pounds. It also boasts insulated cup holders and an included tote bag for easy storage and transport. Plus, setting it up as a solo traveler is a breeze, so it’s always in my van.

Coming in on the other end of the camp chair spectrum is the featherlight Helinox Chair Zero. Weighing in at just 1 pound, this burly little workhorse is small enough to take backpacking into the wilderness but comfy enough for lounging around the fire on a weekend car camping adventure. Weight limit? 365 pounds.

Sure, Osprey tends to get all the fanfare when it comes to hiking backpacks these days, but when I want to comfortably carry a heavy load into the mountains, I turn to my trusty Gregory Deva 60. With a breathable 3D foam back panel, easy access zipper pulls and a burly aluminum frame, it’s the best pack I’ve found for hauling a week’s worth of gear to base camp. The hydration sleeve that doubles as a daypack is just the cherry on top.

Of course, there are those backpacking trips where you want to travel as fast and light as possible. On shorter excursions (or anything where I don’t have to lug a bear canister around), I grab my ultralight Granite Gear Crown3 from the gear closet. This 60-liter pack weighs a mere 2 pounds, 6 ounces, rivaling most tiny daypacks. Plus, its plethora of pockets, outer mesh stash zone and roll-top design make organizing your essentials a cinch.

The Copper Spur has reached legend status, as far as I’m concerned, for its blend of livable space, double doors and ultralight construction. Easy to set up and ready to withstand both windstorms and rain showers, it’s the shelter that kept me happy when I was hoofing it on the John Muir Trail. And, as someone who loves to sleep with their gear beside them, it offers loads of thoughtfully placed pockets.

Related: Park ranger approved tips for visiting a National Park

If I’m being honest, I toted around a cheap knockoff for the majority of my national parks trip, but if it had been up to me, I would have sprung for Goal Zero’s made-for-the-outdoors, weather-resistant solar panels and chargers. The Yeti 500X is the perfect size for car camping (able to charge a laptop roughly 10 times or a lightbulb for 46 hours), and the Nomad 50 is mobile enough to move around camp as the sun shifts. Looking for something lighter to take hiking? Pick up a rugged Venture 35 power bank for on-the-go charging.

For storage reasons, I brought a single-burner Coleman along on my trip to see every national park, but I’ve always been a huge fan of the brand’s two-burner beauties. With a heat output of 11,000 BTUs, two wind screens and at-home-style knob controls, it makes cooking up a gourmet feast under a canopy of stars easy. When you’re ready to pack up, the entire stove folds into an easy-to-store carrying case with a handle.

Purveyors of high-quality, ultralight and easy-to-pack microfiber towels, Nomadix textiles are as durable as they are colorful. Choose from loads of funky fresh designs (think mod prints, state maps and national park-themed artwork) for a look that will match your style. Heading into the backcountry and looking to save space and weight? Check out Nomadix’s teeny bandana towels or ultralight towels.

Anyone who’s sweat it out on the trail for many long, dusty miles knows that your feet can really take a beating. As I’ve gotten older (and hopefully wiser), I’ve noticed what a real difference hiking insoles can make on a big adventure in the wilderness. Superfeet’s lineup of robust insoles have quickly become my favorite for avoiding foot and joint pain on the trail. They’re a wallet-friendly alternative to traditional custom orthotics and help support your feet on boulder scrambles and muddy treks alike.

Having delicious drinks and treats chilled and ready to enjoy back at camp is almost as important as the boots you wear and the friends you invite along, and Yeti is the top name in outdoor coolers for a reason. I fell head over heels for my Tundra 35 when I road-tripped across America’s public lands for its ability to keep my cereal milk and fresh veggies cold and my beers drinkable. Plus, its easy-empty spout for melted ice made disposing of extra water easy peasy.

In California, the state with the most national parks, it’s common for NPS rules to require a bear canister anytime you venture into the backcountry for an overnight. Sure, they’re a bit cumbersome and annoying, but I’ve found the BearVault BV500 to stash away a huge amount of food, relative to its weight (2 pounds, 8 ounces). Nobody wants to wake up to find their breakfast ruined.

Once you get to camp, you’re going to want a lightweight and easily packable cookset that’s as at home on an ounce-counting backpacking trip as it is in the back of your car. GSI Outdoors hits all the right marks for two campers to cook while conserving precious space with this awesome Dualist Cookset, which comes with two insulated bowls with lids (that double as mugs), sturdy sporks and an aluminum pot (with a pretty handy water straining lid). Wash your dishes in its waterproof carrying case.

Altra is a tried-and-true purveyor of lightweight, grippy trail running sneakers that long-distance hikers (and those of us with wide feet) love. However, when space is at a premium or I know I’ll be carrying a heavy pack, I switch it up and throw on the brand's all-weather mid design, which features better ankle support while still offering the same rugged outsoles and soft EGO midsole foam. A men’s version is available here.

Yes, I’m one of those weirdos who sleeps in a sleeping bag inside of her van, and no, I’m not ashamed of it. When temperatures drop below freezing and I want to ensure that I’ll get a solid eight hours of sleep, I turn to the cloudlike loft and warmth of my Altitude 15 sleeping bag. Comfort rated for 15 degrees Fahrenheit and packed with 750-fill hydrophobic down, the regular size comes in under 3 pounds, which is pretty darn good for a bag this toasty.

When you’re cruising around wooded mountain roads in search of epic sunrise views, you’re going to want a sip-safe travel container for your morning brew, and Hydro Flask has really delivered. I often joke that this flask is too good at its job (it keeps my beverage ultra hot for far too long sometimes), but its double-wall vacuum insulation is the best in the business at keeping hot liquids hot and cold liquids cold. Staying put at camp? Reach for the perfectly sized 12-ounce coffee mug, which has a spill-proof lid.

This one goes out to all the ladies in the room. I know the struggle of peeing in the woods. You don’t want to drip dry, but you also don’t want to pack out a bunch of used toilet paper. That’s where Kula Cloth comes in. This soft and absorbent design is made to be used over and over again. It has a silver-infused antimicrobial fabric that prevents odor and bacteria growth, plus a snap-closed loop that lets you hang it on your pack to dry. It’s the eco-friendly and hygienic solution for your outdoor bathroom needs.

Don’t let the dark stop you from having fun in the great outdoors. Whether you’re hiking, camping or spelunking, you need a reliable headlamp to light your way. The Black Diamond Spot 400 is the ideal choice. Its powerful 400-lumen beam can reach up to 100 meters. A red night-vision mode, lock mode and dimmable settings help prevent premature battery drain. And, if you’d rather not lug around clunky AAA batteries, it can even be charged with a USB and battery pack.

In my humble opinion, Glerups are the definition of cozy. After a long day slogging up a steep trail or bombing down rocky singletrack on a mountain bike, they are like a soft wool hug from your best friend, only for your feet. Made from a bespoke blend of felted silk and wool, they stay odor-free after even your most intense pursuits and boast flexible natural calfskin outsoles.

The Jetboil MiniMo Cooking System is a fast and fuel-efficient way to cook in the wilderness. This compact and lightweight stove/pot combo brings water to a rolling boil in just over two minutes, thanks to its brand-specific burner and heat exchanger. It’s also got a simmer control that lets you adjust the flame for dishes that might need a mellow simmer. It was my constant companion on the John Muir Trail, whether I was boiling water for my morning oatmeal or fixing up a post-hike feast.

Like the true fangirl that I am, I often showed my support for a park by rocking a T-shirt inspired by the landscape I was hiking through. Parks Project serves up excellent graphic designs that rotate every season, so there’s always something fresh, funky and colorful in the lineup. My favorite thing about the brand is that it gives back big to the parks, donating over $2 million in funds to nonprofits that work to restore trails and habitat within the NPS.

Though I didn’t have a pup with me on my 2020 journey across America, I have a high-energy, trail-loving lab mix now, and the Quinzee dog puffy is our go-to on snow days and cold weather backpacking trips in the national parks. Not only is it packable and lightweight (like what you might expect from a hefty down jacket), it’s made with recycled polyester insulation, which stays warm even when wet and dries quicker than down.

Whether you’re roughing it in 40-degree High Sierra weather or you simply need a clean spot for your dog to nap at a coffee shop on your road trip, Ruffwear’s Highlands Pad offers insulation and cushioning for your pup. The pad is filled with recycled polyester synthetic down that is water-resistant and offers a microsuede outer that’s easy to clean. It also features a snap closure system that allows you to fold the pad like an accordion for compact storage and transport. Know your furry friend runs cold? This pad is also specifically designed to fit inside the Highlands Sleeping Bag, creating a warm and snuggly sleeping system for your pup.