Let's Plan Your Adventure!
This guide will give you some key tips, links, and tools to help you "Plan like a Ranger" for your national park adventure! Having a plan will help you avoid common mistakes that can affect your visit and even lead to injury.
The Trip Planning Guide is meant for day or overnight trips to a park.If you are planning a multi-day trip, especially to backcountry areas, additional planning steps will be required and are beyond the scope of this guide.
Continue reading to learn how you can get the most out of your visit to a park. On this page, you'll also be able to:
- Download the NPS Trip Planning Guide
- Fill out a Trip Plan Template
- Practice the Outdoor Emergency Plan
- View a list of the 10 Essentials.
Know Before You Go
“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” -Yogi Berra
Researching ahead of time gives you the opportunity to learn about the park and the environment(s) you’ll encounter during your adventure. You’ll have time to prepare and get the right gear/equipment needed for you and anyone that may be traveling with you. Keep reading to learn about what you should "Know Before You Go":
Every park environment is unique and continuously changing with the seasons. Visit the park's website on NPS.gov or the NPS mobile app to become familiar with the places you will visit. Consider the following:
- Amenities - Does the park have drinking water, park shuttles, or stores where you can buy food and gear?
- Weather - What is the weather forecast for the duration of your trip? How will you prepare for it?
- Wildlife - What animals live in the park and how can you prepare for a chance encounter?
- Terrain - Are there uneven surfaces like unpaved trails or stairs you need to be aware of?
- Water - Are there currents or underwater hazards? Is the temperature of the water cold?
- Park Alerts - Are there closures, hazards, or other active alerts that may affect your visit?
There is more than one way to experience the park. Find a complete list of activities on the park's website under the "Things to do" page under the Plan Your Visit page. Explore the pages of the activities that interest you. Find out if the park has Ranger-guided and Junior Ranger programs and consider participating in them.
Your experience in the park is yours to decide. Only you know your abilities and your comfort level. Assess the following about yourself:
- Skills - What outdoor skills do you have? Have you used them in a park like the one you're visiting?
- Experience - How often do you recreate outdoors? Have you recreated in a park like the one you're visiting?
- *Physical Fitness - Are you physically fit for your trip? Are there any activities that are beyond your abilities?
- *Medical Condition - Do you have a medical condition that could be worsened by the weather, altitude, or physical exertion?
There is more than one trail to hike, river to paddle, or mountain to climb. Pick an activity that you can safely enjoy during your visit. As you build your skills and experience, you can keep challenging yourself. Consider the following:
- Weather - Will the weather make the activity more difficult? How can you prepare for it?
- Duration - How long will it take you to complete the activity? Do you have the physical fitness and endurance for it?
- Difficulty - What is the difficulty level of the activity you'd like to do? Is it within your limits and comfort level?
- Skill - Does the activity require special skills (e.g., rock climbing)? Do you have that skill? If not, how will you learn it before the trip?
- Gear - Does the activity require special gear (e.g., life jacket, helmet)? Do you have or can you obtain the right gear?
- Regulations - Regulations, restrictions, and closures protect park resources and keep visitors safe. Find out more about these rules under “Learn About the Park” on the park’s website.
- Permits - Find out if a permit is required for your activity under “Plan Your Visit”. Follow the park’s instructions on how to apply and obtain a permit.
- Reservations - Some parks require reservations to enter the park, access an area of the park, and participate in an activity. All reservations can be made on Recreation.gov
Sometimes things don't go as planned. The weather forecast changes. Parking lots are full. Areas in the park close. You forget to pack an essential gear for the activity. Or you just simply don't feel up to the activity you planned. Choose a backup activity that will allow you to enjoy the park and not cancel the trip altogether.
Note: Indoor activities are great backup plan options such as: park museums, historical buildings, and interpretive exhibits. They involve light physical activity and require no special gear.
The 10 Essentials are a collection of first aid and emergency items that can help you in the event of minor injuries, sudden weather changes, or unexpected delays.Your cell phone is not a substitute for any of the 10 essentials. You may not have service in the park and the battery may not last the whole trip.
Customize the 10 Essentials to your trip! You may need to pack additional items like medication, bug repellant, hiking boots, a life jacket, or a helmet. Consider packing a whistle for yourself and each person, especially if you are traveling with kids. If someone becomes lost, blowing a whistle can help search parties find them. Make sure that you can use your equipment properly and it works or fits correctly.
Note: The NPS app has park maps that can be downloaded for offline use. Always carry a backup paper map. Your phone battery may not last the whole trip and you could damage or lose your phone.
Tell a Trusted Contact — who is not going on the trip with you — where you are going, what you are doing, and when you will be back. Ask them to call authorities and share your Trip Plan if you are not back from your trip on time. A Trip Plan has information that helps authorities respond if an emergency occurs or if you don’t return from your trip on time.
Use the fillable Trip Plan template or create your own.
Accidents happen. You may become lost or injured while recreating outdoors. Read the Outdoor Emergency Plan to learn how to prevent becoming lost or injured and what to do in the event of an emergency.
Arrival at the Park
So you’ve made it to the park, what next?
Keep reading to find out what you should do when you get to the park, and what to "Ask a Ranger" before you start your activity:
Stop by a Visitor Center or Ranger Station if available. Ask a Ranger about the latest park conditions including weather forecast, active alerts, and closures. You can also visit the park’s website, download the NPS mobile app, or follow the park on social media for current information.
Questions you can "Ask a Ranger":
- Are any areas closed? Roads, trails, campsites, etc.
- What's the weather forecast? Lightning, high temperatures, snow, etc.
- Is there animal activity? Sightings, increased activity, etc.
- Are there other alers? Fires, water levels, air quality, etc.
- Where can I find drinking water? Visitor center, along trails, etc.
Implement your backup plan if:
- Park conditions have changed
- You don't have the right gear and supplies
- You're not feeling up to the planned activity
If a permit is required for your activity, get the permit, pay permit fees, and read all regulations and safety information.
During the Trip
You’re doing great!
Whether it's on your hike or paddling down a river, keep these tips in mind while recreating in the park:
If you change your itinerary or route from the one noted on your Trip Plan, your Trusted Contact will not know where you are. Search and Rescue authorities may have trouble finding you.
If a safety concern impacts your activity, consider turning around instead of pushing ahead.
Stay on the trail, within established campsites, and other designated areas. You will reduce the risk of becoming lost and injured while protecting the natural resources around you.
If you are traveling with a group, stay together. If you must leave the group, use the buddy system. Separation could lead to getting lost or injured. Refer to the Outdoor Emergency Plan for more tips on how to avoid becoming lost or injured.
- Watch your step
- Stay alert for wildlife activity
- Keep an eye on the weather
- Report suspicious activity
Parks are not petting zoos. Many parks require you to stay a minimum distance of 25 to 50 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators like bears and wolves. If you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re definitely too close. Use binoculars or your camera lens to observe wildlife. When you follow safe wildlife watching practices, you protect the health of the wildlife and yourself.
Assess how you feel and if you should continue with your planned activity. Is it time to take a break? Should you turn around? If something doesn't feel right, don't do it. You can always visit the park on a day when you are feeling better.
After the Trip
You've made it back to your car or campsite at the end of your activity, remember to:
Notify your Trip Plan Trusted Contact when you complete each activity.
Review how you prepared for the trip, what went well, and what you can improve for your next visit to a park.
Tell others your best outdoor tips and lessons learned to help them prepare for a fun and injury-free adventure. Use #MyParkStory when sharing on social media.
Take steps to prevent a group member from becoming lost or injured and know what to do if it happens.
Tell someone where you are going. Complete a trip plan.
Last updated: June 21, 2023