The experience of hiking can mean something different to everyone. For some, it’s about exercise, for others, a way to see unspoiled landscapes, and for a few, it’s a kind of meditation. It can be painful, monotonous, and even lonely if you choose to head off without a partner. But it’s safe to say, that if nothing else, it’s a chance to get outside our normal routines. Instead of a mundane journey from our homes to the office and back, we pack a hiking bag and venture into the wilderness, a place that feels unknown. It’s the chance to experience something primitive.
The National Park System is often said to be America’s “Best Idea”. They are these massive swaths of the country’s most beautiful landscapes, set aside for the simple enjoyment of those seeking outdoor recreation. Given their popularity, they are some of the most well maintained trails, and thus are an excellent starting point for anyone who wants to start hiking (or start hiking more). These parks are where we can experience that primitiveness.
Choosing Your Hiking Bag
The most important piece of gear you’ll need for experiencing the parks is a good hiking backpack. A well-made pack will keep its weight off of your shoulders, where it could cause unnecessary strain, and on to your hips, where you have the greatest amount of carrying power. The best hiking backpack is one that will prevent overpacking. Purchase one that is just big enough for your equipment (maybe 50-60 liters). The below example is a great pack for Hiking. Most people bring too much gear, and after your first time out with it, you’ll probably realize that there’s a lot of items that you don’t need to bring.
Packing Your Hiking Bag
The second most important item after your hiking bag is your tent, and there are a lot of options out there to choose from. Most backpacking tents are made for two people and their gear. A good quality tent that’s easy to set up is best. Next, you’ll need a sleeping bag, and there are two main considerations in choosing one: warmth and weight. For warmth, choose a bag that is rated for the lowest temperatures you could possibly encounter. Most three-season bags go down to 15 degrees, which is a survival rating, not a comfort rating. A 15 degree bag will keep you alive at 15 degrees, but it’ll only be comfortable to 35 degrees. When considering weight, the main factor is the type of filling: down or synthetic. Down bags are lighter, but they’re not warm when wet, and they are more expensive than synthetic ones. The last item you’ll need for a good night’s sleep is a ground pad. Most of these are inflatable, but some are just a sheet of foam. The only real consideration is what you find comfortable. What you’re comfortable spending the night on, and how heavy of a pad you are comfortable carrying.
A good set of trekking poles is also invaluable for hiking. Not only will they help you use upper-body strength to ascend steep trails, they’ll also provide stability on the downhill sections, which can be murder on your knees. When you don’t need them, they can be quickly clipped on to your hiking bag.
For anything more than an easy day hike, it’s important to carry a few emergency supplies in your trekking bag, in case the unexpected occurs. The two most important considerations for your safety are water and warmth. Hikes should always be planned around their proximity to a water source, but you’ll still need to carry gear to make that water potable. The simplest methods for disinfecting water (and the best for those who subscribe to the tenets of ultralight backpacking) are iodine or chlorine tablets. They don’t taste very good, but they’re much smaller and easier to carry than a water filter.
For warmth, packing some type of a fire starter is critical. Butane lighters can fail, though, so it’s best to also carry a magnesium fire stick, which will work in any conditions to spark material like dried grass or paper.
If you’re not an experienced backpacker, you may want to go base camping instead of on a multi-day backpacking trip. To base camp, you’d haul your hiking bag full of gear to a campsite, your “base,” on the first day and then take day hikes from there. In that case, you’ll need a small hiking backpack to carry things like water, snacks, sunscreen, and first-aid supplies. The best day hiking backpacks are usually in the 15 to 20 liter range is usually sufficient.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of what needs to go in your hiking bag, but they are some of the most essential components. Before doing any trekking, you should definitely consult a packing checklist – one piece of gear can make the difference between an awesome experience and a terrible one.
Getting Out on the Trail: Backpacking in the National Parks
Now that your gear is all packed up, it’s time to make your way to the trail-head. For those that are new to hiking (or just want to see some amazing places), the National Parks are a great place to start. Trails in the National Parks usually have excellent maps with detailed information regarding distance, elevation, and points of interest. The trails are also well marked, so you’re not likely to get lost. Rangers at the visitor’s centres can help you plan your route based on your skill level and the amount of time you’re willing to spend in the back-country.
When planning your backpacking trip, be sure to read up on any camping restrictions that the park might have. Some require that you apply for camping permits months in advance because the routes are so popular during peak season. Others have strict rules regarding campfires and waste disposal. Knowing the regulations in advance will help you have a better camping experience and make you a better steward of the park.
Most Popular Hiking Trails in the National Parks
Half Dome Trail – Yosemite National Park
Yosemite’s Half Dome is one of the most iconic features of the U.S. national park system, perhaps rivaled only by Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. A hike up it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those who are in good enough shape to ascend the monolith. The trail climbs a total of 4,800 feet, with much of that gain occurring on the famous cable route. Here, you’ll climb a series of steps bolted into the rock while attached to a cable system to stop you from tumbling down the mountain should you lose your footing. Only 300 hikers are allowed onto the route each day, so permits need to be obtained in advance.
Garden Wall – Glacier National Park
The trailhead for Glacier’s Garden Wall hike sits atop Logan Pass, the highest point on the park’s iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road. A major advantage to starting high up on the pass is that there is very little elevation gain, only 500 feet in 6.8 miles. The trail skirts the melting Grinell Glacier, providing excellent views of it and of the lake that has formed beneath it. Two more lakes are visible below the glacier, including Swiftcurrent Lake and the Many Glacier Hotel beside it. The trail ends at along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and a free park shuttle will transport you back to the trailhead.
Canyon Overlook Trail – Zion National Park
Of all the hikes in the national park system, this one might offer the biggest reward for the least amount of effort. The route to the Canyon Overlook is only half a mile long and utilizes a very well maintained trail. However, the views from the overlook of Zion’s Upper-East Canyon couldn’t be more stunning. This is an excellent hike for beginners or visitors who just want to get a taste of the park before heading off on a lengthier excursion.
Devils Garden – Arches National Park
Arches National Park is famous for its relatively accessible hikes to the namesake sandstones arches that dot the park. The Devil’s Garden route is the park’s longest and perhaps most challenging hike, but visits eight of the arches. The trail gains almost 1,200 feet in elevation over the course of eight miles. Most of the arches require a short side trip from the main trail, which is marked by a series of cairns or stones lining its edges. In the summer, temperatures in Arches can exceed 100 degrees, making heatstroke and dehydration a real possibility. Visit in the cooler months if you can, and always carry an adequate supply of water – one liter per hour.
Precipice Trail – Acadia National Park
Acadia is the only national park in New England; fortunately, it has one of the most unique and impressive trails in the country. The Precipice Trail ascends Champlain Mountain for 850 feet via a series of iron ladder rungs. These handholds allow hikers to traverse narrow cliffs and vertical walls that would otherwise be impossible without significant rock climbing experience. At the summit, you’re rewarded with postcard-quality views of the Atlantic Ocean and the forests of Mount Deseret Island. Unlike the Half Dome cable route in Yosemite, there is no safety system to clip onto here. If you’re afraid of heights, this is not the trail for you. The trail is closed during the spring and early summer, as the mountain is a nesting ground for the endangered Peregrine Falcon.
Long Distance Hiking in the National Parks
If you’re up for a serious challenge, long distance hikes (those that are over 500 miles) can be a great way to see America’s national parks. The two most famous long distance hikes in the U.S. are the 2,700-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) along the West Coast and the 2,200-mile-long Appalachian Trail (AT) through the eponymous mountain range. Both have surged in popularity since the Hollywood films Wild and A Walk in the Woods highlighted the amazing experience that a long distance hike can be. The PCT weaves through several parks: Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Crater Lake, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades, while the AT traverses 100 miles of Shenandoah National Park.
However, if you’re looking for something less crowded and more rustic, America is not short on places to go for a long walk. The Continental Divide Trail through the Rocky Mountains is longer than either the PCT or the AT (at close to 3,000 miles), crosses more rugged terrain, and is only completed by around 50 people each year. If you live in the northeast corner of the country and are looking for a shorter but still quite challenging hiking trail, Vermont’s Long Trail is only 273 miles and can be completed in a few weeks instead of the six months the other three require.
Hopefully this guide has given you the tools necessary to start an amazing adventure in one of America’s great national parks. Spending a little time preparing – packing and repacking your bag, trying out your equipment, and going through your gear checklist, will make for a much more enjoyable experience. While a few of the best trails in the National Parks were mentioned here, there are literally hundreds to choose from. Check out the park’s website and call the visitor’s center if you need more help in planning your route. And remember – time spent in the wilderness is never wasted.