Outdoor Safety Guide for State and National Parks

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A father and son hiking in Yosemite.According to National Park Service data, there were more than 327 million recreation visits to national parks in the United States in 2019. The state park system, made up of more than 8,000 sites, welcomed 807 million visitors in 2018. Clearly, the nation’s parks remain a popular draw.

Signed by then-President Woodrow Wilson into law in 1916, the Organic Act effectively created the National Park Service, a federal bureau that has grown to encompass over 400 parks across the country. Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon are among the most famous and physically breathtaking parks, but the park system includes historic battlefields, scenic lakeshores and idyllic rivers.

Safety Tips for State and National Parks

Visiting a national or state park can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but there are important outdoor safety guidelines to consider. Whether your plans involve a 5.12-grade rock climb or a serene night sleeping under the stars, following these safety tips can ensure that you have a rewarding, healthy experience.

Eating and Picnicking

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides a safety guide for eating food outdoors. While packing and transporting food, the FDA recommends that cold food be kept cold, cooler contents be properly organized (so as not to spoil perishable foods), and produce be thoroughly washed and cleaned.

For those interested in grilling, the FDA recommends these safety tips:

  • Marinate food safely in the refrigerator, never outdoors.
  • After “partial cooking,” cook food thoroughly and have a temperature chart.
  • Don’t reuse utensils or platters.
  • Examine food for any foreign objects, such as a detached bristle from a bristle brush.

“Outside” magazine also offers helpful tips for outdoor cooking. These include washing hands, refraining from using soap on dishes, keeping sick people away from cooking areas, and disinfecting dishes and utensils with boiling water.

Staying Safe from Dangerous Animals

Animal safety is a fundamental part of any outdoor safety guide. Intermountain Healthcare, a not-for-profit health organization, provides helpful wildlife safety tips. These include not feeding animals (even those that seem cute and harmless) and not petting or getting too close to creatures. The organization recommends making noise, which lets animals know you’re nearby, and watching for droppings and tracks, which indicate animal pathways.

“Outdoor Life” offers a number of tips for staying safe from animals, such as keeping a clean campsite, not taking food into your tent and being sure not to sleep in clothes you’ve cooked in. However, if you encounter dangerous animals, such as grizzly bears and cougars, the publication recommends the following:

For grizzly bears:

  • Remain calm, speak in a calm voice and back away slowly.
  • Avoid eye contact and don’t run away.
  • Submit to the bear by lying down on your front, covering your head with your arms.
  • If you’re being attacked by the bear, use what weapons you may have at your disposal and strike at its eyes and nose.

For cougars:

  • Stand tall and don’t run, crouch or hide.
  • Appear larger than the cougar.
  • Throw rocks and other items if the cougar is aggressive.
  • Fight back aggressively, such as gouging the cougar’s eyes.

Intermountain Healthcare also provides tips for handling attacks from snakes, moose, deer, elk and mountain lions. Research the park you’re visiting to determine what animals you need to be aware of.

Packing Suitable Clothing and Attire

REI, a well-known outdoor shopping purveyor, provides a helpful outdoor safety checklist of items that one should bring when going camping or into the outdoors. These include a lightweight fleece, quick-drying pants, gloves or mittens, a sun hat, rainwear, long underwear, and boots or well-suited shoes.

Bringing Emergency Supplies

REI offers an extensive first aid kit checklist, including butterfly bandages, gauze pads and safety pins. For specific tools, REI recommends that you bring items such as a knife, paramedic shears, hand sanitizer, a CPR mask and a standard oral thermometer.

Additional medications and treatments that REI recommends are prescription medications, throat lozenges, antacid tablets and aspirin. It can also be beneficial for outdoor travelers to have items to cover and address wounds and injuries, such as bandages, splints and hemostatic gauze.

Maintaining Maps and Contact Information

Always be sure to have an up-to-date map of any area you plan to explore. Digital maps that can be saved on a phone or other device can be useful, but if their battery power were to fail, travelers may find themselves lost during an emergency.

Paper maps are an indispensible backup when digital maps fail, and they can be helpful in planning routes, according to “Outside” magazine. However, the magazine notes that travelers should be wary of popular overview maps with shaded relief, which can make topographical features appear different from reality.

Safe Traveling to National and State Parks

While en route to a national or state park, follow these outdoor safety guidelines to ensure that you arrive safely and that your vehicle is secured.

Driving in Harsh Conditions

Both the season and the geography of your destination can impact safety precautions. Nationwide, a car insurance company, recommends that you keep rock salt, sand and snow shovels in your car in case you’re traveling where there may be a blizzard.

“If you’re trapped on the road due to a blizzard, pull off the highway, turn on your hazard lights and hang a distress flag (such as a rag) from the antenna or a window,” the insurance company notes. For floods, it’s recommended that you not drive around barricades or through a flooded road. Don’t park near running water and abandon your car if floodwaters begin surrounding it.

In a hailstorm, the company recommends that you allow plenty of distance between the cars in front and behind you for braking, pull over to the side of the road if necessary, and approach traffic lights with caution. Nationwide also recommends carefully removing broken glass if your car is damaged during a storm.

Necessary Items for Your Car

The National Safety Council provides a list of outdoor safety and emergency items to keep in your vehicle. These include the following:

  • Jumper cables
  • Properly inflated spare tire
  • Flashlight and toolkit
  • Batteries
  • Compass
  • Duct tape
  • Rain poncho
  • Car charger for cellphone
  • Reflective triangles
  • Drinking water and nonperishable foods

Keeping Vehicles Secure During Your Stay

Gander RV & Outdoors recommends that you use a sunshade to cover your front window when away from the vehicle. It’s also recommended that you take valuables with you if possible; if not, lock them in the trunk or cover them with a blanket similar in color to your car seats.

Of course, you should always lock your car, even if you’re going to be away for just a few minutes. Gander also recommends checking supplies before repacking them into your vehicle to ensure that no small animals are lurking within them.

National and State Park Camping and Outdoor Safety

The National Park Service recorded 13 million overnight stays in 2019, and state parks saw 66.7 million overnight campers in 2018. Camping is a fundamental experience for many park visitors, but it comes with its own risks.

Building, Maintaining and Putting Out a Fire

The outdoor education organization Outward Bound provides a step-by-step guide to building and maintaining safe campfires, including questioning whether it’s wise to have a fire at all. For example, in summer months, when conditions are dry, any fire may be unsafe.

Outward Bound recommends carrying a small sack of pine pitch, thin shavings or other flammable materials to use as kindling when building a fire. Additionally, the organization recommends that you keep water nearby to address any stray sparks that may leave the fire pit area.

When extinguishing a fire, Outward Bound suggests pouring water on the flames, and then stirring the ashes with a stick until no heat is left.

Keeping Food and Campsites Safe from Animals

Cooking is part of the fun of camping, but it can attract wild animals to your site. “Outside” magazine provides helpful tips for keeping animals from scavenging your campsite for food. These include tying up food effectively, bringing a bear canister when backpacking, cleaning up scraps, and anticipating which animals you may encounter at a site and acting accordingly. The magazine also recommends that you hang food from a tree, put away food that leaves a scent and never leave food on the ground.

Stay Safe from Weather Hazards

During snowy conditions, REI recommends that you pick a sheltered site clear of avalanche danger and pack specialized gear, such as a warmer sleeping bag and an additional sleeping pad. Knowing how to avoid wind and identify reliable water sources can also be beneficial when building a campsite in the snow.

The Canadian government’s camping safety directives include tips for lightning storms. During or in preparation for lightning, it’s recommended that you pitch your tent under a tall tree or near a metal fence. If you do hear thunder, move to lower ground quickly.

Outdoor Safety Tips for Sports and Other Activities

A visit to a national or state park can offer a variety of outdoor sports and recreation.

Hiking

Before embarking on a hike, the National Park Service recommends that you know your limits. For example, if you have limited hiking experience, choosing a difficult or lengthy trail may be unwise. Medical conditions may affect your ability to breathe at higher altitudes where less oxygen is available. Depending on your physical condition, you may not be able to hike certain inclines.

The park service advises hikers to plan by selecting the right trail for the group, building a trip plan, and having a backup plan in place in case of injury or other emergency.

It’s also wise to ask a ranger for any necessary information about hiking in the area. Stay hydrated and well stocked with necessary supplies.

Water Activities

If you’re interested in rafting, The Clymb recommends that you use a guide for your first trip. Bring sunscreen; wear synthetic clothing that won’t retain water; and keep your valuables in a safe area, such as a waterproof bag.

While fishing, Discover Boating recommends that you wear a life jacket, keep a neat and tidy boat, stock proper safety equipment on your vessel, and fish in groups. The National Park Service recommends that you only cast where fishing is permitted, handle your hook carefully when baiting, always wear shoes, be cognizant of wildlife and consult tide tables to stay aware of water conditions.

For swimmers, the National Park Service recommends wearing a life jacket, swimming in designated lifeguarded areas, and being aware of weather forecasts or currents that may impact the water. If you’re a parent, the park service advises that you keep a close eye on your children.

Biking and Rock Climbing

For bikers, outdoor safety includes always wearing and fastening a helmet, wearing bright clothing so as to be easily visible to drivers or trail users, using lower gears when going uphill, and always riding in the same direction of traffic, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Mountain bikers in particular should check their equipment to see if it can handle a planned ride, be aware of their surroundings and bring repair equipment.

Rock climbing can be exhilarating, but it’s also dangerous and can cause severe injury and death if safety measures aren’t followed. Before you attempt to rock climb in the wild, it is helpful to test out your skills at an indoor rock climbing gym.

Trekbible recommends that everyone in a climbing group should know how to belay properly (holding a rope in a way that keeps other climbers safe in case of a fall), double-check harnesses and always engage in open communication.

Winter Sports

Skiing and snowboarding are two of the most popular winter sports that individuals can partake in at national parks. To help be prepared, the National Ski Areas Association recommends that individuals get in shape, dress in layers, and wear sun and eye protection. When on the slopes, the association suggests taking lessons to gain experience, knowing your limits and always making sure you’re in control.

For snowshoeing, REI recommends that you sign up for a class, wear a larger pack than normal, carry a repair kit, stay hydrated, and pack necessary extra shirts and socks. General winter sports safety tips include never practicing a sport alone, warming up before practicing and paying attention to weather warnings, according to OrthoInfo.

There’s no wrong way to enjoy a national or state park. Some come for the thrill of rock climbing, while others search for the peace and tranquility of camping. Knowing and following these outdoor safety tips will help to make your experience a healthy, enjoyable one.