Written By : Alex Schnee 
Instagram @alexonthemap

As thrilled as we are to be getting outside after a long quarantine, there have been a number of concerns when it comes to recreating responsibly in our national parks. With almost all of them experiencing record visitation, many have been wondering if we love our federally-protected spaces a little too much. On the other hand, those who wish to experience the majesty of “America’s best idea” should be able to do so, as well.

If you are looking to explore our national parks this year but want to do it in a safe and kind manner to Mother Nature, here are some ideas to get you started.

Camp in national forests

Green and gold Coalatree hammock hanging between two pine trees with a small lake in the background

Coalatree Hammock 

While everyone is rushing to make reservations in national parks for camping, this influx of people tromping in and out of a campground can cause a lot of damage over a short period of time. This can be especially true if campers don’t make an active effort to clean up after themselves.

What most people don’t realize is that there is a way that you can be kinder to the national park campgrounds without having to pay for expensive camping accommodations run by companies. Oftentimes right near a national park, you can find a national forest. Not only is it often completely free to camp there, but they often provide more space and awesome hiking trails of their own. You are also less likely to see some of those crazy crowds that you can get in the national parks.

Follow recommendations given by park staff

It can be tempting to ignore signs posted by the national park staff or to dismiss a ranger’s warning when it comes to attempting a closed-off hike. However, park staff is there for a reason, and it’s usually to keep the visitors in line more than herding the animals. If the park staff is directing visitors not to go a certain way or to avoid a certain area of the park, then it’s likely a good idea to listen to what they have to say.

Park rangers want to share the beauty of the area as much as visitors want to experience it, which means that they have decided on the best course of action when it comes to keeping both visitors to the park and the local flora and fauna safe.

Be aware of locals and their communities

When you head to a national park, you’re not only there interacting with nature, you are also frequenting local businesses, seeing locals live their day-to-day lives, and acting as a guest in their homes. It can be fun to be on vacation and be somewhere new, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be polite and respectful when there. The truth is, the more aware of how others feel about visitors when you are there, the more likely they are going to be kind to you in return and be more open to having visitors explore their home too.

Follow Leave No Trace principles

A shot of the sky at night

Leave No Trace as a philosophy has been around for decades, but it still remains one of the best ways to maintain nature. This is especially important in national parks where there are millions of visitors a year. In order to keep our nature as pristine as possible, following these principles can be a step in the right direction.

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of others

If you are interested in learning more about Leave No Trace, you can find out more on their website.

Don’t approach or feed wildlife

This is a part of the Leave No Trace philosophy, and for good reason. While national parks were created for recreational purposes for humans, they are also home to some of the United States’ greatest wildlife. In fact, one of the main reasons many choose to visit national parks in the first place is because they hope to spot a bear, moose, or other animals.

However, many choose also to break the cardinal rule of seeing wildlife in national parks, and that is to keep wildlife wild. Some animals get far too close to humans (including cute chipmunks and squirrels) because they have had other visitors feed them in the past. This can cause them to eventually become violent in search of food.

While this might not be a big deal when it comes to chipmunks and squirrels, it can become a big problem when it comes to bears, mountain lions, and other predators. Once these animals become accustomed to human food, it can cause them to approach campsites and cars--and this can lead them to attack future visitors.

It not only affects people. Once these animals have altercations with humans, they either must be removed or put down in order to keep the park safe. In the past, this has been a difficult issue for the national park system trying to rehabilitate endangered or threatened species like bears and wolves.

The best thing to do? Store your food in bear-safe containers and in your car. If you are carrying food in your pack, make sure to dispose of it properly after you have finished your hike and keep it on your person until you can do so. Worst case scenario, take your trash with you out of the park until you can get rid of it in a place where wildlife is less likely to find it, such as a town or city.

Watch your fires

Man watching over his campfire

Coalatree Trailhead Pants 

As this year has already shown, fires are a major issue in our national parks and they can be extremely difficult to maintain if they begin to spread. While some fires are started from natural causes like lightning storms, humans are also another reason fires tend to be a problem.

Fires can be beneficial when they occur naturally and can often allow for forests to grow and remain healthy, but when they are started by humans using outdoor spaces, then they can end up burning in areas that do not need it. This can cause huge issues when it comes to wildlife populations and can even cause problems when it comes to where humans are located. People and animals can end up losing their homes, and in some cases, their lives.

If you are planning on having a fire, make sure you are in a location that allows them first and foremost. Remain near the fire itself so it will stay contained in a designated area like a fire pit, and when you are done with it, make sure it is fully put out.

Be aware of ticketed entry

Several national parks have implemented ticketed entry this year, and while that can be frustrating if you are planning a last-minute trip, it’s important to respect that the National Park system has made an effort to protect visitors against Covid-19 and that it has been trying to respect our natural spaces. Our national parks aren’t used to so many new guests!

Glacier, Acadia, Carlsbad Caverns, Yosemite, and Rocky Mountain National Park all adopted ticketing systems this year. Some have been for certain areas of the park, like Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road, while others include the entire park itself, like Rocky Mountain. You can find tickets for these online at the recreation.gov website. Ideally, you will want to book in advance, but some tickets are also being released on a rolling basis so it’s worth it to check back often even if you don’t manage to get a ticket immediately.

Our national parks are incredibly special, and they deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. By following some of these tips, you can help to preserve our parks for future use and future generations, while also making the outdoors the inclusive place it was meant to be.

Alex Schnee is a travel blogger at Alex on the Map. She has written for publications such as Fodor’s, The Huffington Post, USA Today, and more. You can find her on Instagram @alexonthemap.