A Little Planning Goes a Long Way
There are so many adventures awaiting you in the U.S. National Parks. The Compass & Key National Park packing list showcases our favorite products in several categories. This gear will help provide a safe, comfortable and enjoyable hiking experience. Note that these are simply recommendations based on our experience; it's not necessary to have all of these items. The Parks are open to everyone, regardless of what gear you own.
This list focuses on visitors who will be hiking on daytrips. For those backpacking and camping, check out REI's backpacking checklist.
For our hikes lasting 3+ hours, we take a day pack in the 25-30L range, which easily holds two lunch sacks, first aid gear, extra layers in case of quick temperature changes, a water reservoir and loops for storing our trekking poles. We've relied on the Traverse series from REI, which offers both men's and women's packs at a great price point.
$119 / Traverse Pack / REI.com
We never visit a National Park without our trekking poles. Are they absolutely necessary? No, but they provide a multitude of advantages regardless of age or ability. They help alleviate knee strain and provide exceptional balance on uneven terrain. And because the poles are collapsible, they easily hook onto the side of our day pack if we don't need them. We've heard "I wish I had those" from fellow hikers on almost every trail we have traversed.
Available at a range of prices and materials, ours are entry level poles ($70/pair) and they have been exceptionally durable. The only downside is that they must be in checked luggage on a flight, but it is well worth any hassle to have them on the trail. REI has a nice selection for both men and women.
From $69.95 / REI.com
While any camera will suffice, we recommend a DSLR to best capture the incredible beauty of our National Parks. Check out our full Camera Travel Essentials list for your next outdoor adventure, including the camera bag and accessories we use for all of our hikes.
$699.99 with body + 18-55mm lens / sony.com
Photo: Under Armour
A versatile base layer allows you to quickly adapt to any trail condition. Short- and long-sleeve shirts with quick-drying and moisture-wicking properties will help you feel comfortable all day. We like the shirts from Under Armour, like this short-sleeve for men. If you're hitting the trail in cold weather, look for layers that help retain body heat. Available for both men and women, in several styles and colors.
$24.99 / UA Tech short-sleeve shirt / underarmour.com
We each bring two pairs of hiking pants for our National Park excursions. Lightweight, moisture-wicking and convertible to shorter lengths, they provide a comfortable base layer for hiking. These men's pants even have UPF 50+ built in to protect from the sun. We recommend darker colors - grays and blacks. REI has a varied selection for both men and women.
$60.00 / Columbia Silver Ridge Convertible Pants (Men's) / REI.com
A good pair of hiking boots is essential when wandering the trails of our National Parks. You never really know what terrain you will get on the hikes (despite well-intentioned descriptions), so it's best to be prepared with sturdy footwear. You'll be thankful as you pass the other visitors struggling in flip flops.
Tara and Pradeep have owned Merrell hiking boots for three years and the extra ankle support and comfortable fit has proven invaluable across varied landscapes.
Women's: $130 / Moab Mid Waterproof boots / merrell.com
Men's: $140 / Moab Gore-Tex boots / merrell.com
You may scoff at the idea of specialty socks, but let us tell you that hiking socks, while pricey, are well worth the investment. Most of ours are from SmartWool, in medium weight (shown) as well as light weight. They make a huge difference in the comfort of our feet after a full day of hiking. Most importantly, they are machine washable. SmartWool has socks in various weights and colors for everyone in the family.
$18.95 / Medium Crew Sock / smartwool.com
Your first layer should be focused on dealing with an unexpected chill from a windy day. At a great price point, the Patagonia Houdini jacket is light as a feather and provides excellent wind protection. Pradeep wears this jacket around the city and on the trail. Also available in women's sizes.
$99 / Houdini Jacket / patagonia.com
Where there are mountains, there will be rain, often arriving unexpectedly. Aside from checking with the local Park Rangers on the weather forecast, make sure to also bring a rain jacket. Tara owns this jacket from Marmot and it has kept her dry from Acadia National Park in Maine to Olympic National Park in Washington. Also available in men's styles.
$99 / PreCip Jacket / marmot.com
When cold weather is expected, make sure to have a warm layer like this Nano Puff jacket from Patagonia. It's incredibly lightweight and packs into its own pocket, making it simple to throw in the day pack. We also appreciate that it's water repellant yet breathable, and much of it is made out of recycled content. Tara has owned her Nano Puff for several years and it proved it's worth during winter hikes in Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon.
$199 / Women's Nano Puff Jacket / patagonia.com
Photo: BUFF USA
Recommended by many an outdoor enthusiast, the BUFF can be worn 12 ways, including as a bandana, headband, hat, scarf and hair tie. Offered in a huge variety of colors and materials.
From $20 / buffusa.com
FOOD & WATER
Staying hydrated is absolutely critical during your National Park visit. Many day packs allow for hydration reservoirs like this one from Platypus. In the REI Traverse day pack we recommend, you simply slide the reservoir into the back pocket, clip it in, and route the hose through the marked openings. We have found it easy to refill with the quick release hose and shutoff valve. We've owned ours for years and it's easy to clean and store.
$34.95 / Big Zip LP Reservoir - 1.5 Liters / REI.com
If you aren't bringing a hydration reservoir on your hike, a water bottle is the next best thing. We are massive fans of the lightweight, reusable Vapur, known as an "anti-bottle" for its ability to roll, fold and flatten when not in use. The included carabiner is perfect for strapping on to any daypack or bag and it can be thrown in the freezer overnight to stay cool throughout the day. A microfilter version is also available.
From $7.99 / Available in 0.5, 0.7, 1 and 1.5 L sizes / vapur.us
The classic spoon + fork + knife combo is great for packed lunches on day hikes. We pack one in our lunch sack along with a reusable cloth napkin. At the end of our trip, we throw the spork in the dishwasher and the napkins in the washing machine.
$9.95 / Set of 4 Sporks / Reuseit.com
$9.95 / Set of 4 Cotton Napkins / Reuseit.com
True to the Leave No Trace Behind principles, we do our best not to generate any garbage from our packed lunches. That means no plastic baggies. This velcro wrap is perfect for sandwiches. Reuseit has a variety of plastic bag alternatives for snacks as well.
$6.95 / Wrap-n-Mat / Reuseit.com
Reusable snack bags from $2.99 / Reuseit.com
Taking a break along the trail is a breeze with this compact pocket blanket from Matador. We bring ours along on every outdoor adventure but it's particularly useful when you need a place to sit where there is none. We've found the weighted corners come in handy in blustery weather, and the integrated storage and packing pattern make it easy to continue on our journey.
$29.99 / Matador Pocket Blanket / Matadorup.com
Simply tripping on the trail can cause injury. This basic first aid kit includes enough basic supplies to treat a variety of small incidents while hiking, from blisters to cuts to stings.
$13.50 / Day Hiker First Aid Kit / REI.com
Technically the multi-tool falls into several categories, but if you're in a bind on the trail, access to these tools can be critical to your safety. We own the Leatherman Juice CS4 and the Wave (when we misplaced our first multi-tool); both have come in handy during our National Park adventures. From opening cans to sawing smaller pieces of wood to start a campfire, we highly recommend owning a multi-tool.
We like the Leatherman Signal, pictured here, because it adds two crucial components - an emergency whistle and fire-starting ferro rod - to the features of our other multi-tools. Just remember that it will need to be packed in checked luggage (along with your trekking poles).
$99.85 / Signal Multi-Tool / leatherman.com
Photo: Black Diamond
A recent addition to our hiking kit, a headlamp will come in handy for early morning or late afternoon hikes. We have had to cut our adventures short due to waning light, but no more.
$29.95 / Cosmo Headlamp / blackdiamondequipment.com
From cleaning up a spill to drying off after a quick swim to creating a make-shift pillow, quick-dry towels are a great accessory for a long hike. We own several sizes of these MultiTowels from REI. Because they are so lightweight, they are easy to throw in the day pack, and they hold eight times their weight in water.
From $7.50 / MultiTowel / REI.com
Photo: Eagle Creek
While this may not spring to mind when thinking of 'comfort', separating wet items from dry can be invaluable when on a hike. We use this rolltop storage bag from Eagle Creek for a variety of things - throwing it over the camera in wet weather, storing a wet swimsuit after a dip in a lake, or keeping wet socks away from everything else. It's also anti-microbial and machine washable.
$15 / Pack-It Sport Roll Top Sac / eaglecreek.com
It's not sexy, but you will thank us later. The National Park facilities are very well cared for, but just in case, we suggest having this handy.
$1.40 / Cotton Buds Tissue To Go Toilet Paper / REI.com
OUR GEAR ON THE TRAIL
Tara taking in the views along the Skyline Trail in Mount Rainier National Park, thanks to her trekking poles. Despite the snow, only a mid-weight pullover was needed on top of a base layer t-shirt.
Pradeep tackling steep, rocky terrain with his trekking poles on the trail to Walla Crag in Lake District National Park in northern England. The REI Traverse daypack carried our lunch, snacks and water. Hiking boots, hiking pants and a moisture-wicking shirt made for a comfortable expedition.
Tara skipping along in Acadia National Park, in between spurts of rain. The waterproof rain jacket and hiking pants kept her warm and dry.
Wandering the shores of Olympic National Park with our trusty Hello Lulu DSLR camera bag and Vapur water bottle attached. The windproof jacket was perfect for this blustery day.
Taking in the stunning formations of Bryce Canyon. Our visit was in February, so the packable down layer was essential for dealing with varying temperatures on top of and within the canyon. Hiking boots and trekking poles helped navigate ice patches along the trail.