I love trip planning. To me, there are few greater joys than scouring web pages for that prime camping spot, mapping out when to visit, and figuring out the best hikes that the park has to offer. It reminds the city-bound me that I can exist in nature if I choose to, and as often as I can, I do.
Therefore, I was surprised to learn that many people do not conduct this Leslie Knope-level of preparation just to get outside. Many simply head to the mountains without a reserved camping spot. They are the true warriors of first-come, first-serve campsites. I respect their commitment to adventure, acknowledging their approach could not be more different than mine.
While spontaneity is an incredibly romantic concept, I feel no regret in requiring the basics of preparation before I lay my head under the stars. This comes less from the obsessive need to plan and more from knowledge of the scope of our changing parks.
It’s no secret that on a large scale, our relationship to the natural world is changing, and our parks are not spared the reach of this reality. We see it in headlines first. Phrases like “strongest” or “highest” on record pepper our news feed. Then we see it for ourselves. Smoke chokes the skyline of Yosemite’s granite walls, weddings in July feature melting cakes. Your energy bill bows to the mercy of extended air conditioning.
Climate change might live in our memory as a far-off concept from that one 8th grade Earth Science unit, but its impacts life in the present. As conditions in our parks change, it is our responsibility as visitors to adapt.
Setting aside the emotional baggage associated with climate change allows us to get real about the risks we face and the actions we can take to minimize risk. Understanding these concepts is essential to your safety, stewardship, and enjoyment of the park for years to come.
Here are 5 mindful preparation tips for you to consider when visiting our National Parks.
1. Bring a gas stove and check conditions before you leave
Risk: wildfires, smoke inhalation
Action: campfire policy adherence and safety, checking air quality indexes during wildfire season
I don’t know anyone who would enjoy being the villain on a Smokey Bear billboard. Many causes of wildfires can be linked back to human activity or negligence. Therefore, preparing to camp responsibly can prevent disasters.
Many parks enact campfire bans in the summertime. In particular, Henry W. Coe State Park, just south of San Jose, posts
“Fire conditions change throughout the year at the park and at any time fires can be banned with no advanced notice. Prepare to be able to cook your food with a gas stove in case fires are banned. Wood and Charcoal fires usually get banned from June to November.”
But those ban windows are changing, expanding to accommodate a drier, hotter climate for larger periods of the year. The fire risk increases exponentially in places like California, where recovery from the 2013 drought has yet to be realized and July 2018 saw the state’s hottest month on record. Citing fire danger, the San Bernadino National Forest placed a campfire ban on December 5, 2018, a season that was once considered outside the window of fire concern.
Keep in mind that these policies are less about robbing the joy out of perfecting a your s’more game and more about keeping the neighboring town safe from turning to ash.
At the end of the day, ignorance of policy is not adherence, and a wildfire is not something you’d want to be responsible for. Opt for a gas stove as your main cooking tool, and indulge in campfires only when directed.
2. Bring extra water. More than you think you need.
Risk: dehydration, heat exhaustion
Action: water preparedness, avoiding heat of the day
While hiking in the heat of the day, I found myself parked squarely on a rock between two Irish tourists stopping for a smoke break. Fifteen minutes into the hike, I was flushed, weak, dizzy, and utterly drained. The heavy lunch and beer I’d had right before our hike did not sit well with our 2 PM start time, aligned directly beneath the blazing sun.
While this specific situation occurred in South America, it is just as easily transferable to your next visit to Zion. Heat conditions have always been a consideration in summer, but the intensity and duration of heat wave events are changing in every park. As temperatures climb, so does the risk. At a place called Furnace Valley in Death Valley National Park, 21 days of July 2018 saw temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
While high temperatures are to be expected at a place called Furnace Valley, the trend is extended to summertime favorites like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks.
With the help of everyone else’s water, some electrolytes, and frequent breaks, I was able to get through the hike without passing out. However, I learned a few valuable lessons about dealing with heat.
Always bring extra water, eat salty snacks, and avoid the heat of the day. Grand Canyon National Park recommends avoiding hiking in the summer from 10 AM – 4 PM. Plan your long hikes for the early morning and bring extra water for the heat on the way down. Wear extra sunscreen, and pack light, leaving any additional space or weight for water. Don’t forget to do your part for the environment and ditch the plastic water bottles. There are many great alternatives to single-use plastic water bottles like bringing a canteen, reusable water bottle, or camelbak to throw inside your backpack.
3. Anticipate the bite
Risk: vector-borne illnesses (West Nile Virus, Malaria, etc.)
Action: avoid camping near standing water, apply insect repellent as needed
If you’ve ever ran away from a monstrous, blood-thirsty mosquito diving straight for your face as I have, you understand the need for military-grade, chemically questionable insect repellent. Or, you can opt for safer tips and tricks involving vinegar and sage.
But what’s the connection with climate change?
As average conditions warm across the United States, areas near large bodies of water see their swamp potential rise. Heavy rain and heat bring about favorable conditions in which mosquitoes thrive. The rain turns into standing water, and the higher-than-average heat creates a nice little habitat in which mosquitoes thrive.
While the presence of mosquitoes shouldn’t be a deterrent to getting outside, understanding the climate conditions that are favorable to these little disease vectors is an important part of preparing to visit any parks.
4. Visit in the off-season
Risk: all of the above
Action: find time outside of summer break to get outside
I recently had an opportunity to do something I’d waited for years to do – hike in the Grand Canyon. However. July 22 was the only weekend my friend and I were both free. We couldn’t agree to rafting as our main activity, so I bailed.
Hiking in 125-degree heat just didn’t sound fun. And, knowing my personal limits outlined in a 104-degree Bikram yoga class, neither did the extremely high likelihood of paying for a medevac helicopter.
To compensate for this disappointment, I – you guessed it – whipped out my planner and found us some dates in the spring, considered the “Goldilocks time” to visit the Grand Canyon. With more moderate temperatures, fewer crowds, and the possibility of exploding wildflowers, I’m looking forward to this visit even more.
5. Stay on designated trails
Risk: long-term damage to protected areas facing pressure from climate change
Action: stay on trails to be a responsible steward of fragile ecosystems
Finally, the best way to mindfully visit our changing parks is to respect their protected status. Just as campfire policies exist for your safety, designated trails and restricted areas exist to keep bison from charging unexpected humans in Yellowstone and bear maulings to a minimum in Glacier National Park. While a visit to our parks might be a visit to public lands, we are visitors when we enter.
A recent study concluded that average temperatures in national parks increased twice as much compared with other parks of the country, while precipitation simultaneously dramatically fell. The shift in temperature and precipitation patterns are expected to correspond with larger shifts in animal behavior, as wildlife flock to park areas with the best possible local conditions.
It will become increasingly important to acknowledge and adhere to access restrictions as pressures mount from a warming climate.
Abandonment of this crucial responsibility and its consequence was illustrated this month in Joshua Tree National Park during the partial government shutdown. Barriers to pristine, protected desert environments were breached. Joshua trees that are already struggling to cope with California’s persistent drought were cut down or used as makeshift Christmas trees. Sticking to designated trails is an important part of contributing to the parks’ resilience, and a large factor in preserving their beauty for future generations.
Visiting Our Changing Parks
Preparing for a visit to the parks in a changing climate doesn’t need to be a burden, or even anxiety inducing. You can maintain your close relationship to the parks and the natural wonders they contain while being a safe, responsible steward of their bounty. Even the spontaneous person that you are has to be prepared for what the environment might throw at you. So next time you are planning on visiting a National Park, remember these five mindful tips to make your adventure that much more incredible.