All national park sites are free to visit August 25—here's what to pack

·10 min read
National parks and campgrounds are busier than ever—here's what you should pack to prepare
National parks and campgrounds are busier than ever—here's what you should pack to prepare

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As the world turned to more socially distanced activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, many have found a new appreciation for the great outdoors. Excursions like exploring national parks and spending weekends on a new campground were among some of the most popular plans this summer. In May, Yellowstone National Park saw a record number of visitors. This month, parks like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are testing parking fees and reservations to ease crowding at their popular Laurel Falls hiking spot.

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But it's not too late to get in on the fun—in fact, you can savor the last bits of summer by celebrating the National Park Service's 105th birthday on August 25, where anyone can enjoy free admission to any national park site for the entire day.

Before making your way to a park site this summer, it's best to come as prepared as possible with the right hiking and camping gear. That way, you can minimize any unnecessary pit stops or long lines—and spend more time with your family sightseeing and creating new memories.

1. An America the Beautiful parks pass to save on visiting parks throughout the year

The National Park Service's annual park pass will pay for itself in only a few trips to a national park or other federal recreational sites.
The National Park Service's annual park pass will pay for itself in only a few trips to a national park or other federal recreational sites.

While admission will be free at any national park site on August 25, if you're looking to visit more of America's national parks, The America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands pass is well worth the initial cost for access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites across the U.S. for one full year after purchase. The pass covers more than just the entrance fee—it waives standard amenity fees and day-use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle. Even more, there's no limit to how often you can go to a certain park within that year, meaning you can spend several weekends during the summer in your nearest national park or other federal recreation sites.

To put this into perspective: Admission to the Grand Canyon is $30 per vehicle permit or $20 per individual entering by foot, shuttle bus or other Grand Canyon transportation service for seven days. This $80 annual pass will cover unlimited visits to the Grand Canyon as well as any other national park or federal recreation site—so if you're planning on visiting more than one park, or planning on going back for more, this pass can save you time and money. This park pass is an exceptional value, even for infrequent park-goers.

Get the America the Beautiful Annual Park Pass from the National Park Service for $80

2. A self-inflating sleep pad for a better night's sleep

Get the second-best thing to a cozy, comfortable bed.
Get the second-best thing to a cozy, comfortable bed.

While a good sleeping bag can help you get a good night's sleep while camping, it might not cut it for light sleepers or those who just need a little extra comfort at night. A self-inflating sleep pad or mattress that's easy to stow in the car could be the secret to a restful sleep after an arduous hike.

Look out for a sleeping pad that features a thick, insulated foam that'll keep you comfy and warm. Therm-a-rest’s Basecamp self-inflating foam pad does just that, promising to provide warmth throughout all seasons while providing a thick pad that's kind on the back. As an extra plus, it also quickly inflates thanks to the large barrel valve.

Get the Therm-a-rest Basecamp Self-Inflating Foam Camping Pad at Amazon starting at $79.95

3. An Audible subscription for long car rides and waiting lines

Stay entertained through long drives and traffic jams.
Stay entertained through long drives and traffic jams.

The pandemic has drastically affected traffic patterns, and while some roads are lighter thanks to the shift toward remote work, many major interstates like I-95 have more traffic than previously seen. With more Americans back on the road for summer vacations and trips, it's best to assume you may hit traffic. And even if you miss it by some chance, you may end up waiting in a long line just to enter the national park or camping ground.

Keep the whole family entertained along the way or while waiting in line with an audiobook. Audible has an extensive collection of best-selling books like "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Where the Crawdads Sing". You can even try the audiobook subscription for free for 30 days.

Get a Free 30-Day Trial of Audible

4. An insulated water bottle for ice-cold water all day

Nobody likes lukewarm water during a long day outdoors.
Nobody likes lukewarm water during a long day outdoors.

From the car ride to the campground, it's important to stay hydrated during your entire trip (despite the annoyance of frequent bathroom breaks). Out of all the water bottles our team has tested in our labs, we found the Yeti Rambler Vacuum Insulated Stainless Steel Bottle is the best choice for outdoor use. It's easy to grip, includes a wide mouth to drink out of or pour into pots and pans, and features double-wall insulation that will keep your water ice-cold virtually anywhere, whether it be in a hot car or during a hiking trip.

Get the Yeti 26-ounce Rambler Bottle with Chug Cap at Dick's Sporting Goods for $39.99

5. A portable coffee maker for quick, quality coffee on-the-go

Making coffee out of the house has never been easier.
Making coffee out of the house has never been easier.

To save time and spend more of your morning in the great outdoors (rather than a local gas station or corner store), we recommend packing a portable solution to your morning coffee that can help you brew a good cup of joe. There are several options when it comes to portable coffee makers, from French presses and pour-over makers to Moka pots and AeroPresses.

Senior staff writer for kitchen & cooking Valerie Li Stack notes that the backcountry community raves about AeroPress. If you're can't live without your cold brew, the AeroPress Go Travel Coffee Kit can make cold brew in around 2 minutes, along with your classic hot cup of coffee in just one minute.

Get AeroPress Go Travel Coffee Kit at REI for $31.95

6. A spacious backpack that saves you from back pain

Save your back with a comfortable backpack.
Save your back with a comfortable backpack.

When it comes to long hikes or walking out to the perfect camping spot, make it a priority to find a backpack that's comfortable to wear for hours. While you could bring a tote or a regular shoulder bag, you'd be better off evenly distributing the weight onto your back to avoid any back pain.

With over 700 glowing 5-star reviews, the North Face Borealis Backpack is a great choice for casual hiking and camping. The mesh back panel adds comfort and breathability and several pockets and sleeves for smart storage. For something more rugged, the North Face Terra Backpack is made for "off-the-map comfort" with a lift system that doesn't add extra weight to your pack.

Get the Borealis 18 Backpack at The North Face for $99

Get the Terra 55 Backpack at The North Face for $169

7. An ultra-insulated, bear-proof cooler to keep your goods cold and safe

Keep your meats and produce safe and chilled.
Keep your meats and produce safe and chilled.

A cooler is an absolute must, no matter if you're staying at a campground or going for a half-day hike. (Who doesn't want to come back to the car to ice-cold drinks and snacks?) Keep meats, produce, drinks and other perishable products at a safe temperature with a cooler that means business.

At Reviewed, we love the Yeti brand for its insulated water bottles and beyond. The Yeti Tundra 35 Cooler is another phenomenal Yeti product that features its serious insulation power. The chest cooler features a three-inch-thick insulated wall for maximum protection to your refrigerated items. The cooler—along with Yeti's other hard-sided coolers—was tested by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), a U.S. Forest Service Department of Agriculture Committee, and met all qualifications necessary to be officially approved for use on land where grizzlies are present. Some parks—like Yellowstone—even require food storage to be in IGBC-certified coolers, so this is an investment worth making.

Get Yeti Tundra 35 Cooler at Lowe's for $249.99

8. A car mount to follow directions with less distraction

A hands-free solution to navigating the roads.
A hands-free solution to navigating the roads.

Navigating to your destination via your smartphone can be ultra-useful—but it can be just as distracting. Looking down at the phone in your lap or hand is dangerous (and illegal in some states) while driving, which is why you should consider installing a car mount. You can easily follow directions with hands-free navigation that'll help you keep your focus on the road. This one from iOttie is a great choice because its compatible with several different smartphone brands and stays put on your window thanks to the strong suction.

Get the iOttie Easy One Touch at Amazon for $22.99

9. A car charger for the road trip

When there's no outlet in sight, use your car charger to keep your smartphones charged up.
When there's no outlet in sight, use your car charger to keep your smartphones charged up.

While you might not get much phone service in the mountains or at a national park, there's no harm in keeping it charged up (especially to snap some gorgeous photos). In fact, you should keep it charged in case you find yourself in an emergency situation or need to get in contact with someone. Plus, if the car ride is a long one, you'll want a fully charged phone to keep you entertained with games, podcasts, music and more. The Anker PowerDrive III Duo is the best car charger we tested with two USB-C ports and ultra-fast charging technology, powering up a smartphone to 99% in just an hour and 17 minutes.

Get the Anker PowerDrive III Duo at Amazon for $39.99

10. A rain jacket for when the weather doesn't cooperate

Stay dry in a breathable rain jacket.
Stay dry in a breathable rain jacket.

Don't let a little rain put a damper on your hiking plans—as long as the park or rangers deem it safe to hike or camp in the weather, take advantage of the day and come prepared to ward off the water (plus, you may be able to beat some crowds this way).

No matter if you're an infrequent camper or veteran of the trails, investing in a waterproof and weatherproof jacket is a very good idea, as Mother Nature can be unpredictable. REI's Co-op Rainier Rain jackets are totally waterproof with two and a half layers of material that keep wind gusts from giving you the chills. Reviewers on REI swear by this jacket, citing that it performs well against rain and wind, all while feeling lightweight and breathable.

Get the REI Co-op Rainier Rain Jacket for Men at REI for $89.95

Get the REI Co-op Rainier Rain Jacket for Women at REI starting at $44.83

11. A bottle of bug spray to stay safe from bites

Keep bugs at bay with the right repellent.
Keep bugs at bay with the right repellent.

You can't escape bugs in the great outdoors—but you can do your best in preventing bites, especially in areas where tick-borne and mosquito-borne illnesses may be prevalent. Before you start your hike or enter the campgrounds, apply an insect repellent and reapply in accordance with the bottle's directions. The Repel Sportsmen Formula Pump Spray Insect Repellent keeps mosquitoes, ticks and other biting bugs off your skin.

Another way to keep the bugs at bay is to treat your clothing with a permethrin spray. This strong repellent meant only for clothing and shoes provides an extra boost of defense from mosquitoes and mosquito-borne illnesses.

Get the Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Pump-Spray Insect Repellent at REI for $7.95

Get the Sawyer Permethrin Pump Spray at Walmart starting at $9.97

12. Sunscreen to protect your skin from the sunny days

Protect your skin with a broad spectrum SPF.
Protect your skin with a broad spectrum SPF.

One outdoor essential you should never go without is sunscreen—no matter if it's a clear day or an overcast afternoon. According to the CDC, you should be using a broad spectrum sunscreen—which protects against both UVA and UVB rays—that contains at least SPF 15 or higher. In addition to sunscreen, you may also want to invest in sun-protective clothing, especially if you'll be outside in the sun for long periods of time.

Reviewers love the Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Broad Spectrum SPF for being a protective sunscreen that's still lightweight and dry to the touch. Pro tips when it comes to sunscreen: Make sure to apply it at least 15 minutes before you go outdoors—that's about how long it takes for it to be fully effective. Additionally, don't bring along your sunscreen from past summers without double-checking the expiration date (yes, sunscreen expires).

Get the Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 70 at Neutrogena for $11.99

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This article originally appeared on Reviewed: Camping gear to buy for a free visit to a national park site

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