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Essential National Park Skills: The Ultimate Park Pass

Write your own ticket to new adventures with these 10 territory-expanding skills.

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You’ve trained, you’ve planned, you’re

amped. The national park trip you’ve dreamed about for months-maybe years-is just around the bend. There’s only one hitch: You’re missing a critical skill. Whether it’s self-belaying with an ice axe in Grand Teton, paddling a kayak through Acadia’s surf, or fording a glacier-fed river in Denali, there are special techniques that go hand in hand with safely and successfully exploring our premier landscapes. Learn them, and you’ll cross new thresholds-to higher peaks, rarer views, and memories you’ll one day share with wide-eyed grandchildren. To get you there (and back), we’ve compiled a Top 10 list of national park skills. Consider it your syllabus for adventure.

The Parks: Yellowstone, Glacier, Katmai/Alaska

The Skill: Hiking safely in grizzly country

Seeing a grizzly in the wild is a rare and wondrous experience-when you do it from a distance. Minimize the odds of a close encounter by following these guidelines.

1. Hike in a group, stay close enough to see one another, and make noise in dense brush, berry patches, and wherever you see fresh bear tracks or scat.

2. Avoid hiking at night, in the early morning, or at dusk, when bears are most active.

3. A breeze can prevent a bear from noticing your scent or sound; when hiking into the wind, slow your pace and call out loudly. Ditto near noisy streams.

4. If you come upon a carcass, leave quickly-it could be a bear’s meal.

5. If you see a grizzly and it…

>>> hasn’t noticed you, move quietly in another direction.

>>> notices you, back away slowly without making eye contact, speaking in a low, calm voice while waving your arms slowly overhead.

>>> stands on its hind legs sniffing the air, it’s trying to identify you. Back away slowly.

>>> snaps its jaws or makes a low coughing sound, it’s issuing a warning. Back away slowly.

>>> charges you, don’t run. Instead, stand your ground without making eye contact or acting aggressively. Many charges are bluffs.

>>> attacks, play dead. Drop to your stomach, legs spread-eagled to prevent the bear from turning you over, hands covering the back of your neck. If it keeps attacking after the first few seconds or swipes (that is, once it shows an intent to feed, rather than just scare you), use your pepper spray and fight back.

The Park: Denali

The Skill: Crossing glacial-runoff rivers

Experiencing Alaska’s wilds-the mind-blowing moraine of Muldrow Glacier or the magnificence of Denali-requires river crossings. You won’t get more than a few miles from the road in this park’s trailless wilderness without getting wet. But fording roiling Alaskan rivers can be life-threatening; they’re often fast, deep, wide, and braided into many channels. And they’re always head-numbingly frigid. Here’s how to do it safely.

Cross in the morning Glacier-fed rivers rise with daytime’s warmer temps, sometimes by a foot. Ask rangers about the conditions of all the rivers you’ll cross.

Use your map and eyes An area where the river widens or braids is shallower and easier to navigate. Avoid crossing upstream from boulders, rapids, fallen trees, and standing waves (which indicate boulders).

Examine the surface The river gives clues to its depth: Small washboard ripples indicate shallow water and a smooth bottom. (Glacial silt turns most rivers gray, so you’ll rarely see the bottom.)

Lob rocks A hollow “ker-ploop” indicates deep, possibly dangerous water. A rock that moves downstream before sinking, or the sound of rollers, suggests a powerful current.

Use watertight bags Keep clothing and gear dry; remove boots and socks, but wear sandals or sneakers to protect your feet. Some BACKPACKER editors strip off all bottom layers to keep clothes dry; you’ll go numb either way.

Unbuckle your hipbelt If you go down, it will be easier to slip out of your pack.

Retreat If the river looks too fast and deep-anything above the knees gets dicey-find a safer spot to cross.

Use trekking poles Walking sticks aid balance, as does looking a few steps ahead instead of straight down.

Cross at an angle In fast water, face upstream but sidestep across at a slight downstream angle. Lean into the current and step slowly to keep steady.

Ford as a group Lock arms and cross together if the water is knee-deep or if anyone’s having trouble.

The Park: Rainier

The Skill: Attaching an ice axe to your pack

You’ve paused high up on Rainier’s Disappointment Cleaver route, gushing with your buddy over the sunrise view when you turn to start upward again, and…spear him in the gut with the axe that’s tilting out from your pack. To avoid this potentially dangerous scenario, use this 2-step trick:

1) Insert the spike (the pointed end of the shaft) down through your pack’s axe loop so that the pick is pointing across the pack rather than jutting to the side.

2) Flip the axe to point the spike skyward so the loop cradles the axe’s head, then secure it with the pack’s axe clip or a compression strap.

The Park: Acadia

The Skill: Paddling past surf line

The trickiest-and most dangerous-part of sea kayaking this archipelago off the Maine coast is navigating the surf break without getting tossed from your boat. Follow these steps and you’ll soon be exploring the tiny islands, quiet bays, and craggy cliffs along Acadia’s coastline.

The Launch

>>> Scout the surf for lulls and locations where the waves don’t break hard. Avoid sandbars and rocks.

>>> Guide your kayak to the water’s edge perpendicular to the approaching waves. Climb in a few feet from shore and secure your spray skirt.

>>> “Walk” your boat forward on your knuckles if there’s no one to push you off (don’t lose your paddle). Then paddle as fast as you can, staying perpendicular to the waves. The boat’s position and speed are your allies in punching through surf. When you’re about to hit a wave, lean all the way forward to avoid getting flipped, and hold your paddle along the gunwale. Once the wave passes, resume paddling, glancing back periodically to establish position.

>>> If you do flip, head back to shore and start over.

The Landing

>>> Time your approach to hit relatively calm water. To do this, chase the last wave of a set, keeping your boat at a slight angle to the rise. (Do not come in perpendicular; it increases your risk of getting flipped.) Lean into the wave to avoid rolling. You may be able to ride the wave to shore using your paddle as a rudder. If you’re headed to an island, land on the leeward (less windy) side.

>>> If the waves are breaking offshore, simply paddle in until the kayak runs aground and hop out on the ocean side of the boat to avoid having the kayak bump your shins. If waves are breaking directly on the beach, though, you’ll need to exit quickly to avoid getting hit and pulled back in by the next wave. Best advice: Practice quick exits on dry land.

Stay Safe:

Carry and know how to use navigation equipment and nautical charts; fog can roll in quickly. If you’re not confident about your paddling skills, hire a guide.

The Park: Rocky Mountain

The Skill: Navigating off-trail with GPS

The trails leading to the shimmering waters of Ypsilon and Crystal Lakes make fine out-and-back trips. But with a GPS receiver and basic map-reading skills, you can create a five-star loop by linking these two high alpine lakes with about 4 miles of cross-country hiking. Bonus: You can bag a 13,000-foot peak while you’re at it. Here’s how.

>>> Scope out a possible route using a 1:24,000 USGS topo or mapping software that lets you identify cliffs and other hazards.

>>> Then highlight easy-to-identify landmarks (a meadow, the confluence of two creeks). Use a map tool such as Corner Rulers ( to plot the coordinates for those points. Or plot the waypoints in the mapping software. Load them into your GPS unit and mark them on your topo.

>>> Note landmarks like rivers or a prominent ridge that can serve as “handrails”-visual boundaries that help keep you on track.

>>> Use the GPS’s “go to” function to guide you cross-country; a directional arrow on the screen points to your next stored waypoint. Confirm your route frequently on the map.

The Park: Grand Canyon

The Skill: Descending steep trails

The New Hance Trail isn’t the only knee-busting descent from the South Rim to the Colorado River, but it is the nastiest. Dropping 5,000 feet in only 7.5 miles, it features rockslides, 4-foot drops onto sloping scree ledges, and narrow catwalks with sheer drops to either side. The payoff? A rarely seen side canyon of soaring red cliffs and tremendous sandstone towers. Use proper downhill technique, and you won’t have to empty half the ibuprofen bottle tonight.

Use poles Lean your weight into your hiking sticks as you land to take pressure off your joints and quads. On steep drop-offs, plant two poles in front and ease yourself down. Tighten your poles so they don’t collapse.

Stay in alignment Always step straight down, and try to land with your knees and ankles directly below your hips. This is the best way to prevent sprains, and it minimizes the chance of a slip.

Bend Always land with soft knees; it transfers much of the impact from your joints to your muscles. Think of bent knees as your personal shock absorbers.

Stretch If you feel a twinge in your knee, stop and stretch your hamstrings, quads, calves, and hips. Pliable muscles ease tension on ligaments, reducing the chance that you’ll need an anti-inflammatory later.

Don’t leap Jumping off a drop-off increases your chances of twisting an ankle or thrashing a knee. Step slowly, or sit and slide down.

Walk a zigzag On steep dirt trails, create mini switchbacks to reduce the impact on your joints.

The Park: Grand Teton

The Skills: Self-belaying and self-arresting

Standing between you and the killer view atop 12,804-foot Middle Teton is the steep snow on the Southwest Couloir route. (Well, that, plus about 6,000 vertical feet of climbing.) Knowing how to self-belay will allow you to scale the several-hundred-foot couloir without worrying that a slip could turn into a serious fall; mastering self-arrest can save you if it does.


Hold the axe head in your gloved, uphill hand (adze forward). Use the axe as a third leg, placing it in sequence (i.e. plant, step, step, plant). Two points (both feet, or one foot and the axe) should always be secure before moving the third point. Sink the shaft straight down into the snow (not angled to the slope) deep enough to hold your weight if you fall (depth depends on snow firmness). If your feet slip, grab the shaft at the snow’s surface with your free hand, weighting the buried shaft rather than the part that’s above the snow. Kick your boot toes into the snow for stability. When you feel securely anchored by the axe, slowly stand up.


If you’re sliding on your stomach, grab the lower part of the shaft with your free hand and hold the axe diagonally across your chest with the axe head by your shoulder. Put all of your weight onto the axe pick, burying it in the snow while kicking your toes into the slope to stop your fall. If you’re sliding on your butt, do as above and grab the shaft’s lower part with your free hand, hold it diagonally across your chest with the axe head by your shoulder, and roll onto your stomach in the direction of the axe head (not toward the spike, or bottom of the shaft) to bury the pick.

The Parks: Denali, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite

The Skill: Snagging a permit

In some parks, the greatest challenge is bagging a backcountry permit. Our best advice is to get cracking early, as much as a year ahead. Do this:

>>> Go to to determine the earliest date you can reserve a permit. Dates vary from park to park: Grand Canyon is the first of the month, 4 months prior to your trip, but Grand Teton is January 1.

>>> Fax an application that morning and include backup itineraries; expect to redial numerous times. For some parks, the best strategy is to construct a route that starts at a less popular trailhead, or in an adjacent national forest, and spend a day or two hiking into your desired spot.

>>> For all parks, visiting during the off-season or going midweek boosts your odds of getting the trails and campsites you want.

>>> If the above approach fails, call the park’s backcountry desk and ask how to nab cancelled permits or walk-up reservations. Or simply skip the paperwork and take a guided trip instead.

Follow these insider tips to the country’s most popular parks:

Grand Canyon Get a permit for a remote area, like South Bass Trail or the North Rim. Didn’t reserve a permit in advance? Show up at the South Rim or North Rim Backcountry Information Centers for a permit beginning that day; both open at 8 a.m. Get in line at sunrise during spring at the South Rim, especially on Thursdays and Fridays; at the less-busy North Rim center, just be there when it opens.

Great Smoky Mountains Stay off the Appalachian Trail from April to June, when shelters overflow with thru-hikers. In other months, start your hike on side trails and make your way to the AT.

Grand Teton The park’s namesake peak is a hiking magnet. Start your trip away from this epicenter, like at Desert or Granite Canyon, to make getting an overnight permit easier.

Denali Permits get claimed early every day, and you can’t get a permit more than a day in advance-unless you’re spending one or more nights at one of the park’s interior campgrounds before starting your hike. If you can’t afford the extra days, map a route that starts in a less popular sector and enters your first-choice area after a day or two. If you’re taking the train from Anchorage, send a runner to the backcountry office the minute you pull in; it could gain you 10 places in line.

Yosemite Permit quotas are for trailheads only. You up your chances of getting a last-minute permit (40 percent are issued first-come) by getting in line at dawn. Or start your trip at a non-Yosemite Valley or Tuolumne Meadows trailhead.

The Park: Great Smoky Mountains

The Skill: Keeping yourself and your gear dry

The stats say it all: The Smokies average 6 to 8 inches of rain monthly from May through August. Without all that moisture, the range wouldn’t be so lush-or even have the valley fog that gives them their name. But staying dry can be the biggest challenge of a trip here. Try these tricks.

On the trail

>>> Strip down to a single light layer and your shell, and open all the pit zips and vents. Overdressing leads to overheating; you’ll just get wet from the inside out. It’s far better to stay a bit chilled-you’ll sweat less.

>>> Wear rain pants over waterproof low gaiters (which are cooler than high ones) instead of gaiters over pants. This keeps water from running down your pants and into your gaiters and boots.

>>> Tuck a lightweight umbrella into your pack’s compression straps to shield your head in a downpour. A wide-brimmed, waterproof hat will also be cooler than wearing the shell’s hood.

>>> Pack everything inside waterproof bags or stuff sacks and use a snug-fitting pack cover.

In camp

>>> Sleep in a synthetic bag. It won’t absorb moisture like down does.

>>> Bring a tent with a roomy vestibule so you can stow wet clothes away from dry items. When pitching it, face the door away from the wind to minimize the amount of rain that blows inside when you enter and exit.

>>> Use a pee bottle to reduce the number of trips out into the rain.

>>> Load as much gear into your pack as possible inside the tent when breaking down camp in the rain. Leave the rainfly over the canopy while undoing clips.

>>> Build flexibility into your itinerary so you can wait out a deluge.

>>> Pack a small towel to soak up condensation and any water that gets inside.

The Park: Yosemite

The Skill: Pitching a tent without stakes

One uniquely beautiful characteristic of the High Sierra back-country-endless granite slabs-can complicate pitching a tent, especially in big winds. These two methods are the best we’ve found, whether your tent is freestanding or not.

>>> Run extra tent cord from stake loops and guy points to trees, exposed roots, rocks, or any natural objects available, or to stuff sacks filled with sand or stones.

>>> Lay a stake, or better yet a thick stick or trekking pole, horizontally through each stake loop and weight them with rocks. It’s the same concept as using a deadman as a snow anchor.