A mindful, well-planned approach to photography in our national parks will help protect you and the park’s wild inhabitants y
The beauty of our national parks is their wildness, but that’s also their greatest danger. While the parks do offer varying levels of infrastructure, on-site services and emergency personnel, your safety is ultimately up to you.
Late last year, a young girl died after falling about 700 feet from the popular Horseshoe Point Overlook in Glen Canyon. In March of this year, a man fell to his death in Grand Canyon National Park and was reportedly taking a “selfie” at the time. Just yesterday, a woman suffered a similar fate while park rangers rushed to respond to the emergency call. As visitors to the parks swell, these stories are becoming too frequent.
Tragedies like these can be prevented with common sense and preparedness for the conditions. With proper planning and situational awareness, you can avoid foreseeable problems and enjoy the incredible views.
These tips for safety in our national parks and other wild places will help ensure you have a wonderful experience—and return home with the photos to prove it.
1. Familiarize Yourself With Park Services
Before hitting the trail, study park maps to know where emergency services are located if you need them. Plan your route in advance and make note of the nearest facilities.
It’s also wise to save the park’s emergency communications center phone number to your contacts in case you are in range of cellular service and need help.
2. Stay On Trails
Sure, it’s a rule that’s made to be broken and “local conditions prevail,” but when in doubt, stay on trails. We hear too often of people falling off cliffs and similar tragedies that could have easily been avoided. Getting that perfect perspective for a photograph is not worth risking your safety or calling in rescue services.
Veering off trails may also be forbidden in some areas of the park, not just for your safety but also to preserve the habitat and natural beauty for park visitors and its wild inhabitants alike. Common sense and respect for the environment will help ensure you and everyone else enjoy the park.
3. Know Your Limits
As a nature photographer, you likely have a strong sense of adventure and an instinct to explore. But for your safety and the safety of those with you, it’s really important to be honest with yourself about your physical fitness.
Some terrific photo opportunities may be found roadside, just a short distance from your car. Others may be several miles from the trail head with major elevation changes over narrow and rugged paths. Choose trails and routes that you know are well within your physical limits, and don’t try to do too much in one day.
Be sure you leave yourself plenty of time to hike in and back out at a pace that’s comfortable for you, and account for the time you’ll likely spend photographing or just enjoying the surroundings.
4. Watch The Weather
You need to know what to expect from the weather and plan accordingly. Depending on the season and location, you might need to be prepared for an unexpected storm, for example. If extreme temperatures or a sudden downpour are a possibility, be sure you’re properly equipped to protect yourself and your photo gear.
The National Park Service website is a valuable resource for planning your trip, with general park information in addition to seasonal alerts for issues like road closures and extreme conditions warnings. Be sure to review the NPS webpages dedicated to the park you’re visiting before and during your trip.
5. Dress For The Occasion
Proper footwear should be the first item on your packing list. Trails and pathways in the national parks range from paved roads and sidewalks, to wide and well-maintained trails to narrow, sketchy trails that make even experienced hikers a little nervous.
Don’t assume a pair of bargain sneakers will cut it. A blister, wet feet or a twisted ankle may not seem like a big deal at home, but on the trail, potentially miles from your car or park services, anything that reduces your mobility can become a serious problem.
Invest in a pair of quality hiking boots that provide good traction, padding, waterproofing and moisture-wicking. Break them in at home to be sure they’re comfortable and to get any break-in blisters out of the way, and be sure to pair them with high-quality socks designed for hiking that provide additional padding and moisture control.
Technical apparel is also recommended. Since you’ve already studied the weather to expect on your trip, pack gear that’s as lightweight as possible while providing the protection you’ll need. Dressing in layers gives you the flexibility to adjust if temperatures vary widely throughout the day. And though it may seem counterintuitive, in hot climates long pants and long-sleeve shirts of lightweight fabrics that provide UV protection may be a better choice than shorts and short-sleeves. Technical garments from premium outdoor clothiers aren’t cheap, but are usually worth the expense when it comes to your comfort in the field. And don’t forget your hat!
6. Bring A Buddy
Maybe you’re the photographer in the family and your loved ones would rather sleep in or browse the gift shop. Don’t go it alone. Convince a like-minded friend to take the trip with you or plan your photo adventure as part of a workshop with instructors and guides. Ranger-led hikes are also available at some national parks.
Heading out in solitude may be appealing—there’s nothing more distracting for photographers than companions who’d rather be anywhere else—but solo excursions in the field greatly increase your risk. You don’t want to find yourself in need of help and alone.
7. Carry Safety Gear
The list of safety gear to carry with you depends on the season and location of your trip, but there are a few items that are always useful. A headlamp is one, for early morning and late evening trail illumination. A basic first aid kit to address minor scrapes, blisters and cuts is another, as is sunscreen.
Also take in to account potential wildlife hazards. For example, bear repellant is recommended in parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton. In desert parks like Grand Canyon, a snake bite kit could be a life-saver if you accidentally stumble across a rattler. Insect repellant is another basic safety item to consider carrying.
8. Stay Hydrated
How much water do you need to bring with you on the trail? A general guide for adults is two cups of water per hour. Double that for hot or humid climates. So for an eight-hour day in the field, you’ll need at least one gallon of water per person, or even two gallons in more extreme environments.
That’s a lot of water when you’re already burdened with photo gear, so plan accordingly to be sure there’s room in your pack to carry it. Better to leave a lens or two behind than to find yourself dehydrated far from trustworthy water sources.