12 practical tips for visiting national parks

One of the best uses of an Airstream, in my opinion, is to visit the amazing national parks in the 48 states and Alaska. With an Airstream you can access most of them more easily, stay closer, and stay longer.

There are currently 63 parks that are designated "National Park" and 429 total parks of all designations in the National Park Service. (You can find a full breakdown here.) I've visited nearly 200 of them by Airstream so far.

Experience has taught me that it always pays to do some research in advance of each visit. Things change, and the parks can be wildly different, so you can never take them for granted. Here are my tips for showing up prepared.

1. Always check NPS.GOV

NPS.GOV is almost a one-stop destination for national park visit planning. This excellent site contains all the latest information on every park in the system, and it’s the only completely up-to-date and reliable source.

You’ll find information on camping options, ranger-led programs and other special events, things to do, directions, safety, accessibility, and nearby attractions. Relying on other sites, and especially guidebooks (which are out of date the moment they are sold) can be risky. They’re good for getting ideas, but always double-check the details at the official site.

2. Watch the weather

Particularly in western parks, weather is critical to check out. Out west, geographic latitude (how far north or south) has a lot less relevance than altitude. A park in Utah or California can have a lot more snow than a park in Montana—even in the summer—if it’s at a high elevation.

Storms come in very quickly at Arapahoe National Recreation Area, Colorado 

Visitors from other areas often aren’t aware of this until they pull up at the entrance to Lassen Volcanic NP in California or Crater Lake NP in Oregon and find their passage blocked by 15 feet of snow in June.

Any number of websites can give you forecasts for the upcoming week or so, but NPS.GOV will have detailed info by season, and even for specific areas of the park if they vary a lot.

On each park’s individual site, you’ll find this in a subsection under the Info menu on Operating Hours & Seasons. You'll also see important warnings about severe conditions that can occur. Pay attention to these, because there may be closures of roads or sections of the park that can alter your plans.

3. Check campsite type, length and size restrictions

Pay special attention to the camping options laid out on NPS.GOV. Not every campground will be suitable for your needs; some are “tents only” and others may be inaccessible at certain times of the year or to RVs over a particular length.

If a park has length or size limitations, it’s usually because of a winding road (such as the road to Chisos Basin Campground in Big Bend NP in Texas) or a tunnel (such as in Colorado NM in Colorado) or because of limitations in the campground itself (such as in Natural Bridges NM in Utah, and Chiricahua NM in Arizona).

The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel at the east entrance to Zion NP is a famous example that catches many RVers unaware. Vehicles taller than 11 feet 3 inches or wider than 7 feet 9 inches require a tunnel permit and can only pass through at certain times of day. If you arrive too late, the only option is a four-hour, 120-mile drive to the Springdale entrance. 

Arriving late with a trailer at the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, Zion National Monument, Utah, means a four-hour detour to alternative entrance 

The good news is that most national parks can easily accommodate most travel trailers and Class B motorhomes. In most cases, only owners of 30-foot or longer trailers and long Class A motorhomes have to hesitate, and even they can often find a place to fit. 

If you run into an obstacle regarding reservations or campground length restrictions, try a nearby commercial campground or state park. Sometimes there is a commercial campground right outside the park boundary, and while the location may be less central and the price will be higher, there’s usually at least the compensation of full hookups and other conveniences.

4. Book well in advance for popular parks

Camping reservations are probably the next prime consideration. It’s undeniable that in the past decade visitation to the national parks has risen, in some cases dramatically. This means that popular parks are sometimes unapproachable in peak season—a fact that both dismays and heartens those of us who have been visiting them for a long time.

On the one hand, it’s great to see that people are using and appreciating the national park system. We can hope that if enough of us fall in love with the parks, they may survive the periodic assaults of politicians who want to privatize, sell, or commercialize the parks in search of short-term revenue. Our nation’s crown jewels can only be hocked once; once developed, we’ll never get them back.

Traveling to Yellowstone National Park late in the season is a good way to avoid crowds, but be wary that the campgrounds close in September and October, depending on the weather.

On the other hand, crowds mean tight reservations. In the most popular spots, it’s necessary now to make reservations months in advance, and even then you may find yourself in a lottery system to get a hiking permit in Grand Canyon NP or on a waiting list to get a campsite in Yellowstone NP. (Making more and bigger campgrounds is not a practical option, since paving over more of the protected land is antithetical to the NPS mission of preservation.)

Reservations through reserveamerica.com are now the norm for popular parks. When you check out the camping options on NPS.GOV, you’ll see a notice if this is the case. While this system offers some advantages, it’s a nuisance for those who don’t keep a rigid schedule while traveling. You’ll encounter fees for canceling or changing reservations. Traveling in the off-season or shoulder season can be a good option to avoid campground reservations if you are a bit more footloose and spontaneous.

When searching for campgrounds outside the national parks, websites like rvparkreviews.com and campendium.com are very helpful. These services are based on information contributed by members, so it’s not “official,” but you’ll often get useful insights into the camping experience.

5. Look for special programs in the park

If weather and campground both look good, you can take a deep dive into NPS.GOV for information on special programs (tours, lectures, evening slide shows, ranger-led hikes, etc.) and places to go.

It’s practically impossible to see everything in a large national park during a single visit, so don’t feel bad about skimming the surface or just hitting a few things that appeal to you—and skipping the rest. It’s not a package tour to “14 European Capitals In 12 Days!” You’ll generally have a better time if you don’t feel pressured to see everything. 

An authorized tour company takes visitors through Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument by boat

6. Be cautious with pets

If you travel with a pet, be sure to check on recommendations and requirements. Some parks are pet-friendly, others not so much. At many of the larger western parks, dogs can disturb wildlife just by their presence, causing actual danger to you, your dog, and the wildlife (think mountain lions and bears).

Call ahead for rules about pets. Some national parks have strict regulations.

In rare cases, pets become tasty snacks for wildlife. At Rio Grande Village Campground in the eastern end of Big Bend NP, you’ll hear rangers tell the cautionary tale of visitors who left their dog tied outside their RV—and later found that the roaming javelinas are more than a match for a small dog.

Fortunately, the NPS maintains an interactive map showing which parks have pet restrictions. Even if the park you plan to visit has a green dot, though, be sure to look at the details. For example, in Glacier NP you can bring your dog—but he’s not allowed on the trails, in the backcountry, or in buildings. And leashes are always required.

If you find that pets are restricted, don’t despair. Some of the major parks have pet boarding options available. Using those is a good idea if your fur kids like to bark, since barking dogs are a major cause of complaints by other campers and will undoubtedly get you a visit from a ranger. Pet kennels, pet-friendly hotels, and dog sitters outside the park can also be found with a few simple online searches.

7. Bring a book

It's very peaceful to disconnect from the world on a star-filled night in a national park campground, with a good book. Even if you bring your own, don't overlook the books in the Visitor Center, for topics of local interest. You'll find titles that will be hard to get anywhere else.

8. Don't count on getting Internet

Cellular coverage will likely be sketchy or non-existent where you are going, and even Starlink can be challenged by heavy tree cover. If you must get online in a remote national park site, look for WiFi at the Visitor Center or in a nearby town. 


Many national parks have large areas where you won't be able to connect to the Internet. Plan accordingly.

9. Get a paper map and a real GPS

Related to the tip above: there's nothing like a real paper map in your hand when you're exploring and the Internet has gone away. Don't pass up the one the park staff hands out, and look for others in the Visitor Center.  

An old-fashioned paper Rand McNally Road Atlas or DeLorme Gazetteer is a great planning tool before your trip, too.

A dedicated GPS is a no-brainer. You can't count on Google Maps or Waze in many western national parks.

10. Have a way to recharge batteries

Solar is the ideal choice, since generator use is usually restricted. We recommend the AIR GEAR 200-Watt Portable Solar Kit as the most cost-effective and simple way to generate power.


11. Never pass up a fuel stop when you are out west or on your way to Alaska.

In western park areas, gas stations can be scarce. Refilling while you still have half a tank or more is often a wise choice, and may save you a lot of money. It's not uncommon for fuel prices in remote areas to be shockingly high. 

12. Pack wisely

These packing tips will help you be self-sufficient in remote parks:

  • Pack for every type of possible weather: cold, hot, rainy, sunny. Take a little bit of clothing to accommodate every possible condition, just in case.
  • Stock the pantry and fridge before you go. Food options are usually very limited. If you want ample food choices or specialty foods, bring them along.
  • Fill the fresh water tank fully and carry drinking water too, even if there's water at your destination.
  • Take a First Aid kit. Also check the expiration dates before you go.
  • Make sure you have a good and unexpired fire extinguisher onboard. We recommend the ELEMENT Fire Extinguisher, which never expires.
  • Take a good set of binoculars so you don't miss great wildlife viewing.
  • Make sure you have a Tire Changing Kit. Roadside Assistance is often not available.
  • Pack a headlamp for hands-free light. The campgrounds are often very dark!




Great tips. Thanks Rich. See you in Sedalia.

Paul Allen

Paul Allen

Very helpful information – thank you, Rich. We hope to explore western NP in 2025, and think we’ll need to start making reservations soon.

Brian Powers

Brian Powers

Thank you for the tips. Another reason to gas up frequently is if by chance you get bad gas it can be deluded with what you already have in the tank.

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