How to Not Be an Asshole in National Parks

Vandals knocked over the famous "Duckbill" rock in Oregon's Cape Kiwanda state park. Credit: Oregon Parks and Recreation

It’s the National Parks Paradox: How can spending time in “America’s best idea” incite such bad ideas from the American public? “There’s a saying that visitors lose their brains when they visit a national park,” says Tommy Safranek, a park ranger with the National Park Service. Safranek recently spent several years at Death Valley National Park, where he witnessed many a “what could go wrong?” situation go very wrong. “Don’t lose the common sense that you would have at your home or workplace,” he says. That means not "rescuing" hungry-looking wildlife, not wandering too close to boiling thermal springs, and not darting into traffic to snap the perfect Instagram.

But as summer rolls on, tourists will be “Experiencing their America” in the worst possible way as they find themselves on the business end of a grizzly bear or Jeep Wrangler. Now, to be clear, America’s national parks are unequivocally safe places. Despite huge numbers of visitors, deaths are quite low, at less than 200 per year from the hundreds of millions of visit.

Having an unforgettable National Parks visit without hurting the wildlife, the land, or yourself is easy if you keep your wits. Here's a quick reminder of all the awful things you know you shouldn't so.

Don’t Interact With Animals

Harassing wildlife is practically a national pastime. In 2014 the U.S. Forest Service actually had to ask us to stop taking selfies with bears. If you come across an animal of any size, from a vole to a bison, leave it be — even if it’s injured, hungry, or would totally blow up your Instagram account. How far should you stay from a wild animal? Try the Rule of Thumb: With your arm outstretched, stick your thumb out in front of you. If the thumb covers the entirety of the animal, you’re far enough away. If not, step back until it does. If the animal responds to your presence, that's also a sign you’re too close, says Safranek. Bigger animals, like an elk, may charge if they feel threatened. 

Finally, no matter how hungry an animal looks, do not feed it. When the NPS's Ryan Stubblebine worked at Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, he says he caught visitors trying to feed marshmallows to an eagle. “They said, ‘Well we like marshmallows, why wouldn’t the eagles?’ ” Not only can human foods make animals sick, but they can get them accustomed to human interaction. If a bear or an alligator thinks of humans as a source of food and begins approaching people, that animal will likely be euthanized to protect visitors.

Get a Real Map

Cell phones have made us GPS dependent, but in remote settings, plugging in an address and blindly following the prompts doesn’t always work. “Death Valley has 900 miles of old mine roads and your GPS would sometimes include those in a route,” says Safranek. However, nearly all of those roads are unpassable by normal cars and trucks. Your first stop should always be a park’s visitor center. Get a map, know how to read it (and understand scale), and use that to get around.

Drive Prepare

If you're visiting a park in a rental car, Safranek urges visitors to check their vehicle for both a spare tire and a jack. “Most don’t have both; rental agencies want you to call them for service,” he says, but waiting for help to reach you in a place like Death Valley is a dangerous proposition.

Read the Signs

This sounds so simple it’s dumb, but it’s a big problem, says Stubblebine. Vital instructions to protect the park and your safety, like “don’t swim here,” “no camp fires,” and “mind the 300-foot drop” will be clearly marked on park signs. In 2011, a couple visiting Yosemite ignored multiple signs in multiple languages to stay behind barriers at the top of Vernal Falls. While attempting to pose for a picture, they slipped and fell into the rushing water and went over the 317-foot drop.

Road signs are even more important to heed as most park deaths are the result of car accidents. If a speed limit seems unreasonably slow, it’s probably because there’s a sharp curve or a high probability of running into a mother moose up ahead. “The number one fatality at Death Valley was single vehicle rollovers,” says Safranek, adding that people often lost track of just how fast they were going.

Don’t Take Anything

“Look at a national park like a museum you can interact with,” says Safranek. You wouldn’t take a painting off a wall at the Louvre, and it should be the same in a park. Technically, you’re not supposed to take anything — even a pebble or flower — out of a national park. There are some exceptions: Safranek says you can take a small handful of berries, and if fishing is permitted, you may be able to keep your catch. But for most of us, finding an arrowhead in a national park means leaving it be and reporting its exact location to a park ranger when you return to the trailhead.

Rethink That Campfire

Campfires are fun, but they’re also an easy way to burn the whole joint down. If you must have one, check on all the rules for that park, as they vary. Make sure to use an established fire ring, and “when you put that thing out at night it needs to be out, out,” says Safranek. As in, totally extinguished. Also, know that in most parks you’ll need to buy your wood in the park or from a certified vendor. (Bringing wood into a park is an easy way to import bugs and blights that can plague trees for years.)

Finally, Safranek adds one pro tip: At the end of the night, don’t pee on your campfire in an attempt to extinguish it. That pee turns into a burning ammonia smell and everyone in a mile radius (yourself included) will hate you.

Stop Complaining About Your Entry Fee

Parks nationwide have been operating on reduced budgets for years. In fact, in 2015 the National Parks Conservation Foundation estimated that there was $11.5 billion backlog in delayed maintenance. Park entrance fees fund new trails, road maintenance, and work to make parks more accessible to the disabled. The worst visitors, says Safranek, are the folks that pull up in a $90,000 RV and moan about paying $30 — for the vehicle and everyone in it — to get into a park like the Grand Canyon or Zion.

Law Enforcement Is Not Screwing Around

Think that ranger looks adorable in her smoky bear hat? She’s a federal peace officer with a license to use deadly force. Law enforcement officers are not to be messed with — if one chases you down, pull over. In some areas, it’s well known that if a park ranger pulls you over it’s going to be much, much worse than the local cops.

Drink With Care

There’s nothing wrong with packing a bit of booze into the backcountry, if you’re smart about it. Don’t pack glass, check that the campsite isn't in a dry county, and drink in moderation — bad decisions can be so much worse when you’re miles from a road. “I worked a forest fire that was just the result of a couple drunk guys letting their fire get out of control,” says Safranek.