National Parks Journal: Review These 10 Must-Know Essentials Before Your Next Trip

by Jon D. B.
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Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s (GRSM) Dana Soehn emphasizes the importance of NPS’ “10 Essentials” when visiting any national park.

No matter the length, topography, or weather expectations, “A lot of the mishaps that people find themselves in are related to just not taking that few extra minutes to really prepare themselves for a park visit. Whether that’s a scenic drive or a hiking experience,” says GRSM Public Affairs’ Dana Soehn for our National Parks Journal.

Any hike, camp, float, or even that seemingly simple scenic drive can go sideways in an instant. And being prepared boils down to the National Park Service’s “10 Essentials” – not an Outsider’s experience level.

“Preparation is key to being self-sustainable,” Dana offers. NPS’ “10 Essentials” are exactly that; the ten essentials every park visitor needs to be self-sustainable in an emergency situation. And as Soehn says, “This will all fit in or around a proper backpack. You should have it with you even for just a day hike.”

NPS’ ’10 Essentials’ for Visiting a National Park

  1. NAVIGATION – Map, compass, and GPS system
  2. SUN PROTECTION – Sunglasses, sunscreen, and hat
  3. INSULATION – Jacket, hat, gloves, rain shell, and thermal underwear
  4. ILLUMINATION – Flashlight, lanterns, and headlamp
  5. FIRST-AID SUPPLIES – First Aid Kit
  6. FIRE – Matches, lighter and fire starters
  7. REPAIR KIT AND TOOLS – Duct tape, knife, screwdriver, and scissors
  8. NUTRITION – Food
  9. HYDRATION – Water and water treatment supplies
  10. EMERGENCY SHELTER – Tent, space blanket, tarp, and bivy

All of the above result in (most importantly) protection from the elements. These essentials provide the ability to stay nourished and deal with possible injuries, as well. But there’s one critical mistake that even experienced hikers will make; a habit GRSM hopes to help break as soon as possible.

Avoid Critical Mistake: Never Rely on a Cellphone

“We find that people will often take their cellphone and they use that as their map, their compass, their source of light, and they use it as their source of emergency contact, too,” she cites. “And as soon as they lose cell service or battery – all that capability is now gone.”

The National Park Service‘s “10 Essentials” doesn’t list an emergency contact device as essential, however. That’s because no electronic device should ever be trusted as a be-all-end-all in a life-or-death situation. If you need to get a signal out in any time or place, #6 on the list has you covered: fire.

As NPS’s website states, fire can be an emergency signal and a heat source for cooking and staying warm. Pack matches (preferably waterproof) and fire starters: items that catch fire quickly and sustain a flame (e.g. lighter). Familiarize yourself with the fire use regulations of your park before heading out, as well.

“Think a little bit old school and do that bit of planning with the ’10 Essentials’ and not rely on your phone for these basic, basic things,” Dana continues. Even if you’re fortunate enough to get a cellphone ping or emergency signal out, she says, fire and smoke will help rescue crews locate you a lot faster.

“None of this is to say ‘don’t bring your cellphone with you, though,’ Soehn continues. “And always be sure to tell someone what your plan of travel is. Tell them when you should be back, where you’re starting from, and where your intended destination is. This will help us tremendously if we do need to go out and try to offer aid.”

Cautionary Tale: Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Jan. 2022 Rescue

To emphasize, Dana cites GRSM’s most harrowing tale of 2022 to date. “In this case, the survivor didn’t really have any indication of where they were,” she begins. “Hadn’t told anybody where they were starting from or intended to end. How long they thought the trip might last, and so it really turned into a ‘needle in a haystack’ situation”; something GRSM’s image below clearly illustrates.

Tennessee Army National Guard assists park with winter rescue 

On January 18, Great Smoky Mountains National Park would contact both Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) and the Tennessee Army National Guard (TANG) to rescue a stranded hiker. At approximately 8:20 a.m., GRSM’s Emergency Communications Center received notification that 28-year-old San Diego, CA native Andrew Burtzloff had become disoriented and lost while hiking the Appalachian Trail. The culprit? Sudden, heavy snow.

TANG emergency responders from the Army Aviation Support Facility #2 TF MEDEVAC underwent an intense, “complex” rescue operation by evacuating the injured hiker from his off-trail location and transporting him to the University of Tennessee Medical Center (UTMC) for treatment, GRSM’s press release states.

“The park has a long-standing partnership with these agencies that enables us to work together to complete complex search and rescue operations in extremely hazardous environments such as this,” said Tennessee District Ranger Jared St. Clair. “We are appreciative of their dedication in helping us reach those in need.” 

Thankfully, Burtzloff was able to get a cell phone “ping” out, enabling rescuers to form a rescue plan with location data. This data showed the hiker was “well off trail, in a ravine, and deep within the park’s backcountry near Gregory Bald.”

‘Hypothermia can kill in less than an hour’

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Photo courtesy of GRSM Public Affairs Office, Dana Soehn

Burtzloff was wet, cold, and exhibiting signs of hypothermia just minutes after his stranding. And GRSM found that reaching him by land would take 6 to 8 hours. If not for TEMA and National Guard assistance via helicopter, Burtzloff may have died well before being reached. Hypothermia can kill in less than an hour.

Burtzloff was found at approx. 10:15 a.m. “waist deep” in snow. Unable to land due to trees and snow, the air crew lowered two medics to perform rescue. He was then transported to UTMC for further treatment, arriving at approx. 11:20 a.m.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park topped out at 18 inches of snow that day. And as Dana points out, this rescue could’ve been either completely prevented or completed much earlier if the survivor had followed NPS’ “10 essentials” guidelines.

Be sure to review NPS’ “10 Essentials” in full before your next national park trip. As GRSM’s Dana Soehn says: “It could be the difference between life and death.”

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