July, which happens to be National Park and Recreation Month, offers a perfect chance to explore America's more than 400 national parks. If camping is in order, as it was for 282 million Americans at national parks last year, be sure to make a list and check it at least twice. Consumer Reports can help.
Pack the basics. "People have a tendency to forget the simple things," says Michael Hayes, an outdoor-gear expert at L.L.Bean, which was rated highly by our shoppers. Don't forget a backpack, extra batteries, hand sanitizer, medications, a cooler, trash bags, and of course, toilet paper. Try Off Deep Woods Sportsmen II to keep mosquitoes at bay; and Equate Ultra Protection Sunscreen SPF 50 offers great UVA protection.
Go digital. Bring a digital camera to photograph adventures for your Facebook friends. The Olympus Stylus XZ-10, a compact camera, is great for outdoor performance and does well even under an overcast sky. From trekking through the mud to toasting marshmallows over an open fire, camping is a dirty business, so don't forget to keep that camera safe from the elements.
Don't get lost. A GPS navigation system can help you answer an inevitable question: "Are we there yet?" If you really want to be new age, consider the Garmin HUD, which reflects directions onto a windshield, without the distracting buttons and maps on a traditional GPS. But always have a backup plan. "The old map and compass is something that you can fall back on," Hayes says.
Enjoy the outdoors. Take in everything nature has to offer, and bring a pair of binoculars to check out the local wildlife without disturbing it. If hiking is your thing, a comfortable pair of hiking boots and sunglasses are essential. Trailblazers who prefer speedier transportation may want to bring a bike.
Prepare for the worst. To be ready for anything, pack an emergency kit with bottled water, nonperishable foods, and a first-aid kit. The Eton American Red Cross Solar Link FR600 emergency weather radio is a good addition. It's a combination radio, flashlight, clock, and cell-phone charger that can be powered by a hand-crank, the sun, or batteries.
Get there in style. If you're in the market for a new vehicle to transport your camping gear, there are many good options. Among them is the Lexus GX 460 SUV, which can clear deep brush and tow toys up to 6,500 pounds without blowing a head gasket.
Shop early. If your list is missing something, visit your local sporting goods store to find the best deals on camping gear. Hayes recommends buying in May for access to the newest gear and discounts on last year's products. Late August through September is the best time to snag end-of-season sales.
To find a national campsite that's perfect for you, visit www.recreation.gov.
10 most-visited national parks:
- Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina & Virginia
- Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina & Tennessee
- George Washington Memorial Parkway, District of Columbia
- Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona & Nevada
- Lincoln Memorial, District of Columbia
- Natchez Trace Parkway, Alabama, Mississippi, & Tennessee
- Gateway National Recreation Area, New York & New Jersey
- Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida & Mississippi
- Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, New Jersey & Pennsylvania
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