The best opportunities for unique photo opportunities in the parks are away from the parking lots. While the parks are getting more and more crowded, you'd be amazed at how quickly the crowds thin out just a couple hundred yards up a trail. That's partially because most visitors prefer the security of being close to roads and other visitors. Since we photographers want to get away from those very roads and other visitors, it's necessary to be prepared for rapid changes in the weather. It's a good idea to carry a backpacking tent, rainfly and ground cloth if you know you're going to take a long day hike away from your car. You can get an ultralight emergency shelter to keep your load light. One-man tents can weigh just a couple of pounds, and they take about the same amount of space as a 70-200mm ƒ/4 lens. Motel rooms are great for a hot shower, recharging batteries and a good night's sleep, but being self-sufficient will come in handy one day, guaranteed.
As the big day approaches, check the tires for proper air pressure. Check the fluids. Top off the radiator, oil and windshield wiper spray. Confirm that you have a working spare tire, and know where your car jack is located and how to use it before you need to...on a dirt road…in the dark…and the cold. Many parks have dirt roads that you can take advantage of to get away from crowds, but these roads aren't well-traveled, they don't have services, and cell coverage is spotty at best. The road to the Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, for example, is basically a dirt fire road and its condition varies at different times of year. In the rutted conditions, it's easy to get a flat. It's not a big deal as long as you have a good spare and a working jack. Otherwise, it can be a long wait while you hope someone else wanted to see the sailing stones on the playa. Take care of your vehicle, and it will take care of you.
Preparing for final departure, create a staging area for gear and then consolidate. An extra daypack can hold spare camera gear that you may not need in the field. Add to it a small travel kit bag with your sensor-cleaning swabs and solution, battery chargers, manuals and phone-charging cords, plus a folded reflector disc and a large flashlight. A small cardboard box kept handy in the car can hold guidebooks, maps, park brochures and a journal and pen for your travel notes.
Now for the important stuff. A camera backpack should have what you'll need to be out on a trail for several hours: water, snacks, rain protection and spare clothing, in addition to your camera gear.
Several companies make good camera packs. I use a Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW on long hikes. It protects a DSLR and one spare lens, with plenty of space for extra clothing, food and other personal gear. It's designed with a full-sized hydration system pocket and a built-in weather cover.
A carbon-fiber tripod saves weight without sacrificing sturdiness. I use the Gitzo 2541, which folds to 22 inches, and at 3 pounds, it can support up to 26 pounds. Mounted to my tripod is a Really Right Stuff BH-40 ballhead, which easily holds up to 18 pounds. Setup is quick and hassle-free.