Essential extras are those things that make our lives easier—microwaves, toasters, pre-mixed peanut butter and jelly, calculator-watches, and so forth. You don’t need these things, and mankind has done great things without them, but sometimes they’re nice to have. They take some of the load off living, (supposedly) free up time, and streamline processes.
The trail is no exception. There are so many gadgets geared toward outdoor activities that it can make your head spin. I’m sure there is a gadget for that as well.
These essential extras are great for all children. Challenging children, the ones whose hiking style mimics that of a dog—front and back, off-trail, on-trail, conscientiously clearing the trail of all twigs, or racing ahead in a full-out sprint despite you calling them back—sometimes need a little adventure-related distraction so they can focus. It seems counter-intuitive, but it works.
“Easy” kids—the ones who are always up for the adventure, intensely curious about the world around them, and heed your word—will appreciate the “bonus” you put into their adventure. My 8-year old has even begun researching other gear for future adventures (I think I have a gearhead in progress).
Some of these essential extras, even if you never use them, can also make children feel more secure.
These are my picks for the items that aren’t 100% necessary…some aren’t even 10% necessary…but they can make your life easier, especially if you have a little one tagging along.
1. Walking Stick (or Trekking Poles)
Because, let’s face it…it’s going to happen. Whenever you take a kid into the woods, they are bound to pick up a stick and proudly proclaim that it’s their “walking stick.” It could be a half-rotted branch that fell off the tree 3 seasons ago and looks more like an unstrung longbow with 6 other branches and a grub sticking out of it, but for that moment in time (until they forget about it or it breaks), it is the most important tool in their arsenal.
Getting a quality (and solid) walking aid suited to their size heads off that urge to scavenge for anything along the trail. I’ve found, especially with my more cautious hiker, that it increases stability and confidence when going downhill. Physiologically, they make sense for everyone, provided they’re not spending most of the time using it as a weapon. This doesn’t have to be a top-of-the-line trekking pole, either (but Leki does make nice ones). An old fashioned wooden one, like this one from Brazos is fine.
Oh, and you can have one, too. I give you permission before you, you know, pick up a half-rotted stick and proudly proclaim, “this is my walking stick! There are many like it, but this one is mine!”
Of all the essential extras, this is one I consider more essential. I would seriously consider applying an SPF 30 chemical sunscreen or mineral sunscreen (sunblock) to your exposed areas before setting out, even on overcast days. Due to a sort of law of diminishing returns, anything higher doesn’t really protect all that much more. You don’t have to carry it with you unless you’re expecting periods of rapidly-changing weather. Sun protection is very important for all children, and especially the ones who burn easier.
Also, make sure it’s sunscreen. I know a guy who made the mistake of applying suntan lotion before going out on a weekend canoe trip. Day 1 he came off the river looking like the ass-end of a baboon and had a hell of a time paddling, let alone sleeping.
3. Bug Repellent
Like sunscreen, this is another of the more essential essential extras. And, again, apply before setting out if you want to avoid malaria, the bubonic plague, Lyme disease, and dozens of other insect-borne diseases. If you want, carry a small container of it with you, just in case your trek through the Swamp of Sadness gets too bad. DEET repellent works against ticks, but there are safer options as well. I prefer All Terrain’s Herbal Armor. It works well and smells great!
If you’re strictly anti-chemical (which is technically hard since you, me, and everything else is made of chemicals), you could try essential oils like peppermint, cinnamon, and citronella (and a crap-ton more). Be aware of their effects on your skin—you may not notice irritation right away. You could also put it on your clothing.
Also consider your clothing and what you eat and drink. Stick to lighter-colored clothes and change your socks if they get all swamp-foot level sweaty and stinky. Skip the sweet foods, as well as sweet drinks and beer (but, seriously…how many of you are swilling beer while you…uh…yeah, I’ve done that).
(New Hot Tip: If you drink enough alcohol, you won’t notice the insects biting you. Nor will you notice that the trail split a mile back or the pack of coyotes encircling you…).
4. Compass or GPS
These location tools are almost essential on longer hikes and backpacking trips. Defined trails combined with a good map and some handy trail signs to follow make a compass or GPS not very useful on shorter day hikes.
So why include them at all? Come on…it’s tech, and tech is cool. Get the kids used to using them, make them the master of the tech (I mean, just don’t rely on the greenhorns completely…they’re probably not that advanced yet). Put it on a lanyard and strap it around their neck (so you don’t have to carry it). As they use it- and understand what they’re doing with it- taking bearings will become second-nature.
Trust me—there is a certain amount of joy to their voice when they boldly proclaim that “we are currently heading north,” as they mimic a car’s GPS. They might even intentionally mispronounce trail and road names. That’s well worth the little added weight.
Plus, you never know…you might just need it.
This is a sort of always, sort of maybe essential extra that depends on how long and when you’re going. If you’re going a short distance with a chance of rain, a good jacket is probably enough. Provided you’ve read my post on Planning Kid-Friendly Hikes, you’re probably carrying extra socks and are decked out in clothing that’ll dry quickly anyway.
For hikes that are a little longer, take at least a cheap emergency poncho. These can be found in the camping/outdoor section of any department store. You’ll be out a couple of bucks, they pack up small, you may only get one use out of them, and they basically have the consistency of a thin plastic bag.
Be forewarned: if you’ve never worn one, they can get incredibly hot and sticky, your lower limbs will likely still get wet (namely your shins and possibly your feet and thighs), they can be loose twig and leaf magnets, and they make you feel like you’re moving through the world in slow-motion. At least your top half stays dry (or at least only damp). Sounds like fun, yeah?
There are, of course, other options. You could go out in a bright yellow rubber rain suit and look like the guy on the box of fish sticks. Rain suits tend to be bulky and hard to manage, though. Rain jackets designed specifically for hiking and backpacking are even better—they’re ultralight, pack into a little square, are breathable, durable, and can have multiple layers or just a shell. Outdoor Research, Arc’Teryz, and Patagonia all have good choices (as well as many others…Google a review).
6. Field Guide
Speaking of Google, and unless you’ve been living under a rock, the phrase “just Google it” is entrenched into our lexicon as equivalent to look it up. You should also know Googling isn’t always possible in the back country.
Enter the tried-and-true field guide, an essential extra used for looking up cool things. Kids can really get into the on-the-fly research. Don’t take an entire library with you (see my Dirty Dozen post)—just one or two guides of the most likely things you’ll see, and keep it in an easy-to-reach place. Turn it into a mini-mission to search out specific things (like, “Okay kids, today we’re looking for interesting birds.”)
Pick up a compact, full-color bird, insect, or tree guide as these are the most encountered forms of nature. You get bonus points if it’s area- or region-specific. The National Audobon Society and Peterson make some of the best guidebooks, full of pictures, silhouettes, and succinct information.
Also, if you didn’t notice in the above image, a cheap plastic poncho has photo-bombed the guides’ glamour shot. What a jerk.
This essential extra allows you to see far-away stuff. Stick to smaller, more light-weight models. They don’t have the magnification power of the big ones, but you shouldn’t be spending a lot of time standing around looking off into the distance like a lonely cowboy. You want to get up-close and personal with nature (within reason), not, “Two peaks over, across the meadow, by that rocky outcropping is a patch of moss that might have a whole bunch of beetles on it. Wait, no, that’s a pile of deer poo.”
Low mag ones are also cheaper and easier to carry. If your little one is a little rough on it (my little one turns every activity into a full-contact sport), you’re not out all that much. You could even get all pirate-like and get a spyglass (monocular).
The other ocular-orientated device of our essential extras is for that all-important selfie. I guess they can also be used to take pictures of the kids, nature stuff, and anything you might want to ID later. Most people have cell phones with camera capabilities, so there may be no need to bring an actual camera. Unless it’s your thing, then by all means.
Reminder: If you’re using your phone for a camera, though, you’ll likely leave it on. Make sure you’re switched to airplane mode to save your battery. You never know when you’ll need to make an emergency call.
9. Toilet Paper
On most short hikes you should go before you leave or hold it. There are times, however, when the urge of that unstoppable force strikes. For the sake of nature having to deal with it, use 1-ply or biodegradable paper and keep it firmly stowed in a water-tight plastic bag. Take a bunch of wraps around your fist and stuff it in—you don’t need the whole roll for a day hike, only a couple squats worth.
For the ladies (or anyone who can’t stand and pee), consider taking a pee rag or pee cloth with you to clean up after number 1’s. There are a number of companies out there who deal specifically in cloths just for peeing. (Literally, Google “pee cloth.”)
And, for the love of decency, make sure you bury used paper—no one likes to see poopy paper gently drifting across the wilderness, 2 feet off the trail, like horrific, unholy party streamers.
A small, portable shovel for digging “cat holes,” or ninja-like, strategically-placed holes for poop and poopy paper. There is a lot of information on how to shit in the woods online, but the short message is keep it at least 200 feet from the trail and water, and mark it so someone else doesn’t get the pleasure of digging it up (I suggest stabbing a stick into the ground, straight up, where your pile is).
Trowels can be low-cost essential extras, but really only useful if you are also carrying toilet paper (or don’t mind using leaves)(ensure it isn’t poison ivy). Look for durable, brightly-colored plastic (like this one from Gsi) or small, folding metal trowels designed for outdoor activities. If you’re in a pinch, take a garden trowel, but be aware of the weight. A little added weight here and there adds up.
Quick Note: Due to environmental fragility, some locations are “pack-it-in, pack-it-out” areas for human fecal waste. A trowel here isn’t of much use because your business is coming out with you. I will cover strategies for this in a future post.
11. Extra Water Sources
Filtration solutions such as tablets, tubes/pumps, et cetera- all are portable and easy-to-pack essential extras that can become very important in warmer, sweat-inducing weather. Found water can also be boiled, but you probably won’t have a pot and stove. Tablets (especially iodine-based ones) may leave a funky aftertaste (it won’t harm you), but some are sold with a second tablet that solves that problem. Tubes and pumps have a limited number of uses/liters before they need replaced. You’ll also need to clean them when you get back otherwise you’ll be defeating the purpose. Use bleach and let them air out—the smell will go away. I will go into more detail in a future post.
Try to carry enough water to begin with, though, and check if there are nearby sources of clean water (like springs or water fountains/pumps) before setting out. I touch on this in Planning Kid-Friendly Hikes, as well as a separate article on filtering and purifying water.
Chances are you already have a pair. Some people don’t go anywhere without them, other folks never wear them. They often become a second thought after you’re miles away and squinting and cursing your way across a scrub brush field littered with rocks.
Because I have sensitive eyes (I guess…?), they are one of my top essential extras, so I rarely go outside without them. I don’t always wear them—especially on trails with a lot of cover—but they’re nice to have when I hit a sunny, open area. Otherwise they sit firmly perched on the bill of my hat, sometimes spending the entire hike there without moving.
Unless you’re hiking somewhere with lots of sunshine and little cover—like the Sonora Desert or the Arctic Tundra—you probably don’t have to invest in an expensive pair with heavy blocking power. If you want to go the top-of-the-line route, models geared toward outdoor activities tend to have more durable frames and scratch-resistant lenses and will more likely last you a lot longer.
I say more likely. Back in the day I had a pair of Oakley’s that lasted me exactly 2 months before they snapped in half. The similar, but much cheaper Body Gloves I currently wear have lasted me 5 years. Mileage will vary, but I’ll probably have to try something new soon (they *are* finally starting to wear).
If your child can’t stop taking them off and twirling them around or having you hold them, it’s your call. You can soak up the complaints about the sunshine or risk the loss of glasses. In that case, I’d consider cheaper ones or get a pair of sports straps to hold them in place (unless that causes whining as well…then you’re on your own, pal).
Like I said, not all of these essential extras are necessary for a successful hike (thus the “extra” part). Many times I only take the bare necessities, but I’ve taken all of the above and they have helped when needed (or as a clever diversion). While you have to consider the weight of what you need to carry, many times the functionality of these items outweighs their…umm…weight.
Plus, the neater it is (especially the tech), the less likely it is that you’ll end up carrying it. As long as you’re okay with hands-on exploration, little hands will want to be using the stuff you bring.
If you have any extras you take, a specific item I should try, or something you disagree with, let me know! I’m always looking for new ideas and learning more.
Next time we’ll be taking a look at my Dirty Dozen of Hiking– things that you should not take with you.