Ready to Get Outside? A Former Park Ranger Offers His Best Picnic Advice.

Food Thekitchn

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After months of quarantine, are you feeling cooped up inside? I get you. I feel you. And I have a suggestion: It’s time to get outside for a (safe and socially distanced) picnic. Whether this takes you to the front stoop, the backyard, or the park, eating outside will feel like a gift more than ever before. 

Before you pack your picnic basket and grab a blanket to sit on, however, we need to talk strategy. If you’re new to eating outside, there are a few tips you should consider — and who better than a park ranger with over 12 years of park picnicking experience to guide us? I’m fortunate enough to have Russ Redmon, a former park ranger, as my daughter’s second-grade teacher, and he offered his very best advice for hitting the great outdoors for dining out this spring and summer.

7 Picnic Tips from a Former National Park Ranger

Before the start of his teaching career, Redmon worked in parks across the Pacific and Mountain Northwest — in Utah, Washington, Idaho, and Nevada — cleaning, repairing, working the visitors center, giving guided walks, and overseeing campfire programs. These are his seven pieces of sage wisdom on getting outside to eat more.

1. Start small and build your picnic confidence.

As with any sport — and let’s call eating outside a sport — practice will help you master the tactical aspects of picnicking. So, before you go out on a mega hike and pack an epic picnic, start small. Eating a meal on your stoop, backyard, or local park will help build your picnic confidence. “We probably cook about a quarter of our meals outside in the summer and eat at least one meal each day on our patio,” Redmon explains. Practicing your picnic skills at home will get you ready for picnic hikes and more.

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2. Choose your parking location carefully. 

Before you even think about which foods to pack and bring, consider your picnic location and how you’ll get their first. “Consider the distance between your parking area and the picnic site. Picnic gear will become heavy and unwieldy after a long hike,” says Redmon. And once you arrive at your destination, be strategic about parking and keep your eyes peeled for restrooms, trash cans, and park rules. “Pay special attention to the restrooms on or near your picnic site; this is helpful for grown-ups, but especially important when you’re picnicking with kids.”

3. Invest in some picnic gear.  

A picnic basket or backpack is great, but no help if you can’t eat what you packed. Redmon recommended investing in a small set of plastic or metal picnic plates, silverware, and cups and keeping those on hand for picnicking only. “It’s very easy to forget the little things like cups, plates, ice, etc. Everyone gets used to being able to grab anything they need from the kitchen when eating; it takes a lot of thinking and planning ahead to make picnicking enjoyable and successful.”

Redmon suggests two trash bags for picnicking. These don’t have to be traditional plastic trash bags — you can use washable cloth bags or paper bags to the same effect. But Redmon’s reasoning is smart and simple: “Bring one garbage bag for trash (food wrapping, uneaten scraps) and another for things you want to wash at home later (dirty tableware, cloth napkins, etc.) If there are trash services available, great, you can throw it away there. If not, it’s easy to take it home and put it in your own trash cans.”

5. Keep your food secure.

Redmon also suggested not setting all your food out in a picturesque picnic spread; instead he recommends keeping any food you’re not eating secured in your backpack or cooler while you eat. “I would say the most common problem I saw with people and food was having a way to keep it from animals. I saw a lot of food get eaten by raccoons! Raccoons really like tent campers that don’t have a way to keep food safe.”

6. If you plan to build a picnic fire, make a plan for putting it out.

A beach bonfire and picnic sounds so lovely, but be fully prepared to put that fire out at the end of the evening too. “Fire safety is always top of mind,” explains Redmon. “It always surprised me how many people thought a cup or two of water would put out a fire. You’ll need at least a gallon or two to douse fires at the end of the evening.”  

7. Bring your own table and chairs — especially right now.

Lastly, I asked Redmon if he had any special considerations for picnicking during the time of COVID-19. His advice works for any time you want to picnic so that you don’t have to worry about finding appropriate distance from other picnic tables or people: “I always bring my own little table and chairs. There are so many small, inexpensive models of tables and chairs available now that it is pretty easy to take everything you need to be comfortable right along with you. A few minutes of setup and any space becomes a picnic ground.