Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Summer gear for happy outdoorsy kids

Ready to have fun outside! Photo by C.G.
My kids like to test outdoors gear as it gives them a great excuse to have fun and play around when we go out for hikes or camping. When you're 6 and 7-years old, a pair of green translucent binoculars beats the spy set or the Star Wars lightsaber any day - especially if you look through the right end. This summer we field tested a number of items that I wanted to share because 1) the summer is not over yet, 2) after the summer comes the Indian summer, California perk, and 3) who needs an excuse to check out a fun gizmo? Err, I don't. Plus, REI and Sports Basement are like candy stores to me so here. Read on.

GeoMate Jr.
Find this if you can! Photo by Episphere
If you don't know about geocaching, it's a treasure hunt gone wild - as in, a treasure hunt that takes place outside to find mystery markers with a handheld GPS device. Geomate Jr. is the brainchild of a a Berkeley company called Apisphere and the only kid-friendly GPS on the market. It's so kid-friendly I had my 6-year old test it on a field trip at Coyote Point.

After her class came out of CuriOdyssey (formerly Coyote Point Museum), the kids all walked around the point down to the Magic Mountain playground by way of the beach. I gave the Geomate Jr. to my little girl and 5 or 6 kindergartner joined her in a search for the nearest geocache. They were super excited about the kid-size GPS - thought it was the coolest thing ever. My girl looked at the screen after it locked on a geocache position and followed the arrow, saying out loud how many feet were left.

Twice the Geomate Jr. went haywire and redirected us to another geocache that was farther away but I told her to keep to the trail as I knew there was one around the beach where the amusement park used to be. I'd hiked the trail in reverse to make sure. In the end we were 3 feet away from the geocache and the kids left it at that, distracted by the beach. Even if the experience was not a rousing success, the Geomate Jr. is now a staple in my hiking backpack because you never know - there could be a geocache near your picnic spot. And my girls love the design of their own GPS.

Note that it doesn't come with a mapping system so it basically only points your child in a direction - it doesn't tell you how to get there. If you want to cheat and check ahead of time to know what to look for, use the search engine on geocaching.com. It has descriptions and back story. Good luck!

Can you hear me? Photo by Frog Mom
Motorola Two-Way Radio
My girls got their first walkie-talkie set when they got into the "spy" thing. It was all about "Can you hear me?" "Yes I can hear you. Can you hear me?" and more spy-worthy conversations. Then I wrote an article on camping and hiking gadgets and Motorola sent me the Motorola MR350R 2-Way Radio (for a kid format, the Motorola 2-Way Radio MC220R is great) to field test. That was a huge improvement over our spy toy walkie-talkie.

In addition to being the real thing, this 2-way radio was shock-proof and user-friendly. Too user-friendly if you ask me as the radio was used as a trail toy! My girls didn't communicate with it - they chit-chatted with their friends. Ironically that motivated some of their hiking buddies to run up the trail to be away from hearing range so they could indulge in some more "Can you hear me?" Now that's a hiking incentive!

The real reason I like this 2-way radio, as a mom, is that if our group gets separated for XYZ reasons, we can still keep in touch in the wilderness even if there's no cell phone coverage. That's the beauty of having a gadget that uses radio frequencies. Thanks to that, you're covered for 35 straight miles between both radios. Of course there's not a chance I'll ever hike 35 miles away from my kids in the wilderness, but a few miles is not unlikely. They're now part of my emergency kit.

Kid binoculars
My girls got their first pair of kid binoculars a couple of years ago. It was right after we went to see the snowy white egrets in the redwoods at the Martin Griffin Preserve and my daughters were both thrilled about the supersizing effect. "Look mom, it's bigger!" At the beginning, I got them a cheap Backyard Safari pair that turned out to be ... well, cheap.  They didn't get much use because the focus was flimsy but they were still part of their day packs because they looked cool. My girls are all about birds on hikes and their first binoculars were a good idea but poorly executed.

Recently while in France, my girls received these swanky green binoculars coming from a store called Nature & Découvertes. Now, you can really see through these. Once you set the focus, it's all good! A shame they don't exist in the US but I googled around and the Barska 10x25 Pink Borro Binoculars look very similar in terms of design and even better in quality. If you wanted to get a pair, these would be a good bet. With their new binoculars, my girls are ready for the next Great Backyard Bird Count.

These cuties are the answer to "my kids' sunscreen tube is too big. How do I find a smaller refillable container they can squeeze?" GoToob it is! When I bought mine at REI, I planned to use them for mushy trail snacks - applesauce, condensed milk, honey. However when I talked to my friends, I realized they were using theirs only for non-food items: sunscreen, shampoo, liquid soap and the like. Aha!

So in fact they were as much a trail nicety as a travel accessory. The problem is: if you squeeze them too hard, they start leaking around the lid. Picture the tubes in your suitcase and you get the idea. If you use them for travel, make sure they're separated from the rest. On trails, my kids like to use them but they still prefer their big sunscreen tube. Go figure. I like them.

Mini Swiss Army Knife
Last but not least, the mini Swiss Army Knife! OK, so you have to be aware: it's cute, it's a mini thing but it's still a knife with sharp edges. Use only with parental supervision. Whenever I go hiking I always have a Swiss Army knife in my backpack. I use it for everything: to cut cheese, to quarter apples, to slice saucisson, to cut ropes. It's my response to every quandary.

When I offered my girls their first mini Swiss Army knife this summer, it was like I had given them the pin code to my bank account. Or better yet, unrestricted access to Netflix on TV. They couldn't believe how much I trusted them. They felt so big! Well, I figured they got to learn how to use knives one day so I'd rather they be mini.

The beauty with these minis, is that they come in tons of fancy colors and translucent or opaque. You can definitely customize the gift. So far my girls have mostly used the scissors, to cut strings around a package, to cut the tablecloth at a restaurant (to see if they worked) and to equalize their doll's hairstyle. They've also sliced a nectarine with the mini-knife. Can't wait to see how they'll use them on our next hike!

At The End of The Day
These gadgets are gadgets. Meant to improve an outdoors experience for kids, they're neither necessary not vital. However, they can turn a so-so hike into an incredible adventure and get unwilling kid hikers to get excited about the idea. For that reason, I'd say they're perfect birthday gifts. Whenever an item motivates a child to spend time outdoors, it's well worth considering!

What about you, what are your fave outdoors gadgets for kids?

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