It can be hard to remember what it was like to freely socialize without anxiety, but with Covid-19 vaccines now available to all adults, our time of collective isolation appears to be waning. Even so, we’re still following distancing guidelines this spring, which means more small groups as we move our gatherings outside.
As a senior staff writer at Wirecutter, the New York Times product recommendation site, I’ve found it’s the little things that often elevate a small picnic in the park or a backyard hang into a proper springtime celebration. In Hawaii, where I live, with year-round sunshine and the constant draw of the outdoors, these small pleasures become regular fixtures in the trunk of the car, ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Here are five items — each based on years of comparative product testing at Wirecutter — that can win that backyard hang or gathering in the park.
Nearly any container can serve as a food carrier, but the one you choose should have decent insulation to protect perishable items. One excellent option is the Picnic at Ascot Collapsible Insulated Picnic Basket with Cutlery Set (about $75), a roomy, moderately insulated basket that comes with a set of plastic plates, cutlery and acrylic glasses. The basket is built around a sturdy aluminum frame, which holds itself upright even when empty, making it easy to fill. It also folds down with the cutlery inside, good for storage in a closet or cabinet.
For a more straightforward cooler without the cutlery, the Polar Bear 24-Pack Nylon Cooler (about $100) is great for both portability and insulation. It keeps things cold for more than 24 hours, holds plenty of food and drinks — enough for a light four-person picnic — and is easier to carry than a traditional hard-sided cooler.
If your picnic is more of a simple liquid lunch, consider the Wine Enthusiast Two-Bottle Neoprene Wine Tote (about $30), which can keep a bottle or two chilled for several hours.
A Picnic Blanket That Keeps You Dry
Any old quilt will work on dry dirt or grass, but a proper picnic blanket will repel dampness and moisture from the ground and be more durable. We recommend the Nemo Victory Blanket (about $50), which offers the best water resistance, comfort and compactness of all the blankets we tested. Nemo’s flannel top layer, paired with the padded polyurethane underlayer, is plush enough for you to lie on without feeling every stick and pebble underneath; it’s also resistant to spills and stains — especially helpful if you have children running around. It comes in either a two-person or four-person model. Either rolls up easily, with an attached elastic band to hold it in place. The Victory blanket is much lighter than a quilt or thick blanket, and easier to shake out when the day is done.
There are few toys as cheap and portable as a flying disc, but after plenty of testing, it’s clear that they are not all equal; some will twist and veer through the air no matter how perfectly you follow through on your toss. And the world is plagued by cheaply made, too-light discs, which never fail to crash into someone else’s barbecue.
A good disc should fit well in your hand and be easy to grip and balance. Nathan Hurst, a freelance journalist and former professional Ultimate Frisbee player, recommends a substantial flying disc like the Discraft Ultra-Star 175 (about $12), for its nice heft (6.2 ounces) and dependable build.
For children or those just learning how to throw a Frisbee, Mr. Hurst likes the Discraft J-Star (about $8). It weighs 5.3 ounces and is 9.5 inches across, smaller than the Ultra-Star’s 10.75-inch diameter.
Either way, you’ll be throwing a disc that, given the slightest direction, will choose a line like an arrow into a friend’s outstretched hand rather than some poor stranger’s head.
A Mosquito Shield
Thermacell makes several repellent devices like this one, but the Radius is the easiest to use and has 40-hour repellent cartridges and an automatic shut-off timer. The device generates a small amount of heat that vaporizes a vial of liquid repellent, which — as long as there isn’t much wind — slowly spreads out and protects an area about the size of a small bedroom. It’s silent and odorless when it’s on.
A Small Grill
A light meal packed in a basket might be enough for lunch, but nothing beats freshly grilled food as the sun sets. If you’re looking for a portable grill, whether it’s fueled by gas or charcoal, it should be light, small and easy to carry from a car to a park or campground.
Gas and charcoal grills have their advantages and disadvantages. A gas grill is far more convenient than charcoal: It ignites with the press of a button, gets to cooking temperatures in minutes, is easy to control, and burns without smoke. Plus you don’t need to carry a bag of charcoal around. But if you value flavor over convenience, go for charcoal, which burns hotter and sears better to provide that sought-after smoky flavor.
The 18-inch Weber Jumbo Joe (about $75) is a miniaturized version of the Weber Original Kettle Premium, our favorite full-sized charcoal grill for years. It weighs a modest 22 pounds, and its 240-square-inch cooking surface is more than enough for four to six burgers at a time.
If you prefer the convenience of gas, the Weber Q 1200 (about $210) comes with a single burner that gets hot enough to sear chicken breasts, flank steaks and burgers, and is large enough to feed six people at a time.