Kid’s daypack essentials for a day of international exploring

by Rachel on February 6, 2010

Now that you’ve packed your kid’s carry-on let’s move on to what they should have with them for a day of international exploring.  First, let me be clear, I think that any child who no longer needs diapers can wear a small backpack and help out with the schlepping.  I also think they can help organize their stuff in the morning before you set out.  Once they are six they can be told, “load it in your backpack and if you don’t have what you want with you, you have only yourself to blame.”

Both of my kids own small, lightweight daypacks for travel.  Here’s what goes in them on a typical day of international exploring.

  1. A protein bar. Yes, I do bring these in our suitcases from the US.  Protein bars have saved the day countless times in a foreign place where bacteria-free food could not be found the instant a small Stern wanted it.  There are similar products in some foreign countries, but not all.  For example, Pret a Manger in the UK has great take-away snack bars with lots of protein and fiber and ZERO preservatives.  It is, however, impossible to find anything like a Lunabar in Ukraine.  Other snacks are clearly welcome.  Apples last for hours and survive large amounts of jostling.
  2. A refillable water bottle. You know how the locals can tell we’re American tourists?  It used to be because we had GIANT English slogans all over our t-shirts.  Most of us have wised up and moved to plain shirts for travel (the Texans seem to have missed this memo).  However, the current dead give-a-way is a water bottle.  Apparently we Americans get parched far more quickly than our non-American traveling brethren. Despite the fact that carrying a water bottle puts you immediately in the category of American Tourist – I still think having one is critical.  I’ve had parasites, as have my kids.  It’s lousy, rotten, no good, vile and miserable.  Drink water you control.  Carry your own and let your kids carry some too.
  3. A rain slicker. Packing a slicker is certainly weather dependent, but lots of non-US locations have unpredictable precipitation.  I’m completely unwilling to give up exploring because of rain.  Get a good, lightweight rain jacket, roll it up and put it in your kid’s pack.
  4. A digital camera. Even the most arcane historic sites increase in interest to kids and teens if they are photographing the place.  Let ‘em shoot all they want.  Flowers, buildings, rocks, weird signs in foreign tongues, you name it – we’ve photographed it.
  5. A paperback book. Unexpected waits, delays, long train rides, and lines, they all improve if you have a book (this goes for adults too).
  6. A small drawing pad and pens. We use drawing pads and pens for all sorts of activities.  There is of course, the possibility of sketching things we’ve seen, but that’s just the beginning.  We keep lists on our drawing/notepads.  We track forms of transportation taken (plane, train, taxi, canoe…), favorite odd sounding foreign words, places visited, cities seen, new foods tried, worst travel mistakes, etc…  When all else fails you can always resort to hangman and tic-tac-toe – but believe me, that is the bottom of the barrel.
  7. Binoculars. I cannot tell you how many times a small pair of binoculars has come in handy during foreign travel.  You can look at birds, the tops of tall buildings, down long rivers, up moving staircases, off of balconies, and into other people’s hotel rooms.  How good is that?
  8. A bird or plant watcher’s guide to wherever you are. Ok, clearly NOT EVERYONE needs to pack one of these.  However, my kids find identifying things, including birds and plants, incredibly entertaining.  Having along a small book with names of plants or birds can provide much kid and, dare I say it, teen diversion in between other more exciting events.  Try looking for birds with your handy binoculars as you walk TOO FAR between one priority foreign location and another.
  9. A map. Kids and teens like to feel like they have some, albeit small, amount of control over where you are going and when.  Have them help plot the route and then let them lead the pack, map in hand.
  10. A small ball. We always have a ball with us – just an eency-teency one that bounces well and weighs NOTHING.  Balls can be thrown in parks, in long lines, while walking, while talking, while waiting and while whining.  Even I like playing with a ball.
  11. A deck of cards. This is up to you.  If you play cards, bring them.  If not, leave ‘em behind.
  12. Postcards to write on (that dangling preposition is killing me). I’m certain that more than a few people back at home would like to hear about your trip.  I’m sure you’ll send them an e-mail, but consider the lost art of mailing postcards.  Grandma and Grandpa will be forever grateful.
  13. A really small first aid kit. All you really need is a couple Band-aids in a ziplock bag and some Neosporin.  I find that whenever I go somewhere without a first aid kit someone falls and cracks open their knee.  If I do have a first aid kit we get wherever we are going completely unscathed.
  14. Antibacterial wipes. I think these are better than gel ‘cause they actually wipe stuff off of you.  Gel just mooshes things around while theoretically killing some germs.
  15. A small Kleenex pack. I often travel with three boys (two small, one large) and you’d think I’d be the only one who needs Kleenex in a public restroom.  Nope.  I really don’t need to go into the details, EVERYONE needs TP sometimes and usually they need it most when the foreign restroom in question has none.

You’ll notice that my list does NOT include a small hand-held video game, i-pod touch or smart phone.  Let me give you my argument for why you might have brought one or more of these items on the airplane, or used them in the hotel room – but why they still should not be in a daypack.  You came all this way so your kids would SEE something different, new, exciting, unusual.  You did not buy expensive airplane tickets, deal with long lines through security, and endure countless indignities associated with international travel only to have your kids stare at a 4×6-inch screen while walking through the Louvre.  They can look at 4×6-inch screens at home without the cost, stress and jet lag.

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