15 Essentials to Pack for Any Picnic

iStock/DisobeyArt
iStock/DisobeyArt

Beyond a pristine picnicking spot—and someone to share it with—there's not much needed to enjoy dining al fresco. But if you’re looking to have a perfectly prepared picnic without any common disasters like soggy sandwiches and spoiled potato salad, a little more preparation won’t hurt. In honor of International Picnic Day on June 18, here are 15 things to always pack for a picnic.

1. Sunscreen

Lunching outdoors is a great opportunity to enjoy warm breezes and sunny views, but all that outside time can catch up with your skin. Make your picnic one to remember for the fun, not the sunburns, by packing sunscreen. While lunching under an umbrella or tree can reduce the impact of UV rays, skin damage is still possible in the shade.

2. Baby Wipes

Even if you’re not toting kids to the park, baby wipes are a perfect picnic companion. While hand sanitizer also kills off bacteria, wet wipes can remove dirt and stains, cleaning up better before—and after—you chow down.

3. Bug Spray

A man sprays bug spray on his arm.
iStock/TinkerJulie

A day in the park can help you meet new pesky friends: bugs! Reduce the chances of insect bites by taking along and liberally applying bug spray. Repellents with DEET, lemon eucalyptus oil and picaridin generally last longer than other sprays, and work best when applied after sunscreen. If you find sprays too imprecise, you can also get repellent lotion.

4. Blanket

It’s easy to opt for picnic destinations that have chairs or tables provided, but on a beautiful day, seating might be limited. Don’t forget to bring along a blanket for both seating and spreading your lunch fare. Make sure you have enough room for everyone. According to members of the Portland Picnic Society, 9 square feet of blanket space per person leaves optimum room to stretch out after a big meal. For smaller picnics, we like Matador's pocket blanket ($30), which is water resistant (no more wet butts!) and has weighted corners with built-in stakes for windy days.

5. Bottled Beverages

Making a large pitcher of sweet tea (or sangria) seems like an easy way to share drinks, but bottled beverages are a better option. Small bottled drinks eliminate the need for individual cups—one less thing to pack and wash later. If chilled, bottles act as extra icepacks to keep heat-sensitive foods cool, and unlike pitchers, are less likely to leak. Plus, resealable bottles can prevent spills for clumsy picnickers.

6. Bottle Opener

A bottle opener with two caps
iStock/Ralf Geithe

Keep from resorting to desperate measures by remembering to pack a bottle opener for those bottles with pry-off lids. The same goes for another picnic essential: the corkscrew.

7. Knife

A small knife can be one of the most versatile tools in a picnic basket, used to spread mayo or pry open a bottle of wine if you forget to pack a corkscrew. Plus, slicing fruit or cutting sandwiches at your picnic destination (instead of beforehand) can help keep foods fresh through sweltering heat or sun. Small blades that fold or come with sheaths are best for packing away in your basket; some cutlery manufacturers make knives with picnics and outdoor meals in mind.

8. First Aid Supplies

Whether your picnic includes a hike in the woods or just a day at the local park, a first aid kit is a must. Basic supplies like bandages, aspirin, and hydrocortisone creams can keep an eventful day fun instead of uncomfortable.

9. Mini Condiments and Seasonings

Condiment packages against a white background
iStock/Elenathewise

Instead of lugging the whole bottle of ketchup, snag small condiment packets from restaurants or gas stations to add to your basket. The smaller packets will save you from taking much bulkier shakers and bottles.

10. Kitchen Towel

While napkins or paper towels are easy to pack and dispose of, a sturdy kitchen towel offers more versatility. Towels can be used to cover foods from bugs, provide extra protection when wrapped around wine glasses or bottles, and can do a better job of sopping up spills than handfuls of paper napkins. If you’re feeling fancy, kitchen towels can also be used to wrap up picnic snacks, creating an easy to use lunch sack that folds away when finished.

11. Trash Bag

You don’t have to be a scout to follow the rule of leaving your picnic site “cleaner than you found it.” Tuck a trash bag into your basket so that every piece of trash makes it to a trash can or home with you. Trash bags can also double as rain ponchos in case of unexpected summer storms, or if sliced open, can lay under your blanket to keep wet grass from seeping through.

12. Ice Packs

Mayonnaise-based foods like potato salad can spoil and delicate greens can wilt in the summer heat, so if chilled water bottles aren’t enough to keep your cooler or picnic basket (or fancy leak-proof cooler backpack) cold, toss in a few frozen ice packs.

13. Extra Cutlery

Many picnic foods, like sandwiches and fruit, don’t require any silverware, which is what makes them perfect for a day in the park. But common picnic salads, like potato or macaroni, can be difficult to serve and eat without a large spoon. Pack extra utensils just in case, or at least serving spoons for foods that can be scooped or dipped with chips.

14. Camera

Getting out on a picnic adventure is a memory for the scrapbook, so charge up your phone or bring your camera for an afternoon of photos. If you're looking to get nostalgic, grab an instant camera (we like the new Kodak Smile, $100), which will allow you to print keepsakes on the fly. If you're sticking with your phone, consider packing a portable charger to make sure you never run out of juice.

15. Something to Do

Grandparents and their grandchildren sit on a picnic blanket playing chess and reading.
iStock/TanyaRu

While picnics are often focused on food, half the fun is enjoying the outdoors. Kites, Frisbees and balls are common picnic toys, but you don’t have to move around just because it’s traditional. Spend time reading or drawing for a leisurely and relaxing experience—after all, isn’t that the point of an afternoon picnic?

A version of this article first ran in 2016. It was updated in June 2019.

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10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here.

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