A Holiday Gift Guide for Outdoor Families

Text: "Holiday Gift Guide for Outdoor Families, We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So" Photos of a plastic watering can for children, a board book called Hello, National Parks, a rain jacket, and a blue headlamp.
Getting kids outside has a whole host of benefits, from stronger immune systems to the sheer joy of play. While sometimes all that’s needed is a stick and a bit of imagination, having certain gear can help bringing kids outside easier, safer and more fun. Whether you’re in the mountains or your own backyard, this gift guide – which is mainly focused on kids in preschool and elementary school – should provide a few helpful suggestions. (Note – none of these are affiliate or sponsored links, just products and/or companies I personally like.)

For In the Backyard (or Park) and Garden

Green Toys gardening supplies: I really love Green Toys – they have everything I look for in a company, from being made in the U.S. to using recycled materials. These gardening supplies are just the right size for little hands. Also, they’re made of plastic, not metal, so it won’t hurt too badly if one goes flying during an aggressive battle with weeds. If you’re not into gardening, their dump truck is perfect for vrooming through the dirt, with its big, chunky wheels.

Magnifying glass: Kids love looking at bugs and worms. My friend Deb, who was the number one participant in the Outdoors Family Challenge, said that since then, her twin girls have overturned every rock in the yard looking for critters. A decent magnifying glass will help them see those fine details just a little better. This magnifying glass seems to be the best rated one made out of plastic, but responsible older kids can probably handle a higher-quality glass one.

Nature journal or notebook: One of the best ways to increase your awareness of nature is to keep a journal. Kids can write down their observations, stick leaves and flowers into it, and doodle pictures. For older budding naturalists, they can go back to the same place multiple days in a row to write down observations. It can be as simple as a loose leaf paper notebook that mom or dad has jazzed up or a beautiful embossed journal, depending on the age and maturity of the child. Personally, I like this notebook’s waterproof pages. I brought one just like it on a trip to Peru to jot down the names of birds we saw as we boated the Amazon river.

Growing Vegetable Soup and Up in the Garden, Down in the Dirt: Having books to read under a tree, in the corner of the garden, or on the back porch makes being outdoors just that much more pleasant. These two books capture the simple joys of gardening, from planting the seeds to eating the fruits of your labor. Even though it’s a picture book, Down in the Garden, Up in the Dirt should appeal to anyone who loves beautiful books. The text is lyrical and the pictures beautifully evocative of the seasons, from the muddy days of spring through the frost of winter.


On the Trail and In the River

Blue Lizard sunscreen: So sunscreen totally isn’t an exciting gift for a kid. Maybe it goes in Mom or Dad’s stocking instead. (Or Grandma, if she shares my mom’s obsessiveness with slathering the children before a ray touches their skin.) But as someone who is concerned about the chemicals in traditional sunscreen, is so fair that we joked my children would be translucent, and has very sensitive skin, Blue Lizard is amazing. It ranks very well on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Sunscreens list, so your kids aren’t exposed to ingredients that cause health issues. Unlike other natural sunscreens, it also rubs in relatively easily, a must when handling a wiggly kid.

Guidebooks and apps for identifying plants and animals: My field biology teacher in college told us that to understand a plant or animal, you had to know its name first. While I don’t expect Sprout to memorize hundreds of species, much less their scientific names, it is nice to know what you’re looking at. Audubon makes traditional, trusted guidebooks. But if you don’t want to haul around a bunch of books, they also have a mobile identification app that can help you out! (Warning: It takes up a ton of space on your phone. If you are like me and have thousands of photos of your kids on your phone, you may want to wait to install the app until you actually need it.)

Tevas: I got my first pair of Tevas when I was 13 and wore their Velcro out until it wouldn’t stick anymore. In them, I splashed through streams with my best friend, paddled canoes through the Adirondacks, and swapped stories around campfires. I know there are other types of sandals out there, but I am terribly loyal to my Tevas. They’re a great river and camping sandal for kids.

Rain jacket: If you’re on the trail for anything more than a short stroll, a rain jacket is a must. Getting stuck in a rainstorm can be a serious health risk, especially if the temperature is below the 70s. We bought this rain jacket from REI for Sprout when he was two and it’s held up great. It seems to provide good ventilation too, which is always my number one issue with rain jackets. If you are going to buy something at REI, strongly consider being a member. A $20 fee gets you membership for life, with 10% back on all purchases ever.


On the Road and At the Campground

Hello, National Parks! and Curious George Goes CampingI find that reading books ahead of a trip helps get Sprout excited and prepared for what’s coming. If you’re going to a National Park, Hello, National Parks! is a great little introduction to what they are and previews a few of the big ones. Sprout got terribly excited seeing the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia after seeing it in this book. While Curious George is always a terrible role model himself, the book offers a good context for discussing campground safety and etiquette.

Headlamp: A good headlamp is invaluable while camping. It’s a million times better than a flashlight – you never have to worry about dropping it and always have your hands free. This one from Black Diamond seems to be the best rated one on REI’s site. Plus, you can get some of the world’s cutest baby photos if you stick it on your kid’s head before they understand what you’re doing.

Passport to Your National Parks: Kids love stamps and collecting things. (Disney has learned this lesson well with their character autograph books.) This book takes that concept and applies to America’s national park system. The text is too dense for most kids, but it has a lot of pretty pictures and most importantly, loads of space for stamps from each park. We bought one at the Cape Cod National Seashore this year and Sprout was thrilled to stamp the first page. I hope it will become a beloved keepsake of our vacations.

Sleeping bag: Whether you are camping in the backyard or high up in the mountains, a cozy sleeping bag is a must. Sprout used this one from REI for camping last year and it worked well once he actually went to sleep.


This gift guide is part of a larger effort from a number of different outdoors-oriented parenting blogs. Check these recommendations out as well!

Is there any piece of outdoor equipment for kids that you absolutely recommend? If you’d like to think about other gifts, check out my Ethically-Made Toys Christmas Gift Guide


10 thoughts on “A Holiday Gift Guide for Outdoor Families

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    • Thanks! We probably own half of the Green Toys website. I actually bought my son a different gardening set, but the handle keeps coming off of the shovel, so I couldn’t recommend it.

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  5. An awesome collection of some great gift ideas !! With the holiday’s approaching, every item makes a great gift. As a suggestion, you can consider a fire grill or a wood burning stove as an addition to backyard or family camping.

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