10 Essentials

View more

Gear and tips for enjoying the great outdoors

When interviewed, Jennifer Rydzewski was working from home in mid-March—an unusual indoor scenario for the naturalist, who has master’s degrees in environmental sciences and zoology. As antidotes to spring sequestering and winter weather, the nature programs she oversees at Oak Brook’s Fullersburg Woods Nature Education Center will surge in popularity as people can safely get outside.

We tapped the outdoor expert—who is herself an avid hiker—for her list of essential gear and tips on traversing the Midwest safely and comfortably.


Carry clean water in a bottle, canteen, or hydration bladder. For long hikes, consider buying a portable filter to refill in a stream or pump. She recommends one from Sawyer that screws on your bottle and removes more than 99 percent of bacteria, protozoa, and microplastics.


Bring a little extra food in case you get stuck somewhere, Rydzewski advises. Bars, trail mix, dried fruit, apples, oranges, and beef jerky—“things that won’t get squished in your backpack”—are all great options.


Bring a light outer layer (windbreaker, fleece, sweatshirt) for cool mornings and evenings. “A space blanket is really nice because it folds down,” says Rydzewski. “If you’re stuck somewhere or there is a storm, you can use that to keep yourself warm and sheltered.”


When hiking in open areas it goes without saying that a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and clothing with SPF fabric are all essential. “I wear a long-sleeve sun shirt because I get burned really easily,” she says.

5. Navigation Tools

Rydzewski advises against going into an area assuming you will have cellular service. “Generally, don’t rely solely on your cellphone,” she advises, but the camera function can be useful, as well as paper or saved online maps.

6. First aid kit

Pack bandages, safety pins, meds (prescriptions, Benadryl, and pain relievers), antibacterial cream, and alcohol wipes to clean out a scratch or cut. Moleskine pads are also helpful for the No. 1 bad news for hiking: blisters.

7. Fire starter

Even if you’re planning a day hike, always bring some sort of fire starter—in case you get lost or have to spend the night unexpectedly. A lighter or waterproof match will do the trick, but it’s good to have a backup like a magnesium stick.

8. Light source

If you’re stuck at night or it starts to get dark, having a flashlight or lamp will be essential. “Keep in mind,” says Rydzewski, “if you’re in the woods it will start getting darker earlier under the shady trees.”

9. Pocket knife

“I always have a knife on me so I have little scissors and screwdrivers,” she says. “Duct tape is also a good friend. I wrap my water bottle or trekking poles so I have some that I can use without taking the whole roll.”

10. whistle

If you get get in trouble on a hike you can alert someone to find you. “And if you do get lost or get stuck somewhere, it’s always good to stay where you are,” says Rydzewski.


While batteries can die and gadgets can malfunction, a compass relies only on earth’s magnetic fields—but it’s only helpful if you know how to use it. The forest preserve hosts navigation and way-finding courses at Waterfall Glen and Blackwell Forest Preserve, and REI offers map and compass navigation classes.

It’s in the Bag

Naturalist Jennifer Rydzewski doesn’t have a specific brand of backpack to recommend, but she tells people to search for what outdoor stores call a day pack. “I like backpacks that have a hip belt and chest strap, so it’s not bouncing all around,” she says. “The smaller the better—the less weight you can carry the more comfortable it’s going to be for you overall.”

Before you Bounce

Research the trail. Find a map ahead of time so you knowing the distance and the difficulty of the trails, which vary from park to park. Do advance research using apps like AllTrails, Gaia GPS, and Hiking Project. “People’s comments will also tell you about current conditions,” says Rydzewski. Also confirm if there is a source of water and bathrooms.

Check the weather. Clothing and gear should be adjusted for the range of weather expected—and unexpected. Also be aware of what time the sun will set to ensure trails are visible.

Share plans. Tell someone where you are going, when you are leaving, and when you’ll be back to ensure help will be dispatched if problems arise.