It’s never been a better time for a picnic

Illustration by Aleah Green

Blanket? Check. Sandwiches? Check. Warm weather, friends and Flagstaff’s beautiful outdoors? Check, check and check. July is National Picnic Month, and organizations such as the United States Forest Service (USFS) encourage people to celebrate accordingly. Whether it’s deciding to simply bring a takeout burrito to Thorpe Park or planning an outdoor feast with friends at Upper Lake Mary, picnicking is not only a fun way to stay social and get outdoors this summer, but it can also have a positive impact on one’s mental health.

People often can’t imagine a summer without picnicking but this year, it seems like more of an essential activity than ever before. With social distancing measures due to COVID-19, it can be hard to think of ways to spend time with friends and still stay safe. Flagstaff resident Claire Kerata said being outside and staying six feet apart is how she has been able to get her social fix.

“Picnicking is the perfect way to see your pals while staying safe and socially distant,” Kerata said. “I have only seen my friends outside for the last four months.”

One would probably see more people picnicking around Flagstaff now than ever before, Kerata said, because it’s a way to safely socialize that doesn’t feel too different from life pre-coronavirus. If friends decided to eat with one another indoors, they would have to take more precautions than picnicking might require.

Kerata also explained that picnicking has offered her more mental stability because it opens up opportunities for her to socialize.

“It’s especially important right now to take care of ourselves and feed what we need most, which for me is social interaction,” Kerata said. “Picnicking is a great way to do that.”

Senior Ariel Smith also said that being around other people is essential after months of isolation. He explained that even while picnicking alone, people are able to get human connection.

“I think the best place to picnic is anywhere with other people,” Smith said. “As we are social distancing, I still think it is important to observe how other people behave in the real world and that’s what makes it the perfect activity for the summer. You can hang out, eat some food that makes you smile and see how everyone else is staying sane in these times.”

Additionally, picnicking can offer more mental health benefits than just staying social in the midst of a pandemic. According to an article in The Lumberjack, entitled “Nature therapy: The psychological benefits of outdoor exploration,” local experts such as nature therapy guide Dr. Christine Westra, Roy DuPrez, founder and CEO of Back2Basics Outdoor Adventure Recovery, and former NAU Hiking Club president, Hannah Krivickas, spending time outdoors can be immensely beneficial to one’s mental well-being.

For example, the article addressed how spending time outdoors can help with stress, inattention issues, substance abuse, sleep and more. Regardless of if one’s picnic lasts an hour or five, the effort made to eat outdoors rather than inside, can set oneself up to reap positive mental health benefits.

Even while picnicking at night, these benefits are attainable. Smith described that picnicking under the stars can be a uniquely fun experience in Flagstaff, especially since it is recognized as an International Dark Sky Place, meaning the stars shine a bit brighter here.

“I believe there should be more candle-lit evening picnics in the world,” Smith said. “You can get a blanket and some snack foods and enjoy grass at any hour.”

Alongside mental health benefits, picnicking can lead to physical activities that promote health as well. Whether it’s simply walking out to one’s picnicking spot and getting some fresh air or deciding to pair a picnic with a bike ride, slacklining or another physical activity, picnicking can naturally get people moving more than eating indoors.

“You should come prepared and then do whatever strikes your fancy when the time comes,” Smith said. “For me, that’s slacklining, skateboarding and playing guitar — but I believe any hobby worth doing is worth doing outside.”

Kerata said some of her favorite activities to do on a day when she’s picnicking are hiking and swimming. She said hiking is an easy way to explore Flagstaff and get moving. Kerata suggested bringing along a backpack full of picnic goodies on any hike to make sure one has enough fuel to keep adventuring. She also said one of her favorite ways to picnic is down in Sedona at Oak Creek Canyon, as swimming can be the perfect way to work up an appetite for a picnic.

While Oak Creek Canyon has some of Sedona’s most famous views, it can be a little out of the way for some Flagstaff residents looking to go on a picnic. Kerata said her favorite local spots are on the east side of town, including Tree Park and Bushmaster Park.

“Bushmaster Park is awesome. There is a ton of grassy space and two playgrounds and workout equipment,” Kerata said. “It’s great if you have kids.”

Though Flagstaff’s west side is more accessible, some popular picnic spots include Thorpe Park, the north quad at NAU and Upper Lake Mary. Each spot offers something different to Flagstaff picnickers.

“I think north quad at NAU is great because it’s lively and spacious,” Smith said. “You can go there in the morning, noon and night and find a spot where you’ll be safe and free to do what you want to do.”

If someone is looking to picnic somewhere within Flagstaff’s surrounding forests, the USFS has the spot search covered. On their website for National Picnic Month, the USFS has a map of the country's best forest picnicking spots. All one would have to do to find a forest picnic spot in Flagstaff is enter Flagstaff in the search bar. Each of the spots listed on the USFS picnic map are places where picnicking is not only allowed, but encouraged.

Kerata said that it’s important to remember that the Colorado Plateau can get warm in the summer, and Flagstaff’s altitude can make the sun beam down stronger than one might realize. Some essentials to take along on a picnic, and any outdoor activity, for that matter, are sunscreen and some water. As for entertainment, though, Smith suggests also bringing along a frisbee and a good book.

On a picnic, another essential is, of course, the food. An article by BBC Good Food details picnic hacks to take one’s picnic food game to the next level. Writer Miriam Nice suggests packing salads in jars, not adding any sauces or dressings to foods beforehand to avoid food getting soggy, and other useful picnic food tips. She also incorporates some of her favorite picnic recipes, which include vegan options as well.

As for what Flagstaff locals prefer to take on their picnics, Smith’s food essentials include in-season berries, pretzels, white wine and lemonade. Kerata said her must-have picnic food items are sandwiches and a mustardy potato salad.

“I don’t have to share food with friends because we’re all trying to stay safe from COVID-19. It’s great,” Kerata said.

All in all, locals agree that people have all the reasons to go out on a picnic this July in light of this year's National Picnic Month. If the good food, social time with friends, mental and physical health benefits don’t convince someone, Smith said Flagstaff’s gorgeous outdoors ought to.

“We’re in Flagstaff, one of the most beautiful cities in the Southwest [United States] and getting the opportunity to picnic here is a benefit on its own,” Smith said. “Whether that be on a college campus or any five mile drive out from downtown, the benefit to picnicking is that you get to relax and enjoy the life you are living right were you are in those moments.”