The day of my son's first soccer practice, I arrived with a water bottle. That's it. No bag with snacks or blanket to sit on. I happen to keep a Band-Aid in my wallet, but I don't think we can call that being prepared.
Lest you get caught ice-less at a swim meet, sunscreen-less at soccer practice or hat-less at a double-header, we've consulted with local sports experts about how to prepare for the many hours you'll spend on the sidelines at kids' sporting events.
If you've had the summer off or are new to youth sports, now's the time to organize the tote bags and clean out the cooler. No more longing to be one of those parents who seems to have everything from lattes to shin guards.
The trick is to plan, without hauling a campsite worth of equipment to every scrimmage.
Until your child hits professional-level play, there's a good chance parents are in charge of bringing water bottles and snacks for half-time or post-game celebration. (And don't forget the iced coffee for yourself.)
The bottles tend get to tossed to the side or thrown in a heap, so John D. Long, commissioner of the Green Hornets Field Hockey organization in Severna Park, recommends parents label them clearly. (And label other pieces of equipment while you're at it.)
Rich Rudel, president of the Elkridge Hurricanes Football and Cheer program, also reminds parents to encourage kids to drink water in the days leading up to a game, not just on game day. "That's the best way to stay hydrated," he says.
On some teams, families are on their own for refreshments. And practices are almost always "bring your own water bottle." But for games, some coaches have a sign-up sheet for parents to bring snacks.
"It's usually something like a juice box or Capri Sun and pretzels or Goldfish," says Janine Schofield, president of the Towson Recreation Council and mother of four.
Some other sideline options: fruit, granola bars and trail mix (be careful of nut allergies) with cereal, mini-marshmallows, raisins, etc.
The kind of snack may also be a factor if it's at the middle of a game or meet. You don't want your kid scarfing down a bag of chips and a cookie, then five minutes later trying to run a mile or swim 400 meters.
For longer events, you can freeze water bottles and juice boxes to help keep the cooler cold and to become a refreshing treat later. (For hot events, some parents also throw a towel or clean shirt into the cooler for breaks.)
"Natural fruit juice is a good option and helps with lightheadedness," says Troy Hernandez, director of sales and marketing at Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center.
Chocolate milk is also becoming a popular post-game treat, says Hernandez, who is a personal trainer, too. "It's gives energy and helps repair muscles," he says. "Just watch the sugar content."
To avoid the "reply to all" emails, some teams opt for electronic sign-ups using sites such as Sign Up Genius. (Some coaches also use phone apps or websites such as TeamSnap to schedule practices and games.)
At many games, the referee or coaches will have a first-aid kit, but you can't count on it — especially at practices.
You don't need to lug a paramedic's bag to every event, but it's a good idea to have an ice pack for bumps and bruises and an Ace bandage for twists and possible sprains. (Sanitizing wipes for post-Porta-Potty use are also a good idea.)
"A poppable [instant] ice pack is a good thing to have," says Schofield. "That's what ends up getting used the most."
If you're bringing a cooler, a bag of frozen peas — while not a popular snack — is great for both icing injuries and to keep drinks cold.
There may or may not be bleachers on the field. And certainly whatever chair you bring will be more comfortable. This is your chance to use those portable beach or camping chairs. Bring a blanket or towel for the kids.
Some families pitch in for a pop-up canopy. While this level of equipment gets into the "camping" territory, it's helpful for daylong events such as swim meets and tournaments.
"If you have three games two hours apart, it's absolutely worth it," says Schofield.
Because many games are on school fields, there's often a playground nearby for occasional breaks.
An extra ball or Frisbee may keep kids who've been dragged to a sibling's game occupied and off the field, but it's also nice to have a few other options, such a coloring book or comics. If there's downtime between scrimmages or meets, a deck of cards meets all of the sideline requirements: It's all ages, and light to pack.
You rationalize that it's only an hour practice, but don't find out the hard way just how quickly mosquitoes can devour a family of four, especially at the twilight hour many practices are held.
And chances are high that in the rush to get to the field at 8 a.m. on a Saturday (just your luck!), you'll forget the SPF just once. Slip a small bottle of sunscreen and a few insect repellent wipes into your bag, and you won't regret it.
Good to use in a pinch for a game of Hangman or Tic-tac-toe, pen and paper also come in handy when someone remembers to draw up a postgame snack list, or when you need directions to the restaurant everyone is headed to after the tournament.
When you're one girl down on the soccer field five minutes before the whistle blows, or the running back's parents aren't on the sidelines when practice winds down, it helps to have the player list handy. Cellphone numbers should be added at the first team meeting if they aren't already on the roster.
Long, of the Green Hornets, also recommends that parents write down the jersey numbers of all the players on the team.
"That way, they know who's who on the field and can cheer on the other players. It's part of being a team," he says. "The kids feel that they're part of something special when they hear others cheering for them."
Presumably the kids are coming to the practice, game or tournament with the uniform and safety gear — be it shin guards or helmet — already on or in hand. But it helps to have an extra of whatever it is your kid will likely forget: swim goggles, mouth guard, hair tie, etc.
"I usually put wipes in the bag, too," says Schofield, who favors large, inexpensive totes that she won't be upset to see stained with grass, dirt or food (or most likely all three).
These items are weather-dependent. But just remember that standing on the field in the midday sun or in early morning frost can take its toll.
"By the time you get there for warm-ups and then after the game, you're there for a couple of hours," says Long.
He and other experts agree: You'll enjoy being a spectator a whole lot more if you're comfortable.
Five sidelines items we love:
Igloo Island Breeze Maxcold
50 Quart roller cooler, $44.99
Target, various locations
REI Camp X Chair, $28.93 to $39.50
REI Store, Columbia and Timonium
Scout Pocket Rocket, $44.50
Stebbins Anderson, Towson
Chalk Talk Stick pen, $5.99
Lax World, Towson, Timonium, Bel Air and Maple Lawn
Maryland Flag Hair Tie, $4
Sweet Elizabeth Jane, Ellicott City