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The Best Gear to Take to a Drive-In Movie Theater
Photo: Kirkikis/iStock

The Best Gear to Take to a Drive-In Movie Theater

Instead of enjoying a blockbuster at a multiplex this summer, moviegoers are turning to a retro outdoor classic: the drive-in theater. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, drive-ins offer fresh air, ample room for social distancing, and a fun, family-friendly activity. (Be sure to check your theater’s protocols before you go.)

I recently drove 75 miles from my home in the suburbs of Washington, DC, to Stephens City, Virginia, to take in a double feature (Jurassic Park and Jaws) at the Family Drive-In Theatre—the only permanent drive-in theater open in the northern part of the state. It was a picturesque evening with clear skies, warm (not humid) weather, and families enjoying a rare outing. For a moment, life felt normal again.

My night at the drive-in was one of the nicest I’ve spent during quarantine. The key to a similar experience? Preparation. Here are a few essentials (and some fun extras) to help you make the most of your movie night under the stars.

Comfy seating

A Quad chair in front of a tent
Photo: Caleigh Waldman

Coleman Oversized Quad Chair With Cooler ($28 at the time of publication)
GCI Outdoor Everywhere Chair ($40 at the time of publication)
REI Co-op Camp Chair - Kids’ ($17 at the time of publication)

A do-it-all outdoor chair blends comfort and convenience. The Coleman Oversized Quad Chair With Cooler—our pick for the best camping chair—is a durable chair with extras that lend themselves nicely to outdoor movie viewing. Beloved for its commodious size and stability, the Coleman has a built-in cooler bag (large enough for four standard-size soda cans) and a mesh pocket for stashing small items like a phone or a book. (“This is the Platonic ideal of your camp chair,” said one tester.) If you prefer a lower profile or don’t want to block anyone’s view, the GCI Outdoor Everywhere Chair sits 4 inches off the ground and adjusts for uneven terrain. Unlike other low chairs we tested, the GCI has a convenient cup holder.

For a family gathering, the REI Co-op Camp Chair - Kids’ works well for youngsters up to 7 or 8 years old. It’s durable and has a square cup holder that should fit everything from a juice box to a larger water bottle.

Versatile blankets

Photo: Michael Hession

Nemo Victory Blanket ($50 at the time of publication)
Rumpl Down Puffy ($200 at the time of publication)
Hay Crinkle Throw ($125 at the time of publication)

Bringing a blanket (or two) to an indoor theater might be excessive. But when you’re out in the elements, it’s nice to have. For a sturdy but comfortable picnic blanket, we recommend the two-person Nemo Victory Blanket (our pick for the best picnic blanket). We love its soft feel and ability to repel dirt and liquids. It also comes in a four-person model. The Rumpl Down Puffy, the best puffy blanket we tested, is a must for any outdoor gathering that might turn chilly. The Rumpl insulates with high-loft, 600-fill down and resists water and dirt well, so you could use it as a plush picnic blanket. It’s pleasantly soft and doesn’t slip off your body, even with its smooth nylon texture.

If you prefer to stay sheltered in the car (like me), reclining the seat and wrapping yourself in a throw blanket is an ideal setup. We think the Hay Crinkle Throw, with its lightweight cotton fabric and soft, crinkly feel, is a great option for moviegoers who want a comfortable blanket that isn’t too warm.

A supportive headrest

The Travelrest Ultimate pillow, a firm donut-shaped neck pillow, resting on a blanket.
Photo: Michael Hession

Travelrest Nest Ultimate Memory Foam Travel Pillow ($40 at the time of publication)

Should you want some extra cushioning and neck support while watching your movie, the Travelrest Nest Ultimate Memory Foam Travel Pillow, our pick for the best travel pillow, is a solid choice. The Travelrest’s shape lets it lay flat against the seat back, so it won’t push your head and neck away from the headrest, and its Velcro strap is easy to adjust.

A water bottle made for the road

The Hydro Flask 18oz Wide Mouth water bottle in the carrying pouch of a backpack leaning against a rock.
Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

Hydro Flask Wide Mouth (20 ounces) ($28 at the time of publication)
Thermos Funtainer Stainless Steel Water Bottle with Straw (12 ounces) ($15 at the time of publication)

The 20-ounce Hydro Flask Wide Mouth is one of our favorite water bottles, and we recommend pairing it with a straw lid (sold separately). Ideal for road trips, it’s also an excellent outdoor-movie companion: The large capacity and straw lid might make you feel like you’re guzzling a fountain drink at the multiplex. Even without the straw lid, its wide opening and thin lip make the Hydro Flask one of the most comfortable bottles to drink from, whatever you choose to fill it with. (Our guide notes that “any 7-Eleven soda fountain or Iced Cocoa Cloud Macchiato–slinging barista can refill this bottle easily.”) For a kid-sized water bottle for younger moviegoers, we like the insulated Thermos Funtainer Stainless Steel Water Bottle with Straw (12 ounces). It’s easy for kids to open and close by themselves, and it was the least likely to leak of all the bottles we tried.

An easy-to-tote cooler

A closed Polar Bear 24-Pack Nylon Cooler on an rustic tile surface
Photo: Caleigh Waldman

Polar Bear 24-Pack Nylon Cooler ($110 at the time of publication)

The theater I attended charged a $10 fee for bringing in food, and it’s not uncommon for drive-ins to prohibit outside food completely. But if yours allows it, and if you’d prefer to skip the concession stand, a soft cooler will store your snacks and drinks nicely. We like the Polar Bear 24-Pack Nylon Cooler for its functionality, superior insulating foam, and large size—you can most likely surpass the recommended 24-can capacity (with ice), if you try.

A radio you don’t need to plug in

The Midland ER210 radio clipped to a backpack.
Photo: Midland

Midland ER210 ($40 at the time of publication)

At the Family Drive-In Theatre, the speakers moviegoers would normally use in their car windows were covered with plastic—the theater deemed them a “virus transmission site.” We could hear the movie playing softly when we sat outside, but we couldn’t hear a peep inside the car. Luckily, the theater provided a radio frequency we could tune into for audio. For similar cases, a portable, battery-powered radio is a must. The Midland ER210 emits powerful sound (97 decibels in our tests) and has an antenna for easy signal pickup. Because it’s first and foremost an emergency weather radio, it’s packed with features like a built-in flashlight, a Micro-USB port, hand-crank and solar-power capabilities (in addition to a built-in reserve/backup battery and AC/DC charging), and the ability to broadcast NOAA weather alerts.

A portable bathroom break

The Travel John urinal on a wooden table.
Photo: Midland

TravelJohn Disposable Urinal (TJ1A) ($28 for a pack of 18 at the time of publication)

If you don’t relish the idea of using public restrooms right now, a TravelJohn Disposable Urinal (TJ1A) could come in handy for an emergency. Each urinal contains a polymer pouch that absorbs urine and turns it into an odorless, gel-like substance. Appropriate for adults and children of any gender, the urinal’s opening is curved to fit snugly during use and prevent any mess. I’ve found these to be a clean, easy alternative to using a public toilet. They’re also safe to throw in the regular trash.

Kid-geared games and activities to pass the time

The Sushi Go! children's board game in use, with its cards laid out on a wooden table.
Photo: Rozette Rago

Sushi Go! ($9 at the time of publication)
ThinkFun Potato Pirates ($16 at the time of publication)
Melissa & Doug On the Go Water Wow! Reusable Travel Activity Pad 6-Pack ($25 at the time of publication)

The theater I visited waits for sufficient darkness before firing up the projector. We ended up having to kill time for more than an hour. If you have kids in tow and need a distraction before the movie starts, a fun family game might do the trick.

Sushi Go! (for kids 5 and up) is an engaging, fast-paced “pick and pass” card game that involves building sets of sushi-themed cards. ThinkFun Potato Pirates is another food-themed card game, with an educational component—while your kids might think they’re just captaining a pirate ship with a crew of potatoes, they’re actually learning basic coding concepts.

If you want to keep the kids busy so you can enjoy the movie, the Melissa & Doug On the Go Water Wow! Reusable Travel Activity Pad is a coloring pad that uses water to make the pages change pigment. Each book comes with a refillable water pen, and all of the pages are reusable.

A user-friendly bug spray

A spray bottle of Sawyer Products Premium Insect Repellent.
Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

Sawyer Products Premium Insect Repellent ($13 for a twin pack at the time of publication)

Summer brings bugs. To help keep them at bay, we like Sawyer Products Premium Insect Repellent, our top pick for the best bug spray. This Sawyer pump spray is made from 20% picaridin, a repellant chemical with the efficacy of DEET formulas and none of their drawbacks, including the oily texture. We particularly like how the spray bottle applies the repellent evenly, without too much excess spray.