Summer camp capsule wardrobe UNPACKED: What got worn?

In a previous post, I described most what I packed for a multiple week road trip involving lots of time outdoors but also some city visits.

Here’s that post, detailing my capsule wardrobe for a week of summer camp in Minnesota, and travel thereafter.

But you know what’s even more helpful than a description of what I put in my suitcase a month ago?

A breakdown of which items I pulled out of my suitcase, and how often. In short, what did I actually wear?

I did not pack light for this trip

As I confessed in my original post, I did not pack in a particularly light way for this trip. I prioritized comfort over minimalism, and knew I could leave excess baggage in the car when it wasn’t needed.

That’s what I did. I used packing cubes and multiple mid-sized bags to subdivide clothing, and I packed and re-packed between segments of the trip with differing priorities.

luggage in van redacted

Test fitting luggage; all bags were stowed below headrest level under a black blanket when I was done packing

We traveled by minivan—a conveyance notable for vast amounts of storage space. I preferred to bring everything I might need to avoid the tedious type of shopping during the trip.

We were going to be away for several weeks and expecting weather ranging from 40 – 90+°F. We would be spending time outdoors, getting dirty, but also visiting friends in town where the dirt might not be appreciated.

I took steps to avoid tempting thieves with luggage

I brought a black blanket that I draped over the luggage in the back of the van to minimize risk of break ins. With the van’s factory tinted windows, you couldn’t see any stuff in the vehicle at night.

Even during the day, the black mass didn’t look like much of anything.

We made a point to avoid opening the back hatch at all at nightly hotel stops, pulling our small overnight bags into the front of the van at a late afternoon rest stop. Since we were well organized from the get go, we hardly ever opened the rear liftgate during the day, either.

We only needed to access the large items in the back for our three long, planned stops—summer camp, the cabin, and the multi-day city visit at a friend’s home.

Defining a capsule wardrobe

How is this a capsule wardrobe, if it isn’t a minimalist one for traveling light?

I selected a color scheme, and most (if not all) garments could be mixed and matched or layered in an aesthetically pleasing way based upon color. I made sure virtually every piece could be worn in any combination with the others by shape/style, too.

This is the same philosophy that makes a very small wardrobe work for trips of indefinite length. I just had more pieces with which to work.

What never left the suitcase?

Weather realities

We experienced temperatures mostly below average for northern Minnesota in early/mid June. Nights were chilly; a few days barely reached 60°F. Typical days were cold to cool in the morning, briefly warm enough at midday in the sun to want summer clothing, then warm to cool as evening came on.

The hottest days of our trip (upper 90’s) coincided with travel days in the air conditioned van.

It rained many times, but always in passing bursts of showers. We had a tornado warning urgent enough to warrant a call to our specific location by the county sheriff, but, luckily, did not get to experience an actual tornado.

Swimwear

I packed swimwear, and mine never left the van, let alone the suitcase.

Knowing myself well, that’s why I packed my suit (a UV blocking combo of long sleeved top and mid-leg bottoms by Coolibar) in a small pouch tucked into an accessible cubby in the back of the van. As expected, I didn’t swim, but I was happy to know I could have, if I wanted to, or if the kids begged me to join them.

The boys’ swimsuits were also packed in separate, grab-and-go modules by person.

Tops I packed just in case

I never wore my two least favorite Insect Shield tops: the periwinkle pullover by White Sierra and the olive/taupe safari style Craghoppers shirt.

 

If I were packing today for this trip, I would leave the taupe shirt at home, but I might still bring the unloved peri pullover.

Why? Because DS1 came home with paint stains on one set of his clothing.

Camp activities are planned by someone else, and they can be messy. The pullover is my “grubby” Insect Shield top. I want it in case a sacrifice is necessary.

Every time I wanted a sun- and insect-protective shirt to layer over my tank, I reached for the bright, coral colored one. I like it better. I like the color. The fit is looser and therefore more comfortable when it’s warm weather. That won’t ever change.

I probably ought to pass the Craghoppers top on to a friend, because my fundamental fashion preferences haven’t changed in decades and likely never will.

What did I wear?

After writing my capsule wardrobe post, and the night before the trip, I actually added five garments to my already long packing list. In addition to what I listed, I brought:

  • lightweight, ankle length jeans by NYDJ
  • white cotton short-sleeved turtleneck
  • Tilley sleeveless, dark brown jersey funnel neck travel top
  • Coolibar UV protective, cropped open front cardigan in melon/coral
  • sheer, floaty silk vest/scarf in shades of melon/coral/pink and white

While adding items last minute can be a very bad idea, especially for over-packers, these were excellent choices for this trip. All the pieces could be worn with many other items; most could layer with everything else.

A look at the last minute weather forecast convinced me to bring them, and the cooling trend did continue during our time away.

 

Comfortable choices to wear while driving

In addition to providing warmth as layers on our coldest days, my short torso means that automobile seatbelts can sometimes hit me at the neck. That’s bad (for safety restraint reasons), and it isn’t a terrible issue in my van, but even the feeling of seatbelt webbing against my shoulder, where it belongs, can be irrititating.

As the only driver doing ten hour days, I realized that I should take every possible step to avoid discomfort. I wore these lightweight—but neck covering—tops on all the days where I drove more than a few hours. I wore the sun protective coral colored wrap over them to shade my arms.

These were good outfits for travel days, protecting me from the hazards of a long drive, which are different from those I would face in the woods.

Camp clothes vs. car clothes

My camping clothing could have served for this stage of the trip, but I prefer not to wear the Insect Shield clothing when it isn’t necessary. I want to avoid excess pesticide exposure where conditions don’t warrant it.

I did feel my investment in insect repellent clothing was justified. There was definitely a plethora of ticks in evidence.

A young child in our dormitory cried loudly while his dad picked them off his body almost every night; another was brought into our room on the head of one of the friends we brought along. (Don’t worry: he got it off before it was attached.)

I never found a tick on my boys, who wore Insect Shield pants almost exclusively, and treated tops and hats at times as well. I did pull one tick from the ends of my long hair after walking along a trail with encroaching brush.

 

All of the bottoms I packed for the trip—including the last minute addition of jeans—were worn many times and felt like good choices. I wouldn’t change anything about what I packed for my lower body. Layering these over long underwear gave me comfortable clothing right down to the coldest 40°F night.

Footwear

The same goes for shoes. My second pair of Ahnu Sugarpine sneakers (the waterproof ones) didn’t leave the van much, but I was glad to know they were available if needed.

I never wore the Propet sandal-alternative shoes at camp, but I enjoyed having them in town. My sneakers and my Crocs were worn every day.

Lessons learned from this wardrobe

Upon reflection, I packed so much because what I needed on this trip was really two separate wardrobes: one to protect against insect born disease and sun exposure while spending all day outdoors, and one for more benign conditions in town.

Why? If I don’t want to wear Insect Shield clothing when it isn’t needed, I’m going to need more garments.

That’s hard to avoid unless I’m willing to wear the same treated pieces constantly during the outdoors segment of a trip. Unless I’m flying in and subject to weight restrictions, or carrying all my stuff by myself for long distances, I won’t make that choice.

In the end, my luggage fit the space I had available to carry it. Organizing with packing cubes and smaller suitcases meant it was easy to access what I needed, when I needed it. Planning ahead meant that I always had wardrobe choices that made me happy; I felt appropriately dressed in a social sense as well as adequately prepared for what nature offered.

Camp accessories scarfThat scarf I added to my original packing list just before my post? I wore it a lot, got multiple compliments on it while at camp, and it kept my neck warm.

I brought two pairs of utterly frivolous—but absolutely me—earrings, too.

Packing clothing that you love, and that makes you feel good about yourself, is always good sense. Just don’t pack too much of it at any one time, and make sure it coordinates with everything else you’ve brought.

Oh yeah, and the kids were warm enough, protected from insects, and shielded from damaging UV rays, too, but I think that’s a separate post that wants writing…

Capsule wardrobe for summer outdoor adventures: keep safe; look pulled together

What do you pack when there are real physical constraints to work around (biting insects and unhealthy levels of sun/UV exposure), but you just don’t feel like yourself in clothes that don’t make the cut as an “outfit”?

Camp wardrobe rainbow ADD layers

Most of these are technical garments with special properties appropriate to spending time outdoors in comfort and good health

Here’s my attempt to address this question!

Keeping safe while attempting to look cute(ish)

When I prioritize “keeping safe” for this wardrobe, I’m referring to the gradual and progressive hazards of spending most of my time outdoors for a week. These are primarily insect bites, sun exposure, and temperature extremes.

At an official summer camp run in a legal and safe way, it would be wildly exceptional to encounter a predictable life threatening risk. My general knowledge of risk statistics in the US leads me to guess that I’m in more danger driving to camp than I am when enjoying the great outdoors in my cautiously mainstream way.

Ignoring the realities of nature, however, can lead to immediate discomfort and developing a (potentially) non-trivial illness down the road. Sunburn is a risk factor for skin cancer. Insect bites spread disease.

I’ve built up a wardrobe of clothing designed specifically to address these two risk factors.

Ultraviolet Radiation (UVR) and sunburn

Much of my summer wardrobe is made of UV blocking fabric with a high UPF. UPF or Ultraviolet Protection Factor is the fabric equivalent of the SPF you look for in sunscreen lotions; higher numbers mean greater protection.

A normal white cotton t-shirt might have a UPF of only 5 (five), whereas a t-shirt designed for sun protection in high Ultraviolet Radiation (UVR) regions can guarantee UPF of the recommended 50 (fifty) or even higher.

I’m particularly fond of sun protective clothing by the brand Coolibar. Their ZnO knit fabric feels like a soft t-shirt made of regular cotton, and is comfortable, easy care, and easy to wear. Their styles are more likely to suit my personal wardrobe aesthetic, too.

You will also find UV protective garments in my specialized outdoor wardrobe made of Solumbra (Sun Precautions catalogue), by ExOfficio, and by Columbia Sportswear.  Most (quite possibly all) of my Insect Shield clothing is also certified to have a 40+ UPF.

All of these are reliable brands whose UPF promises I trust. Most athletic and outdoor- oriented clothing companies will offer at least some pieces with UPF ratings, so buy any piece you like that carries an official UPF rating.

UPF ratings are more accurate than the SPF rating given for sunscreen lotions and creams. Few people apply sunscreen as heavily as is used in the laboratory testing scenario. Wearing UPF designated clothing means a guaranteed level of protection.

It is relatively easy to find attractive clothing styles in UV protective fabrics. There’s a lot of variety.

UPF is usually woven into the fabric of a garment, not applied as a surface treatment. This means that the sun protection will last as long as the fabric is sound. UPF doesn’t usually wash out. Check your garment’s hang tag or ask the manufacturer to be sure.

Insects: mosquitos, ticks & the diseases they spread

Protection against insect bites has the very obvious benefit of keeping you comfortable in the short term. Camp—or any other activity—is more fun when you aren’t itching, scratching, and swatting at hovering pests.

Less immediately, however, avoiding insect bites can prevent you from becoming sick down the road. Which illness and in what location will vary. What won’t change is the risk of infection. Repelling pests—keeping them off of your body, and preventing them from breaking your skin—removes the possibility of infection from their bites.

I’ve written more extensively in the past about how Permethrin treated insect repellent clothing works. Here, I will focus on how I use these pieces in a wardrobe that I don’t mind wearing.

Because the Permethrin treatment is a surface application added to the fabric, it washes out over time. Garments treated at the factory will remain effective through 70 washes; home treatments wash out much more quickly. These items should be laundered separately from untreated clothing to avoid leaching small amounts of insecticide where it isn’t wanted.

It is much harder to find clothing to suit my personal style in the Insect Shield (insect repellent treatment) category than it is in the high UPF (sun protective) category, but it is not impossible! I’ve even managed to get most of these pieces at clearance prices by being patient and buying out of season.

I really like Sierra Trading Post for low prices on last year’s high end outdoor products.

Now, on to the clothes in my outdoor adventure capsule wardrobe!

Capsule wardrobe for outdoor adventures

Bottoms

I always begin with my bottom half, because it is harder to fit.

I own fewer trousers than tops, and that is due, at least in part, to my shape. My waist is proportionally much smaller than my hips. I do have what poet Lucille Clifton described as “mighty hips.” I don’t match the standards used by garment manufacturers. Waistbands gap. I’m short-waisted.

These are issues that I deal with whenever I buy clothes for my lower half. They are often exaggerated when I shop for athletic clothing because those items are typically designed for a muscular, “tomboy” physique.

Fortunately, I’m tolerant when it comes to activewear. I’ll settle for a lesser aesthetic result in an otherwise functional garment.

Here are my Insect Shield certified bottom pieces:

I’m most excited about the charcoal grey knit ExOfficio trousers. They feel like regular cotton knit jogging pants: soft and comfortable! I avoid black in my wardrobe, and only tolerate charcoal, but the comfort factor wins by a mile when I’m looking for cozy clothes to wear around the campfire.

I wish the waist fit me better (it’s huge!), but I think I will wear these whenever it’s chilly. Joggers are also a bit silly on a hip-heavy figure, but the fitted hems will stop crawling insects and intrepid flyers. I’m willing to look silly.

You might notice that the olive green Columbia trousers are safari style and have a cargo pocket. This is not something I would tolerate on any other type of clothing, but it can be hard to avoid in hiking pants. Nothing suits my mighty hips less well than a cargo pocket adding bulk, but at least this one is sewn down and relatively flat.

These will probably feel cooler than the first pair of pants on a muggy day due to their lightweight woven synthetic construction. I’ll reach for these when the bugs are out but the temperature is high. If I’m in tick country, I’ll look even nerdier when I tuck my pants into my socks.

The Craghoppers maxi skirt is a slightly more attractive green than the muddy olive (army green!) of the Columbia trousers. It is a lighter weight knit, so should feel pretty good when it’s hot out.

I am packing this primarily because there is one “dress up” evening at our summer camp, and last time, I got bug bites all over my legs when I switched from my usual Insect Shield evening wear to a regular travel skirt that bared my legs. The mosquitoes won’t get to enjoy my ankle buffet this year: I’m prepared with this long, treated skirt!

I failed to get a group snapshot of my UV protective bottoms, but they are all Coolibar products with a 50+ UPF. I’ve got knit yoga pants in coral, knit capri pants in taupe, and a knit, knee-length A-line skirt in coral/white chevron print.

Capri pants aren’t particularly flattering to my shape, either, but I don’t wear shorts. I hate them. When the weather gets really hot, I prefer long, loose dresses, but capri pants are what I wear when I want the coverage and flexibility of pants on the muggiest days. Fashion must bow to function, and I apologize to those who suffer looking at me on hot days!

In the front row of the wardrobe photo (at the top of the post), you will also see something black. Those are my long underwear bottoms. I’ll wear these under any of the longer wardrobe items if I’m cold late at night or early in the morning. Odds are, no one will ever see them. They are underwear, after all!

Tops

If you just returned to the full wardrobe photo at the top of the page, you may have noticed, at the right, second row, above the long john pants, four small rolls in pink, orange, white, and grey; these are regular cotton/lycra tank tops. I like the ones from Duluth Trading Co.

These are usually layered under my other shirts to add warmth, modesty, or extend the time between washings, but I will wear them alone if the weather gets hot enough. I wouldn’t expose that much of my skin to the sun, however, and I’d have a UV protective shawl or wrap with me if I couldn’t find shade.

Now let’s look more closely at my Insect Shield tops:

I am packing my two safari style button front shirts. The coral shirt is Columbia and fairly boxy. The olive/tan shirt is Craghoppers, and quite fitted. The latter does include cute buttons shaped like flowers and some decorative tone-on-tone stitching. It has a more feminine feel than the more unisex Columbia option, but it’s slightly less comfortable.

Much like cargo pockets are an offense to my broad hips, chest pockets look stupid whilst highlighting my ample bosom. I’m not wearing safari shirts on purpose. These are just the most common styles in adventure fabrics, so they are most readily marked down.

I paid less than $10 for the Craghoppers shirt on Amazon; retail was probably $85 based upon a peek at their website today.

I also like that the Safari style shirts look right layered (worn open if the predatory insects allow) over a plain tank. I prefer to keep a layer of untreated fabric next to my skin instead of the Insect Shield—called NosiLife by Craghoppers—material.

The green tunic is Craghoppers, and it matches the maxi skirt I listed before. It would look better on me with a v-neck and more fitted waist, but I don’t feel bad wearing it. I just don’t feel cute.

On me, it looks best with the waist tie pulled to the back from both loops, highlighting my narrow waist without drawing a belt-line across my middle to make me look shorter. It looks better with my simple pants than it does with the bulky shirred waist of the matching skirt poofing up underneath.

The wide waistband of the maxi is meant to make it operate as a convertible halter dress, but that is not a style I’ll be sporting. Aside from a general policy of never going bra-less in public, I also find ties behind the neck trigger muscle pain and headaches for me. The extra fabric at the waist is not ideally flattering, but it is comfortable. It looks better worn over a tank top (tucked in) on me, but whether I wear it that way will depend upon the number of insects who are biting.

More to my liking is my newest acquisition: the rose colored open cardigan, also by Craghoppers. It offers less coverage from biting insects, but it better suits my personal style. It feels more cottony than some of my other pieces, but there is a rougher hand to the fabric, likely due to the treatment, though the ExOfficio knit trousers avoided this issue somehow.

Shown below the cardigan is a Columbia long sleeve t-shirt in rose that I’ve had for years. It just happens to work really nicely with the new wrap. I’ll call this my “camping sweater set.”

The polyester fabric of this t-shirt is too sporty to thrill me, but, on previous camping trips, the piece has proven its worth by protecting me from the mosquitoes who love me. I don’t reciprocate their feelings.

I’ll show some detail shots here to highlight a major problem with all Insect Shield clothing: ugly logos.

I’m not a fan of visible branding on anything. Nope, I don’t even want a designer handbag to sport an exterior brand. That. Is. Not. My. Style.

There might be a regulatory issue with Insect Shield clothing. Perhaps it must show a visible mark for reasons of consumer protection? But, at minimum, I’d like to see every product use tone-on-tone stitching for the most invisible branding possible.

I’m delighted to talk about where I got my clothes, or a clever solution like Insect Shield garments. I don’t want my wardrobe to advertise for itself. Craghoppers’ white logos on otherwise “fashion” oriented pieces are the most baffling to me. Why?

Finally, the periwinkle Insect Shield hoodie by White Sierra. This piece is my least favorite of the batch. Aside from standing out as an obvious mis-match to my capsule wardrobe color scheme, the fabric of this piece is that not-so-pleasant polyester used for hiking clothes. It doesn’t feel very nice next to the skin.

I thought about leaving it behind. However… this is my campfire staple piece. I don’t like it so much, so if there are drippy s’mores, or kids with charcoal on their fingers seeking hugs, this piece can take whatever abuse nature hands out.

Perhaps every item of Insect Shield clothing is “grubby” and designed to work hard in the great outdoors, but this hoodie is my most grubby. I’d wear it if I were painting a wall and there were annoying bugs.

I added two other tops.

One—an ExOfficio crinkle tunic in white—is such a favorite, I bought three more when they went on final clearance and I’d realized how much I loved the first one.

Bottoms w white top

ExOfficio tunic shown with my Hilton Head wardrobe

This tunic fits me perfectly, has a flattering v-neckline and a nipped in waist. It’s just long enough to cover my bum, but it doesn’t overwhelm my 5′ 2.5″ body. It breathes easy with its seersucker texture, and it washes well as it’s made of some kind of smooth synthetic blend.

The final top is a Coolibar long sleeve t-shirt in taupe. It has a crew neck, which is good for UV protection, but adds nothing to my appearance. The color is drab, but it blends neatly with my neutrals for this wardrobe. Being ZnO fabric, it feels wonderful on. I will layer with this, probably wearing it most mornings during the coolest hours.

There’s a reason this top is in my camping wardrobe instead of rotating through my everyday Coolibar collection. It’s not the cutest, but it functions well and matches the safari color scheme that outdoor clothing manufacturers continue to thrust upon us. I bought it to pair with the capri pants in the same shade, but the head-to-toe (actually: shoulder-to-upper-calf) taupe makes me want to cry.

I’m not a neutral person!

Footwear

The camp packing list is very specific about bringing enough footwear. They suggest at least two pairs of sturdy shoes with laces in case one pair gets wet/muddy. Sandals are suggested, and hiking boots are an option.

I’m opting for two pairs of grey sneakers. The grey with coral (front row, 2nd from right) are breathable mesh. The grey with magenta (back row, far right) are waterproof.

I’m also bringing pair of sandal-alternative-almost-cute summer shoes by Propet, in taupe. I prefer my grey pair of these, which is why I’m leaving them at home. There’s rain in the forecast! If I’m going to ruin shoes, it’ll be the less attractive pair.

I’m not skipping them, however, because I hate having hot feet. This is the lightest weight, airiest shoe I can wear comfortably for any length of time.

My Crocs are hideous, but they fit my orthotics and they allow me to get around indoors without crippling pain. I don’t walk barefoot even to use the bathroom at night. My foot problems won’t allow for such liberties. Consider these my slippers, or house shoes.

Crocs will also work for shower shoes, which is reassuring in the summer camp environment. They’re even safe to throw in the washing machine when we get home. I don’t love my Crocs, but I appreciate the mobility they support, and I’m happy not to have to step my naked foot in a communal shower stall. In nature. Shared by kids…

Accessories

I was done packing. The suitcase was even zipped. But I hesitated.

Here’s what I grabbed:

Camp accessories scarfThis is a rayon scarf. I’ve had it for years. It is soft against the skin, and not too warm to wear in summer. It goes with everything warm colored—red, coral, peach, orange, even purple. And, after all, you never know when a scarf will be wanted.

It will keep me warmer. It will make me feel more dressed up. I feel more like myself when I’m draped in something colorful and sensuous. I’m the kind of lady who wears a lot of scarves.

I’m not going to wear drape-y rayon around a campfire, though. I’m pretty sure this stuff is highly flammable!

Of course, there are nightclothes, socks, and undies in my bag, too. I’m only willing to show you the socks:

It’s a lot of socks, but camp is dirty. I also have everything from thick wool socks on the left, to tiny footie socks in the back row. They take up almost no space, and I will have what I want to be comfortable. Sore feet can ruin many outdoor adventures. I consider these to be some of the most important items I’ve packed.

There are even two pairs of Insect Shield treated socks. They are blue because I got them on sale. Stopping ticks will rate higher than nicely coordinated socks in some conditions. Considering the very limited colors available for treated socks, I’d likely have been compromising on color anyway. Price mattered more.

I’ll be bringing my teal blue knee length soft shell coat for outerwear. The forecast calls for more rain/storms than heat. If we get heat instead, I probably won’t need the coat. teal raincoat

I am also bringing both a broad brimmed sun hat (more Coolibar), and an inexpensive rain hat (that worked great in Alaska) to shield my face and/or keep my glasses dry whatever the weather.

Combinations

With six bottoms and six tops, this is not a minimalist capsule wardrobe. It does all fit—with the exception, in this case, of most of the shoes—in my Tom Bihn Aeronaut (original size, aka Aeronaut 45) carry on size suitcase.

If every piece worked equally well together, we’d have 36 obvious outfits from this mix, and that’s without considering my layering pieces as stand-alone alternatives. Since I will be traveling for several weeks in total, I’m happy to have lots of options.

Packing light for camp borders on the impossible because we need to bring bedding, pillows, towels, and clothing suitable for many conditions (40-90º F) with no access to laundry facilities. We did it last time (sort of) by renting bedding, but we didn’t sleep comfortably under so-so blankets on not-quite-right pillows.

Simple sleeping bags are no longer an option for summer camp. It’s considered a risk during a fire, so zipped up sleeping bags aren’t allowed. Unzipped, a sleeping bag won’t create that useful microclimate of warmth that makes them so space efficient to pack.

This time, we’re driving instead of flying, and we’re packing what we need to be comfortable.

Also, even with most of the Insect Shield items removed, the remaining  pieces make their own more minimalist capsule wardrobe. It’s wearable for days, and lacks only my usual accessories to make me feel fully dressed, and fully expressive of my own style.

The three bottoms (coral, taupe, coral/white) plus the two UV tops (taupe t-shirt, white tunic) and tanks coordinate very well. If I just keep the Craghoppers wrap in the mix, I can “cover my bum” when wearing the stretch pants with tinier tops. Or, I could buy a few large scarves for souvenirs and complete the looks (and cover my backside) that way.

I know it might seem a little odd to plan a wardrobe for a nature excursion, but it’s such a great way to point out the value in buying clothing aligned to a broader vision of how you want to dress.

I don’t think it matters how you look while hiking in the woods! I wouldn’t let mis-matched clothes prevent me from enjoying a week outdoors with my family this summer.

But, on the other hand, I do enjoy creating a thoughtful packing list that will ensure I bring what I need, wear what I bring, and am happy about how I look and how I feel.

I hope this post has been enlightening to a reader or two, and perhaps given someone the notion that it’s okay to think about what you wear while you’re adventuring, so long as you attend to function as well!

How do you pack for camping, hiking, or other outdoor adventures? Do you have a specialized wardrobe?

Peek inside my lunchbox: reusable solutions for a waste free lunch

Say you want to join the waste free lunch revolution, but you don’t know where to start. Here’s some advice on where to begin if you’re looking to reduce disposable packaging in your packed lunches.

Lunch dishes zero waste Packed bag

Containers used include Medium U Konserve square (grey lid), 10 oz Thermos jar, U Konserve small round (brown lid), Nalgene 8 oz wide mouth bottle, and Bumkins snack bag (Batman)

What does a zero waste lunch look like, anyway?

There are a lot of nifty reusable lunch containers on the market today, and it could be easy to imagine you need to invest the kids’ college funds and buy a complete set of stainless steel Tupperware alternatives from an expensive, eco-friendly brand.

That’s great if you have the budget—and it isn’t wrong to say that a few perfectly sized and well designed pieces can streamline a lunch packing system and simplify busy mornings.

On the other hand, lunch—or, at least, the concept of eating food while away from home—is hardly a modern concept. You can pack a lunch with whatever you have on hand, and you can do it without waste.

Disposable products are almost entirely a modern concept. Lunchables and Ziploc bags are the newfangled oddities that should be regarded with suspicion.

You can reuse commercial packaging jars.

Reusing bottles and jars is one good option.

The great benefit of these is that they appear in your home as a side benefit of some consumable you’ve purchased anyway. Jelly jars as drinking glasses? That’s reuse at work. You can certainly bring soup to school in a mayonnaise jar.

The down side is having the right tool for the given job. Does anyone have a kid who eats that much soup? Unless we were buying what I think of as “singles” sizes (as opposed to our large, “family size” jars) of mayo, peanut butter, etc., these jars are too big for any meal I can imagine for my kids.

If you’ve got the jars on hand, however, use them!

My mother-in-law has told me many times about how, living in communist Russia, they would save every jar they got. They were considered generous gifts to offer when someone invited you to visit their home. Every one was reused, and very much appreciated as the useful tool it was.

Her stories really help me appreciate the bounty I enjoy every day in my life, and we’ve gotten plenty of family sized helpings of her homemade chicken soup in repurposed jars.

Dry foods will survive just fine wrapped in fabric

Sandwiches on the dry side and similarly non-oily cakes can be wrapped in plain cloth napkins. If I have something just a bit too squishy for cotton, I might cheat and use a layer of waxed paper or parchment beneath the cloth. Okay, then I’m no longer packing a waste free lunch, but the paper does at least stand a chance of biodegrading, unlike a plastic option.

I grew up using cloth napkins, and that’s all we’ve ever used in our shared home. That means they are always on hand in the kitchen, and that I’ve also got a subset of napkins with stains. That mayo from the sandwich could make a grease spot? Oh well.

Just take care not to use your heirloom linens for this task, and it’ll be fine.

Damp foods can travel in dishes with fabric lids

Moving up the squishiness scale, damp or moderately malleable foods can go with you in any bowl you own. Just cover with a cloth and use a rubber band to hold the cover in place. This option is perfectly fine for adults who will carry a lunchbox in a reasonably upright orientation.

Remember Little House on the Prairie? Well, those kids carried their lunch to school in a tin pail with a cloth over the top, and we know Ma didn’t pack it full of Tupperware. The kids probably swung the pail as they walked several miles to school, too. Not a single anecdote from those novels tells the tale of a ruined lunch and how the world, as a result, ended.

Err on the side of caution and use an oversized dish. The food is less likely to slop over if you swing your pail tip your lunchbox in transit.

Soup is tricky: buy a Thermos

If I were starting to pack waste free lunches today with no existing dishes, and I was ready to invest in some basic equipment, my first purchase would be:

All of these are made primarily of stainless steel. They hold up well, are non toxic, and they won’t break under normal use, even by kids or clumsy adults. All of them have withstood regular washing by machine, even the Thermos which doesn’t recommend dishwasher use.

Lunch dishes zero waste Squares nested Rounds

U Konserve sells the To Go square boxes as a “Nesting Trio” (compare to individual piece prices on Amazon for the best value); below are U Konserve small round, mini round, & a generic red silicone baking cup

I’m assuming anyone reading this article already owns at least one reusable water bottle or beverage cup. I see making that switch as even more fundamental than packing a waste free lunch. Exploring the best water bottles would require a whole separate post!

Why these?

The Thermos is vital for me, because I like to pack hot leftovers and soups. Even when I had access to a microwave at work, I found it easier to do all my food prep at home in the morning. Ditto for my kids. I can barely get my little guy to eat the food I send for him; he’d rather skip lunch and head straight outside for free time. Only an insulated container gives you warm food immediately when you’re ready to eat.

A big eater could readily swap the 10 oz Thermos jar for the larger 16 oz size. The lids interchange between the two sizes, and I own both. I tend to pack smaller servings of more types of food for the larger appetites in our family, but the 16 oz size isn’t unreasonably large for a one dish meal such as casserole.

But, many times, I want to send drier foods that are fine at room temperature, or perhaps a sandwich to accompany that soup. I’ve found the medium square To Go box by U Konserve to be an ideal size. It will hold a fairly large sandwich (e.g., on artisan bread), but it can also handle a child’s mini sandwich with an assortment of small side dishes.

A really big eater might be inclined to start with a large square To Go box, but I’d still recommend the medium as an initial purchase. Your food will travel better in a box that’s packed full; empty space leads to shifting and deconstructed sandwiches. Buy two mediums (or maybe a medium and a small square) instead of one large and you’ve got more flexibility.

The U Konserve small round containers come in a set of two, which is a good start, because I pack between one and three of these in my son’s lunchbox almost every day. This is the size for a serving of carrot sticks. The silicone lid fits snugly enough to allow for sloppy foods such as yogurt, and its 5 ounce capacity is within the range of usual serving sizes for it.

One standard sized cookie fits neatly inside a small round by diameter, though I’ve been told that I should “fill” the container by including two or more cookies for the necessary depth…

These small rounds are approximately the size of a tuna fish can.

Having set that bare minimum as a baseline, I struggled to write the last section without mentioning what I’ll add here as Phase Two of the Zero Waste Lunchbox Shop-a-thon.

Extras make fitting odd items easier

Moving on from “bare necessities” to “really nice to have,” I’d add:

A set of silicone “baking cups” works wonders to subdivide your larger lunch box containers. These flexible molds come in standard circles, like a reusable version of the paper liners you’ve seen on cupcakes, but they are also available in squares, rectangles, and other shapes and sizes.

I use the square and rectangular cups the most often. They let me snuggle a pickle or other wet food in the same dish with a sandwich when I have an empty corner to fill, and they keep the wrong flavors from mingling. Before I had the silicone inserts, I used a lot more waxed paper or parchment to keep disparate foods from touching each other.

Since they come in a rainbow of colors, baking cups also make the lunchbox look happy inside, for an added ray of sunshine.

The next addition to the shopping list, not quite as basic as the small rounds by U Konserve, but, again, appearing super frequently in our family lunch boxes, are by the same brand: the Mini Food Containers (set of 3.)

Lunch dishes zero waste mini round

U Konserve mini food containers are ideal for boiled eggs or cucumbers

About half of Amazon shoppers are offended by how small these are, but that’s why I think they’re so perfect. Many kids don’t like commingled foodstuffs. Separation can be a beautiful thing. Also, many foods aren’t good for us in large quantities. These make a proper one ounce serving of nuts look bountiful instead of pitiful. They perfectly hold one peeled hard boiled egg.  A single macaroon fits neatly inside.

They won’t keep in liquids, so they aren’t quite as versatile as the rounds with the silicone lids, but I love this size.  It’s great for my light eater to have a high protein snack, stored distinctly from his lunch selections.

My final almost must haves are also some of my newest acquisitions: Bumkins snack bags.

These are like Ziploc bags, but made of washable fabric. The Bumkins brand also makes cloth diapers and other baby items. I preferred their bibs for my boys when they were babies. This is the same durable material: water resistant, wipeable, smooth, and washable.

They can go in the dishwasher (top rack) just like the rest of the lunch stuff, or you can launder them by machine. They dry overnight. I hang mine over the handles of my knives in the knife rack.

Now that I have them, I wonder why I waited so long, but I can tell you the answer. I doubted they would work. I thought they would be hard to clean or less convenient, like some other (hand wash only) reusable zipper bags I tried years ago. When I realized last fall that the only time I was still reaching for a disposable bag was when I had a tiny corner to fill in a full lunchbox, I finally bought these, and I’ve been very happy with both the large (sandwich bag) and small (snack) sizes.

I’ll admit it: I don’t fill the Bumkins bags with super juicy stuff. I have jars with threaded lids for that, and would sooner use the silicone lidded stainless than the bags if I didn’t. Neither the kids nor I have had any juice leak through from fruits, veggies, or pickles with them, though. I polled the house today to make sure.

I’ve packed a lot of lunches using many products

I was inspired to describe our lunch kit today by the comment stream after a post on A  Ferdydurking Blog about reducing waste. I’ve tried quite a few products to refine a system that works well for us, and probably wasted a bit of money in the process because I love to compare every possible thing.

One great bit of news is that almost every eco friendly lunchbox brand I’ve tried has been of good quality and sincerely useful. I can’t say enough good things about LunchBots, U Konserve (formerly Kids Konserve), and even the plastic (but high quality) Laptop Lunch brand.

It’s a far cry from the loads of cheap plastic ware that abound in mass market stores and often have poor fitting lids or corners that crack within a few uses. But not every piece will be ideal for every lunchbox. It depends upon what you like to pack for lunch.

I’ve offered up my best suggestions for where to start if you want to begin packing a lunch that’s a bit lighter on the planet. Please feel free to ask if I’ve prompted any questions. I’ve packed an awful lot of lunches in these dishes!

Ticks suck. Literally! Take action to prevent tick-borne diseases like Lyme.

Taking precautions to prevent tick bites is a daily necessity in many places today. I’ve opted to include insect repellent clothing (treated with permethrin) and judicious application of insect repellent in our family arsenal against these tiny pests, combined with physical measures such as covering the skin as much as possible.

Repel insect repellent spray

Spring to fall, insect repellent stays in the car

Statistics tell us that tick-borne illnesses—including Lyme Disease in my region—are now endemic in vast swathes of the country. This became clear to me on a personal level when I totaled up the number of kids in my child’s first grade class that I knew anecdotally to have a Lyme diagnosis: six out of 21 kids!

29% of my son’s first grade class had Lyme Disease

We chose schools based at least in part on practices including time outdoors and nature study every day, but one result was increasing the kids’ exposure to a still-expanding risk of infection via insect bites.

In addition to Lyme, other tick-borne diseases include babesiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and tularemia. There are more, and specific symptoms and prognoses differ, but the most important thing to know as an nature lover or outdoors enthusiast is that tens of thousands of Americans are infected by tick-borne illnesses every year. Some continue to suffer ill effects for years.

Infected ticks are a risk to human health in every state in the USA except Hawaii.

Prevention is better than treating a disease

Where simple steps can prevent pain and suffering, I choose to take defensive action. There’s controversy about how Lyme should be diagnosed and treated, for example. I’d rather not have to become a part of that debate.

Here’s how I protect my family:

1) Know the risks & be vigilant

Ticks are found in many regions, but they tend to lurk where leaves accumulate and trees or brush meet open areas. Here in New England, all those charming stone walls are great spots to stop and rest on a hike, but also popular hangouts for ticks.

Ticks have evolved to wait alongside paths for their prey.

Learn where ticks are likely in your area. Try to avoid brushing up against foliage if possible.

Ticks can be active any time the weather warms above freezing. They don’t die off seasonally like mosquitoes do. They are most active from roughly April to September, and their feeding habits vary according to their life cycle stages, but I’ve taught my kids to take precautions against ticks any time the temperature is above 40ºF.

Check yourself and your children after time spent outdoors. Teach your kids to check themselves, too.

Bathing upon returning home is best, though washing isn’t guaranteed to remove ticks from your skin. Close inspection is necessary. Some ticks are as tiny as the head of pin.

Change clothes when you come inside after spending time in tick-likely areas.

If you want to wear lightly worn clothing again without washing, put clothes in a hot dryer for just ten minutes. The heat is what kills the little beasts.

2) Take all feasible physical measures to keep ticks off your skin

This is so simple, and probably more effective than anything else: wear long pants and tuck them into your socks when you’re in tick-infested areas. Yes, you will look like a dork, but you won’t come home to find a tick attached in one your crevices.

Ticks don’t fly or jump. They linger at the tips of plants, waiting for a likely host.

Once they’re on your body, they climb. The tick finds an attractive feeding spot, buries its head in your flesh, and feeds on your blood. It might inject a glue to hold tighter into your body, or anesthetic saliva to prevent your feeling its presence.

A tick might remain on your body feeding for several days. Longer exposure to an infected tick increases the odds that the infection will transfer to you.

Cover your skin, and ticks will have a harder time feeding off of your blood or transmitting disease.

3) Use chemical repellents in a targeted way

It’s downright ironic that I prioritize buying organic food, but I’ve invested in a set of insecticide treated clothing for every member of my family. I’m concerned enough about the threat of tick-borne infection to take this step. We wear treated clothes when we’re spending significant time out of doors.

Treated clothing comes from many brands, and is often labeled using the Insect Shield® license, but I’ve seen variations on the market like Buzz Off, NosiLife®, BugsAway, or No Fly Zone®. I look for bargains on Amazon or in the Sierra Trading Post catalog since I care far more about function than style for this category of clothing.

You can also apply a permethrin treatment to your own clothing at home, but then you have toxic liquids to apply correctly and store or dispose of properly. Home treatments also wash out faster than commercial ones. The solution is very dangerous to pet cats. I choose not to apply permethrin treatments at home for these reasons.

For daily wear at school and during outdoor play, I made ankle wraps from commercially available, permethrin treated bandanas. This was far more cost-effective than buying many pairs of treated pants, and the bandanas are easier to find than treated socks in children’s sizes. It also removes the insecticide to one layer further from my child’s skin.

At full retail, one bandana costs $18, and can wrap two pairs of ankles; treated pants retail around $60 per pair and are quickly outgrown by kids. Outdoors, my kids have been instructed to tuck their pants into their socks, and wear the bandana wraps on top of the socks.

One more very affordable option is to buy Insect Shield® socks in a men’s size, then cut them into ≅2 inch tubes (slices of sock.) You can get about eight pairs from one pair of large socks.

Wear these slices as sweatbands around wrists and ankles like a fashionable athlete circa 1980. Dorky again (well, perhaps that’s in the eye of the beholder), but quick to don, relatively cheap, and great for putting a physical barrier right where you need it. These will also hold long pants or sleeves snug against the bare skin to stop crawling ticks.\

I keep insect repellent spray in my car and I encourage my child to keep a bottle in his school cubby for application before recess, if it’s allowed. We use bug spray just on our feet and ankles before we go outside to walk or play.

Kids are usually in a hurry to get outside, so I combine as many of these measures as possible each day. If they miss one step, they still usually have some protection against ticks.

Prioritize whichever measures you and your family are most likely to remember to use every time you spend time outdoors. One of my sons was good about remembering to pull on the “sweatband” style bands; one of them just tucks his pants into his socks before school and is happy to stay like that all day.

Do what works.

4) Immediately report tick bites to your doctor

When I found a tick on myself one morning, attached/embedded and engorged, and obviously acquired at least 24 hours before, I opted to take a prophylactic dose of antibiotics. Our home attempt at removal squished the tick and therefore increased my risk of acquiring any disease it could be carrying.

This was the only time I’ve found a tick on a member of my family in this condition. We’ve found them crawling on our skin but not attached in other cases.

I also sent the dead tick into a lab at a state university for identification and testing. It cost me $50 out of pocket, but, when the results showed that my tiny attacker was positive for tick-borne disease, I was relieved to have taken the antibiotic.

I might not have become infected without these measures, but they helped greatly with my peace of mind. Keep in mind that I usually take a wait and see attitude before giving any member of my family antibiotics. I avoid medication when possible and try to resolve health issues with rest, diet, etc. I was unwilling to gamble when Lyme Disease was in the equation.

Definitely discuss these measure with your own doctor, but be aware that a single dose prophylactic antibiotic is an option in some circumstances, and ask for treatment if your situation warrants.

I’m also grateful that I took the prophylactic treatment as I’ve since been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition that includes joint pain. I would have wondered more about the potential for chronic Lyme disease otherwise, though my symptoms aren’t a great match for those widely reported.

Even if you don’t take preventative antibiotics, but you later become symptomatic, notes in your medical record about a tick bite could provide a useful clue to your health care provider.

Lunchbox life saver: Weck glass storage jars paired with Thermos insulated containers

Some small tweaks in behavior can eliminate daily annoyances. One of those, for me, was the switch from storing leftovers in miscellaneous containers to using glass canning jars with narrow necks made by Weck.

What makes a glass jar revolutionary?

The mouth of a Weck ¼ L Cylindrical Jar (neck opening) nestles perfectly inside the rim of a Thermos insulated jar. It also holds just the right quantity of food to completely fill a 10 ounce Thermos.

I can microwave leftovers in their storage container (Weck jar), then simply invert the jar over the Thermos to quickly and neatly transfer the warmed food.

My old method was messy & inefficient

Before, I would transfer a serving size portion of leftovers—judged by eyeballing the quantity—from a larger Pyrex storage container to a plate. I’d re-heat the food, then fill the Thermos from the plate. Unless I took the extra step to measure out the serving of food, I routinely over- or under-estimated how much mass on a plate would precisely fill an insulated jar.

Or, I would store single servings in plastic containers, but then I would need to dump the food onto a microwave safe dish before re-heating.

We don’t heat food in plastic because of the potential health risk of leaching toxins. I prefer not to store food in plastic for the same reason, though I’m not zealous enough about the subject to avoid it when there’s a real danger of broken glass.

In either case, I also had to spoon the food into the Thermos after heating. That usually resulted in at least a little spilled food and a greasy mess on the outside of the lunch container. Remember, hand-eye coordination is not a particular strength of mine. My arthritis also means morning stiffness in my fingers, further reducing my competence in the kitchen, especially during the before school rush.

Objective improvements thanks to Weck jars

Here’s a list of functional improvements I can attribute to my switch to storing individual servings of leftovers in Weck jars:

  • less wasted food
  • no dirty measuring cup and/or
  • no dirty plate used for re-heating
  • no dirty spoon used to transfer
  • no dirty kitchen counter from spills
  • less frequent cleaning of lunchbox interior from carrying greasy Thermos

More subjective benefits

Though I tend to put function first, the intangible benefits of this new storage and food transfer solution have also made a big impression on me.

Glass jars are beautiful

I debated whether this should be reason number one, but it’s too easy to overlook little changes that bring a lot of joy to everyday life. Beauty is one of those.

Weck jars lids narrow neck - 1

L to R: ½ L Juice Jar; 080 Mini Mold Jar over ¼ L Juice Jar; 760 Mini Mold jar over 975 ¼ L Cylindrical Jar; plastic storage lid, glass canning lid, 762 1/5 Jelly Jar

Even with my lackluster photography, Weck jars make a pretty picture.

I originally bought a set of three of the ½ L Juice Jars from a fancy kitchen store at an exorbitant price. I had a functional use for them, but I also just loved them. Aside from looking nice, the juice jars, in particular, are sized to feel great in the hand while you hold them.

Compare these two views:

Though both cupboards store functional kitchen equipment I use every day, it should be obvious which items I store in a closed cupboard, and which are stored in plain sight.

Made in Germany, meant to last

Americans who aren’t familiar with the German manufacturer, Weck, should know that these are canning jars. Consider this a European equivalent to our Ball or Kerr canning jars.

The difference, and, again, what makes these so perfect for use with a Thermos, is the size of the mouth of the jar. You want a jar with a 2-3/8 inch opening to mate with a Thermos. Weck also makes wider mouthed jars more similar in diameter to the mason jars used in the USA, so check the size carefully before you place an order.

Because these are canning jars, they are made of thick, strong tempered glass. They were designed to be immersed in boiling water as part of the canning process, then stored for long periods to keep food fresh. They are sturdy.

They are microwave and freezer safe, and I routinely use them for both.

Avoid sudden temperature changes when using glass, and allow room for expansion when freezing liquids. Weck jars are sturdy glass, but any glass has the potential to break if mishandled.

Standardized sizes for sensible accessory storage

I realized years ago that buying a set of containers with interchangeable lids works much better for me than a bunch of disparate sizes. I am reasonably good about tossing a container that’s lost its lid, but why run that risk in the first place?

To keep up with the packed meal demands of my family of four, I own six Thermos insulated jars in two sizes, all of which use interchangeable lids.

Though I’ve now expanded my Weck jar collection to include both 2-3/8 inch and 3-7/8 inch diameter sizes, in both cases I can always order extra lids to replace any that are lost or mangled. The jars are somewhat expensive, but the plastic lids are very reasonably priced.

One less thing to worry about

A canning jar won’t change your life, but, if your family carries packed lunches, it might remove a moment of stress from typical mornings. In our household, that’s one of the busiest—and most stressful—stretches of the day.

And, after all, is there any more beautiful way to store your jelly beans?

Weck jelly beans

Beastie massage ball as portable preventative, and sometimes cure, for tension headaches and associated maladies

The “Beastie” massage ball is one of those little gadgets you don’t know how much you need until you try one… and then try living without it! If you find deep pressure massage of very specific points eases your pain or releases stress, this tool might work just as well for you.beastie1

Essentially, the Beastie is a hard rubber, star shaped ball with rounded points. It comes on its own little stand so it won’t readily roll out of position if you use it on the floor. It rolls much less than the common lacrosse ball (about $5) often used for self-massage methods. As a mom in a house with boys, I find the “not a ball” feature alone worth the higher price ($25) of a Beastie—no one picks this up and wanders off tossing it from hand to hand, or tries to start a game of catch inside the house.

The stand has four screw holes, so you could attach it to your wall for use massaging the upper back. I’m very satisfied with just placing the Beastie against the wall and holding it up with my weight, so don’t worry that you’ll need to put holes in your walls. I’ve never noticed it marring any wall, painted or wallpapered, as it rolls.

I used to just apply hard pressure with my fingertips when I felt a headache coming on. This only sometimes proved effective. The arthritis in my fingers now means I simply can’t press hard enough, or hold pressure long enough, for relief without a tool. The jaw, the base of the skull where it meets the neck, the fat pad of my palm—all of these spots and more hold tension that benefits from deep, prolonged pressure.

My worst spot, right under what my husband calls the “chicken wing,” the spot on my back where my arm merges with my shoulder—only a willing friend or professional massage therapist could effectively reach before I found the Beastie ball. This area, so often aggravated by long days at the computer (arms forward) and driving a car (arms forward), was also the weak spot where I developed a herniated disc many years ago, interrupting my career and causing me months of excruciating pain. That experience played a large role in encouraging me to learn simple self-care techniques, like self massage, to help avoid developing any more problems related to our modern “sitting disease.”

I’ve used a few other “trigger point” self massage tools, and I’ve gotten useful information about the technique from a few specific sources. The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, for example, is really informative and thorough, but I would suggest trying self massage with a Beastie (or a lacrosse ball!) for a while to see if the technique helps you before investing more money or time in this much theory. It also isn’t the first book I’d recommend on the topic.

I can’t say enough about the Trigger Point Performance instructional booklet ($25) that got me started on this journey. My only complaint about their products is price. Their version of the simple lacrosse ball roller is $20, but, unlike the Beastie’s “fingers” that really dig deep, I don’t see any improvement in functionality with the TP Massage Ball.

I don’t regret paying for my “Trigger Point Performance Ultimate 6 Total Body Self Myofascial Release and Deep Tissue Massage Kit” (similar to this current set for $80), but I wouldn’t replace every item if my originals were lost or wore out. I would replace the booklet and do the exercises with a standard foam roller, a yoga block, and my Beastie ball.Trigger Point2

I’ve got a RumbleRoller ORIGINAL (blue) in the Compact (13 inch) size. I tend to work on one side of the body at a time, and I’m also just a medium sized woman, so the ease of storing the shorter roller made this the best option for me. I use this on the carpeted floor of the room where I exercise, but it’s too bulky to take out all the time. It’s not attractive enough to leave out in my family room. If I feel a headache coming on in the middle of the day, I’m at my desk or in the car, and the RumbleRoller won’t be where I need it. It also requires a wide open space to roll on it for best effect.

The little Beastie is about the size of a baseball on a display stand. I keep it on a shelf near the TV, one room away from my desk in our workroom. If I’m driving around a lot, I throw the Beastie ball, minus the stand, in my tote bag along with my water and snacks. It’s completely, conveniently portable.

Trigger Point1I can use the Beastie with just hand pressure any time, or against the leather upholstery in my car’s seat or the padded surface of the sofa for light pressure. I can usually find an empty stretch of wall in any room if I want to get deeper pressure by leaning against it for my upper body; sometimes I use it on the floor where the full force of gravity makes the pressure even stronger. It’s easy to keep the Beastie handy, so I use it a lot, and that makes my life less painful.

Headaches were a frequent fact of life in my teens and young adulthood. I was a computer geek from way back, and the old CRT monitors were barely tolerable for  constant use. Both reading (head bent over book) and computer usage (CRT flicker, squinting, bad ergonomics)—activities that consumed most of my waking hours—led to poor posture and muscle tension. Fluorescent tube lighting (flicker again!) in classrooms and offices just added to my woes. My headaches are even triggered by the “stripes” of light that come in through Venetian window blinds.

Unfortunately for me, tension headaches often segue into migraines if I don’t immediately stop the trigger—usually manageable these days as a stay-at-home mom, but almost always impossible as a student or office employee.

I wish I’d had a Beastie years ago. It would have saved me from a lot of pain without requiring a total lifestyle revision. Perhaps it could do the same for you?

My doctor won’t take my insurance, and I’m thrilled

I liked my doctor, but I never got to see him

I’ve had the same primary care physician—the health care professional we used to simply call “my doctor”—for about a decade. I’ve always liked him, both professionally and as a human being.

A few years ago, I started looking around for a new doctor. I didn’t like my physician any less, but I hadn’t seen him face-to-face in years. Instead, every time I made an appointment, I saw a different nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant. I liked some of them; others, I didn’t spend enough time with to form an opinion. Even when I made an appointment for a physical eighteen (18!) months in advance, I could only see random members of my chosen doctor’s group practice staff.

The final straw came when that physical with the nurse practitioner that I’d scheduled one and a half years ahead was canceled one week before it was due to happen. My kids were younger then, and I’m their primary caregiver. It’s a role I take seriously. Parenting is my job, so I organize my life in order to do that job well.

I had scheduled all of my own “routine maintenance” appointments for the same summer week: eye doctor, physical, well woman exam, teeth cleaning. If I had oil, that’s the week I would’ve changed it. I enrolled the children in summer day camp so all my “business hours” were free for one week. I wanted to take care of my health needs without distraction or discomfort from discussing sensitive topics in front of little ears.

Modern group medical practice didn’t prioritize patient needs

The disinterested office staffer who called and blithely informed me that I must reschedule my physical for a date a few weeks later—after the school year had started, after my full slate of mommy responsibilities had resumed, at a time that absolutely did not work for me—clearly did not understand my frustration with her message. She certainly had no power to fix my problem, and she didn’t seem to care. That’s when I resigned myself to finding another health care provider.

Considering the current shortage of plain old family doctors in the United States, none of this is surprising. Having “good” health insurance seems like an oxymoron. If I can’t see a doctor, how is my health “insured”?

I did some research on the Internet. I’d read an article about doctors foregoing insurance to simplify their finances by accepting only cash payments, and I looked for one of those. None appeared to be practicing in my physician rich corner of New England, though specialists who can take advantage of my “good insurance” abound.

There were no good alternatives for straightforward routine care

I had reached the uncomfortable position of interviewing “concierge doctors” by late 2013 as I tried to find a solution I’d be happy with. I’m okay with the idea that some people want to pay large sums to have a doctor available at their convenience, but my needs seemed much simpler and very… common.

I’m willing to make an appointment. I’m willing to wait my turn. I don’t care if the office is luxurious, or exclusive, or much more than conveniently located and hygienic. I just wanted to see my doctor when I had a scheduled appointment, and have at least a chance of seeing him or her when I had an urgent need. I wanted my doctor to be familiar with me and my health history.

I didn’t think I was asking for the moon, but alternatives were lacking.

After six weeks of frustration and having selected the concierge doctor I liked best after interviewing the few available candidates in my price range, I happened to Google my old doc’s name one more time. You see, when I’d called his old practice to inform them I wouldn’t be showing up to see the nurse practitioner I barely knew at the inconveniently rescheduled time, they told me Dr. So-and-so had left the practice. They “couldn’t” give me a forwarding address. (Later, Dr. So-and-so himself told me that the practice was well aware of his new office, but they appeared unwilling to lose patients by sharing that information.)

My doctor was as frustrated with the system as I was.

Guess what I discovered when I Googled Dr. So-and-so? He had left his old physicians group practice because he didn’t want to practice medicine that way anymore. He was sick of being rushed through 20 appointments every day during which he couldn’t take enough time to hear out a patient. He was tired of being an insurance-appeaser when he had set out to practice medicine. He was leaving the system. He was as frustrated with it as I was.

I knew I liked Dr. So-and-so for a reason!

I’d stumbled onto an article in the local paper about my good old primary care doctor’s foray into the everything-old-is-new-again “direct primary care” provision of medicine. I could pay cash directly to my preferred doctor to receive medical care when I needed it.

Revolutionary? It strikes me as obvious. And let me add cost effective, convenient, and finally!

The simple analogy used in the direct primary care model is that it’s like routine maintenance on your car vs. getting repairs after a major accident you couldn’t predict.

You know you need oil changes and the occasional new tires for the car, so you factor that into your budget and carry on. That’s the stuff my doctor handles. I see him for an annual physical, when I’ve caught a cold, or if I sprain my ankle. I have his cell phone number; he answers it himself. I can email him or send a text message and I hear right back. He can fit me in today. He has time to talk to me until I have said everything I have to say about my problem.

Monthly payments to the doctor cost half as much as a cable bill

I pay my doctor a monthly fee that covers as much medical care as I need. It costs less per month for me than my cable bill, or my husband’s data heavy cell phone bill. That’s or, not and. If you can afford to spend $4 per day at Starbucks buying coffee, you can afford this caliber of medical care for one adult and one child at my doctor’s practice. This is a manageable bill for a middle class family.

I still have health insurance. It’s that <cough> good kind. I use it to see my specialist care providers, or when I need an expensive test like an MRI or a bone scan. My doctor can still order tests for me at the same local hospitals, and he can still submit the forms for those big ticket tests to my insurance provider, but he also tells me what the cash price would be. Thousands of dollars out of pocket? Yes, let’s do paperwork.

Cash prices for simple tests can be just a few dollars ($3)

But many simple blood tests done in the doctor’s office cost just a few dollars, so I pay the bill and skip the forms. A cholesterol test costs less than a latté when it hasn’t been marked up for the rigmarole of insurance reimbursement. It becomes fairly obvious why insurance rates are so high when you compare these prices for yourself in the context of your own care. It turns out that there’s a huge cost created by the complexity of the insurance system itself.

When you use your insurance, you’re paying for extra billing staff in every medical office, the insurance company’s offices, the army of employees at said offices, and even profits distributed to investors in those private insurance companies. You aren’t just paying for your blood test, so the cost of your lab work goes up.

I’m still insured against a catastrophe

If the big stuff hits, that’s when my health insurance will kick in, like the major bodywork you’d seek after a car crash. God forbid I ever need it, but, of course, I will use my insurance if I require expensive hospitalization or ongoing care for a major illness or injury.

The insurance company keeps sending me letters encouraging me to find a PCP and get a physical. Their closed loop system doesn’t have any way to acknowledge that I’m receiving preventative care without asking their permission or sending them bills. It’s eerily hard to get the records at my specialist’s office updated with my doctor’s details because they can’t match him to an insurance provider ID in the computer system. It’s like he doesn’t exist. I think they literally put a sticky note in my paper file in case they need to reach Dr. So-and-so.

That’s a little frightening considering the push toward electronic record keeping. Is the insurance model so entrenched that it is inconceivable for a legitimate doctor to be working outside its bounds?

Frankly, it offends my sensibilities that something as personal as health care is becoming the exclusive territory of monolithic institutions that provide no additional expertise when it comes to medicine, instead introducing financial complexity and bureaucratic overhead to what was once a straightforward relationship between medical provider and patient/recipient.

Direct primary care works well for my family

My experience with direct primary care medicine has been wholly positive. It has removed obstacles to my receiving prompt care, and it has enhanced the care I get by providing the time and access necessary for excellent communication with my physician. The closest thing I’ve got to a complaint is how hard the insurance industry red tape makes it to integrate my direct care doctor with everything else.

Direct primary care won’t solve America’s health care crisis, but it is a sound model that could go a long way toward alleviating the pain of accessing routine medical care for many average families. That seems like a good solution to one pretty big problem to me.

Do you have convenient access to your preferred doctor? Are his or her costs reasonable? Do you get enough time with him/her at every visit?

Would you consider following a doctor you like to a fee-for-service or direct primary care practice if you were given a choice?

Packing for a train trip

or

sleeper car compartments require different solutions

You may be the world’s most experienced traveler, ready to fly on a moment’s notice with a super-organized one bag solution that works every time… but you may not be ready for your first overnight in an Amtrak* sleeper compartment.

Train travel isn’t like most other modern trips. Yes, the train provides for your conveyance from point A to point B, just like your bicycle, the SUV in the garage, a Greyhound bus, or a Boeing 737. However, unless you customarily hit the road in a small RV, your typical ride isn’t also your home away from home for a night or two. I’m not familiar with any other type of travel where every inch counts for so much.

Cruise passengers may be the closest commercial counterparts to travelers enjoying the train compartment experience. A ship will take you from place to place, and will provide for your sleeping and toilette accommodations along the way. Even the tiniest interior stateroom on a modern cruise ship is palatial when compared to Amtrak’s sleeper car offerings, though, and knowing what to expect can make or break what may be a once in a lifetime trip through some of America’s most spectacular scenery.

Before I frighten you away from the train—one of my favorite modes of travel!—let me assure you that you will have more personal space than you endure enjoy on any commercial flight. An average- to plus-sized American will fit comfortably in every seat on the train, including those in the smallest sleeping compartment. If you can fit yourself and your belongings in a domestic first class airline seat and overhead bin, you are more than prepared for the daylight hours aboard the train.

The difference comes once the beds are “made down” in your sleeping compartment, prepared by your sleeping car attendant for the night’s repose.

The cozy dimensions of spaces on the train are never more obvious than during the transition from day to night (and back again, come morning.) Unless your attendant gets your bed made down while you are in the dining car, you will have to step into the hall while s/he performs this task. There simply isn’t room for an extra body in the compartment during the transformation. They are that small. Luckily, it only takes a skilled attendant a few minutes to accomplish the task.

Once back in your private compartment, the under seat areas you could reach easily during the day become difficult, if not impossible, to access with a bed stretched from wall to wall. You might be able to reach the bag, but not get it past a metal leg that now blocks the opening. Even if the bag can slide under the obstruction, if it has a rigid side, it may not have room to come far enough out to lift it up leaving it halfway in and halfway out of its under seat dungeon until freed in the morning.

Happily, solutions are easy! Forewarned that your wheeled carry on is not the best bag for a train trip, you can plan ahead to have a comfortable and convenient journey.

1) Rigid-backed, wheeled bags will be hard to access under seats, and heavy to stow in upper storage bays in Viewliner cars. It will also be hard to find room to open them for access at night. Soft-sided bags are a smarter choice on the train.

Your wheeled luggage is a fine choice for checked bags. On the bi-level Superliner trains out west, rigid bags can be conveniently stored in the luggage rack you pass upon entering your sleeping car. They won’t be in your compartment, but they will be accessible during travel. You would still face the inconvenience of finding a large, open space to open an inflexible bag, like the floor in the middle of the hallway by the toilets. Ugh.

Better choices for overnight bags to access in the privacy of your compartment include soft-sided luggage and simple duffel bags. Backpacks are the easiest to carry aboard, but use caution when stowing bags with loose straps under seats. I’ve had bags get hung up on the bed transformation mechanism underneath. A travel pack with self-storing straps is probably ideal, but not a necessary purchase if you won’t use it again.

2) Hanging bags are space- and sanity-savers in small compartments.

One utterly unique piece of luggage that seems a perfect option for use in a train compartment is the Rolo soft, rolling, hanging bag. I wouldn’t purchase one for a single trip. It isn’t a requirement for a good journey. If the organization of this bag appeals to you, it worked better on my most recent rail journey than anything I’ve used before.

Rolo bag empty roll hang suitcaseRolo is unique because it hangs up like a garment bag, which would also work well on the train if still own one. Unlike an old-fashioned garment bag, Rolo has zippered pouches more suited to folded or rolled casual clothing. Larger men’s sizes might not fit, but it was the perfect size for a change of clothing plus nightwear for one of my kids and me.

Every Amtrak compartment has at least one coat hook as a legacy of an earlier era when people dressed up to travel. This little foldaway hook is the perfect place to hang a long, flat bag. Garments stored in such hanging bags will be accessible even when the beds are deployed.

Another option would be to use a lightweight bag with long handles to temporarily store just you want for the night and early morning and hang that bag from the coat hook. You’ll need to plan ahead before bed, but this cost effective option can keep your belongings under control and accessible overnight.

In spite of half a dozen overnight journeys on Amtrak and reasonable planning and packing skills, I invariably end up sleeping with a lightweight bag on the bed near my feet. I’m not very tall, so this is comfortable for me, but it might not work for every passenger. If you are petite, it can be easier to sleep with yesterday’s laundry than contort into position to stow it after dressing for bed.

3) Toiletries should hang up, too.

Only the sleeping compartments known as “Bedrooms” have full en suite baths on Amtrak, but all sleepers have access to toilets and showers. Your toilet might be in your compartment (all Bedroom compartments, Viewliner Roomettes) or down the hall (Superliner Roomettes, Family Bedrooms.) Showers are en suite in the Bedroom compartments, and down the hall for all Roomettes and Family Bedrooms.

It’s a good idea to bring a robe or other quick-to-don garment for modesty during trips through the corridor if you are staying in anything but a full Bedroom.

Whether you will be sharing the facilities or using your own in a Bedroom, it can be handy to have a hanging strap or hook on your toilet kit. The train moves, shimmies, and shudders on rough tracks, and anything that isn’t fastened down can shift, sometimes suddenly. I always hang my toiletry bag on the coat hook (yes, there’s one in each toilet and shower room, too) lest it take a tumble into a sink or onto a floor that’s been left less than immaculate by the user before me. Your Bedroom or Viewliner Roomette sink will be as clean as you’ve left it, but it won’t pitch any less from side to side. An unsecured bottle can roll into an inaccessible corner under the bed pretty quickly, leaving you without your favorite toiletries. It’s safer to tuck them back into your hanging bag as you go about taking care of your toilette.

Particularly in the shower compartment, I take great care to place all of my clothes into a securely hung, water-resistant bag before running the water to wash. I managed to drop my clean pants into a puddle on the floor during my first Amtrak trip, and it made for an uncomfortable morning. Now, I wear yesterday’s clothes into the shower room and only bring my fresh undergarments to put on there (beneath my old clothes.) When I make it back to my sleeping compartment, I change out of yesterday’s outfit and into my clean, dry clothes for that day.

4) Eyeglasses and bedside necessities

In case I haven’t made this point clear enough yet, the train is moving, and sometimes that movement is abrupt. You might have a shelf or ledge next to your head while you sleep in your compartment, but important items you place there may not stay still through the night. If you wear glasses, use a travel alarm clock, or have other items you’d like to access in the night, a soft bag with a strap that can disconnect to wrap around or hang from a hook or bar is a very good idea. I use the same Tom Bihn Packing Cube Shoulder Bag for this that I use for comfort items on a plane. It’s about the size of an average ladies’ purse. The key is the strap that can disconnect so it will work with either a hook or a fixed arm/bar.

Bags on hooks Waldsee

Green bag at left is my expensive and perfect Tom Bihn Packing Cube Shoulder Bag, but the cheap white mesh shower organizer on the right has its uses

The upper berths (top bunk beds) always seem to have a built-in pocket for personal items, but I’m very reluctant to use them. I’d say that these pockets are likely about as clean as the seatback pockets on an airplane—not very! If you do plan to put your things in here, consider bringing an empty gallon size Ziplock bag to line the fabric pouch with first for hygiene’s sake. I’ve seen a wad of used chewing gum, for example, in a seatback pocket.

5) Cash

This final suggestion may be ridiculously obvious to some, but caught me off guard on my first cross-country Amtrak trip. It is wise to make sure you have enough small bills to last throughout your journey. There is no ATM on the train.

Food is included with Amtrak sleeper car fares; full service, sit down meals in the dining car were included in the price of your ticket. Since tipping is customary in American restaurants, and service charges have not been included in your fare, it is usual to leave a cash tip for the wait staff after every meal on board. Traveling as a family of four, we typically leave $5-10 at breakfast and lunch and $10-20 after dinner.

We had cash with us, but not enough small bills, during our first trip. If you are in a sleeper, you may not spend any other money during your trip, so you won’t be getting any more change. Drinkers who purchase alcoholic beverages in the Diner or the Café Car would be an exception to this.

Traditionally, one would also tip the sleeping car attendant who makes your beds and keeps the facilities tidy. Amounts vary—and Amtrak’s service is known to range from exemplary to downright awful—but I budget up to $20 per compartment per day for this. The only time I didn’t tip the attendant at all was when I literally didn’t see him the morning I left the train. That was an unusual case.

* Commentary applies about equally to Amtrak trains in the United States and ViaRail trains in Canada, though I can’t remember if there were as many coat hooks in the Canadian sleeper car. The ladies’ room in the ViaRail sleeping car was the nicest train restroom I’ve ever seen, and was both larger and cleaner than any other. That was the one train washroom where I didn’t feel compelled to corral my toiletries in their bag at all times.

I haven’t traveled on any other nations’ overnight trains to make additional comparisons.

A quest for the ultimate iPad2-compatible bag

I’m not a fancy purse girl. I love nice things, but I look first to functionality for an item I’m going to use constantly. I will happily pay more for high quality materials and even tactile pleasure, but only if the function is there. Also remember that I’m dragging a pair of little boys around with me day in and day out, so my reality involves dirt, peanut butter, and other things I’d prefer not to dwell on getting smeared all over my stuff.

I want a bag that can hold my essentials (wallet, cell phone, iPod touch, lip balm, comb, re-usable shopping bag), “mommy” essentials (hand sanitizer, wet wipes, one diaper, a granola bar), my survivalist paranoia gear (first aid kit, mini pry bar, pocket knife, flashlight, and the amazing Adventure Medical Kits Pocket Survival Pack), plus my new iPad2 with its Smart Cover, the largest item in the bag at about 7 1/2 by 9 1/2 inches.

When the iPad2 finally arrived, I first tried it in my classic Coach leather Station Bag. I’ve had this bag since college. It is by far my highest quality purse, and I know it will never go out of style. While the iPad2 fits inside the perfectly placed slip pocket in the Station Bag, and the exterior flap covers all the bag’s openings, the hasp can’t reach the fastener with such a tall object in the bag. The flap is about one inch too short! I added a Coach Willis Bag to my wish list since it is similarly styled but about an inch larger in each dimension. I think a Willis Bag would work if it shares that large internal slip pocket, but I’m not really looking for a career or special occasion bag at this stage where my lifestyle is very casual and often downright messy.

The Eagle Creek Bohemian handbag that I’ve been carrying for the past nine months almost makes the cut. I can actually squeeze the iPad2 into the Bohemian, even with my full complement of stuff already on board. It isn’t trivial to get the iPad2 in the bag, however, which makes it fairly impractical. With one small design change, Eagle Creek could make this bag perfect for my needs. There are full-length exterior zippered pockets on both sides of the Bohemian. Up until now, I’ve used the shorter, deeper, gusseted pocket for just my wallet and any receipts I save throughout the day. The flat, somewhat taller zip pocket on the other side typically holds one diaper/pull-up and a pocket-sized packet of wipes.

If the flat pocket only zipped at the top (next to the main compartment zipper) instead of 80% up the side of the bag, this would be my ideal–a quick-grab exterior flat iPad pocket with some means of securing the device inside. Instead, while I can slide the iPad2 into the pocket, it is impossible to wiggle it all the way in such that the pocket could be zipped unless the rest of the bag is virtually empty. I would gladly stop carrying the pull-up in my purse to make a dedicated iPad pocket a reality. Maybe Eagle Creek will re-work this product in the future to better meet the needs of the emerging tablet market. We don’t all want something that looks like luggage or a messenger bag!

I’ve been coveting Red Oxx products since I read about the Sky Train suitcase at the carry-on traveler’s mecca, OneBag.com. Since I have a cheap carry-on that serves the same purpose and is still functional, I’m holding off on the pricey Sky Train, but I did jump right to Red Oxx when I ordered my new iPad2 and knew I’d need to up-size my current everyday handbag.

IMG_3859

Red Oxx Rock Hopper sling bag

I wanted so desperately for the Red Oxx Rock Hopper to be the bag I was looking for! While not exactly my aesthetic cup of tea, mainly because of the black webbing and prominent (2 inch) logo,  I could overlook style issues for a bag that works. I love the presence of a flat, contrasting color slip pocket in each main compartment, and the fact that there are two big sections. I love the bright red interior to make finding what’s inside a little easier. The workmanship is everything I expected—tight, without visible flaws, and every element feels sturdy as heck.

But here are the downsides, which, unfortunately, outweigh the good for my purposes.

Fundamentally, this bag is just too big for me! This alone would warrant my return of the Rock Hopper. Frankly, it is as big as my backpack, and, if I’m carrying something that size, I’d rather have two straps to spread the weight out a little more. (The little side strap does do an amazing job at stabilizing the Rock Hopper, but it doesn’t shift any weight off the wearer’s shoulder.)

I am a short woman (5’ 3”) with a short torso for my size, and the narrow top portion of the Rock Hopper feels uncomfortably high on my neck when I wear it. Aside from the fit issue, my current Eagle Creek Bohemian holds all of 325 cubic inches, so the 1000 cu. in. capacity of the Rock Hopper is probably just more space than I need every day. With size comes weight, all borne by one shoulder in this case. If Red Oxx produces a smaller version of the Rock Hopper as they did with their rucksacks (check out their C Ruck and Mini Ruck), I will likely try one on for size.

My other complaints are more nit-picky, and I would’ve worked around them if the bag fit me correctly. I think I would prefer one of the two large compartments to be shallower than the other, though this ties in to my overall feeling about the Rock Hopper’s size. Also, I would enjoy seeing more interior pockets, possibly a small one with a zipper in the kind of useless, narrow, upper part above the slip pocket where only the end of a yoga mat is every likely to go. Pen slots or even a strip of webbing or a D-ring to which I could attach my own mini pouches or tools on carabiners would also use that space well.

My biggest daily gripe would likely be the one big zip pocket on the bag’s exterior front. Ugh! I hate a pocket that opens in the middle leaving wasted interior space above the zipper–why, that’s exactly my complaint about the Bohemian I have now! Make the front with a more sensible pair of flat pockets, perhaps a side opening small one at the upper, narrow end of the kidney shape, and keep the larger one below the current zipper position. That way, I can grab my cell or iPod out of one pocket without risking dumping my wallet at the same time.

IMG_3879

Potential every day carry bags for iPad2, side by side

I haven’t decided whether to exchange the Rock Hopper and try a Chica, where the aesthetics feel more offensive since it looks like an ugly purse instead of a unisex utilitarian electronics bag, or just return this poor fit and keep dreaming of the day I can justify the Sky Train I know I will own and love someday.

Originally posted via iWeb Saturday, May 21, 2011