Parking lot rescue: prepared citizens can help themselves and others

Picture a silver sedan in a bustling Trader Joe’s parking lot.* Two ladies—perhaps a mother and her adult daughter?—are huddled to one side of the closed trunk, but at the hinge end of the lid instead of the part that opens.

I walked right past them to unload groceries into my van. I was parked in an adjacent space. When I finished putting my things away, I noticed that the ladies hadn’t moved. Their heads were together. It looked like they were trying to solve a problem.

I asked if they needed any help.

Rescue scenario: a trapped set of keys

Here’s what they told me: the younger lady dropped her keys as she pushed down on the lid to close her trunk. The falling keys became trapped between the trunk and its lid. Without the keys, she couldn’t unlock and release the lid in order to free… the keys!

This sedan didn’t have a button inside to release the trunk. It didn’t have a fold down rear seat that opened into the trunk. Even a lady’s slim fingers were too thick to reach fully into the space where the keys were trapped.

It turned out that more was required than simply fishing them out. The keys were actually being pinched between two different parts of the car.

While I was hearing this explanation, another passer-by asked if he could assist.

An aside: This is my America! We help each other in times of crisis.

The ladies filled him in on the scenario while I grabbed the first vaguely tool-shaped object in the back of the van: a 12″ ice scraper. The flat edge could slide between the lid and trunk. They went to work trying to dislodge the keys.

While the original pair and the new helper made this attempt, I delved deeper into the array of equipment I keep in the van for emergencies.

Ammo can in the van: a tool box

Here’s a peek at a collection of useful tools in my vehicle at all times. It’s part of my personal ethos to be prepared. Some gear is switched out seasonally—like the larger SnoBrum† and a full size shovel—but these items never leave the van. Continue reading

Capsule wardrobe for San Francisco in October: nary a neutral in sight

My capsule wardrobes reflect my needs and values. I’m less about fashion for its own sake, and more about function that avoids exacerbating my chronic health condition.

That said, I like to express myself with my wardrobe. I feel better when surrounded by beautiful things, including the clothes I wear.

SF wardrobe in closet - 1

I’m particularly fond of today’s capsule wardrobe because it involves almost no neutral colors. Instead, it’s built around coordinating shades of rich gold, acid green, and deep purple. This is my favorite autumnal palette.

I love wearing these vibrant colors, and I even enjoyed the way they looked hanging together in the closet at the hotel. No neutral-based travel wardrobe would offer me that side benefit!

Compact capsule wardrobe saves precious vacation time

Packing an effective combination of pieces in a capsule wardrobe means I can dress for any occasion that arises during my trip without wondering whether I will be:

  1.  suitably attired, and
  2. sufficiently comfortable.

I care about both of these points, even more so when I’m joining my high profile* husband on a work-related trip. I had no role to play at the event DH was attending, but other participants were staying in the same hotel. It wasn’t out of the question to bump into someone who knows me by sight.

Dressing appropriately while maintaining health & function

My autoimmune condition involves widespread joint pain. I suffer particularly from foot problems. My wardrobe is constrained by the limiting factors of shoes that accommodate bulky, rigid orthotic inserts and clothes that don’t squeeze or pinch even when inflamed joints swell.

My symptoms flare when I’m tired. Travel, no matter how wonderful, comes with physical and sometimes mental stress. Traveling light is one way to reduce symptoms of my condition: I’m less likely to wear myself out, physically, with a lighter weight bag.

Continue reading

Letting reality be good enough: enjoying travel in spite of chronic pain

Sometimes, reality intervenes between our ideal experience and one we can achieve.

Since being diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, I’ve found myself having to adjust my expectations for many facets of life. That includes my hobbies, which can be hard enough to prioritize for a stay at home mother of two.

One of my favorite things is travel. I’m not a full on globetrotter like some, but my trips—planning them as well as taking them—are great highlights of my life.

In the past year, I’ve had to cancel much-loved annual jaunts due to flaring symptoms. I’ve had to “waste” money already spent on non-refundable tickets, and I’ve regretted going on excursions for which I was in no condition to participate.

I’ve found myself asking:

Should I even try to travel for pleasure anymore now that I’ve been diagnosed with autoimmune disease?”

My answer to that question—when the flare passes, and when the pain and exhaustion have subsided—is that I should. In fact, I must carry on.

If I don’t persevere, the disease wins. If I give up what I love, I’m choosing misery over joy. I never want to live that way.

I got dealt a bad hand this time around, but it’s the only one I’ve got to play. I can make the best of it, or I can quit the game. I could just watch the other players, but what fun would that be? That’s not the life for me. Nor would I wish such circumstances on anyone else.

With that said, here are a few tips for putting some of the pleasure back in travel for a traveler with a chronic condition. Continue reading

Road warrior or mobile mom: on-the-go hydration without burst bottles in a 4 season climate

Many of us practically live in our cars, or it often feels like we do. From long commutes to the carpool expectations of modern parenting, our vehicles have become as familiar as our homes.

To keep ourselves healthy and comfortable on the go requires some effort. We fundamentally ignore nature’s expectations for our bodies (frequent movement, limited sitting) in automobiles.

Stock your vehicle for health & safety

What steps can we take to make our vehicles safer and healthier for our families?

Keeping a blanket handy and storing a reflective vest, safety flares and a wide brimmed hat in the trunk could reduce the hazard of an automotive emergency or an unplanned, prolonged stop awaiting rescue.

Carrying my Beastie massage ball and a pair of generic fit-over sunglasses (I’m utterly dependent upon prescription lenses to see) in the glove box helps me avoid debilitating headaches that could take our show off the road.

Little things like stocking shelf-stable snacks and bottles of water keep my family from resorting to junk food drive thru fare. Once in a while might be fine, but daily is a recipe for poor health and an empty wallet.

Storing drinking water in your car

That said, how safe is it to store drinking water in a vehicle?

Sigg water bottles - 1The poorly insulated metal and glass body of even the nicest car will always exacerbate local climactic conditions. On a hot day, the inside of the car will be a deadly inferno; in frigid weather, a stopped car blocks the wind, but quickly releases its heat once the engine is off.

Extreme heat could affect water safety

Exactly what happens to drinking water stored in a plastic container in a hot car is scientifically unclear, but it is reasonable to be cautious where heat and plastic are concerned.

My usual bottle for use in the car is a 1.5 litre Sigg made of coated* aluminum. I fill it every Monday morning, drive around with it all week, and bring it in for a thorough wash over the weekend. I have a set of glass bottles, too, which I will use cautiously in the car, but not “on the run” because I’m clumsy.

At this stage in their lives—elementary/middle school age—I’m not comfortable giving my kids glass bottles to use outdoors. They aren’t careful enough, and I don’t want shards of glass to ruin a day out. I could switch over to glass for their use solely while seated in the car, but I’ve watched a lot of objects get kicked out the door by a boy in hurry, and I also ask them to carry their own gear out from and into the house each day. My calculus on this question still points to unbreakable metal bottles for growing kids.

The sheer magnitude of the denting on their Sigg bottles tells a cautionary tale!

I’m a little more comfortable leaving water in my car in a reusable container that isn’t made of low grade plastic like disposable bottled waters, but I always try to avoid extreme temperature variations of my drinking supply.

In the summer, I typically refrigerate my bottle overnight before bringing it to the car. I prefer room temperature water, but, if it starts out cold, it may not reach “hot” before I drink it.

Sometimes, I’ll fill one of our lunchbox Thermos jars with ice cubes before I leave the house for a full day of adventures; I can add one or two as necessary to cool off what we drink from our personal bottles. It’s rare for the melt water in the Thermos to be anything but cool, even late in the day.

Freezing cold has its risks, too

Metal or glass water bottles might alleviate concerns about heating plastics containing potable water, but there’s another serious risk in New England’s four season climate: freezing.

When water freezes, it expands. Ask anyone who has had the misfortune of burst pipes at home during a deep freeze.

At least one of my children has forgotten a full aluminum Sigg container in a car parked outdoors in winter, resulting in an exploded bottle. I discovered the bottle before it thawed, so it was the loss of a pricey (~$15 USD) object that hurt, not ruined carpet or upholstery.  The lesson was taken to heart.

At our old house, we parked outside. All water bottles were carried in from the car each night, and we brought new ones out with us the next morning. Most of this effort was to prevent freezing as opposed to spoilage or stinking since children don’t get any drinks in my car except for water.**

Now, I have the great privilege of parking in an attached garage, so what was a vital necessity is just an abundance of caution. The garage temperature doesn’t drop below freezing.

Even with my van being kept warm(ish) overnight, living in the Northeast means enduring at least occasional days where the air temperature doesn’t rise above the freezing point of water, but I don’t like being caught out and about without fresh, filtered water to drink.

Solution: an insulated wine tote

Here’s my solution: an insulated wine bag. Mine came in a gift. It was part of a matched set with a lunch bag and a file tote.

The wine bottle size is perfect for my large water bottle.

The interior layer of reflective insulation helps protect the water from temperature extremes. The decorative outer material feels like a lunch bag or heavy duty reusable grocery tote.

The top of the bag has Velcro to keep it closed when relying upon the insulation to do its job; I don’t even close it in mild weather. The whole thing folds flat when not in use. It wipes down for cleaning, but that’s rarely necessary since it’s used by an adult only for water.

Since implementing this storage solution, I’ve returned to my van to find a rime of ice in my drinking water, but never a catastrophic hard freeze that bursts my bottle. On hot days, I don’t encounter that gross mouthful of sun-warmed, plastic-tainted water.

You can see in my photos how the insulation solution also works to prevent the oversized and top-heavy bottle from toppling over out of shallow cup holders when I take corners a little too fastI hang the Sigg in its insulated bag on my passenger seat armrest instead.

Velcro-ed shut, this keeps the bottle protected from temperature shifts, but it remains easily freed, even one handed, while driving. I know where to reach, and don’t take my eyes off the road.

Unscrewing the cap while driving to get a drink is actually much more difficult than accessing the bottle itself. Since my daily reality also involves having a tea or coffee mug in the car, I’ll often use that for water, too.

Once my morning caffeine fortification is complete, I’ll rinse out the mug and pour in a few ounces of drinking water at a time. This, I do while safely parked; I take my responsibilities to others on the road as a driver quite seriously. The coffee mug gets carried in at the end of every day for washing, and it’s never filled to the top with plain water. If it were forgotten, it wouldn’t be full enough to burst if frozen solid.

By pouring water from my large bottle into a cup instead of drinking directly from the spout, I also feel better about using the same one all week long. I refill it as needed, at the doctor’s office, or the gym, or school—anywhere convenient with filtered drinking water. Our town, a mere seven miles from our old home, gets its water from a different reservoir, and the taste is less than pleasing to a girl who grew up on the fantastic water sourced from the Bull Run water shed.

Keeping my mouth off the large bottle also makes it more hygienic to share when one of the boys forgets his bottle or has already emptied the smaller ones they find easier to carry when we’re active. It isn’t out of the question for us to drink from the same bottle, but I do try to avoid swapping germs willy nilly when there’s a good alternative.

Amazon is selling a range of similar insulated totes from $8 to $50. If you’re carrying a water bottle in your car in a climate that regularly freezes or exceeds comfortable temperatures, this is a good solution for keeping your drinking water at your preferred temperature for both taste and good health.

To avoid buying something new, consider using an extra insulated lunch bag for the same purpose, though you would probably need two shorter bottles instead of one large one for that scenario.

Once again, my Thermos food jars are often pressed into service like this. In winter, I’ll fill the 16 oz jar with hot water from my electric kettle. Hours later, it won’t be hot enough to brew a decent cup of tea, but it can take the chill off cold water from a bottle left exposed.

If I’m packing water for the whole family on an especially hot or cold day, I’ll nest more sets of bottles into lunch sacks with ice or heat packs as needed. I might then tuck one or two, or more! lunch bags full of waters into an insulated shopping bag or a cooler to extend the time even further before outside conditions affect our drinks.

You can spend a fortune on the best cooler available, or you can increase the insulating power of items you already have by doubling or trebling them up.

My insulated wine tote gets tucked inside the larger cooler as necessary when winter brings its worst, and my water bottle doesn’t freeze solid and burst.

*I am left with questions about the potential risk of the “non-reactive” coating inside Sigg’s aluminum bottles, but I’m not enough concerned to dispose of a container whose other features I like that is still in perfect condition. I won’t re-purchase bottles by this brand because of how they handled the BPA controversy back in 2008.

**This is partly about health: we drink water because it’s the best choice for hydration. The other motivation is avoidance of sticky substances that will annoy me if they are spilled. If you aren’t old enough to clean my car thoroughly after you spill—or pay for detailing—you don’t get any option but water. Exceptions are made on long distance journeys when the family is in the car all day for many days in a row, but, at home, during a normal commute, water is absolutely sufficient.

Disposable paper coffee cups aren’t good enough for a 4 star hotel like San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis

Due to my husband’s travel schedule and a favorable fare war over the flight path involved, I had the great pleasure of spending five (5!) nights in the heart of San Francisco. His professional obligation put us up at the Westin St. Francis on Union Square.

I would be unlikely to pay for a 4 star hotel in this location—unless, perhaps, it was in an historic building I admired—but I’m eminently capable of enjoying it.*

My husband in particular dislikes a hotel which increases the fussiness or snootiness of the service at the expense of obvious value added to his straightforward tastes.**

Overall, the Westin St. Francis did a great job providing the unpretentious service we prefer at a level above what we demand to be satisfied. It was a very comfortable and gracious place to stay in a bustling San Francisco neighborhood.

Housekeeping gracious manners - 1

It’s my habit to leave a brief thank you with the tip for Housekeeping. A first for me: Westin Housekeepers thanked me back!

Though not quite to the level of get-it-before-you-ask intuition shown at five star properties, we found Room Service to be quick and attentive to detailaspicky eaters on a weird schedule. Housekeeping was very thorough, friendly, and, like Room Service, paid careful attention to special requests.

I can’t fault any of the service personnel at the Westin St. Francis, though the Front Desk was often busy or otherwise slow to serve.***

There was one item both Housekeeping and Room Service failed to providefor us when asked, and I did make requests of both. I asked Housekeeping in a note, and DH asked Room Service on the phone. I was told they could not provide a reusable mug for the in room coffee service.

Even when ordering espresso via Room Serviceor seated in the lobby cafe, it was provided in a tall 12 oz paper cup with Starbucks branding. Yuck!

My complaint here is twofold:

  • I love my coffee, and it tastes better from a ceramic cup.
  • Throwing away a paper cup for a beverage I’m drinking seated and indoors is needlessly wasteful.

I prefer a paper cup to styrofoam, but we all know there’s got to be a coating on that paper to make it waterproof, right? Coffee is hot. Wax and plastic coatings melt. Plastic, even without BPA, still contains chemicals that probably impact human health.

No, I don’t think the paper cup’s interior coating enhances the flavor of my organic medium roast.

And as for the unnecessary creation of garbage for drinks I’m consuming in the comfort of my hotel room? No, just no!

I think it is tolerable—if not my personal preference—for the Westin or any other hotel chain to choose to default to paper cups for in room coffee services. I don’t know the statistics on hotel behavior, but it’s absolutely possible that most guests most of the time are preparing, then carrying out, their room-brewed morning beverage. I understand that the glass carafes on the old 4-cup coffee makers broke regularly, creating headaches and hazards for Housekeeping and guests.

In this Tower room at this Westin hotel, the location of the coffee service near the tiled bathroom, but outside of its perils on a carpeted floor, would seem to reduce the risk of broken service items. A ceramic mug also seems less likely to crack than the thinner glass of a drip coffee machine’s carafe.

Most emphatically, if guests can be trusted to eat from ceramic dinnerware and glass cups delivered via room service, there can be no increased risk from coffee mugs of the same materials!

I suspect that the partnership with Starbucks is a part of this equation. Lots of people love Starbucks. It’s viewed as a premium brand. It probably “means something” to use that mermaid logo on your in room coffee service.

Perhaps Westin has an agreement to serve all coffee in Starbucks branded cups? Provide a ceramic mug with the iconic green logo, then, but please do have one available when I request a less wasteful coffee cup. If Starbucks is forcing the use of its branded paper cups, they need to be called to account for it or change their stated intent to reduce their environmental impact to a more honest one.

In Starbucks stores, I can always get my beverage in a ceramic cup by asking for it when I order. My estimation of the company would skyrocket if they made this policy a requirement for third parties displaying the Starbucks logo for marketing purposes. That would show a real commitment to the environment.

In a hotel with several bars and restaurants, a full menu of room service, and a complete kitchen that must include commercial dishwashing equipment, it is simply unacceptable to tell me that you don’t have a ceramic cup for me. I find it repellent, walking through the beautiful, marbled lobby, seeing a cafe full of guests settled in to drink from cups that are, essentially, garbage. I expect much better in an environmentally aware city like San Francisco.

Since 2012, the municipality of San Francisco has demanded that consumers pay for every paper shopping bag procured from a retailer. Plastic bags were banned outright in 2007. Even luxury boutique Hermès must ask if you want to pay 10¢ for a bag to carry home your new $12,000+ Birkin handbag.

How does this align with a hotel advertising rooms available “from $620 per night” during my stay that wouldn’t provide a washable, reusable mug for my use in the hotel?

My solution was to purchase a new glass “to go” cup from local roaster Blue Bottle Coffee. Theirs was manufactured by KeepCup. Trying Blue Bottle’s single origin espresso was on my list of adventures for the City by the Bay, so I got a meaningful souvenir and solved my cup problem in one fell swoop.

Blue Bottle espresso - 1 (1)

Yes, Blue Bottle Coffee’s single origin espresso was worth seeking out in its own right.

For someone like my husbandadmittedly, not a coffee drinker, like many most traveling professionals are—whose free time in the hotel is strictly limited by the rigors of his work schedule, this wouldn’t have been an option. As it was, when I offered him a soothing cup of chamomile tea in the evening, I had to clarify that he’d be getting it only after I finished my own cup of Darjeeling. We only had my one glass mug, of course.

Travel dish soap - 1

I often travel with my own refillable coffee cup† and I always carry a tiny 0.5 oz Nalgene drop dispenser bottle of dish detergent in my toiletry kit, but I left the travel mug at home this time. We were staying in a full service, four star hotel, so I assumed there would be proper drinkware on offer. I also knew that I’d have lots of free time while DH worked. I planned to savor my beverage of choice—espresso, straight up—seated in cafes and not on the go.

A recent sale flier by U-Konserve, the company that makes most of my reusable lunchbox components, pointed out the following from this study by ScienceAdvances:

“There is now one ton of plastic garbage for every person on Earth.”

U-Konserve also gives this fact in their Environmental FAQs:

“About 25 billion single-use coffee cups end up in landfills every year. If you buy just one cup of coffee or tea in a disposable cup every day, you’ll end up creating about 23 pounds of waste in one year.”

KeepCup estimates the environmental breakeven point of my reusable glass cup vs disposables to be as low as 15 uses. Put another way, if I use my new Blue Bottle travel mug 16 times instead of a paper cup, washing it between uses, I will have made the more environmentally sound choice.

Paper cups aren’t plastic bottles, but, seriously, are we still debating the wisdom of the throwaway society?

And I’m not even particularly militant on this topic. It strikes me as possible that disposables are more convenient to many business travelers, and I’m not prepared to insist that my opinions dictate what ends up in other users’ hands.

I am, however, quite wedded to my position that a hotel of the caliber of the Westin St. Francis has an obligation to provide environmentally friendlier options to guests like me who want them.

If not, it is greenwashing of the highest order by a company highlighting its sustainability mission and asking customers to “Make a Green Choice” to defer housekeeping that happens to be labor/cost saving for the hotel in addition to water-wise.

*My personal valuation of hotel class often boils down to: if the location is what I want, clean and simple will serve my needs. I prefer to pay extra for more space (i.e., two bedroom vacation rental with kitchen when traveling as a family) over luxury finishes or a more extensive range of services.

**He raved about the Philadelphia Four Seasons, mostly because room service recognized almost immediately that he prefers exactly the same menu every day. They came to answer his afternoon call with, “Are you ready for your berries now, sir?”

***When the shower knob fell off in my hand, the front desk forgot to send maintenance after my first call; I had to ring them again after 45 minutes of waiting. The service technician, once summoned, fixed the problem quickly, thoroughly, and with a total commitment to disturbing me as little as possible while he worked.

†My favorite is an unbreakable stainless steel-lined model by Liquid Solution. It has a non-slip, textured exterior, a simple lid, and holds up to machine dish washing.Coffee cup travel mug - 1

Lazy laundress’ towel tip: color saves time

This is an idea so simple as to be almost silly, but I find it helpful every week when doing laundry, so I’ll share it with the world. Note that this is a tip for the lazier housekeeper. Martha Stewart and my mother don’t need it!

Growing up, we had sets of carefully selected towels stacked in each bathroom. In the blue bathroom, Mom alternated blue and white towels, whereas peach and green were to be had in the master bathroom to match my parents’ bedroom color scheme.

When I was about to be married and we were registering for household linens, an idea occurred to me. I thought it would solve a problem that came up after laundry day in my single girl’s apartment where I was making do with a few mismatched towels received as high school graduation gifts.

Being The World’s Least Interested Housekeeper, I would usually wash my clothes and get them dried, then leave them rumpled* in the basket for days (or forever) as opposed to putting them neatly away. Hurrying to get ready in the morning, I would reach into the towel basket for a bath sheet only to pull out a washcloth or hand towel in the same color.

With visions in my affianced head of a gigantic jumbled basket stuffed with a household’s complete set of matching towels, I devised this solution. I chose colors to go with the pink floral tile in our marital home’s dated, 100 year old bathroom:

  • Face cloths in green,
  • Hand towels in pink,
  • Bath towels in white.

towels in laundry basket - 1You’ve never been in my bathroom, but I bet you could find the body towel in an instant without digging through this basket of clean laundry.

A related tip I really did get from Martha Stewart is the wisdom of selecting darker toned washcloths. I rarely wear makeup, but the idea that these little workhorses might be stained by cosmetics or plain old dirt as our family grew made a lot of sense. My darkest towels are and always will be the washcloths.

Pink for the hand towels was a matter of attempting to match an element I couldn’t change in the old bathroom. As the hand towels wore out, I moved to light grey for that room, and we’re still using some of each color in the bathrooms at our new house.

White for bath towels was the simplest decision of all. I will never tire of the look of fluffy white towels. I dreamed of renovating our really quite terribly decrepit first bathroom, and knew I wouldn’t need new towels to go with it when I did** if I stuck with white.

Though I rarely use chlorine bleach in our laundry, it is reassuring to know that it is an option with white towels when one ponders infectious skin conditions or other communicable horrors of the sort children unwittingly bring home. There can be blood, too, with growing kids, but I’d rather we didn’t talk about that.

Another nice feature of white towels is their constant availability at Costco at a value price geared toward hospitality industry buyers. The old white towels go perfectly with any new ones I add as the collection ages.

When I reach into the large basket of freshly laundered toweling after my most hurried shower, I grab something white, and it is the suitable object for drying my body. When a kid needs a washcloth for a skinned knee, he knows to grab the old green ones or the grey stripes we added when we moved into a house with a second bathroom to stock.

This works really well if you live out of your laundry baskets, even just sometimes.

Way back when we were married, I kept my original college towels (and some of DH’s mismatched collection from his hovel apartment) folded as sets for visiting guests who might be uncomfortable with a towel not visibly distinguished from those of the household. I had learned by that stage in life that some families see towels as personal linens, as intimate as one’s own clothing, where others buy towels as needed in a jubilant blend of colors and styles and pick through the commotion in a common linen closet.

Color-coded toweling isn’t for everyone. My mother doesn’t even understand what I mean about “the towels that aren’t folded yet, still sitting in a basket the next morning.” Somehow, I suspect the reader recognizes immediately whether my system might offer time savings for him or her.

Those of us who routinely dry and dress ourselves out of laundry baskets know who we are.

*I do fold actual clothing, most of the time, but it can be selective folding. Towels and underwear fulfill their functions equally well when wrinkled; outer garments do not! I’m fairly careful to fold/hang items that I might otherwise need to iron to make them presentable.

**I never did! We remodeled the kitchen, but moved before we got to the bathroom.

Does every family camping trip end with, “We need a bigger tent?”

We went car camping as a family in August. There are four of us. We’ve enjoyed our affordable, easy to erect Coleman Instant Cabin six person tent for a little over six years now. It has never let us down.*

Camp Coleman Instant Tent 6

Tent

Upon arriving home, one of the first things I did (after a long shower and donning fresh clothes without the scent of smoke) was to begin researching new tents.

According to the reviews I found, “Honey, we need a bigger tent!” is a pretty common refrain.

I find myself asking:

Does every family camping trip end with a wish for a larger tent?

I’ve posted before about my new favorite car camping accessory: a set of Disc-O-Bed Cam-O-Bunk XL stacking bunk bed cots. Lifting two of our four sleeping positions up off the floor allowed for a vastly improved storage situation, and a much more comfortable path to the door. Not to mention improved sleep quality for those of us lucky enough to rest on them!

The cots do fit in our Coleman tent, but only just. If used as a pair un-stacked for twin beds, the cots wouldn’t touch the tent walls. Due to the inward slope of the walls heading up toward the roof, the top bunk, when stacked, does press against the fabric and produce small about 1″ protrusions visible outside.

If you’ve never camped in a tent, you may not be aware that touching its side walls when it rains sometimes causes moisture to migrate through the fabric from outside in. The classic blunder is a child reaching up to touch the tent immediately above her face. For the rest of the night, drip! drip! drip!

Most kids learn the “why we don’t poke the tent” lesson via natural consequences.

It’s true that modern tent materials are much better at preventing such leaks, but it is also my opinion that it is always better to be safe than sorry about staying dry when sleeping outdoors. For this reason—and to avoid added wear and tear on my tent’s sidewalls—I would be happier if my tent were at least six inches longer in the door-to-back-wall direction.

Camp Disc-O-Bed Cam-O-Cot XL in tent by door

End view, seen through the tent door

We have yet to find ourselves in a campsite that wouldn’t accommodate a modestly longer tent than the one we have, especially since I don’t see any need for it to be simultaneously wider. Our current tent is 9′ x 10′. I think my ideal tent size is 9′ x 12′ for a family of four.

On the other hand, as you can see in the photo of the cot visible through the Coleman tent’s door, we could also make do with the exact size we already own… if the door were centered instead of set to one side. You see, in my ideal world, I would have two sets of Cam-O-Bunk cots stacked to sleep our family of four. A pair would sit on either side of the tent with a clear aisle in front of the door.

Two bunk beds would allow all of us to sleep off the ground, but, more importantly, also get all of our clothing and personal gear under a bunk, out of the way, yet not touching the potentially damp side walls of the tent.**

The newer Coleman model with the same name as ours seems to have been updated in precisely this way. I bet I’m not the only adult who wanted to walk right into the open full height center of their tent, leaving beds snugged against either side wall. You can see from my photograph that the XL Cam-O-Bunk blocks the majority of the tent’s doorway, and at the least convenient side of the door.

It would be possible to enter our tent with the cot there, but it would be constantly annoying. Even shaving off 7 ¼” of width by choosing the narrower Cam-O-Bunk L set for the kids would leave the door about halfway blocked, on the side with the zipper, no less.

Am I going to buy an almost identical tent to replace the one we have to solve this problem? No, almost definitely not, unless our old tent is actually destroyed.

We will probably buy an additional, larger tent to use for longer trips or those with greater probability of rain. We’ll keep our trusty Coleman Instant Cabin – 6 person for quick trips and fair weather. I’ve yet to see another tent as easy to erect as the one we own.

REI Kingdom 8 tentI’m leaning toward the Kingdom 8 from REI. It’s 8.3′ x 12.5′ which is almost exactly the size I seek. Its centered door means the narrower width should suit us well. The available floor-less garage sounds like a dream come true for soggy trips or sandy*** areas assuming a combined 27.5′ length would fit the site. Side walls of approximately 57″ would allow for the bunk bed cots (36″ high) to stand quite close to the edges of the space.

At 104 sq. ft., the Kingdom 8 isn’t that much larger than our Coleman Instant Cabin – 6 which measures about 90 sq. ft, but the extra square footage appears to be exactly where I need it.

There’s a Coleman Instant Cabin – 8/10 (retail $310) widely available for less than half the REI tent’s price, but its 140 sq. ft. are still arranged in a more square-ish 10′ x 14′. These dimensions just don’t strike me as more helpful to my ideal layout. It is also worth noting for new campers that having more volume inside your tent means it is less likely to feel cozy due to the warmth of your family’s bodies. This could be great in very hot or humid weather, but is a negative for climates with cool/cold summer nights.

With a retail price of $529, I wouldn’t suggest the Kingdom 8 tent to a first time camper with limited funds. I paid only $136 (retail $180) for our Coleman, and I have a strong hunch that it would prove easier to use for most beginning campers. For reasons of quality and comfort, you don’t want the very cheapest tent you can find for your first camping trip, either. Try to find a balance between reasonable price and features/ease of use.

When my family camped during my childhood, we had an heirloom (old!) canvas and wood tent that absolutely, definitely leaked in the rain when a kid poked it with a finger. Do you need to ask me how I know? It took my dad a long time to set up with much cursing and he needed my mother’s help to manage that beast. Before I reached my teens, newer materials arrived that gave us the option to buy a spacious family tent one person could put up on his own. These new tents kept us drier, too.

Some research is warranted on a purchase of this size for most middle class families. A tent can be seen as a reasonable investment in many years of affordable family vacations. If you aren’t comfortable, you won’t end up camping as often, and your money could be wasted.

You might want to ponder how you think you will use the interior space before selecting your first tent. At home, do your kids climb into your big bed, or do some (or all) of you prefer more defined personal sleeping space?

sleeping in tent - 1Families who share queen size air mattresses will enjoy the more rectangular tents such as Coleman’s Instant Cabin line.

Those of us who are using individual foam or air pads (or cots!) may prefer a longer, narrower rectangular arrangement—or not. Taller individuals, too, may be grateful for reserving open space in the tallest, middle area of a family tent.

*FYI for new campers: tents usually fail by collapsing or leaking. Most often this is a result of user error, but better designs lessen the odds of a failure.

**Aside from rain water migrating through the walls of the tent, it is also common for condensation to form inside a tent, especially when the air outside is cooler than your little fabric shelter full of warm, breathing bodies. Condensation is cured by ventilation, such as leaving the mesh windows somewhat open at night instead of zipping everything up tight.

***Unless you take off your shoes every time you step into the tent, the floor will end up very gritty. If you have kids, it’s pretty much a guarantee. Keeping a mini broom and dustpan by the door helps manage this, but it is a fact of life of tent camping.

Such a simple solution: cold feet cured with a double duty metal water bottle

A hot water bottle by one’s frigid feet is a classic winter comfort. If you suffer from ice cubes for toes and haven’t yet discovered the joy of this simple but effective warmer, do try one as the nights regain their chill.*

Here’s a so-simple-it’s-silly solution to the same problem in an overly air conditioned hotel room or when encountering unseasonably cold weather camping:

Use a refillable/reusable metal drink bottle full of hot water as a bed- and foot-warmer. Consider it a more petite cousin of the old-fashioned rubber hot water bottle you could pick up at a pharmacy.

Sigg water bottles - 1

Swiss made aluminum bottles by Sigg, well used for almost a decade; dented, but still leak-free

Fill your bottle from the coffee machine (run it without coffee in the basket), the hot tap in the bathroom, or even use water you’ve heated over a campfire. I’ve tapped all of these for fuel to fight freezing feet. Just pour carefully as your source water gets hotter.

Esbit stove hot water - 1

If you have to heat your water this way, allow lots of extra time before bed…

Make sure your bottle has a tight-fitting, secure lid that won’t come loose inadvertently and soak your bed! I like flip top lids for daily use, but I only travel with bottles that include sturdy screw caps. I also routinely carry a small but super absorbent PackTowl in the same pocket of my pack to catch small leaks and drips before they threaten my papers and electronics.

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PackTowl Personal model in Face size 10×14″ 0.7oz (25×35 cm, 21g)

Consider slipping the warm bottle into a sock (or a spare pillowcase) for insulation. This is vital if you’ve used scalding hot water. You want to avoid burns. Also, as the bottle cools, it will become a less cozy object to encounter. Don’t startle yourself awake by kicking a hard metal tube in the middle of the night.

You could just carry a traditional rubber hot water bottle while globe trotting. From my perspective, though, they are too large to include in a carry on travel bag. At around 12 oz, they’re also fairly heavy.rubber hot water bottle - 1

A rubber hot water bottle is a single task item. Those of us who enjoy traveling with fewer encumbrances often seek out smaller, lighter, and multi-functional gear for trips. I take no small measure of pleasure in the coup of finding tremendous extra benefit from something I was already carrying.

I always bring my own drinking water bottle to fill post-security at the airport to avoid both disposable plastic bottles and the exorbitant prices at the gate area kiosks. At home and on road trips, we have a water bottle in the car for every family member. Now, I’m simply specifying a particular bottle that can serve an additional function, and I’m a lot more comfortable for the effort.

Gentle heat, thoughtfully applied, can also provide soothing pain relief for some conditions, like my joint pain. It’s hard to overstate the value of something like that to anyone with a chronic condition that’s exacerbated by travel.

There’s just one problem that I’ve discovered with this clever solution: my family has caught on to how I’m using my bottle to warm my bed. The kids give me sad eyed looks and tell me their feet are cold! If you’re traveling as a family, it might be best to upgrade everyone’s drink bottle to a sturdy stainless steel model with an excellent lid.

Your cold feet will thank you, even if the kids don’t.

 

 

*If you’re like me, your cold feet may recur regardless of season or outdoor temperature, which is what prompted me to begin writing this post in August!

Pain makes me less approachable; pain makes you like me less

When I’m in pain, I am certain that I’m less receptive to the good in the world around me.

A recent study showed that it is possible to diagnose depression remotely by analyzing the photos people post to social media. Depressed people view the world so differently, their acts of self-expression change.

Along similar lines, I’ve noticed that I view people around me in a different light when my chronic pain flares. I’ve caught myself cynically judging the sincerity of a smile on a woman’s face, or angry at a pedestrian for his freedom to walk presumably without pain.

This isn’t my natural personality. I have a sincere love for—and trust in the goodness of—humanity that my darling husband finds charmingly(?) naive.Untitled

I like to joke that I’m a functional misanthrope, but that’s got more to do with my introversion and some social anxiety than any real disdain for humanity. I am overjoyed by the heights of human achievement. I believe that we, as a species, will persevere and do wonderful things.

That’s my perspective. That’s who I really am.

Pain, however, distorts my every impression.

And, I’m less likeable when I’m in pain. Continue reading

Go camping with less commitment: 3 steps to get started without spending a fortune

Let’s say you’ve heard of this camping thing, but you haven’t tried it. Perhaps your family camped when you were young, but you didn’t take notes while your parents pitched the tent, and didn’t their stuff fill half the garage? Maybe you’re interested in the benefits of forest bathing, but you don’t have any gear.

Do you have to spend a month’s salary at REI to make a foray into the wilderness experience?

No.

Camp Coleman Instant Tent 6

Tent

Here’s some really simple advice for taking a relatively comfortable first camping trip.

Begin with the basics:

  • Shelter,

  • sleep,

  • food.

You’ll be miserable if you miss any of these big three, but they needn’t be complicated or expensive to manage.

Find a campground that will serve your needs

Before anything else, choose the season and location where you like nature best. If you can’t get enough of hot weather, go at summer’s peak to a sunny site; if you prefer shade and moderate temperatures, aim for a wooded site early or late in the camping season.

You already know what kind of climate you prefer. Let that information inform your decisions about when and where to camp.

If you’ve never camped before, you may be surprised to learn that there exist very rustic campgrounds with almost no facilities at all. That means pit toilets or burying (or carrying out!) your own human waste, and bringing every drop of water you’ll require with you from civilization (or treating water you find on site to sterilize it.)

On the other hand, some may be equally surprised to realize that many campgrounds provide amenities like electrical power, water, and cable TV right at individual sites for compatible trailers and RVs.

It is relatively easy to find campgrounds with hot running water in the communal bath houses. Note that you may have to insert quarters every few minutes for a hot shower.

Most public and commercial campgrounds have shared (cold) water spigots and basic toilet facilities, all within an easy walk of your picnic table. Almost all sell firewood on site since this prevents the spread of woodborne insects that infest local trees. Some have a convenience store or a coffee shop.

It pays to carefully read the description of your chosen campground’s amenities. Most have a ranger or manager who will be happy to talk to you about what to expect before you make your first reservation. Make use of this free resource, because these are usually people who love camping and can’t wait to share the great outdoors with a newbie.

You don’t have to hike for miles carrying everything on your back in order to enjoy nature. That’s a great experience to try, but not one I’d recommend undertaking alone or without some practice car camping.

Car camping means driving right to your campground—and often into your own dedicated campsite—with your own vehicle hauling as much as you want of your own stuff.

Shelter

If you’ve never camped before, I’d advise looking into state campgrounds that offer rustic shelters in addition to tent sites. Some private campgrounds may have these, too, but my experience veers toward public lands.

These vary from log cabins to semi-permanent tents, but they do almost guarantee protection from sun and rain.

Don’t expect a bathroom or kitchen or any running water at your site. More often, you’re reserving a glorified tent, possibly one with rustic bunk beds. Read the site description carefully so you aren’t surprised, and expect to do your cooking outdoors and your toileting and bathing in communal facilities nearby.

You may (or may not?) be surprised to learn that reservations are made much like those for hotels or flights. These days, that means online as well as by phone. Check out Reserve America to see what’s available in your area. Some states may use their own proprietary reservation systems; if you’re interested in a particular park, find its website and follow the links.

Costs are higher to reserve a shelter instead of a nearly empty tent site with just a picnic table and a fire pit, but you will still spend much less than you would for hotel rooms. A yurt at one Oregon state campground costs $44 per night; a tent site is $21 per night. At a Vermont state park, a lean-to starts at $25 per night while a tent site is $18+.

Erecting a shelter that will stand up to wind or rain is probably the trickiest step involved in camping. Skip it entirely for your first trip, and you can get a good sense of whether you enjoy the basic experience, especially if mother nature throws any “interesting” weather your way. You also won’t have the expense—or storage issue—of a bulky tent you might not use again.

I think there’s value in learning new things, but there are others you can concentrate on right out of the gate. Properly siting a tent involves evaluating the ground, remembering a number of steps, and tying clever knots. If you’re willing to invest your time in these skills, renting a tent is an affordable option.

Sleep, don’t suffer

Some people will sleep undisturbed on the bare ground with a simple bedroll; most of us won’t!

It’s absolutely possible to bring regular bedding camping, but sleeping bags are the gold standard for a few reasons. They are compact and easy to re-roll and pack. They keep you warmer because they your body heat gets trapped within their enclosed confines. They are sold with easy to compare temperature ratings printed right on the tags giving you a vital clue as to which one best suits your trip.

Borrow, buy, or rent an appropriate sleeping bag for your climate. It is unwise to skimp on this vital piece of kit. Err on the side of a somewhat warmer (lower printed temperature rating) bag because you can unzip it if you get too warm, but getting too cold in the wilderness is a real safety threat.

The threat is less in a campground with facilities, your vehicle, and many people nearby, but it’s best to respect nature’s power from the get go. Never leave civilization unprepared for keeping yourself warm in the given climate! Maintaining your body temperature can be a matter of life or death.

This is another time to know thyself. If you tend turn off the heat at night in winter and sleep with your feet sticking out, you may want a less insulated sleeping bag. If you’re the one who puts freezing cold footsicles on your partner in July, buy a warmer one.

In addition to one sleeping bag per person, bring a sleeping pad or air mattress for everyone, too. You might be the rare soul who doesn’t feel the rocks and twigs. Go ahead and try stretching out on the ground one night, but have at least a little cushioning available in case you want it.

If you’re over forty, consider investing in a “deluxe” level of padding. Many people prefer a softer nest as their joints age.

For car camping, where bulk and weight don’t matter too much, I always include at least one extra foam pad with my camping supplies, even when we intend to use self-inflating or standard air mattresses. Air mattresses spring leaks at the most inopportune moments. Without a backup mat, I would probably choose sleeping in my car over directly on the ground. Foam mats are cheap, often less than $10. I can’t think of a single serious downside to layering an extra piece of foam beneath any and all other mattresses.

Bring at least one old blanket (or a new one that’s sturdy, thick, and washable.) Wool is the classic material; fleece is a cheaper, less allergenic modern equivalent in all ways except flame resistance. Layer it under you if the ground is too hard, over you if your sleeping bag isn’t warm enough, and fold it to cushion the picnic table bench if you get tired of rustic seating. Curl up in it while you stargaze around the fire after dark.

If you enjoy a throw blanket on the couch at home, you’ll absolutely adore it when the temps drop at night in your campsite.

Eating—and cooking and washing up—alfresco

A camp kitchen can be extraordinarily elaborate, or incredibly simple.

Chuck box deployed state with equipmentS

My camp kitchen gear, assembled over more than a decade of trial & error

For a first timer, even one who loves to cook at home, I would recommend starting with a minimal investment in specialty gear.

If you’re bringing perishable food, you will require a cooler. Hard-sided coolers keep ice longer than soft-sided. Larger coolers are more efficient than small ones. If you can buy ice locally near your campground, these concerns are less vital.

One good tip is to eat your most perishable foods at the beginning of the trip. Food poisoning will ruin any experience. If you’re unsure how to keep fresh food at a safe temperature, bring only commercially packaged, shelf-stable items. There are plenty of options.

Consider pre-packaged backpacking meals that are reconstituted with boiling water, or dead simple preparations like meat cooked directly over the campfire. Baked potatoes wrapped in foil are a great accompaniment, can be eaten right from their wrappers, and need very little clean up. All campsites I’ve visited have had at least a fire ring, and most of those also included a grate for cooking or supporting a (fire safe, such as cast iron) pot over the fire.

Remember that if you are bringing reusable dishes or utensils, you will also require a basin in which to wash them and a means of heating a large quantity of water. That’s fine, but it may not be obvious when you’re used to hot and cold running water. You should also make sure the dish soap you plan to use is biodegradable so it doesn’t damage the natural environment you’ve come to enjoy.

A brief camping trip may be the time to be less environmentally conscious and use some disposable items. I like a balance of washable items where they count (sturdy flatware and sporks, plus rigid handled mugs for hot drinks) with paper plates for eating sticky or greasy meals (going into the fire as tinder the next day.)

I’m lazy, so I try to wash dishes only once per day while camping. Carrying and heating water can be a really big chore. Don’t underestimate the effort required for this one.

On the flip side of this issue, never leave dirty dishes or food outside overnight. You’ll wake up to a huge mess made by the nocturnal creatures who enjoyed the “buffet.” Pack food and garbage away in your car overnight (or into provided receptacles if so advised by the campground.) This is both a hygiene and safety issue. It’s also harmful to wildlife.

Esbit stove in front of fire - 1

Esbit stove with folding-handle cup heating water

I wouldn’t plan more than a few hours in the wild without at least the means to boil water. My most basic method is a very inexpensive folding stove that takes small cubes of fuel ($11 on Amazon today, or $13 at REI.) This would fit in any backpack, and many pockets. I bought this and the folding-handle metal cup (~$10) before I had a family to feed, but I still use it to boil the water for my morning cup of tea if I’m the first person awake at a campsite.

There are many other small, simple backpacking and car camping stoves for sale with various learning curves, features, and downsides. I begin with the Esbit because I think it is foolproof and a bargain. I also own and like a JetBoil backpacking model (around $100) that uses fuel cans, and a Kelly “Storm” Kettle (~$90) that burns twigs and locally sourced brush. The Kelly Kettle is my favorite to use when multiple adults want hot beverages and there’s no call for a full campfire.

Taking the plunge ~ how many nights in camp?

The final consideration is how many nights to spend on your first outdoor overnight. Though I advocate moderation in most things, I would recommend at least a weekend (2 nights😉 a three day weekend (preferably not on a holiday) is even better.

Arrive relaxed on a weekday—or by midday Friday. This is much, much better than setting up camp while tired with the sun going down.

Give yourself the benefit of lots of time, energy, and daylight to prepare your first campsite. This holds even more true for families with kids!

Don’t arrive starving unless you picked up a prepared meal to go. If you plan to cook over a fire, it will need time to burn down from high flames to useful, glowing coals.

Even a simple campsite can feel like it requires a lot of setup. New equipment requires a learning curve, adding to the perceived effort.

I’ve heard this from friends, and I feel the same myself: you might as well set up camp for a week as for a weekend. It’s the same amount of work. You just bring more food.

If you manage a successful and enjoyable camping weekend, try a longer trip the next time. You’ll probably agree that the rewards for the effort feel much more substantial.

Don’t forget to invite your friends. Sitting around a campfire in great company under the stars is one of my greatest pleasures. I hope you find the same to be true for you.

Camping friends - 1