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

Sleep beneath the stars while frustrating the mosquitos

On a warm summer night, it’s tempting to sleep outside and beat the heat, but how can you avoid being eaten alive by mosquitoes?

Cam-O-Bunk accessory Mosquito Net open - 1

Rock-a-bye baby, on Cam-O-Bunk, Mozzies won’t bite you, under this… junk?   (I really like the Mosquito Net, I’m just compelled to spout execrable poetry.)

Add a Mosquito Net and Frame to your Disc-O-Bed Cam-O-Bunk—it fits the L or XL model—and you can enjoy a comfortable, flat bed while sleeping out of doors in the almost open air. You’ll even be able to see the stars through the mesh, light pollution permitting.

My little guy tells me that the full moon sprouts beautiful rays of green and gold light when viewed through the Mosquito Net’s mesh at night.

I was going to skip this accessory since we typically camp as a family in our perfectly mid-sized tent. I appreciate nature—even crave the acres of evergreen forests of my native region—but I’m far from a rugged outdoorswoman.

I prefer a bit of tarpaulin between me and the savage beasts raccoons who fight over the wrapper my kid left on the picnic table.


Fast forward to a muggy night and our currently out-of-commission air conditioning unit for the third floor bedroom. Remember, heat rises.

I’d love to sleep out on the deck,” said DH, “but would you believe the mosquitoes make it up this high?

“Me, too!” chimed in the little guy. “Let’s do it, Pop!”

But the plan was scrapped for want of a mosquito net.

I remembered having seen such an accessory when I was researching my Cam-O-Bunk prior to purchase. I went back to have a look. Sold as a set, there it was:

Continue reading

Red Oxx Big Bull Roll-Up carry on bag keeps family travel organized

I’ve mentioned my Rolo hanging carry-on bag in a few contexts (Amtrak travel, summer camp.) I discovered it—and the Red Oxx Big Bull Roll-Up luggage that I’m reviewing now—during the same internet search for a new piece of kit that would help keep my family organized on a long trip.

Red Oxx Big Bull Roll-up Rolo hanging bag

Red Oxx Big Bull Roll-Up ($285) next to Rolo bag ($50), both empty

My summer road trip proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that this style of bag works really well for my family. DS1 stated that the Rolo made managing his things at summer camp easier. I appreciated the design at every brief overnight hotel stop.

Thus convinced, I bit the bullet and ordered the Red Oxx bag upon returning home. We’re going camping this summer, and I can definitely use a roll-it-out-and-see-it-all bag for each boy.

I got the Rolo bag first because it lists for $50 compared to the Big Bull Roll-Up’s $285 price. I could buy one Rolo bag for each family member (plus 1.7 extra) for the price of one Red Oxx Big Bull. But would I want to? Continue reading

Camping in comfort when you live with chronic pain: begin with the bed

Growing up, my family took more camping vacations than any other kind. We went annually with the same people—friends with kids my age. Even when we moved to a neighboring state, we traveled for hours to camp with them.

These are golden memories for me, and it’s the kind of tradition I’d like to re-create for my own kids.

Camp Coleman Instant Tent 6

Coleman Instant Tent – 6 person model (Retail $180)

Lately, the trick has been figuring out how to travel the way I want to, experiencing the world at large, when my body has developed an autoimmune condition that sporadically surprises me with painful symptoms.

Camping for people of all abilities

Should a person with occasionally debilitating joint pain risk going camping?

Pardon my French, but: Continue reading

Need vs. nostalgia: what do I really want to carry?

While the topic of downsizing, “right” sizing, or minimizing one’s possessions is a vast and multi-faceted one, it is also something that constantly surprises me by inserting itself into my life, unbidden. It isn’t always obvious where these questions will pop up.

I am not aiming for minimalism. I do recognize that I struggle with some types of possessions. Who owns whom? I also believe firmly in frequent self-reflection about assumptions, and modern consumer culture offers so many “necessary” items to question.

I examine my life. It keeps it worth living. (Apologies to Socrates. Sometimes I can’t resist the low hanging fruit.)

Today, we pulled the tent out of storage. We are prepping for upcoming camping trips, and I wanted a dry run, test-fitting the packing of some new equipment with the old. Don’t be surprised when I write about tents and sleeping comfort in coming weeks.

Amongst the random outdoors items on the camping shelf was a plastic shaving mirror with a hanging hook. Not tiny, but sized to view one’s face, I bought this mirror before my first overnight in a New England campground. If memory serves, DH and I were merely dating, and we went to a Connecticut state campground with some of my work friends. This would be about 20 years ago.

At that stage of my life, I owned a sleeping bag, but no other camping equipment. DH had a tent, I think, and we went to a liquidation/warehouse store to buy some outdoorsy odds and ends. We didn’t go with much more than a minimal structure (tent), sleeping pads and bags, and a scant few dishes and items for cooking meat directly over flame.

I didn’t want to have very much camping “stuff.” I had a notion that time outdoors could be spent with more joy and less unloading, and I wanted to do the experiment.

You see, I grew up going camping by my parents’ rules. Let’s just describe them as people who like their stuff. We went camping in our Volkswagen bus, and it would be stuffed to the roof with equipment for every eventuality. After my dad bought his boat, that, too, would be loaded to the gills.

Arriving at a campground meant being late (due to lengthy loading times), suffering whisper-yelling in the dark about holding the flashlight still while Dad attempted to erect a tent he couldn’t see, and discovering it is possible to put things in the “wrong” place on a tiny patch of land on which you’ve never before set foot. Setting up camp was stressful!

It seemed like there was probably a more enjoyable way to start an otherwise wonderful vacation, and I am happy to report that my way does work better for me.

Most of my simplifications involved ditching kitchen equipment, but, then, I don’t cook for pleasure. I didn’t even attempt to replicate most of the specialized equipment deemed vital for the camping trips of my childhood, but I did buy this plastic mirror. I’m not sure I’ve ever used it, but I’ve diligently hung it near the tent in every campsite since.

Today, I’m wondering why? Why the mirror, in particular?

Mirror camp - 1Because we always brought a certain plastic mirror on my childhood camping trips. It would be unthinkable to leave it behind (it would need to be replaced locally if it weren’t present.) That was (and is) my parents’ approach to their various habits of stuff. I think my dad used their mirror for shaving, but my husband has a beard, so no similar need exists.

Why did I buy a mirror, when I didn’t buy a small table, folding chairs, a Coleman stove, or so many other things? Why does the mirror still get packed, even appearing on my camping packing checklist? Why, holding it in my hands today, contemplating it long and hard enough to prompt the effort of a blog post, do I still think a mirror belongs in my camping kit?

I sincerely do not know, but, upon reflection (ahem!), it will probably continue to join us on all of our family car camping trips. It feels right, somehow, to include it, and I can’t see any harm in having it along.

When I approach minimalism, realize that I am coming from an upbringing better described as “maximalism.” There are some comforts gained by having everything at hand, just in case, and there are costs to that habit. I try to be aware of both, and weigh them appropriately for different situations.

Sometimes, some items are more accurately analyzed by feeling than thinking. That’s a problem when it leads to hoarding garbage and living amongst impassable piles of stuff, but it’s usually fine when it refers to a personal treasure providing a sense of abundance, or preparation, or even simple nostalgia for the beholder.

I’m going to claim my little mirror as the latter.

Do you have any “magical” items that you routinely pack for certain kinds of travel? I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s found such an unlikely talisman in their otherwise sensible packing list!

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?

Posting schedule: summer vacation is for blogging moms, too

I’ve been posting almost daily since April, when I started in earnest to write Really Wonderful Things. I hope that all of this hard work has built up a nice portfolio on a variety of topics, and that my archives now have lots to offer for new readers who stop by.

Starting immediately, my summer schedule will be a post on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

PEI beachSummer vacation, for us, means travel, family activities, and time away from our desks. Wifi isn’t readily available—nor would I want it there!—in the wilderness.*

I’m not neglecting those of you who do me the honor of following RWT. I’m unplugging. It’s supposed to be good for you.

And I’m really only unplugging a little bit.

If I have access to Wifi, I will still read and answer comments every day.

Contact phoneI expect I will continue reading most, if not all, of the blogs I follow, too. Following a blog can feel like making a friend. I want to find out what happens next.

I reserve the right to write extra posts at any time. I may not be able to help sharing Really Wonderful Things that I learn, see, or do this summer. I’m an enthusiastic over-sharer. It’s who I am.

Here’s wishing every reader** a summer season abundant in everything really wonderful to you.OR Florence - 2011

*Maybe wilderness can be defined here as the local park, or a campground with hot showers, but the point remains.

**I know I have some followers from the Southern Hemisphere. You are headed into winter. Perhaps my summer posts can help warm your cold days.

Organizing the chuck box & storing camp kitchen gear

If you’re like me (perpetually messy and disorganized in the physical realm) but you want to go camping, sometimes on the spur of the moment, you could probably benefit from storing your camp kitchen equipment in a dedicated “chuck box.”

“Chuck box” is a synonym for grub box, camp box or patrol box. Any of these terms means “your portable camp kitchen in a container.” These days, many car campers use a large Rubbermaid tote as a chuck box.

Until a couple of years ago, we used a large plastic bin for all of our smaller camping equipment, too. What really prompted my chuck box organization project was realizing how inefficient it was to set up camp with everything coming out of the same large bin in the back of the car simultaneously. We kept getting in each other’s way!

Typically, we pull into a campground, and DH sets up the tent while I keep the kids out of trouble and begin setting up everything else (that doesn’t go into the tent.) On particularly bug-infested camping trips, simply leaving the back hatch of the car open as we dig for one item after another feels like a major mistake. It was obvious I could design a better system than the “one large plastic bin” default that had performed adequately before he had children.

Looking back to my own childhood of once or twice a year, week-long camping trips, I wanted to avoid the over-stuffed van (yay! Volkswagen bus!) and the inevitable late arrival with profanity-laden tent erection in the dark. My parents packed too much stuff!

On the other hand, a strictly minimalist camp simply isn’t comfortable enough, or convenient enough, for me to enjoy camping. Some items make a camping trip significantly more comfortable, like sufficient padding under a sleeping bag (physical comfort), or a set of marshmallow sticks that give every kid a simultaneous s’more after dinner (mental well-being.)

Upon reflection, it was obvious to me that I needed to improve the modularization of our camping equipment. In some ways, our gear was already stored in a modular way. After all, the clothing was in a duffel bag ready to go into the tent, and the sleeping bags were similarly corralled in an oversized canvas sack. We hadn’t yet taken this to the next logical step, however, and separated the other gear into collections by function. DH and I were nudging each other out of the way or tapping feet waiting to dig the next piece of equipment out of the same giant black hole Rubbermaid tote leading to inefficiency and sometimes frayed nerves (mine!)

Step one was to create a master checklist for all of our camping equipment. I started with the one from REI’s website and adjusted it to match our style and gear. I simply listed the Chuck Box and Cooler on the master list, and then created a separate list for everything related to camp kitchen equipment.

Listing all the items you’d like to have with you on a camping trip can be enough for some campers all by itself. Checking off each item as you grab it from your kitchen or garage and load it into the car means you will get where you’re going with the gear you expect. This saves the expense of duplicating household items you already own, but it does take time, and it also exposes what may be expensive or delicate household items to the dirt and rugged conditions of life outdoors.

Many, if not most, campers own at least some dedicated equipment for duplicating household chores in a natural environment. My own mother still has a lovingly constructed camp “pantry” made by her woodworking father for her childhood camping forays. That box probably weighed at least 70 pounds when she loaded it up with canned goods, but it is still sturdy and attractive over fifty years later. It also stirs up good memories for me every time I see it in her garage. While solid wood has largely been replaced by lighter weight materials in modern sporting goods stores’ camping aisles, there’s something to be said for having a piece of kit than can literally qualify as a family heirloom.

Mom isn’t willing to pass along her camping pantry yet, but I recognized my new chuck box almost instantly when I found it by web search. You can jump to Blue Sky Kitchen right now if you want to see it before finishing my soliloquy. My chuck box is the one he doesn’t call a chuck box: the Extended Work-Top Box camp table.

Every other chuck box design that I found online—homemade or commercial, old-fashioned wood or high ticket aluminum—shared one similar characteristic that I knew would not create a relaxing camp environment for me: a high center of gravity.

Suffice it to say that a high center of gravity means something is easier to tip over. I’m not the most graceful person. I have poor eyesight, and I am prone to distraction. I’m a grown up who still sometimes forgets about the tent guylines and trips in broad daylight. I’ve been known to shatter a glass by missing the table while engaging in spirited dinner conversation. The sight of a camp kitchen perched on tall, skinny legs on the uneven dirt ground doesn’t give me peace of mind.

I love my Work-Top Box because I can set up the raised work surface and extension leaves while keeping the bulk of my equipment stored in the box body safely down on the ground. The weight of the box itself keeps the raised area steady, and any equipment inside only adds to the ballast.

While the Work-Top Box is obviously a utilitarian piece of equipment, it is also a wooden box (oak hard ply and redwood) made by a human being, not a roto-molded plastic bin churned out by a factory. It was designed by an American entrepreneur who obviously enjoys camping and likes to share his expertise. He offers plans, kits you can build yourself, and fully built boxes ready to stock and take camping. I get an extra measure of satisfaction every time I see my Work-Top Box stored away in the garage because I feel good about every aspect of this purchase, and it brings back fond memories of camping trips past.

Having settled on the ideal storage box for my camp kitchen, I loaded it up and took it camping a few times. Once deployed, it met my needs and expectations, but I realized a few things about set up that could obviously be improved.

Chuck box no interior organizationS

Chuck box, haphazardly stuffed with camping equipment

First of all, the fully loaded Work-Top Box is something I can slide a few feet to get it out of my way, but not something I can safely lift, let alone carry. I can split the load with someone, but it isn’t ideal for our camp set up scenario for me to require assistance with one of the first tasks I need to accomplish. I want the chuck box up and out of the way in case DH finishes setting up the tent before I’m done and wants to access more gear from the car.

I don’t want the box to be lighter for any scenario except moving it, so I’m not looking for permanent changes to the box. Once again, modularization can solve my problem.

Upon arriving at camp (or returning home), I can take the lid off the chuck box and remove a few interior bins—one at a time!—to keep the weight of each load from being too much for my arthritic hands. Choosing lightweight bins made of washable materials means I can set them down on the picnic table, the ground, or whatever surface is convenient. I can also enlist the help of even my younger child to carry a dish pan sized load. With the heavy cookware thus shifted, I can lift the empty—or nearly empty—Work-Top Box and carry it to the desired location before setting up camp (or cleaning up the soiled equipment in the dishwasher back at home.)

Chuck box steam pans empty stackedS

Food-safe, dishwasher-safe, lightweight, commercial quality steam pans

Checking the interior dimensions of the Work-Top Box, I discovered that readily available commercial cooking equipment called “steam pans” were a very good fit inside the box. You’ve probably seen food served from these at buffets in metal chafing dishes. One full size steam pan almost completely fills the box from side to side, but leaves room to store a full-sized cutting board between its lip and the long side of the box. (A standard, full size steam pan measures 20-¾ inches long by 12-¾ inch wide.) These pans come in different depths, but 2-½ inch, 4 inch, and 6 inch deep pans are common. A four inch deep full size steam pan will hold all of my long, skinny BBQ sized cooking utensils, the pot holders, and a host of other kitchen equipment. I will keep this at the top of my Work-Top Box when it is fully packed.

Chuck box ready to re load with organizationS

Chuck box ready to pack with steam pan organizers; oversized yellow cutting board and silver heat-resistant mat fit along side and bottom

One full size pan is the equivalent size to two “half” pans, 4 “quarter” pans, and so on, available in several other common fractional sizes. (A half size steam pan measures 12-¾ inch by 10-½ inch.) For my purposes, I was also looking to replace my standard plastic dish pan with a smaller size that would fit more efficiently in my new box. Two six inch deep “half” steam pans, one made of stainless steel and the other in less expensive, lighter-weight polypropylene plastic, stack neatly next to each other beneath the full size pan. These two pans are big enough to wash my camping dishes.

The stainless steel pan, being a cooking implement, could actually be used directly on the stove or by the fire to heat water, though I’ll probably continue to heat water in a kettle on the stove during dinner as I have in the past.

Lids are available for these, but I didn’t buy any since the rims of the half pans provide sufficient support the full pan. The extra depth of the 6-inch half pans allows me to pack taller items, including a 4-cup Pyrex measuring cup, inside each one. If I decide that I want to store the two half pans above the full size pan once we’ve field tested this system, a flat, full-size pan lid should allow for the pans stack in this configuration.

Chuck box half pans not ideal on top of full panS

Full pan underneath would require a lid to support half pans above

Colander inserts are available that perfectly line any given size steam pan. Since I was looking to add a space-efficient colander to my chuck box, I opted for a half sized one that nests beautifully in one of my dish pans. Big round objects are always hard to pack efficiently, so I was pretty excited to find these.

The Work-Top Box is about 12 inches deep with the extension leaves stored inside, so stacking the six-inch and four-inch deep pans will leave plenty of room for last minute additions or somewhat oversized items at the top. Loading up the box this way isn’t fiddly or time-consuming. It also makes it much easier to find and remove any given utensil compared to the jumble inside when I first loaded the box. Kitchen tools also stay organized while the Work Top Box is deployed in camp.

Chuck box deployed state with equipmentS

Blame my photography, not my Work Top Box, for looking crooked

Chuck box deployed state with equipment close up full panS

The full size steam pan goes back in the box once the Work Top Box is set up, adding weight to keep that center of gravity low

Buying a bunch of specialty equipment isn’t necessary to enjoy camping, but it certainly can make packing and unpacking more convenient. How do you organize your camp kitchen equipment?