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.

Luggage brands & bag styles I’m traveling with regularly in 2017

Here’s my recent luggage use pattern:

Rolo, when carried, ends up crammed inside Tom Bihn or Red Oxx, however. It has been used as a carry-on in conjunction with a Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45, a Red Oxx Small Aviator Bag, and even a Tom Bihn Shop Bag.

I haven’t posted about the brand before, but my one set of wheeled luggage is Sherpani. We need to talk about them, too.

Yes, I’m on the record railing against wheeled rollaboard bags here and in real life, but my Sherpani wheels are on a larger, checked-luggage sized suitcase. I never lift them over my head, and I don’t try to carry them on. Large wheeled bags are the best for trips involving a lot of stuff.

It is possible that I bought my Sherpani wheeled suitcase primarily because it came in a really fetching brown and purple color scheme. Highly unusual for luggage carousel spotting! Coordinated with clothes I wore frequently for travel! The presence of cute little daisies in charming spots could also have been a factor.

The more similar your trips, and the more similar your needs during travel, the less likely it is that you need a variety of pieces of luggage. If, on the other hand, you sometimes fly carry on only in basic economy, but other times enjoy extended voyages with extensive wardrobe requirements, you might appreciate having a range of bags that can exactly suit the given style of travel.

If I didn’t have the budget or the storage space for all four types of luggage, I would rank their order of importance to me exactly as I introduced them above:

  1. Ultra-lightweight carry on,
  2. sturdy (check-able) duffle in a size that could be carried on,
  3. specialized bag (for organization),
  4. specialized bag (for extra long trips with more specific requirements.)

For someone who flies rarely or has the strength to find all carry on luggage of trivial weight, I would prioritize item #2 above all else in most cases. A sturdy rectangular bag is by far the most versatile option available.

Some people can make do with everyday items (shopping bags or school day packs) in lieu of travel gear; some people are willing to spend more on luggage than they do on the trip itself. Most of us fall somewhere in between.

A good brand will only produce bags of high quality, but that won’t matter if you buy the wrong bag for your needs.

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.

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

Packing for summer camp so a messy boy can keep it together

Say you have a son of middle school age. He’s smart, funny, and fascinating, but keeping his things organized isn’t his strong suit. Let’s call it a struggle.

How do you help a kid like this enjoy his first week away from home, and ensure that his belongings make it back with him?

Two things made our summer camp packing successful: a carefully conceived plan, and straightforward access to what he needed when he needed it with hanging organizers that provided great visibility and a primary suitcase with strategic compartments.

Rolo in bathroom - 1

Rolo bag: one solid solution for summer camp organization

First, I checked in with my son. Did he have any thoughts on how he wanted his stuff to be packed? Did he want to do this job? Did he want or need help?

Response: mostly crickets. He was happy to let me plan, and he agreed to cooperate with whatever system I devised.

Using a packing list

I adapted the camp packing list by cross-checking it with my usual travel list for DS. I also reprinted it in a format that I thought my child could reference more easily when he re-packed to come home.

The major improvements I made to the generic camp list were specifying garment colors (e.g., he knew to look for dark blue fabric if he wanted pants) and item location within the bag‘s various pockets.

DS’s jobs included:

  • check that everything he wanted to bring was listed
  • select items from his wardrobe that reflected personal expression (graphic tees, mostly)
  • carry the clothing from his wardrobe to where I was packing
  • try on everything I asked him to (he just keeps growing!) without complaint so I could confirm fit and appropriateness of individual items
  • pay attention to the walk-through I gave him about where he could find each type of stuff (information I also added to the packing list)

One large suitcase with strategic compartments

My first decision was to try to get everything into one large rolling duffel bag. Arriving at camp is fairly chaotic. Having only one item to keep track of would be best.

I opted for a bag with a flat bottom compartment beneath the more voluminous main section. All of his sheets and blankets (three warm ones suggested for northern Minnesota) could be compressed into the base of the bag. I made sure DS understood that he could unzip this one compartment and make his bed completely.

The boy can live in the same stinky outfit for a week if he wants to, but his parents can’t bear the idea that he might lie awake shivering every night for that long.

Providing trivially easy access to his bedding, his bug spray, and his toothbrush was my top priority.

Don’t sweat the small stuff: organize it!

Toiletries were organized in a large hanging kit bag made by Eagle Creek.

Eagle Creek kit toiletries - 1In addition to hygiene items, I opted to pack his flashlight, extra batteries, and pencils in this case. I thought he was more likely to find them here than to rummage through the exterior pockets of his large bag. Also, a boy his age doesn’t need many toiletries.

Small items are much easier to find against the Eagle Creek kit’s neon green and grey interior than in the duffel’s black nylon depths.

After those basics of health and hygiene, my next mission was to ensure he changed at least his socks and underwear every day. It’s camp. He can (and should) get dirty. My parenting job here was to help him understand the limits of how dirty (within socially acceptable limits), and how to keep track of it for himself in the woods.

Visibility and easy access to key items of clothing

Solution: our Rolo bag.

I’ve written about the Rolo bag before, specifically, for use in the limited confines of an Amtrak train sleeper compartment.

Camp has a couple of similarities. Space is limited with kids filling bunk beds in small cabins. Stuff spilling out onto the floor can be easily lost, though it will be obscured by others’ possessions instead of mechanical equipment at camp.

Rolo rolled - 1

The Rolo bag isn’t large. Packed and rolled, it will fit within my usual carry on travel bag, a Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45.

I used the Rolo as an interior organizer within the big duffel. Trousers in my son’s size don’t fit efficiently, but it was ideal for separating socks and underwear (the two narrow bottom sections) from t-shirts (middle) and camp-appropriate insect repellent/UV blocking shirts (top section.)

Once his cabin was assigned and found, DS only needed to unzip the duffel, take out and unroll the Rolo bag, and hang it in the locker-sized cubby assigned to him. He could easily find fresh next-to-the-body clothes each day. Visible through the mesh fronts of the pockets, he also had a reminder of the most important items to change.

Packing cubes keep clean clothes at the ready

I used packing cubes for the rest of his things: trousers and shorts, warm layers, accessories. He never took out his swimwear or “dress up” outfit, but he did wear the rest of his clean pants. He found his rainwear when he needed it.

From a mother’s perspective, the way that we planned and packed worked very well.

After camp, I asked my son how this system worked for him.

Putting plans to the test in the field

It turned out that his bunk was reassigned an hour after I’d dropped him off. I had helped him make his bed and unpack in the first room, so he had to re-pack everything. He didn’t find it hard to get his things back into the duffel and moved across the campus on his own.

That was a great test of how well we packed, if annoying for my son.

My son felt the Rolo bag was the single most helpful item for keeping him organized. He would prefer to have all of his clothing packed using this (or similar) bags next time he’s on his own.

Since I also really like the way the Rolo bag packs, I’ve ordered a similar Red Oxx product to expand our hanging/rolling packing options in the future. The Red Oxx Big Bull Roll-up looks like it will excel at organizing smaller items, but I expect it to create a larger roll at a heavier weight due to the Red Oxx philosophy of seriously overbuilt products.

I’m looking forward to testing the Big Bull Roll-up, comparing it to the Rolo bag, and reviewing it here in the next few weeks.

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?