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?

3 top tips to consider before attending Waldsee family week at Concordia Language Villages

My top three concerns before our first trip to Waldsee, and some advice for new family Villagers

Two years ago, I registered DS1 and myself for family week at Waldsee, the German language immersion camp at Concordia Language Villages in Bemidji, MN. For those who’ve never heard of it, CLV is a language-learning program put on by Concordia College. It is a highly regarded program, and there are few foreign language immersion options like it in the United States. They offer summer camps for kids in fifteen different languages and have done so in some form or another since 1961. Family week is one of the year-round additions to the program that allows adults to participate with their kids in this effective way of studying a foreign language.

Though I scoured the Internet in the spring of 2015, there was hardly any information available about the family sessions aside from official CLV content. I found enough camper reviews from kids and teens to take make an educated guess that this would be a good fit for us, but I registered with some trepidation.

I was very excited about the camp—and I can now recommend it highly!—but I’m not the sort to blindly trust the word of someone who’s trying to sell me something. I wanted to hear from parents who had actually made the trip to Waldsee with their offspring; I wanted to know what to expect, preferably from a mom like me. I took the plunge two years ago because DS1 is educated at home and it is hard to find great local options for studying German below the high school level. Waldsee is a great supplement to any German learning program, but perhaps uniquely valuable to autodidacts and others who learn without speaking partners.

We are returning to family week in 2017, this time adding DS2 to our party. Our time at Waldsee was so much fun, it seems unfair not to include the other kid, even though he’s never studied German before. I’m positive he will have a great time, and I really want to share the experience with him. Ideally, DH would join us, too. It seems wrong that he has to miss out on all the fun, but his vacation time is just too precious and Minnesota is too far afield.

Having dispensed with the exposition, here are a few reassurances that I wish I’d heard before my first trip to Waldsee.

1)    During family week, adults have plenty of fun options provided by the camp, but families are also free to spend their time as they choose.

In many ways, I’m a happy camper. I love cheesy camp songs. Though I’m an introvert, I love to be nestled up alongside, if slightly apart from, the cheerful camaraderie of others. My experience at Waldsee was just about perfect in this respect.

I was always aware of a fun activity I could join. I think something was on offer every waking minute of the day! The overall feeling at Waldsee is exhilarating and joyful.

I never felt like I was being forced or bullied into participating when I didn’t want to. Every activity was an opt-in.

In this vein, I also felt supported as a parent to allow my child to join in—or not. DS1 found a group of compatriots on the very first day, choosing most often to hang out with them for the rest of the week. This was a real shocker! DS1 is not a joiner, and I’d expected to be constantly nudging him into participation. Whether this was the magic of Waldsee or simple good luck, we’ll see when we return this year.

If my child had shown signs of over-socialization stress (introverts know what I mean), I would’ve pulled him out and taken him back to the cabin for some alone time. It was pretty obvious that the program allowed for it.

This is also a good place to mention that our party of two inveterate introverts felt we had sufficient privacy to unwind and recharge, even though we were sharing a room with one other family and a house with many others. Specifics of one’s personal space will vary depending upon who attends camp any given session, but we had curtains for physical privacy and enough space not to feel physically or aurally crowded.

2) Though the official policy is cautious, a family with some physical special needs can expect to enjoy Waldsee

We have some dietary needs that aren’t mainstream (but nothing life-threatening.) I was also diagnosed with a serious autoimmune condition in 2015. I was mildly concerned about having good food options, and I was pretty nervous about my own comfort and physical health at camp.

For food, my concerns were mostly unfounded. There was one meal where the kitchen assumed a lower lactose option (based on hard cheese) would be safe for my severely lactose-intolerant son, but they were able to give him the vegan option when I expressed concern that it wasn’t. He could’ve survived on bread and vegetables for one meal if it had been a bigger problem.

Family week makes this a bit easier than standard sleep-away camp weeks at CLV because we retained the option to keep well-wrapped/sealed personal food with us in our cabin. I had safe, supplementary food that we never needed, but it gave me peace of mind to know my son would never go hungry. Food from home would be considered contraband during sleep-away camp weeks, and it would be confiscated upon arrival.

As far as my concerns about staying comfortable as an adult with health problems staying at a kids’ summer camp, everything worked out pretty well. I never felt pressured to join an activity that would cause me physical problems. The bunk beds, while far from luxurious, were comfortable enough that I could sleep using standard bedding. Sharing a bunk with a family member made this easier since I could insist DS1 sleep on the top. There are days where climbing a ladder is simply out of the question for me.

If your family requires medication, consider bringing a suitable locking container for it. During family week, you keep and dispense your own family’s medications. Because there are no locks on the doors, I kept all of my pills locked up in a medication bag and secured in my suitcase all of the time. I never felt that my belongings were in any way compromised, but I didn’t want to risk a child getting into my medication and being poisoned.

We are making some different choices for our second stay at Waldsee, primarily due to my physical needs. The biggest change is driving to Minnesota instead of flying. My one major discomfort during the 2015 family week could have been alleviated with camping equipment I already own. The thing I missed most was a cushioned chair with a back. At camp, you sit on hard wooden benches most of the time. Young backs and bones manage this very well, but my arthritis made it painful. I was only really comfortable at Waldsee lying down in my bunk. This time, I’m going to pack a folding camping chair to use in my cabin and possibly also at longer activity sessions.

I had a lot of concerns about what would happen if my condition flared at camp. Upon arrival, many of these fears were allayed. Our T-Mobile and Verizon wireless phones both worked in the parking lot, so we weren’t cut off from communication with family or physicians. The drive from Bemidji wasn’t too long, and the road was in good condition. It seemed likely that expert help could arrive quickly if needed. The camp buildings were mostly pretty refined structures. These weren’t the very primitive cabins of my childhood Camp Fire experience. Mosquitoes were mostly outside, the furniture was of sturdy household quality, and I could flip on an electric lamp if I needed to find my way at night.

3) The best way to arrive and depart Bemidji, MN

In 2015, we flew into Bemidji (BJI), flew out of Minneapolis (MSP), and we used CLV transportation options (charter bus) to get between Waldsee and the airports. The transportation staff was professional and everything went as planned, but one lesson learned is that you lose too much time from the last day of a short week by flying out of MSP. You leave camp before breakfast to make the multi-hours drive to Minneapolis. If you are paying to attend this moderately expensive camp, make the most of it and enjoy every hour you’ve paid for!

Flying into Bemidji was easy, and I suspect that flying out would have been equally satisfactory. We arrived Sunday and stayed overnight at a hotel to acclimate to the time zone before camp, and also to give me a comfortable night’s rest before what I feared would be a week of roughing it. The hotel night was pleasant, but I would only suggest it if it saves you a fortune on airfare to or from BJI. Some of the local hotels have free laundry facilities that might make an overnight before heading home very productive.

The biggest issue with flying to and from camp is the quantity of stuff you can carry by plane. We rented a set of bedding from CLV so we could check only one suitcase for the trip. The bedding was adequate, but bringing my own from home will make me more comfortable this year. If you fly, I’d suggest paying the airline fees to check a second bag full of bedding over renting linens.

A great deal more can be said about who might enjoy the Concordia Language Villages experience and how much one can learn in a week, and I intend to expand upon this in future posts. For now, I’m beginning with the few points that gave me the most angst as I planned my first visit to Waldsee, and offering the advice I think a newcomer should hear first.

Have you ever attended—or considered attending—family week at CLV? Feel free to share your best advice, or ask your most burning questions, in the comments!

Here’s a link to another mom’s blog series about attending family week at the CLV Russian site, Lesnoe Ozero. I was looking for exactly this information back in 2015.

Here’s my next installment in what I’ll call Waldsee family week for dummies, this time with more pictures.

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?