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

Including a Kindle for ultralight carry on travel: when is the weight justified?

To travel with the Kindle, or without the Kindle? That is my question before each trip.

Much of my travel kit is so definitive, it’s hard for me to remember a time when I carried anything different.

For over a decade, I’ve had a silk sleeping bag liner or “sleep sack” (dubbed by our family as “the sleestak” because that’s funnier) with me on every flight. It doubles as a blanket, protects me from chemical-laden hotel bedding, and acts as a neck pillow or cushioned armrest while rolled up.

I could go on and on about other items in my carefully curated collection of travel gear. Most pieces serve multiple purposes. Many of them delight me because they remind me of adventures past. I know what I need, why I need it, and (usually) where to pack it with very little contemplation.

When it comes to my Kindle, however, I’m weighing its inclusion before every trip.

Kindle - 1The truth is, I never need to bring the Kindle. I have a smartphone and a tablet, both of which include the Kindle app. Unlike the dark ages of my youth, I never need to carry a stack of paperbacks (it took four for a cross country flight) these days to ensure having entertainment for hours of airline isolation.

I often do bring one codex in spite of the weight of paper and ink. I like to read a physical book. Books, however, don’t often work best for my physical limitations.

The reason I read on a Kindle is mundane. I have arthritis in my hands and wrists. There is no less taxing way to hold a library in my hands than my Kindle Voyage.* Continue reading

Capsule wardrobe: quick, casual August escape

Here’s a capsule wardrobe for a short trip to a casual destination with a predictable summer climate. I can expect daytime temperatures around 80º F and cool nights (≈55º F.)

wardrobe-quick-august-escape-add-accessories.jpg

I’m visiting family so I can borrow a jacket in a pinch.

It’s almost killing me to stick to such a boring palette. I keep wanting to sneak in more bright pieces in peachy coral and acid green. I. Will. Resist. Temptation!

This is all that I need, however, and I haven’t been feeling very well. I need to keep my bag to a manageable weight to avoid exacerbating my arthritis pain. Ruthless curation is the best way I know of to do so.

As is often the case due to my foot problems (more arthritis, plus a broken sesamoid bone), I began by choosing a summery pair of my favorite Ahnu Sugarpine sneakers. These are the lightweight, cooler mesh version.

Wardrobe quick August escape shoes - 1

Teva bought Ahnu, and now I’m afraid for the future of my favorite footwear

The soft colors get dingy fast, and this is my newest pair. That set my color palette to “baby blue.”

For summer, I wear a lot of UV protective clothing. I’m sensitive to chemical sunscreen (painful red rash) and mineral sunscreen (breakouts from the carrier cream, I assume.) I protect my skin instead with high UPF clothing and broad-brimmed hats.

All of the bottoms for this capsule are made by Coolibar. They are equivalent to a topical SPF of 50+.

The matching powder blue hoodie is also Coolibar; the tank is a coordinate from the same set.

My go to white, v-neck, faux wrap, kimono style tunic was made by ExOfficio. I liked it so much after wearing it for a season, I bought four more when they went on clearance. May I never live without this summer staple.

The other white woven top is a simple rayon tank sold by Dharma Trading Co as a blank canvas for fiber artisans. Once again, I bought these in bulk. They are long enough to cover my bum as a tunic with lightweight summer trousers, and they double up as minimalist nightgowns. It’s rare for me to travel without at least one of these, regardless of the season.

To these summer specific basics, I’m adding four cotton/Lycra layering tanks. My favorites remain the Duluth Trading Co No Yank Tanks. They are opaque enough to wear alone, but, more often, I add one under another top to keep warm (dawn and dusk), for more modesty, or to extend wears between washings of the more fashionable tops.

I could easily skip accessories for a summer trip. The truth is, when the temperature climbs above about 75º F, I start to remove necklaces, scarves, and sometimes even earrings. I’m really sensitive to hot weather, and every extra item annoys me.

With so little color in this capsule, and for very little extra weight, I went ahead and added a polka dot skinny scarf, one gold necklace, and two pairs of earrings—gold hoops, and light blue dangles.

I’m also bringing my summer “sandal alternatives”—a pair of lightweight grey mesh Mary Janes by Propet.

Grey propet shoes

Two pairs of shoes is an extravagance, but these weigh very little, and I am sometimes undone by the immense weight of my own feet in tennis shoes when I’m feeling unwell, so I’m not willing to go without.

Add socks (7 pairs, mostly tiny anklets), undergarments, and one more rayon tank for nightwear, and I have plenty of options for a six day trip. Unless I spill on myself (not unlikely *ahem*), I won’t need to do laundry, either.

Packing it all in my Rolo bag weighs in at a whopping 5 lb 4 oz. I can manage that over my shoulder, and it will be easy to stow overhead.

I will also carry my Western Flyer in backpack mode loaded with everything else: handbag, Bluetooth keyboard, medication, toiletries, and a slew of comfort items. Fully packed, the Tom Bihn Western Flyer should top out around 10 lbs. I’ll keep that by my feet on the plane for easy access.

These are the moments when one is grateful to be only 5′ 3″ tall. Most of those moments seem to occur in cramped aircraft seats.

airplane feet - 1

Such a simple solution: easing hip pain during air travel with inflatable seat cushions

Here’s a simple solution to try if you are prone to joint pain during the forced immobility of air travel. Add at least one inflatable pillow to your carry on kit. Even better, carry a pair of different shaped inflatables.

While I’m frustrated by the amount of “stuff” that is now a mandatory part of my travel experience, I carry it all because it helps with different manifestations of my autoimmune condition. I’m not going to stop exploring the world, and I’d prefer not to suffer too much as I go about it.

Inflatable pillows of different shapes and thicknesses can be arranged to buffer hard armrests, prop up feet to change the angle of the legs, support the lower back, or (the most tradition option) cushion a lolling head for a much-needed nap.

This time, my Klymit “Cush” pillow deployed under my knees took the pressure off of an aching hip and spared me from another hour of excruciating pain or resorting to opiates during a trip where I’d prefer to stay in full command of my faculties.

The Klymit pillow differs from most I’ve seen due to its shape. It’s long (~30 inches, inflated) and narrow (9 inches) unlike typical, chair-seat-sized rectangular seat cushions. It’s easily wrapped around, or folded and layered, for varied types of support, and it was exactly what I needed in the moment.

This same feature is oft cited by other reviewers as a negative, but my own experience proves the value in making and marketing a new kind of pillow.

A few hours into a recent flight, my right hip started to ache in a miserable way. It was a stabbing pain, almost severe enough to make me cry out. Exactly how I’d like to behave on a full flight!

The hip is not even one of my main “problem areas” for joint pain, but I’ve been experiencing a prolonged period of more frequent flares in my small joints, and that usually means spikes of pain in the larger joints for me, too. In spite of the flare, I had a trip that couldn’t wait, requiring a flight across the country.

I opted for a layover instead of my usual direct flight to allow myself a mid-journey movement break. I even splurged on a first class seat for one segment of the trip, but sitting for seven hours is sitting for seven hours. Joint pain and stiffness was inevitable.

While the short walk to the restroom and a set of stretches in the galley paused the worst of it, this was a stop-gap solution that couldn’t be prolonged or easily repeated. There just isn’t room on a plane for a body in crisis.

After experimenting with my Therm-a-rest “Trail Seat” cushion, the standard airplane pillow provided by the airline, a blanket, and the Klymit, the winner was clear. Extended to its full length across the front edge of my seat cushion, the Klymit changed my seating angle enough to stop the spasms wracking my hip for the remaining hour of the flight.

The 91-year-old gentleman seated next to me was quite gracious in his silence about my odd maneuvers as I attempted to get comfortable. I’m sure he was curious about all the pillows and props I kept pulling out of my bag!

A pair of airline pillows might have duplicated the effect, but I only had one. With the airlines providing ever stingier accommodations, I wouldn’t want to count on even having that single courtesy pillow.

I could try folding the Therm-a-rest to double its thickness, but it wouldn’t raise the angle of both knees, nor am I sure that it would hold up well to a sharp fold.*

Rolling the blanket would be the next best option, but I was already using it to keep warm. Yes, when my arthritis flares up, I also suffer from both warm and cold spells wherein I can’t seem to regulate my own body temperature properly. That’s why a small down throw blanket is another vital element in my travel kit.

My tote full of inflatable cushions earns me a few stares, but also quite a few envious comments from people wishing they’d thought to pack something similar along. That’s why I offer this post today.

I have personally bought and used the following inflatable travel pillows.

*Later, I experimented with folding the Therm-a-rest “Trail Seat,” and it held up fine to this abuse. It didn’t result in a thick pillow that would stay in position, however, like the Klymit Cush, so wasn’t the best tool for this particular job. I have found nothing to complain about with Therm-a-rest products or build quality.

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.

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…

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

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

What makes a glass jar revolutionary?

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

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

My old method was messy & inefficient

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

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

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

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

Objective improvements thanks to Weck jars

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

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

More subjective benefits

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

Glass jars are beautiful

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

Weck jars lids narrow neck - 1

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

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

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

Compare these two views:

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

Made in Germany, meant to last

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

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

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

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

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

Standardized sizes for sensible accessory storage

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

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

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

One less thing to worry about

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

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

Weck jelly beans

Packing for a train trip

or

sleeper car compartments require different solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Toiletries should hang up, too.

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

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

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

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

4) Eyeglasses and bedside necessities

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

Bags on hooks Waldsee

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

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

5) Cash

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

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

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

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

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

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