The rain in the plane falls mainly… in my Tom Bihn Cafe Bag

Some people carry expensive designer bags onto a flight. Me? Not so much.

If I haven’t heaped enough praise on Tom Bihn bags before, let me reiterate a powerful selling point: their water resistance.

Flying in the cramped confines of cattle coach class, if you set down your improperly-capped refillable water bottle on the top flap of your Cafe Bag, your iPad, Kindle, cell phone, and important papers might survive in spite of the aftermath of your arthritic fingers’ failure to twist.

Must you ask me how I know?

Sigh.

Some water dribbled down into the open back slit pocket, but, as luck would have it, I only keep a shopping bag and my baggies full of wipes* there during travel.

The front zip pocket and merely flap-covered main compartment stayed dry through about four ounces of slow leaking. My chocolate chip cookie and spare napkins fared less well, but I could weather their loss. I also packed a brownie!

I had chosen one of our smallest water bottles to lighten my load, and I’m so glad I did. Mine was a child’s 0.3 L aluminum Sigg bottle. There was less volume of liquid available to inundate my Cafe Bag.

This is also another opportunity to tout the advantages of heeding Douglas Adams’ advice**: always travel with a towel.Mine is a small, personal sized Pack Towl. I like to blame the kids for it being constantly in use, but any person with a water bottle and electronics in the same bag should consider such an absorbent accessory cheap insurance.

Buy Tom Bihn bags because they are designed–nay, engineered!–for real-world travel. They’re also made in Seattle, Washington USA and ultra light yet super strong. Also, you’re going to be at least as prone to wayward dribbles in flight as you are in mid-adventure. Pack like it!

Tom Bihn gear is tough enough for everyday people who scoop up the cheap fares in crappy seats to travel more often; Tom Bihn luggage is for folks who carry their own bags.***

By the way, the bags hold up equally well to containing pickle juice when traveling by automobile. Ahem.

* Might amuse the audience to know that DH requests that, if I must travel so often, I at least commit to wiping down my seating area with disinfecting wipes every time. I carry the kind for hands, such as Wet Ones, when I travel, too. And also alcohol swabs and lens cleaning wipes. If there’s a wipe for it, I’ve probably got one in my bag, or at least in my car. We’ve established that I’m a messy person and a mom, right?

** Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a very funny novel

***Full disclosure: I’d actually prefer to have someone else carry my bag, but I endeavor to pack such that this is a delightful luxury, not a physical requirement.

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

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

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

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

Sigg water bottles - 1

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

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

Esbit stove hot water - 1

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

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

Sigg metal water bottle in PackTowl - 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

No.

Camp Coleman Instant Tent 6

Tent

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

Begin with the basics:

  • Shelter,

  • sleep,

  • food.

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

Find a campground that will serve your needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shelter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleep, don’t suffer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eating—and cooking and washing up—alfresco

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

Chuck box deployed state with equipmentS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Esbit stove in front of fire - 1

Esbit stove with folding-handle cup heating water

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

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

Taking the plunge ~ how many nights in camp?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camping friends - 1

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ideal souvenir: evocative, a little frivolous, but not useless

Is a souvenir always a mass produced tchotchke made in China, probably being sold by a franchised gift shop sending its profits out of the community?

That’s common today, but it’s not the only form a memento can take.

Should I bring anything tangible home from my travels, or are memories sufficient?

I don’t have to; I don’t always!

Nevertheless, a well-chosen souvenir can whisk me from daily life back to vacation bliss in an instant, for an instant, if it’s something I wear or use.

Bring a piece of your travels home with you

The ideal souvenir for me is very probably different than yours. That’s okay—great, actually! I’m always ready to advocate for people to assess their own needs and wants and try to ignore cultural noise arguing for random consumption without self-reflection.

Know thyself, and consume accordingly.

I’m not a minimalist, however. I admire austere spaces with their stark beauty, but I revel in a home built up with layer after layer of color, texture, and conversation-provoking oddities around every corner.

I do strive to purge what I don’t need or love, but my heart is large and my love knows few bounds. My tolerance for stuff is high, so long as the resultant collection reads “joyful exuberance.”

But I travel often, and usually with my kids.

If you’ve ever been to a store with children, you’ve probably observed their magpie like attraction to anything for sale.

In a kitchen store, they want tongs for squeezing a sibling’s ear from across the room. In a pharmacy, requests roll in for pill boxes with bright colors or a folding cane because… how cool is that? You can pretend to be infirm, and then hit your sibling from even farther across the room!

My kids have lots of nice stuff, but I’m not a parent who regularly gives in to this kind of begging. We don’t impulse buy toys. If we like something, we make a note, go home to consider it, and return to make a purchase. I’m trying to help them ignore the modern siren call of instant gratification.

From their toddlerhood, I’ve made and enforced strict rules about how one behaves in stores. This includes the rule that we will abandon a shopping trip, immediately, if behavior crosses a line that negatively impacts others, no matter how inconvenient to me and my agenda. Asking once is allowed; begging is against the rules.

Still, they will sidle up and ask—usually politely, often bubbling with enthusiasm—at every shopping opportunity. Souvenir shops are places I try to avoid.

Souvenirs for the kids

My approach to family souvenirs is to find something that we can enjoy now (during the trip) and continue to use at home. In Hilton Head, we bought a folding kite to fly on the wind-swept beach. Now, the kite lives in our beach bag.

Travel board games or small toys that meet my usual criteria for quality have been picked up on other vacations. Ideally, it will be something tied in to the location we’re visiting, but sometimes it’s enough to recall a trip when we take out a game to play:

“Remember, we got this on that rainy day in Seattle. We played in the hotel lobby by the fireplace and ordered the pizza with the spicy sauce…”

Even a Lego set or mass produced kit can evoke a special place or time. The Lego Space Needle set was purchased at… Seattle’s landmark building, the Space Needle. A Lego set with a camper was bought, and built, during our stay at a rustic fishing cabin.

More often than I would expect, my kids remember clearly when and where a toy came from. Taking this approach has worked pretty well for me thus far.

It’s not a given that a new toy will show up on a trip, but it isn’t out of the question if a rainy day or a need for quiet time presents itself in combination with a fascinating kit or object.

Souvenirs for myself

If I’m strictly honest, I’ll admit to the occasional toy bought for Mommy, too. We might have picked up another modular building to add to our family Lego display during our recent road trip. It’s entirely possible that I assembled a Parisian Restaurant as soon as the vacation laundry was done.

Lego Parisian Restaurant - 1

Much more often, I’m looking to avoid extra stuff to carry home from a trip. Usually, I acquire an inch or more of paper memories. Brochures, maps, and books are weaknesses I won’t deny. But, unless we’re on a road trip and there’s lots of room to store things in the back, I find shopping bags and bulky souvenirs stressful.

I plan what I carry on a trip. It feels wrong—even dangerous—to add items willy-nilly whilst en route.

My most successful strategy has been to purchase accessories as souvenirs, or, less often, items of clothing. These are things I can wear (i.e., use), and, when I do, I’m reminded of where they came from. It’s like a self-powered generator for joy.

A linen scarf, sewn by a bearded man

linen scarf from Ohio - 1Wear the scarf? Now my neck is warm, my outfit is complete, and my heart recalls a wonderful shop run by two bearded brothers who don’t offer wi-fi but do offer a hand-crafted, multi-level indoor tree fort in the back of their cafe to entertain the kids.

The Well Lancaster OH - 1

Lancaster, Ohio eatery, The Well

The brother with the shorter beard? He made the linen scarf himself. Oh yeah, and they serve a kale salad that my children agreed tasted good!

I think those guys are wizards…

A purple leather bag proudly bearing Roots Canada’s beaver logo

My purple handbag? Made in Canada, near the urban Toronto Roots location where I purchased it. I only own two nice leather bags. I’m not a purse junkie. This one, however, was the perfect dark purple color, just the right size, and had exactly the arrangement of pockets I’d been looking for.

I saw it in the window as I wandered around Toronto’s snazzy shopping district, finding my way to a theatre for a matinee. I paused. I yearned. I went to my show, but came back and entered the shop before returning to my hotel.

It felt like fate. My memory of the acquisition plays in my mind like a slow motion falling-in-love montage from a sappy film.

I’ve never regretted buying this bag.

I don’t shop recreationally in my everyday life, so purchases like these become vivid memories. The tangible results? They’re wearable triggers to enjoy them again.

If I find myself stopping by Target for clean socks while traveling, that’s a failure. I’ll need to plan better next time.

But, coming home with an accessory, or a hand-knit sweater, preferably locally made?

That’s my ideal souvenir.

Fly or drive? Mode of travel and its impact on planet, wallet & joy

Are you a road tripper or a frequent flier?

I chose to drive from New England to northern Minnesota last month. Five of us were scheduled to attend summer camp there, so the endpoints were set: home, and Bemidji, MN.

I elected driving over flying for many reasons, but a consideration for my summer vacation’s environmental impact was on the list.

RoadTrip round trip mapYou can read the more conventional road trip story by clicking Part I or Part II if you want to know more about why and how we made this journey. You could also read about my carefully thought out wardrobe for the trip!

I live within reasonable driving distance of a major airport, so convenient flights abound. Minneapolis-Saint Paul (MSP) is four hours south of Bemidji, which also hosts a regional airport of its own (BJI.) The camp offers a fairly priced shuttle from BJI, and a costlier, less convenient bus all the way to MSP.

The particulars of this trip were not decided by availability of choices. We had our pick of several decent options, if we were willing to pay for them.

Environmental impact of flying vs. driving

Here’s an article from Yale Climate Connections that presents a pretty balanced picture of the complex question: is flying or driving better for the planet?

Similar discussions on the New York Times and at ThoughtCo draw similar conclusions: it depends, a lot, on how many bodies are in which type of car.

Calculators like those mentioned in the articles shine some light on how I assessed this aspect of my choice to drive, not fly.

For my van, with four to five average travelers on board, it’s pretty clear even before running the specific numbers that we opted a reasonably environmentally friendly mode of transport.

Passenger count varied from five (5) during the home to camp phase; four to six (4-6) headed from Minnesota to Ohio; and just my two kids and myself (3) for the final 750 miles from Ohio to New England.

Using the BeFrugal Fly or Drive Calculator for the first, best documented leg of my trip, I can estimate that I saved 4318 lbs of CO2, or, stated differently, that I generated only about 25% as much CO2.

A difference that great is likely to hold up in spite of the controversy about how some of the underlying statistics are generated.

Financial cost to drive vs. fly

As for cost in the traditional sense (dollars and cents!), it also appears probable that I made a better financial choice. That scenario could be very different for a trip involving only major airports where competition keeps prices down.

Bemidji (BJI) is by far the most convenient option when this camp is in session, especially for flights arriving the day of, or the day before, camp sessions begin. Availability is also quite limited for those popular flights.

I used airline miles to buy a rewards ticket the last time I visited Bemidji. The cash price was not one I would willingly pay to suffer in economy class.

The same BeFrugal calculations I showed above reflect as many of my actual costs as I could input into the tool—like actual airfare to BJI researched months ago during the planning process and my preference for a higher class of hotel than the calculator assumes—though some numbers were not user adjustable.

Once again, I’m confident that my actual cost savings were at least as good as the tool predicted. We made a few more frugal choices:

Coffee cup travel mug - 1

  • We carried healthy food with us and avoided overpriced “convenience” snacks.
  • We refilled our reusable water bottles (and my coffee cup!) at the hotel each morning.
  • Aside from one nice steak dinner, the kids actually voted for affordable stops like Subway for sandwiches.
  • I used Gas Buddy to plan fuel stops in the less expensive state when there was a choice, and I knew what a ballpark “good” price was for a given area.

Minivan as economical people mover

I checked the average MPG (as calculated by the van itself) after each of the three major stages of the trip. We averaged 26 MPG from New England to Bemidji, 28 MPG from Bemidji to Ohio, and 27 MPG from Ohio back home.

That’s spot on with published numbers for my van, and really admirable performance for a large vehicle that comfortably seats a crowd.

My typical MPG around town in the van is 18-19, but that’s driving in crowded suburb of a major city.

We needed to stop for gas about 1.5 times per day with that fuel economy. The human passengers required vastly more frequent stops to empty their “tanks” than the minivan required filling up with gasoline.

Gas prices ranged from a low of $1.98 per gallon to a high of around $2.50 per gallon at a toll road service plaza.

I didn’t leave my planned route to seek out the cheapest gas, but I did stop at Costco stations whenever they were well located. I prioritized convenient stops over price, but didn’t find any prices particularly onerous. They almost all hovered just above the $2 mark.

But, have I mentioned comfort?

Minivans are more comfortable than modern planes

We carried a full load of luggage in the back (up to the headrests, which you can read more about here), and each of us had at least a mid-sized “carry on” up front. We had a small cooler stocked with cold drinks and produce and a dry snack bag of equivalent size.

The kids were annoyed by my insistence that all electronics be invisibly stowed for every (shockingly frequent) rest break, but they didn’t have to struggle to climb out of the van due to cargo in the passenger area. Space in the vehicle was well utilized, not overstuffed.

No passenger was forced to sit with his body touching anyone else. Leg room could have been an issue with a similar load of tall adults, but it wasn’t a problem for a group composed of children and young teens.

Being kids, they often did touch each other, or sit with heads together, but that was voluntary.

All of this descriptive information is provided to make clear: all of us were seated more comfortably than we would be in a modern, coach class airline seat. Most of us had significantly more legroom and personal space than one gets in a domestic first class seat.

Convenience is another factor

I don’t want to give the impression that this was my only consideration when planning this trip. Modern life is complicated, and we all make trade offs between convenience, cost, and conscience.

In my case, every point I’ve made in this post up to now has been predicated on one simple reality: I had time to take this trip.

My primary work these days is caring for and educating my children. That means most of my time can be planned according to my own wants, needs, and preferences. Most of what I do, I can choose where I want to do it.

Even so, time was our biggest constraint for this road trip.

We couldn’t leave any earlier due to school schedules for some of the participants. We had to arrive at camp by the scheduled date and time. Without another driver in our crew, my health risked becoming a factor by limiting the number of hours in the day that could safely be spent on the road.

Family fun factor & reasons for sharing

Every time I write a post on Really Wonderful Things describing how I did something, it’s because I hope that information proves useful for a reader somewhere.

If I made a mistake, perhaps you can learn from it. If I came up with a clever idea, I hope it works for you, too.

This post is my attempt to break down how I decided to drive instead of fly to Minnesota with a group of four kids destined for summer camp. It also details why I think this was a good choice, environmentally, and economically.

The trip was also a lot of fun, almost all of the time, which is something about which I haven’t written much yet. That’s a factor—the family fun factor!—that really matters to me.

My kids are going to remember this trip. My temporary charges are now much better friends of mine as well as to my boys. We worked together and accomplished a goal. All of us learned something. We saw corners of America that were new to each and every one of us.

It’s hard to run the calculations for the value of the fun factor, but let’s just agree that it’s high.