Monday, October 22, 2012

Trimming the Excess

Recently, a friend of mine (Hi, Jess!) emailed me and asked for ideas on how to pare down the packing when going on a family camping trip. She said that she, her husband, and their almost-five-year-old daughter like to camp, but the car has every inch stuffed on those trips. I was inspired by her question to write a blog post—even though camping is not specifically about family cycling, it was family cycling and bike camping that really inspired us to start streamlining our gear and lighten our camping load, so I want to provide other families of cyclists, family campers, and just plain ‘ol everybody with some ideas of how to avoid bringing everything but the kitchen sink.
First off, I’m assuming that if you are reading this, it’s because you want to use as much of your existing equipment as you can; it’s pretty easy to go into an REI or outdoor store and drop hundreds of dollars on the most state-of-the-art lightweight gear. It can be more difficult to try to make the stuff you already own feel smaller.  I know that for my husband and me, we were always casual car campers, not hardcore backpackers. We just threw everything we owned into a car and met up with friends at a state park. Most families are going to camp within this zone as well, and if you are car campers who want to dabble in bike camping, then trying some lightweight trips with your car is the way to go and experiment before packing it all on the bikes.  Here are some places where you can start trimming the fat.
1. Food.  Plan out each meal, plus snacks, ahead of time. I know overpacking food is a real problem for me, and that I always envision hordes of starving camper-zombies heading toward me while I scrape at the bottom of an empty cooler. But really, how far will you be from "civilization"? Just bring the food that you need, and make a quick run to the nearest mini mart or grocery store if you really find yourself running short of supplies; some campgrounds even have a little general store or ice cream counter. Break open packages to rid yourself of excess packaging or pack things in smaller containers, pre-chop or pre-cook at home whenever you can. Instead of hauling along a gigantic cooler that can fit a case of beer, bring a smaller cooler and when you take a drink out, put another one in to cool down, and replenish ice if you need to (from a nearby town, or campgrounds in hot climates will often sell ice on-site).
When you start planning out each meal, consider whether you can cook all of your meals either over the campfire or over the stove. If you plan to have a campfire each night, maybe hot dogs, sausages, burgers, or even steaks (or vegetarian favorites) could make up the main course for your dinner, with carrot sticks and string cheese to supplement. If you want to get a little more variety, maybe try foil “hobo packets” with a bunch of pre-chopped ingredients (Google for recipe ideas). Do a no-cook breakfast (Bagels? Muffins?) and snack through the lunch hour, and you don’t need to bring a stove or propane.
If you’re heading to a location where it’s going to be 90+ degrees all night long, you might want to avoid the campfire entirely. Besides having sandwiches for dinner, you could use a propane camp stove for one quick-cook dinner item, like ground beef in a skillet, then set out tortillas, cheese and salsa for a DIY buffet. I have also found that many state parks have restroom buildings with outlets near the sinks where you wash your hands, and sometimes I will bring a plug-in hot pot so that I can just quickly boil water for coffee or oatmeal without having to set up our whole stove rig.
2. Kitchen supplies. Once you’ve planned your meals, you know what cookware and utensils you’ll need.  Take that list, and pare it down even more. Maybe you don’t need a serving spoon and a stirring spoon and a spatula, etc. Use your eating utensils to flip burgers or stir oatmeal; the Health Department is not going to be coming around to inspect your work. Remember, this is your family, the same people who have probably sneezed into your mouth at some point in the past, so they can’t complain about double-dipping. Many people also like to bring disposable plates/napkins/utensils when they go camping. Besides generating a lot of trash, which is something I try to avoid, bringing disposable tableware piles on the amount of stuff you have to pack. Instead of lugging along an entire Costco pack of Chinet plates, just bring one non-disposable plate, cup, fork, and spoon for each family member. If you are preparing any food that requires pots/pans, you have at least some cursory dishwashing to do already, so what’s a few more things? Many state parks have a dishwater dump station or even a sink reserved for cleaning dishes, so they are trying to make it easier on you. Or ask the kids to lick their plates clean instead—it is camping, after all! Use one cloth napkin or washcloth per person instead of blowing through an entire roll of paper towels. Most of the time, families are only camping for a weekend night or two, so you will survive being a dirty hippie for that long. 
3. Clothes. Speaking of dirty hippies…don’t bring so many clothes, either. I was commenting to a friend earlier in the summer at how amazed I am that it took me so long to slim down my camping “wardrobe.” Most years, I would set out for a car camping trip with a fresh t-shirt and shorts per day, plus pajamas, swimsuit, undergarments, etc.  You’re camping, so it’s all about the dirt. Bring one outfit, and that’s all. Pack clean underwear for each day, but unless you are doing something especially sweaty (trail running) or messy (cleaning fish), you’ll be okay in the same clothes for a couple of days in a row. I know for my family, the most strenuous stuff we do often involves “hiking” at a preschooler’s pace, so you’re unlikely to even break a sweat, let alone get so stanky that your fellow campers can’t sit near you in the great outdoors. Most of the time you don’t need pajamas, either. If you are sleeping in a tent with family or with friends you know very well, consider stripping down to your skivvies in your sleeping bag. Then pack the prudent weather essentials, of course, such as sweatshirt/jacket for chill or rain, hats and sunglasses for the sun, thick socks for making breakfast on cold mornings, extra underwear for your recently potty-trained child, and so on. Try to think about items that could do double duty, too, like pants that can roll up into shorts, or using socks as mittens or hot-pad holders.
4. Toiletries. If you are only there a couple of nights, consider ditching your usual cold cream rituals. Toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap for hand washing, plus essential prescription medicines and you are fine. A towel for each camper is not necessary most of the time, because you are probably not taking the daily showers that you would take at home. If you are planning to do a lot of swimming or showering after fish-cleaning, maybe you could invest in a camp towel, which are made from microfiber so that they suck all the water off your body, then dry very quickly, and they fold and pack down much smaller than a large beach towel.
For a first-aid kit, you really don’t need to go overboard. If you are at an established campground (rather than the backcountry), the ranger station will have all the basic band-aids and gauze, plus the means to contact emergency services if you actually need a medic or ambulance. I usually just like to bring along a couple of Advil or Tylenol (in case of a simple headache or sore knees from a hike) and a sharp pair of tweezers (for the splinters kids inevitably get). If you’re concerned about injuries or emergencies, just remind yourself that help is not that far away—you can get in your car and drive to the nearest town to a store if you really need something, or even cut the trip short and go home if you need to. And the rangers or local law enforcement are there for the really dire situations.
5. Toys. This is a great place to cut down on the overpacking. The point of camping is to experience Mother Nature, so bring toys and plan activities to take advantage of your surroundings. If you are at a state park, sometimes they will have a nature center or junior ranger program, so ask at the park gate or check bulletin boards for things that might be happening during your visit.  One of my son’s favorite activities on a camping trip is a scavenger hunt. Make a list (or grid of pictures for children who can’t read yet) of things you are likely to find in your campground environment, and tailor it to your child’s ability level. For older kids, you might consider letting them use digital cameras to turn the game into a photo scavenger hunt. Alton is four, so I drew him a series of pictures that varied from easy things to find, such as a green leaf or flying bird, to slightly more difficult or whimsical things, like a tree smaller than he is or a spider in a web. A forest scavenger hunt can add interest to a family hike, especially if you can bring along binoculars or a magnifying glass. When we camped near a beach in California, I changed his list to surfers and Frisbees. And don’t forget to take your time on walks or hikes, if that’s what your little one needs. It doesn’t matter if you never get to see those waterfalls, as long as you had a good time.
For playtime at the campsite, just let your kids get super dirty. Shovels and buckets, old cars to zoom in the sand or gravel, using a stick to draw in the dirt…you don’t need to pack up tons of toys to have fun. Do a Google search to jog your memory about all those dorky old day camp songs, like “Down By the Bay” or “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” and sing them with your kids. Play I Spy or 20 Questions. Make up games or stories. Let them help with camp chores, like building the campfire or filling a bucket with water. Another favorite campsite activity for us is to make pictures with solar paper, which is a special kind of paper that, when you place items on top of it in the sun, burns an impression of your objects onto the paper. Sometimes I’ll combine this with a scavenger hunt, and set my son hunting around the nearby bushes for things to use for his solar paper image, like a tiny flower, or dried leaf.
6. Tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads. These are sometimes some of the biggest things to pack, and there isn’t often a lot you can change about them, but here are a few ideas.
-Tent: if your tent is old or not appropriate for your trip (i.e., the weather forecast is for rain, but you can’t find your tent’s rain fly), consider borrowing one from a friend or checking your local outdoor store to see if you can rent one. Those are both great ways to try out a different style or brand of tent to see if you like it before you buy it. If it's just space in the car you need, open your tent's bag and separate the tent, poles, and rainfly--see if it works better for packing the car to cram these things into small areas rather than take up a large piece of trunk real estate for the tent all together.
-Sleeping bags: again, renting, borrowing, or buying a new one are options if your old bulky bag needs replacing or is inappropriate for your climate, but if the temps are warm enough you might be able to bring blankets instead. For a few summer camping trips this year, we had blankets as covers with a sheet to lie upon, and zipping into a sleeping bag was just not necessary.
-Sleeping pads: these camping-specific sleeping surfaces are made with either dense foam or foam with an air-filled core. For the first few years that we were camping together, my husband and I would bring along a big full-size air mattress, with either a battery or foot pump to blow it up. Usually, these just are not tough enough for life in the outdoors. We thought we were being economical buying a “cheaper” brand of air mattress for our camping trips, but once we had sprung a leak in the SECOND air mattress we bought at Target, we could see that it was going to be less expensive in the long run to buy sturdy camping equipment that would last instead of spending money on a new air mattress every summer. We bought self-inflating Therm-a-rest pads, and we’ve now owned them for almost 10 years with no problems at all. These come in a range of prices new, or you might be able to rent them as well; if you want to camp a lot, they could be a good investment for your family to consider.
7. Luxuries. These are the things that you don’t actually need to spend a night outside, but are things you kind of want to have. Folding camp chairs, maybe an extra folding camp or card table, bottled water, a sun umbrella or shade/rain shelter, your own barbecue…I’ve seen people haul along (or hauled myself) many of these items at various different campgrounds. You know you best, and what you think you can’t live without. Just try not to bring ALL of them. Most of the time, the campsite you pitch up at will have a fire pit (likely with some kind of grill top), picnic table with benches, a spigot with potable water, restrooms nearby, etc. Experiment with leaving different things at home, and maybe you’ll be surprised at how well you get along without all the creature comforts of home.

These are just a few ways for the weekend family car camper to pare down on the non-essentials to make room for more fun (and more sanity when packing that car). Another place to get more tips, ideas, and advice about enjoying nature and life in the outdoors with your small children is this site, written by Jennifer Aist, who has also published a great book called Babes in the Woods on the same topics. In the future, I hope to write more cycling-specific posts about bike camping with kids, so in the meantime I will hunker down with a hot cup of tea and toast my feet at an imaginary campfire.

Have more questions or specific issues you'd like to ask about? Ask in the comments section below!


  1. Great article Katie! I enjoyed it and your information seems right on target.

  2. Nice job explaining all your secrets to keeping things down to a minimum. Keep on enjoying your family time!