Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Road Tripping, Car Camping Gear That Worked

We just finished up an epic week of Road Tripping and Car Camping with our Boston Nieces and Nephews. Here's some gear I tried on it that really delivered. Maybe this will be helpful for your next adventure?

10L Mangrove Backpack / 10L Quecua Backpack - these are basically the same small backpack under two different brand names on Amazon. These backpacks *rock*. For around $10, you get a compact, well made bag. The size is just right for kids, as it lets them store essentials without ever getting too bulky. This past trip, everyone from 8 year old Chana to 4 year old Gavriella carried their "adventure bag" pretty much everywhere.

When the kids were hiking the bag contained: a water bottle, snack, disposable poncho, Heat Sheet emergency blanket, compass, whistle and flashlight. The bag had enough room to cram in a toy and any shells or rocks found along the way. The kids never complained about the bags, and whenever they were thirsty or hungry, they knew where they could turn. Even Gavriella, who didn't go into the woods this last trip, carried her adventure bag throughout Plymouth.

I'm all about kids being (relatively) self sufficient, and this bag lets them carry their essentials without weighing them down.

Cold Steel Bird and Trout Knife - I'm not much of a knife guy, but after being frustrated with the locking mechanism of the Gerber STL 2.0, I wondered what other options are out there. Looking around, the Bird and Trout Knife caught my eye. Like the STL, it was compact and lightweight. It's also a fixed blade, so it has no locking issues. I wondered how it would handle as both an outdoorsy knife for me, as well as an option for a knife beginner.

In many respects, the Bird and Trout knife did awesome. You wear it around your neck and it's surprisingly comfortable. I put it on when I got to the campsite and didn't take it off till I had to check it in my bag to avoid getting stopped by TSA. The blade is nice and sharp, and a reasonable size - just about the same size as the Gerber STL that I was considering replacing. It took a bit of research, but I finally got the hang of locking the knife in the sheath, which it fit well. For nearly all simple camp tasks, from cutting rope to opening food packages, the knife was awesome.

As for cons, the sheath that seemed so definitively locking when I got it, already seemed to loosen up in the span of the week. I doubt the knife will go anywhere while hanging on my neck, but it's disconcerting that I can now tug on it and the blade can slip from the sheath even without pushing the thumb lock.

The biggest con, however, is that for larger tasks you simply can't muscle this knife. I could shave a point on the end of a hot dog stick and all, but attempting to attack larger chunks of wood in a more aggressive way was just plain too uncomfortable. The thin handle cuts into your skin and reminds you loudly that this a knife for delicate work. Shira's bulky locking blade knife was far easier on the hands for bigger tasks.

Ultimately, I think the Bird and Trout Knife is a winner. It's super lightweight and for the majority of simple camp tasks I do, it's perfect. The neck carry, in an outdoor context, is also ideal, as it means that the knife is always at hand.

I've considered using it as an Every Day Carry knife, but I think that's probably a non-starter. Assuming my shirt is baggy enough, nobody would notice I was wearing a neck knife. But getting it out in public and putting it back is just an ungraceful thing to do. For now, the knife lives with my camping gear and will be pulled out for hikes and camping trips.

As for being optimal for the new-knife user, I'm honestly not sure. I'll have to let M and P experiment with it, and I'll report back.

Sharpie Twin Tip Marker - with four children and a bunch of different stages to our trip, I found that one of the most useful things I carried was a Sharpie. Water bottles and snacks could be instantly assigned. Clothes for different activities could be dropped into a white garbage bag and then labled for easy retrieval. It may be simple, but man was my Sharpie useful.

Empty Bic Sparker - a while back I made a super tiny sparker out of an empty Bic lighter. It was an interesting exercise, but I was left wondering what I was going to do with the thing. Turns out, it fits perfectly in with our compact Pocket Rocket stove:

The spark this little guy throws lights the Pocket Rocket with ease. While I always carry a lighter on me when camping (and in general, if possible), it was super convenient this last trip to have a spark generator that lives in the case with the stove. If you have a backpacking stove, you need to make one.

Double Black Diamond Packable Throw - much has been written in the backpacking gear community of the cheap Costco down throw that can be re-purposed into a down sleeping quilt. We picked up a two pack of these down throws for $42 (spending an extra couple bucks because we're not Costco Members) and they worked really well for increasing the warmth rating of the Recamp Ultralight Sleeping Bags the kids used. This way, we didn't have to invest in bulky, cold weather bags that I couldn't imagine us needing anytime too soon.

The compact nature of these throws was especially key, because we needed to pack our entire camping setup in a single large suitcase:

Consider that the above picture has 5 sleeping bags, 5 pads, 3 throws, 1 down jacket, 1 emergency bivvy, 2 pillows, and there was still enough space to cram a 6 person dome tent in there. Sure, the bag weighed 48lbs, but as long as it was under the airline's 50lb limit we were good to go.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Boston Summer 2017 - Positively Portland

The final leg of our Boston 2017 Summer Adventure would consist of a full day spent in Portland, Maine. The idea was to stage ourselves relatively close to Boston, so we could drop the kids off and catch our flight with ease. It also meant a couple more nights in a hotel and a couple less nights in a tent.

Last Wednesday, we had no problem driving from Acadia National Park to Portland. The kids were craving swimming time in the pool, and shortly after we got to the hotel that's where we headed. All the kids enjoyed the pool, but Tzipora, fresh off of swimming lessons, was the clear fish in the group. The underwater selfies we captured were just too precious.

My personal highlight for that first night in Portland was getting a hot shower after spending three days camping. Man that felt good!

Thursday was spent exploring Portland, which didn't disappoint. Our first stop was the Maine Wildlife Park, a sort of zoo-like facility run by the Maine Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. It was the perfect way to guarantee that the kids would see some classic Maine wildlife, including being just a few feet away from a Moose. When Chana found out that Acadia was home to foxes, she was excited and getting to see one up close at the wildlife park was just too awesome. When I asked each of the kids which was their favorite animal, Dovid chose the peacocks, Tzipora the cougars but Chana refused to be pinned down--sure she loved the foxes and coyotes, but really she loved all the animals.

Much of this trip had been planned out, like the visit to Plimoth Plantation or even specific hikes in Acadia National Park. But for Portland, we just figured it out on the fly, and the Wildlife Park could not have been a more perfect activity for the kids (and adults). It was truly one of the most unique animal parks we've been to.

After the Wildlife Park we made our way to the LL Bean flagship store. As Shira noted, I was in both Heaven and Hell. On one hand, there was all this sweet camping gear on display for me to oggle. On the other hand, it's LL Bean, so the prices aren't particularly low. And, we had three kids in tow, so we had a limited attention span to deal with. The store does contain some fun features, like a knot board and various taxidermied animals on display. In one moment of complete cuteness, the kids plopped themselves down on a couple of large chairs and browsed through some of the kids books they were selling. We also visited the nearby LL Bean Outlet, which had more potential for sweet deals, but again, the kids were pretty shopped out by that point.

After shopping we made our way to the Portland Headlight, which is a terrifically picturesque lighthouse. While you can't climb the lighthouse (d'oh!) you can explore the nearby cliffs, which we all did. Give these children rocks to climb on, and they're happy! We played until it started getting close to dinner time. It's a shame we had to cut our time at the Headlight so short, as there were a number of other interesting features that would have been fun to explore, from the Children's Garden to various remnants of a Fort. Still, we had managed to squeeze in three major activities in the day, so I had nothing to complain about.

Before we knew it, it was Friday morning and time to head back Boston. We made one attempt to stop at a park in New Hampshire, which brought us mixed results. On one hand, we got to see a vertical lift bridge in action (whoo!), see some whale bones and do some beach exploring. On the other, we got rained out and the Science Museum on site was too pricey for the amount of time we had to dedicate to it (which was about 20 minutes at most). The rain served as a good reminder that we'd truly received an amazing gift this week: awesome weather. As we fled back to our car in the rain, it hit me that this could have been happening every day. Whew.

A bit more driving and we were back in Boston! We spent a little time with Elana and Shmuel, bringing them up to speed on our adventures. The kids had kept a journal throughout the week, and were proud to share it with their parents. And with that, we exchanged hugs and kisses and headed off to the airport.

What a week it had been! Plymouth, Acadia, Portland - they turned out to be the perfect locations to take the kids. What fun! I figure we have a few weeks to rest up, and then it's time to start planning next summer.

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