Product Reviews for a Grand Adventure!

Dear Family,

“We have the best government that money can buy.”
- Mark Twain (maybe)

Recent events leave me depressed, grasping for hope, and speechless. Well, actually, I’m as full of opinions as every single person on Facebook, but in the interest of not Spouting them, I shall refrain from political discussion. Mostly. At least for today.

Instead, and additionally in honor of the fact that Shopping Season is upon us, I will share some All-American product reviews concerning our family’s favorite items purchased for our grand camping adventure, and tested extensively over the past 5 months. In no particular order:

* Merrell Vapor Glove 2 shoes (men’s and women’s)

These are zero-drop “barefoot shoes”, which allow you to feel the ground while not getting lacerated by Sharp Things, and without the really unfortunate individual-toe-glove style that this type of shoe originally sported. They look like colorful sneakers, kind of. Most importantly, they promote good Foot Posture a la “Born To Run.” Jeff has worn his every single day for five months, and they are just now starting to develop small holes. Which is annoying, considering the price, but understandable, considering the minimal nature of the materials. I finally bought a pair because I was envious of Jeff’s. And even though Jeff has long, narrow feet, and I have short, wide feet, they are the most comfortable shoes that either of us have ever owned.

* Travel Berkey Water filter

Berkey’s gravity-fed drinking water filters are: “…composed of a proprietary formulation of more than six different media types, all constructed into a very compact matrix containing millions of microscopic pores. These pores are so small that they produce what we refer to as a ‘Tortuous Path’ that pathogenic bacteria, cysts, parasites, herbicides, pesticides, organic solvents, VOC’s, detergents, cloudiness, silt, sediment and sedimentary minerals, foul tastes and odors must travel through. These paths are so small that these pollutants physically cannot pass through them and become trapped, eliminating them from your drinking water.” The filter is super easy to use: fill the top chamber, wait till the water drips down into the bottom chamber; dispense, drink, repeat. It’s made of stainless steel, and has held up very well to cross-country travel. Aside from when we were in areas with very hard water, the filtration speed was adequate for our family’s needs - and when the filters get a bit dirty, you can clean them easily with a brush. (The carbon filters themselves last for 6000 gallons or approximately three years; the arsenic/flouride filters last about six months.) Best thing about the Berkey: no matter what sort of murky, brown, cloudy, chemical-smelling, yucky-tasting water we pour into the top chamber, the bottom chamber dispenses tasty, clean water. A little peace of mind during a Very Complicated Endeavor is always a wonderful thing…

* Clam Screen Tent

Our six-sided Clam screen tent (they no longer make the exact model we have, but seem to have replaced it with four similar and improved options) is the sleekest, most packable, and elegant way to escape from rain and bugs while dining on a camping trip. I love this tent - it pops up in less than two minutes, is roomier and much nicer than every other screen tent I’ve seen, and is very attractive - and also I hate it. It sucks to put it away wet, it can’t survive high winds (it collapses itself right back down again, unless it blows away entirely!), and it gets really hot inside if it’s sunny. It has saved our butts (or at least our dinners) on numerous rainy and buggy occasions, but dealing with it (especially after the inclement weather has passed) is similar to dealing with ANY tent: it sucks, and you feel like a total chump, and you want to pound the thing into the bloody fucking pavement or just toss into in the dumpster and be done with it. Except it’s just a tent, it would be really stupid to throw it away since it’s a really NICE tent, so I try to just shut up and appreciate it.

* Sprinter Passenger Van

We owned this van for a short season. More details forthcoming, in a future post, concerning why Jeff and I (while feeling exceptionally foolish and humbled and wiser in equal measure) traded it in last month for a Nissan NV (towing capacity: 8700 pounds). But for that short season, we loved our Sprinter Van. It had twelve seats, and tons of nicely-designed features, like a flat, solid floor, roomy storage under every seat, tons of headroom (a very useful feature when a van becomes half of your large family’s Home On Wheels), and clearance for the front seat passenger to walk right into the back seat area without opening the door. Everything - mesh storage compartments (multiple and well-placed), 12-volt outlets (conveniently installed), a heavy-duty battery (90 ah) - was rugged and well-designed. Well, a few things were annoying: dinky cupholders, the usual-for-a-car super-not-ergonomic-seat-design, a hefty sliding door that took A Lot of Strength to close fully, passenger seats too low relative to the window height for small people to see out - but only one real problem: the inability for the Sprinter to tow more than 5000 lbs. Otherwise, it is a super great van that lends itself to amazing conversions of all types, with diesel fuel economy approaching upper 20s mpg when driving sans trailer. If only that tow capacity were one thousand pounds more, we would own and love our Sprinter still.

* CGear Sand Free Multi Mat

This mat isn’t a miracle, but it’s a great idea nonetheless: two layers of rugged, stiff mesh, which provides a surface that allows fine sand and grit to filter down through, while not allowing it to come back up. Basically, it’s a super durable picnic blanket/doormat (depending on the size and style of the mat), on which you can either sit/walk directly, or layer with beach towels, camp chairs, etc. And it’s so much easier to clean than the old cotton comforter that we used to take on picnics…

* Sunday Afternoons Sun Hats

Prior to our trip, we each picked out a hat. We bought them online, and while some might be doubtful that buying a hat online could ever work, it totally did. Every family member loved their style, and everyone’s fit was perfect. The hats still look good and are colorful after five months of hard use. There’s some staining in the white areas, but a recent machine wash yielded Still Really Nice Looking Sun Hats.

* Teva Women’s Neota Sandals

These sandals replaced my twelve-year-old waterproof-leather Tevas, because of course that original style no longer exists. I loved my old sandals because they were waterproof, super durable, super comfortable (no blisters!! Ever!), adjustable, and actually Attractive (I just don’t dig the traditional Teva synthetic strappy look). These Neotas are not quite as wonderful as the old ones were, for two reasons: the straps a a tiny bit narrower, so the fit is slightly less snug, and the foot bed is slightly more prone to tipping. But overall, they are super practical and comfortable, and since there’s no use mourning over The Perfect Old Sandal That Is No Longer Available, these have been working out well for me.

* The StretchSit Seat Cushion (Gokhale Method)

This cushion is not perfect, and it doesn’t completely solve the Big Problem of furniture and car seats that promote unhealthy and uncomfortable posture…but it goes a long way toward Making Those Things Better. (Check out “8 Steps to a Pain Free Back”, by Ester Gokhale, for more ideas.) I used this to make my cross-country ride in a car much less uncomfortable and slump-promoting than it would have been otherwise.

* Contico 53-Gallon Black Plastic Storage Bin

Similar to the Rubbermaid “Action Packer,” but really, really rugged. Plus, the outside of the lid is flat. After sitting outside for a year and a half, and traveling across the country, and doubling as a stepstool and utility table and bench seat and storage locker for bike helmets and random outdoor gear, this bin looks just like it did when we first got it. Why would you need such a rugged utility bin? Why, to hold 53 gallons of stuff, of course!

* Kijaro Dual Lock Folding Chair

I did a bunch of online research to find a folding camp chair that wouldn’t be yet another spin on Unsupportive Hammock With Chair Legs. We tried out quite a few options, and while there was yet another, much more expensive chair that we didn’t test (and which of course may embody Camp Chair Perfection), the Kijaro has worked out great. We got two, actually, and after five months of travel and lots and lots of butts sitting in them, they’re still going strong.

* Klean Canteen Metal Cups and Waterbottles, and Oxo Bottle Brushes

The cups are sleek, pleasant on the lips (rolled-edge rims are gentle and easy to clean), and just the right size. I still mourn for the sixth cup in our set which we accidentally left at Copper Breaks State Park! Meanwhile, our water bottles are many years old, spruced up for this trip by the acquisition of new lids. These bottles last, and last, and last (despite the dings and dents they gradually acquire when dropped on hard surfaces). Finally, the ingenious designers over at Oxo Good Grips have come up with a fantastic three-brush water bottle cleaning set that just rocks: all the moldering food that used to build up inside the bottle lids, with no way to clear it away (even dishwashers don’t get it out)…can now be easily removed with a few minutes of satisfying work (satisfying in the same way as popping pimples and cleaning out crud under your fingernails). I highly recommend these brushes!

* ARB 82 Quart Fridge/Freezer

Prior to this trip, I had never considered that refrigerator technology could improve much. Sure, they’re useful appliances, but touchy and finicky and surely too energy-intensive to run off your car battery - right?? It turns out the the folks at ARB have really gotten their shit together, and they’ve come up with a fridge that defies all of those assumptions. And it is SUPER FANTASTIC to have a refrigerator in your car, with no need to EVER add ice, always cold and waiting even on the hottest days. This is not a thermoelectric cooler (I hear these are quite useful, but not able to provide consistent cold temps in hot environments), but rather a really energy-efficient fridge-or-freezer (depends on whether you set it to 0f, 40f, or anywhere in between) with a very quiet compressor. It can operate on uneven surfaces (up to 30 degrees from level), it’s chest-design keeps the cold air in when you open the door, it has a variable shut-off so that you don’t drain your car battery too far, and even if you don’t drive your car/charge your car batter for upwards of 24 hours, depending on conditions (and size of fridge; we have the largest one), your fridge/freezer will just hum along, keeping everything cold. There is no separate freezing/frigerating compartment: the whole thing is whatever temperature you set. But I have found that it’s possible to store frozen stuff on the bottom, and more delicate items like yogurt on the top, with the temperature set to just under freezing…and eek out a few more days of time-before-the-meat-will-fully-thaw, for example. The first unit we got was defective from the start, but ARB had incredibly responsive customer service, shipped another unit out right away, and the second unit has been completely reliable. The only slight design flaw is that the 12V plug is insanely difficult to plug in/take out from the back of the fridge. Luckily you don’t need to do this except for one time, when you first hook it up. Other than that, this fridge is exceptionally great. It’s so liberating to come out of the grocery store, pack up your 6 dozen eggs, four quarts of yogurt, ten pounds of meat, PLUS produce…and go about your errands. No need to unload the groceries when you get home!

* Marin Mountain Bike

This bike review is not so much a tribute to Marin as it is my endorsement of the practice of buying bicycles from Craigslist! My bike had been used just a few times, and was garaged and beautiful and nearly perfect when I got it…and even though I haven’t ridden it a whole heck of a lot, it is a placeholder: for all the times in my life, now and in the future, when I intend to do adventurous, outdoorsy things with my kids like Riding a Bike.

* My hoodie and our rain jackets, plus my Really Nice Cotton Pants

Jeff and I bought our factory seconds/floor model rain jackets from a used outdoor gear store back in Ithaca. And I actually can’t tell what the brand is on my favorite hoodie that sports no label; I do know that my Really Nice Pants are designed for rock climbing. Anyway, I’m finding that clothes made for an “outdoor lifestyle” really can be better quality than clothes made for Fashion. And rain gear has come a long way since my childhood and vinyl ponchos, I’ll tell you what!

* Hape Beach Basics sand toy set

I searched far and wide, hoping to find a pail and shovel that wouldn’t suck and/or break after two days of use. This shovel/sifter/pail/rake set has lasted through five months of hard use, and is still going strong.

* LL Bean kid backpacks

I was seduced by the Mom Grapevine claim that these book bags are the best ones you can buy. I haven’t bought any others, so I can’t attest to these being better, but I can say: these are incredibly practical, simple, durable, and nice. So I can’t imagine needing to try any others.

* Puckababy 4 Seasons Baby Sleeping Bag Sleep Sack

Sharing a sleeping bag with an infant, baby, or toddler is absolutely not fun in hardly any way. So I wanted something that would keep Ivy warm without her needing my body heat all night at the expense of my sleep. I found it in this bag, which ingeniously layers and combines to provide lightweight-to-very-warm insulation. It’s certified by a super-de-duper European standards institute to be free of flame retardants and other nasty fabric chemicals, and is very well made. Also, it keeps Ivy warm down to ~40f, which is about as cold as I’d really want things to get before I’d feel negligent for NOT cuddling her into my sleeping bag! The other nice thing about this bag is that it has plenty of room, so it can be used for many seasons (and it should, for this price!!): 6 months-2.5 years.

* Samlex PST -15S -12A 150 Watt DC-AC Pure Sine Wave Inverter

Have you ever wished you could plug in your laptop and charge it while you’re driving? Wish no longer! You simply plug the inverter into your cigarette lighter, and plug your laptop into it. And drive. Later, you’re all charged up!

* Duffle bags

Let me be clear: I do NOT wish to store our family’s clothes in duffel bags forever. Jeff is even less keen on the practice. But for this summer, we really couldn’t come up with anything better. And in case you need to pack clothes for more mundane uses, like traveling on an airplane, these are a much more affordable form of luggage. Each member of our family stores their entire wardrobe in one or the other of these duffel bags, and they provide Very Ample Space: Bago Sports Duffle Bag is large and durable, while Samsonite Tote-a-ton 32.5" Duffle Luggage is simply enormous, and big enough for more clothes than I can imagine ever wanting to take on an airplane, ever. In fact, the Samsonite is even big enough to accommodate Eliza’s wardrobe, which includes ~32 party dresses plus tutus and pants and shirts, etc., and a pair of fairy wings.

* Hypervent

All humans (even my family!) sweat a lot while sleeping. And after moving into our camper last June, we discovered some new reasons to pay attention to laws of physics, because our “bed frames” were now effectively large expanses of aluminum sheeting. Remember the way water vapor condenses when it encounters something that is colder than the air in which the vapor is currently Hanging Out? Well now, imagine what happens when six peoples’ sweaty vapor is hanging out inside an aluminum camper which, every night, cools waaaay down. The net result in our camper last June was a lot of water accumulating in the under-mattress areas. Yes, that’s right: water DIRECTLY touching the new mattresses that we were trying to keep mold-free! Enter hypervent, discovered by my mom while scouring RV and Boating Forums in order to assist her hysterical daughter: “a white spun polymer woven into a large open configuration that is bonded to a breathable white fabric layer…This light mesh of polymer does not compress, allowing an open layer of air to form.” Hypervent is a bit pricy, but worth every penny: once we installed it under our mattresses, condensation was no longer an issue.

* Big Agnes Dream Island 15 (Thermolite Extra) Double Wide Sleeping Bag

Jeff loves sleeping in a mummy bag, and the way he can cocoon himself inside with a hood and everything, and stay super warm on a cold night. However, I was determined to find some way to sleep WITH my sweetheart even during our Camping Adventures, which is when I discovered that double-wide, well-made-and-not-just-van-bags sleeping bags are actually A Thing. This one has less insulation on the bottom of the bag (and a pocket for you to insert inflatable mattresses, if you wish), while the top is wider than the bottom by a good two feet to create a pleasant Comforter Effect. The inside of the bag is lined with a cotton-ish fabric, while the outside is your standard (though heavy-duty) shiny nylon sleeping bag-type material. The extra width on top allows children (up to two smaller-sized ones) to burrow uncomfortably in-between you and your Sweetheart while keeping some semblance of covers; with just two people inside, it’s perfectly roomy yet cozy. Just like any warm sleeping bag, you WILL get too hot if you zip yourself fully inside on warm evenings. Simple solution: don’t zip yourself fully inside on warm evenings. The only not-so-perfect thing is that the entire enormous sleeping bag (it’s stuffed with polyfill, and keeps current occupants nicely warm down to 40f) is one piece. You can zip down fully on either side, but the only way to launder the thing is in a LARGE front-loading washer. Ours has now been damaged by an attempt to wash in a top loader.

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And there you have it - Concise Camping Consumerism from one of your favorite Camping Families, just in time to celebrate Thanksgiving! I hope this list proves at all useful in some way…

….and if you’re missing our usual update, with Isms etc., thanks for your patience while I collect some new ones and gather my wits. :)

Much love from all of us, and Thanks for being in our lives,
Sarabeth

*I plagiarized Amanda's term "Grand Adventure"; read more about her family's full-time unschooling RV adventures here: http://simplervliving.com/ . Coincidentally, she and her family have the exact Lance camper that we intend to purchase any day now! :)