Thursday, June 9, 2016

Planning short camping trips

We made a goal last year to get out on more camping trips and we've been doing fairly well. At this stage in our lives, car camping is the best fit for us, vacation-wise. It's inexpensive (even our fancy tent only cost us about what we would have spent on a weekend in Palm Springs), we can bring the dog, and there are tons of destinations close enough that we don't have to squander precious vacation days. We'd both like to do more backpacking type trips, but since we have a slightly elderly and arthritic dog who won't hike for more than 15 minutes at a time, that is unlikely to happen in the near future. So we're just focusing on perfecting our car camping skills.

packed car

So the bad news about short camping trips is that you have to pack almost as much stuff for one night as you would for a week. You still need almost all the same equipment, just less food and clothing.

The good news is that if you're car camping, you can make the packing process pretty easy on yourself. The main thing is to stop worrying about maximum efficiency. We don't bother cramming sleeping bags into stuff sacks or neatly packing everything up. We just dump it all into bins. We have two dedicated camping bins in our closet that store almost all our camping stuff and a short list of extras that need to get tossed in before we leave (chairs, tent, food, pillows). All in all, we can get the car loaded and be out the door in less than 30 minutes if we mean business, and that includes dragging everything out and throwing some clothes in a duffel. For these one night trips we keep the food super simple and routine, which means we know exactly what we need. We just do scrambled eggs + sausage + coffee for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, hot dogs for dinner, s'mores for dessert. I have a set grocery list and know exactly what I need to pull out of the fridge and what we'll stop and pick up as we leave town. We're considering testing out some fancier meals for summer, when the days are so much longer that I'm willing to use some of the precious daylight hours cooking.

My top tips for short camping trips: 
1. Store your camping equipment in bins that it can be transported in
2. Keep everything together and easily accessible (yes, it is a little annoying that the entire floor of my closet is covered in camping equipment, but it makes it easy to pull out)
3. Keep the meal planning really simple and don't stress about it because almost anything will taste delicious after a long hike

I still don't consider myself an expert, and almost every time we go out I make a few notes about something else that would be useful to have, but here are the essentials we've been using lately.

Sleeping arrangements
- Tent + tent footprint - we were a bit angsty about moving up to a larger tent but it's hands down the best decision we've made in regards to camping. We have the REI Kingdom 4 and while it isn't enormous compared to some on the market, it feels HUGE to us. As the name implies, it can sleep four, and it's tall enough that we can stand up in it. We have last year's version and the new 2016 model has had some changes (no interior divider, less mesh), so be aware it looks different. We got the footprint that is specifically made for the tent, although you can always just use some heavy weight plastic cut to size. Ours has two "rooms" so we usually sleep in one and use the front for luggage, dog dishes, etc.
- Sleeping pads - we have some old Therm-a-rests that work fine. I'm tempted to get an air mattress but so far that is a step too far.
- Sleeping bags - we're in the process of getting a double sleeping bag right now. I've had the same sleeping bag since I was 8 and it's time to replace it. It's been tough because most stores don't have the doubles in stock so you have to order one online to check it out in person. Luckily REI has amazing customer service, so we're doing just that and I know it won't be too big a pain. I'll report back if we find something great. Also, for warm weather trips (like beach camping) we'll sometimes just bring a set of sheets and a down comforter to go over the sleeping pads. This is my favorite way to camp, but make sure you check the expected nighttime lows before you do it.
- Pillows - we just bring our regular pillows, but we have pillowcases that we just use for camping.

Light sources
- Headlamps - there are a million different varieties, but we've had good luck with the Petzel brand.
- Lantern - we have a beautiful old propane Coleman lantern that belonged to my dad but I'm always afraid I'll break the glass. We got a modern replacement which is much less elegant, but serves the same function.

Camp kitchen
- Camp stove - we inherited an old Coleman stove and it works fine but it is showing its age and I definitely have looked longingly at the Camp Chef stoves. Maybe someday.
- Coffee and/or tea set up  - we've experimented with different options, but so far the french press seems to be the easiest. We have an old stovetop kettle (which can also go on the fire if there is a grate) and we also have this portable grinder that we keep with our camping gear, but you can always pre-grind, clearly.
- Mess kits - Mess kits are great because you can cook in them and eat out of them. For a short trip with just the two of us, we could get by with just these. There are some crazy fancy mess kits out there that you can drool over, but we have our old ones from the 80s and they are going strong and should run under $20 (similar at REI). Our cooking bin has a few extra things for when we camp in groups (larger pot that holds about four cups of liquid, larger skillet, aluminum two-burner griddle, some plates and bowls and utensils) but we don't get those things out on these short trips. Of course, you don't need a mess kit, you can always just toss a couple plates, some utensils and a saucepan in your bin and call it good, but it won't look as cute and it'll take up a little more space.
- Small stuff - pot holders, salt and pepper, a roll of paper towels, matches, a spatula, long skewers for roasting things.

Note - I don't wash dishes on overnight camping trips, I just toss them in a bag and do it at home. But for longer trips, you need a small bin for dishwater and a bottle of campsuds. (Seriously tempted by this cute option - REI is so dangerous. Every time we go in there we come out convinced we need a million clever new things)

Food storage
We have gotten by for many short camping trips with nothing more than our beloved Trader Joe's insulated blue bags (we have two of them and they do heavy duty in our house all the time, not just for camping). They hold plenty, and will keep ice cold for at least a day. However, with summer coming, we're accepting the necessity of a cooler - they're just so bulky and annoying! For now, we pack our cold food in a very small cooler and also take both our Trader Joe's bags. One is usually empty and ends up with dirty dishes in it. We might have to upgrade to a larger cooler for longer trips. We saw this cooler bag at REI the other weekend and it was pretty great, but holy sticker shock!

- Sharp camping knife in a holder 
- Towels - I always toss a couple small workout towels in the bin for drying off our hands (most campgrounds will not have paper towels) or whatever else comes up. Obviously you'd need larger towels if you intended to shower.
- Hand soap - even nice campground bathrooms are unlikely to have soap
- Camp chairs - we have really crappy chairs that we got in a last minute panic when we realized we didn't have chairs and we were heading out to camp. I'd recommend getting something better. We're having a hard time buying new ones since these technically work, they just suck.

Long lead - for the campsite
- Bowls for food and water
Puffer vest - helpful if it gets cold, although Circe is not a huge fan
Light up collar - not necessary but makes it easy to keep an eye on your pup in pitch dark (note - we make sure Circe is always within a few feet of us at night because she's small enough that a large coyote could snatch her up, so the collar is really nice)

Whew. It sounds like a lot, but I swear it packs up quickly. If you're a first time camper, you could pack ready made meals in tupperware and ditch the entire camp kitchen set up, which would simplify things considerably.

Experienced campers - tips? Anything I missed? Favorite not-entirely-necessary-but-now-feels-necessary gadget from REI?

kitchen toolkit

Not necessary, but the above photo is how we store some of the smaller kitchen accessories. It belonged to my parents and it's just a toolbox from Home Depot. It's nice to keep all the small stuff together in one place.

circe spot

Critical to our car loading considerations - Circe likes a nice empty spot in the backseat for her nest (although she usually then decides to perch precariously on top of the bins or insist on sitting in someone's lap).

And because this post isn't long enough already ...

Sample timeline for our typical one night camping trip (assumes check in is at 2pm, but we'll get out the door earlier if they'll allow early check in):

9:30 am - get up leisurely, eat breakfast, pack clothes, toss bins in the car, grab food out of the fridge, shower. Stop at grocery store for ice and the rest of our list, hit the road by ~ 11am.
~11 am - ~ 2 pm - drive to campsite, possibly stop in cute town on the way if one is available. If we get there too early to check in, we'll park in day parking and explore, but most places are okay letting you in a teeny bit early.
~ 2 pm - Eat lunch, set up camp quickly, hike (or nap, then hike, depending on how tiring the week has been).
~6 pm - Happy hour, fire building, dinner cooking, fireside sitting = evening.

~8:00 am - breakfast
~9:00 am - morning hike
11:00 am - back to camp an hour before check out so that we have plenty of time to break down and pack lunch for the road.
12:00 pm - hit the road.
~3:00 pm - We're usually home by early afternoon and then one of us immediately throws Circe in the tub for a much needed bath while the other person empties the car, washes the dishes and puts away the camping bins. Critical - once we get home we don't stop moving until everything is taken care of (usually takes an hour or so to get everything done, including showers for the humans). That way we can get back to work on Monday without the house being a disaster zone.
~4:30 pm - freshly showered happy hour at home while catching up on Instagram

I'm not saying it's restful, exactly, but now that we have the routine down it feels easy and it is incredibly refreshing. Being out in nature even just for the one night seems to hit a reset button for me.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Reading, lately

The Quality of Silence - I'm a big fan of Rosamund Lupton's other two thrillers (Sister and Afterwards) so I had high hopes for this one, even though the premise seemed odd. A mother and her deaf daughter trek across the Alaskan wilderness in winter to find a missing husband/father. Verdict - it's better than you might expect based on the dust jacket summary, but not that great. The mystery is a stretch and the frakking plot is a bit heavy handed. I did like the descriptions of the intense cold of an Alaskan winter. They were my favorite part of the book. But Lupton's idea of how a ten year old would speak drove me mad - it's possible that it's accurate, but if I had to read "super coolio" one more time I was going to scream.

When Breath Becomes Air - I've been on the waitlist for this since it was released. I read Paul Kalanithi's essays in the NYT and Stanford Medicine magazine and cried, like most other people in the universe. His book is a beautiful memoir that explores his career as a doctor and the process of coming to grips with his terminal diagnosis. I so wish that my dad could have read this. He had such admiration for compassionate doctors (we were extremely blessed that his two main specialists were not just amazing doctors but also wonderful people) and he was a philosopher who wanted to approach death straight-forwardly, so I know he would have loved reading this, especially as he wrestled with the same issues. It's a heartbreaking and thought provoking look at mortality.

The Weight of Silence - A traumatized little girl who doesn't talk suddenly finds herself in a position where she has to speak to save a life. The whole plot takes place over the course of 24ish hours and it's fairly tense but I didn't love the writing.

What She Knew - Obviously I was auditioning thrillers this month. This one is about a boy who is kidnapped from under the nose of his mother, and explores in depth the repercussions of the case on the mother and the detective most closely involved. The plot is good but I think it could have benefited from some editing to tighten it up - it's a little long for the amount of action. That said, the ending was a good twist.

My Name is Lucy Barton - Another gorgeous novel by Elizabeth Strout. So well detailed and lovely. The narrator is a writer who comes from deep poverty, and I loved reading along as she finds her voice and deals with the tricky matter of telling the truth about people she loves who aren't all good or all bad.

The Silent Girls -  I almost quit this book immediately after the prologue, which is particularly gruesome and creepy. I was worried that it might be a supernatural type thriller (I will not, under any circumstances, read books about ghosts or anything like that). But I had nothing else to read so I decided to press on, and as it turns out it is a fairly straightforward detective story, albeit with some creepy aspects. But everyone is fully human! I'm a little torn on how to describe this one. I don't think it was necessarily an amazing psychological thriller (the pacing feels a little off sometimes and some of the characters are pretty flat), but I couldn't stop reading once I was into it and I was surprised by the ending. So, chalk it up as a win?

The Silent Wife - Okay, so I somehow ended up with four books with silence/silent in the title in this go-round. I can't remember if that's because I was searching for a particular one and then found these as well or if it's a coincidence. Weird. Anyways, I didn't like this book. The characters are a bit more like caricatures and they never came to life for me. This is billed as a thriller, but 90% of the book is just a description of a really depressing relationship as it falls apart. Other readers loved this, though, so it may just be that it wasn't quite right for me.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Overnight camping - Barton Flats

We have a few short camping trips lined up this summer and last weekend it was an overnight in Barton Flats campground, near Big Bear. It's just two hours from home, which is our limit for one night trips. The short drive means we can wake up at a normal hour on Saturday, toss stuff in the car, hit the grocery store and then be at the campground by check in time. 

wildflowers by highway 38


circe hold

jenks lake

camping happy hour

evening fire

tent view


morning fire


Campground notes: 
This is a pretty nice, well maintained campground with running water (restrooms and showers were both pretty decent). However, the sites are very hit or miss. Some are large and shady and some are tiny with very little shelter. They all have fire rings, and you can get firewood from the camp host. We stayed at site 11, which was not the best but definitely not the worst. It's right on a trail head, which was mildly annoying during the day but fine at night. If you're going, take a look at the site map and try to choose sites that are on the back of the loops, because they're furthest from Highway 38. Anything in the front of the loops will get traffic noise. Sites 37 and 38 looked particularly promising to us. 

The campground was packed and fairly noisy, FYI. I'm not complaining, because that isn't a feature of the campground itself. You roll the dice when you camp, because you're never sure what the crowd is going to be like. I swear that almost everyone here except us had multiple kids with them, so there was a LOT of noise during daylight hours, but it calmed down at night for the most part (I really wish the people who watch TV in their RVs would just stay home and leave the rest of us in peace). I think we just haven't been warm weather camping in a while, so we've gotten used to very adult, very quiet campgrounds. This is a good reminder that summer is different!

There are hiking trails right out of the campground, which is a huge plus. On Saturday we hiked up to Jenks Lake. I read (somewhere) that this was a 45 minute easy walk, and I'm not sure if I'm super out of shape or if carrying Circe (dogs are allowed on all the trails here but she was on full-on hike boycott this weekend) was wearing me out, but it felt like an effort! 

On Sunday morning we hiked part of the Santa Ana River trail, which was just gorgeous. I was wishing we had more time because I would have happily kept going for hours, but we just hiked from Barton Flats to the San Gorgonio campground. The trail is narrow, with a lot of shade, and you get beautiful views and lots of different landscapes. 

We're getting better at quick camping trips, so I tried to take a few notes this weekend so I can hopefully get a post up this week about our camping essentials and how we pack for these trips. 

Friday, June 3, 2016


I turned 33 two weeks ago and I'm definitely at the point where I have to count to figure out how old I am each year and then if someone asks me my age about half the time I try to guess and give the wrong number.

My birthday fell on a busy day at work, but Emily and I had an extra long walk (and stopped for breakfast) before I had to head in and then D had flowers, cake and champagne waiting for me at home, so all in all it was a pretty perfect day.

cake and champagne

I didn't really expect all the emotions. This was my second birthday without my dad and last year I think I was still in shock because I barely remember it. I'm not a crazy birthday person and I'm always happy keeping the festivities very minimal, but I got lots of sweet calls and texts and over the course of the day my dad became increasingly conspicuous by his absence. Since we didn't see each other daily, most of the time I don't have to continually confront the fact that he's not here. Even if his absence hits me hard at random moments, for the most part I can go about my weekday routine and just let myself half-believe that he's at home doing his thing and that we'll talk in the evening.

I don't really have a good way to sum this up so the post has just been hanging while I try to come up with something. I miss him, and I know he would have approved of the camping trip we took over my birthday weekend, and I wish I could talk to him and tell him about it. It's still strange to me that life can be so sad and so sweet at the same time.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Monthly meal planning - June

June is a little weird because we're having guests and I have some traveling to do and the way the weeks fall on my calendar I'm planning for five weeks instead of four. I'm not going to freak out if things don't work out as planned, and I'm barely planning anything for the end of the month because travel and then coming home is rough and I'm not sure if I'll feel like cooking. If I know we're facing a busy time I make sure that I stock our freezer with a few Trader Joe's meals. Cheaper, easier and quicker than take out, and they'll hold if we magically manage to cook a real meal instead.

meal planning - june

Recipes this month - 

Sweet potato bolognese - again, no real recipe. It's just 1/2 lb ground beef, 1/2 lb hot sausage, 1 jar marinara and 2 large sweet potatoes that have been spiralized. (spiralizer post is here)

Brown rice noodle and vegetable bowl - no recipe, I just stir fry a bunch of veggies with some ginger and garlic and the extra firm tofu from Trader Joe's (it has the best texture!) and toss with some Soyaki marinade (also from TJ's) and the cooked noodles. 

Rainbow power salad with roasted chickpeas - nice spiralizer recipe that I tried out last month. 

Red lentils and spinach in masala sauce - the winner of the red lentil recipe showdown last month.  

Spicy shrimp with pesto zucchini noodles - spiralizer recipe that I tried out and loooved last month. 

Spiced butternut squash salad with lentils and goat cheese - one of my favorite recipes lately and it makes a great work lunch. I always toss the arugula lightly with some balsamic dressing. I still use this basic recipe and almost always have a jar of it in the fridge. Lately I've been adding a shallot in there, along with garlic and whatever herbs I have on hand. If I'm packing it for work, I put the lentils, butternut squash and goat cheese at the bottom of a large container, then put plenty of arugula on top and pack a small container of dressing to toss it with right before eating. 

Sweet potato dirty rice - easy, satisfying recipe. I get spicy andouille sausage from Whole Foods and I usually add more peppers than the recipe calls for.

Broccoli rabe with spicy Italian sausage and zucchini noodles - new to me recipe that I've been meaning to try out for a while.

Chicken tikka masala + saag - New to me recipe recommended by a reader. I love the quick and easy chicken tikka masala recipe that I've used in the past, but this one looks extra delicious.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Meal planning review - May

Still loving the monthly meal plans. I'm doing so much better with cooking on weeknights and we're barely eating out at all because we're usually well stocked with leftovers (part of that is that D has been working a lot of evenings, so there are more leftovers). I originally didn't think I'd continue this during the summer (because usually our summers end up being much less structured) but it's been so nice that I wanted to keep going. 

meal planning review - may

I mixed it up a lot more than usual last month! I'm barely doing anything new in June, though. so next month will be a bit boring. 

New recipes from May - 

Spiced red lentils with caramelized onions and spinach - This was pretty good, but in the May red lentil showdown the red lentils and spinach in masala sauce won out. That one is a definite keeper, and I'll be making it again. The masala paste is a little more effort but totally worth it. You do have to watch the spice, though. I'd start low and adjust up to taste.

Rainbow power salad with roasted chickpeas - New to me spiralizer recipe. Loved this one! The green sauce that you make for it is so flavorful that I kept snitching bites of it while I was cooking. It has an avocado base, similar to the avocado pasta sauce recipe that I love from Oh She Glows, but all the herbs take it up several levels. The veggie noodles are left raw in this recipe, so when I packed the leftovers I made sure to keep the sauce separate until I was ready to eat. The recipe says this is 2 - 4 servings but I think it's more like 2 generous servings or 3 side portions. 

Chicken korma + rice + saag - New to me recipe, recommended by a reader. This was very good, but fairly similar to the cashew nut chicken I already make regularly (although I did like all the extra cilantro). I tried this saag recipe and it was a big loser. Just sooo bland. It also wasn't the one I meant to try. Apparently there are two saag recipes on Chowhound and I looked at one and then printed the wrong one. I'm so over hunting for saag recipes at this point, so I'm going to stick with the one I liked from Food52 (note - there are also multiple recipes for saag on Food52, but I've only tried this one). 

Spicy shrimp with pesto zucchini noodles - Another spiralizer recipe from Pinch of Yum. I also loved this one. The pesto is amped up with spinach and kale, and it's amazing. It's also vegan, since it doesn't call for the traditional parm, and I like that it calls for almonds, since we always have almonds in the house. I will absolutely make this again. Also held up well for lunch the next day, I just put the noodles on one side of the dish and the pesto on the other and then tossed it together when it was time to eat. 

homemade naan

Bonus - I ended up making this naan recipe. I usually have a package of the Trader Joe's frozen naan, but I didn't realize we were out and I really wanted it. Waiting two hours for your naan to rise > braving TJ's during rush hour, right? Anyways, this was a very good recipe, and it was easy, but I still find that nothing beats that frozen stuff. We're so obsessed that if we're getting Indian take-out we'll often not order any naan and pull some out of the freezer instead. I'm not sure how they do it. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Desert camping - Anza Borrego

Anza Borrego is just a little bit outside our usual radius for one night camping trips (a two hour drive is our usual limit and this is more like three) but we had a group of friends going and we decided to join in. It's not the right time of year for the desert, but we checked the weather and it was gorgeous and since it was off season we could just roll in without reservations and still have our pick of the campgrounds.

borrego palms campground, anza borrego

borrego palms campground, anza borrego

desert happy hour

desert winds


borrego palms campground, anza borrego

desert moonrise, anza borrego

slot canyon, anza borrego

It was such a refreshing trip. The weather was in the 70s during the day and then just chilly enough at night to need another layer. We were a little nervous when the wind picked up pretty strongly in the afternoon, but it died out completely the second the sun went down. The moon was so full that we didn't need headlamps and we sat around the fire until midnight.

On Saturday we hiked the Palm Canyon trail, which goes right out of the Borrego Palms campgound and ends in an amazing palm oasis and on Sunday we walked through the slot canyon on our way out of the park. If you come, don't miss the visitor's center, which is really well done.

Campground notes: 
We originally intended to stay in the Tamarisk Grove campground so we all met up there. It is a really nice, very small campground with the most adorable little cabins you can rent for $60/night (or regular campsites for $25). All the sites have shade structures over the picnic tables. The wind tends to be stronger here, though, so when we talked to the ranger and heard that Borrego Palm campground was nearly empty, we headed over there instead. We ended up staking out spaces 85 and 87, which are nice because they're on the outer ring. We had more than enough room for five tents.
FYI - the bathrooms at both Tamarisk Grove and Borrego Palm are nice. Running water, skylights, showers. It felt pretty luxurious.

As usual, camping in state parks with dogs can be tough. They're allowed in the campgrounds but not on the trails. This is trickier during warm months when we won't leave Circe in the car. For the hikes, someone has to skip out and stay at the campground with the dogs (in large groups this often works out okay). We usually assess the hike and then we'll sometimes take Circe in her backpack. It's not ideal because we can't let her down at all, so I wouldn't do this for long hikes where she might get overheated or bored. I didn't mind doing it for the slot canyon hike because it was more of a short walk and partially shaded. It did get a little tricky in the narrow sections! This is definitely technically against the rules, so we're aware that we might get a citation for it at some point. Our goal is always to be respectful of the wildlife, so if there's a chance that Circe being present, even in a backpack, will disturb that, we opt out. But if the issue is her being down on the ground, then we'll happily carry her. She is such a great camping dog, super mellow and easy-going, and she did particularly well this trip.