Albany, 2am

The Albany New York Greyhound station at 2am in the morning is a real Greyhound station, the kind your mother warned you about and which spawned the unfettered growth of Megabus and its ilk. People choose live poultry seatmates and faulty brakes to avoid its fluorescent glow.

Despite its shortcomings, and the fact that the Men’s restroom smells like its users have been pissing cheap Canadian beer, it is clean, it is lively, and it is retro. Retro like Prefontaine running the 5000m at the ’76 Olympics

Get on your track suit and lace up your Nikes, next stop Montreal.

Bucket List: Jazz Train from New York to Montreal

Featured image by Bublegun (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

New York, en wagon piano bar!

Imagine some of the nicest scenery in the East flashing by the window as you’re serenaded by live music and wined and dined. I first heard about this unique year-round service from a post on And North.The Jazz Train piggybacks on Amtrak’s Adirondack from New York-Montreal, an 11-hour trip from Penn Station through the Hudson Valley and the Adirondacks, ending in the capital of Quebec. Unlike Amtrak’s Western routes, this voyage is daytime-only and much slower than the drive, so it’s best for those with the time to enjoy. As far as I’m concerned, it’s well worth the time for this classy, photogenic, and stress-free travel.

If only they could fulfill their stated intention to run a similar service as an overnight (sleeper car) excursion, I imagine it would be wildly popular.

Service

As expected by the name, the train voyage includes a three-part jazz performance. Given the all-day length of the trip, it includes breakfast/brunch, lunch, and dinner, as well as drinks, both coffee in the morning and cocktails during the day. The menu is mouth-watering — starting the day with quiche du jour and French croissants is traveling in style.

The food includes, among other delicacies, two staples that Montreal and New York have in common: bagels (with maple smoked salmon), and smoked meat, a Montreal specialty similar to New York’s pastrami. Desserts are plentiful and heavy on the maple syrup ingredients.

For more on the itinerary and menu, visit the Jazz Train site here.

Route

The Jazz Train travels on Amtrak’s Adirondack route, which begins at New York Penn Station, passes along the Hudson, through Albany and Lake George, and alongside New York’s Adirondack State Park, alongside Lake Champlain.

Schedule / Cost / How to Book

Generally, the train departs departs New York on Thursdays and Sundays and returns on Fridays and Mondays. This means you’ll have a Thursday night to Monday morning stay in Montreal coming from New York, or a Friday night to Sunday morning stay in New York if beginning in Montreal. Labor Day has a special Tuesday morning return to NYC.

Pricing is $200 US one-way and $330 US round-trip, though you may also choose to take the plain vanilla Amtrak Adirondack,starting at $69 one-way. The Adirondack is a once-daily departure from New York at 8:15am, arriving in Montreal at 7:11pm. Return trips from Montreal depart daily at 10:20am and arrive at 8:50pm.

See more on schedule and pricing here.

History

The ultimate goal of the Jazz Train is to restart overnight service between the two cities, hence their web address, trainhotel.ca. Amtrak once ran an overnight sleeper car service from New York to Montreal via Vermont. This unique international service, which was formerly known as the Montrealer, was discontinued in the 1990s and rebranded as the Vermonter and now terminates in St. Albans in Northern Vermont.

The daytime Adirondack route runs entirely through New York State. Prior to 1991, all New York State-and Canada-bound trains departed from the ever photogenic Grand Central Terminal.

Experiments in Extreme Weekend Travel

We just returned from a weekend getaway to Barbados, and I wanted to share impressions on what I’ll term our first experiment in “extreme weekend travel”.

To fit nearly a week of travel time into one weekend, all you need are the following:

  • two vacation days that connect to the weekend or a three-day weekend that you can stretch to four;
  • a direct, red-eye (overnight) flight in both directions;
  • a discount flight (under $300), ideally, to make the short duration worthwhile;
  • an inexpensive destination or somewhere to stay.

We’re both trying to save our vacation days for a larger trip later in the summer, so this was an experiment born of necessity — taking only two vacation days, we managed a full four-day vacation. As noted, this required a red-eye flight in both directions and a return straight to work from the airport.

A direct flight was essential, since changing planes in the middle of the night will ruin your chances at arriving rested to your destination.

barbados_flight.png

Thanks to The Flight Deal and a great deal on JetBlue, we were able to get an overnight flight direct from New York (JFK) to Barbados (BGI) for $192 round-trip. We departed at 9pm on Thursday, arriving at 3am and returned at 4am on Tuesday, returning at 8:30am to New York.

barbados_beach
barbados_boats

We survived, and on the return flight we both slept soundly, thanks to the extra leg room and comfy seats on JetBlue. There was actually enough room in coach to fully extend your legs under the seat in front of you and stretch out. Bring your own pillow and blanket, however, as they carry an extra charge.

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Returning to JFK, New York on Tuesday morning

Destinations

Flying from New York to the Caribbean allows you to get far enough away for a real vacation, visit a foreign country, yet stay in a similar time zone.

JetBlue flies to dozens of destinations in the Caribbean and from my experience, many of these flights are direct and of the overnight variety. Their flight map can be consulted here.

Norwegian flies from JFK to Guadeloupe and Martinique and offers some great deals, though these are daytime departures and would require an extra day of vacation.

If you’re looking to fly domestically, nonstop cross-country flights, i.e. JFK to SFO, OAK, LAX, LGB offer the chance to get some rest, though jet lag can be an issue if you’re returning straight to work. Given the time zone difference, the return (West-East) flight needs to be overnight, though the East-West flight only takes 3 hours and could be done in an evening.

Searching for Flights

Use ITA Matrix to search for arrivals and limit the selection to flights departing at night or early morning.

Inline image 1
Example: Searching for overnight flights to California

For flights in a similar time zone, also select “Early Morning” and be sure that you’re searching for nonstops. Running a search to a series of nearby destinations, as shown below, can be very useful if you’re just looking to get out of town.

Inline image 4
Example: Searching for flights from NYC to all airports within 1000 miles of Barbados

I hope these tips inform and inspire. Good luck in planning your next Extreme Weekend Getaway.

Weekend Getaway to Beacon, NY (Brooklyn North)

Beacon, New York has been described as the hippest town in the Hudson Valley. If hipness can be measured by the impressive modern art museum that drew us there, coupled with a craft beer and local restaurant scene to rival any around, I agree. It is hip, and more. Not only did the town have the more sedentary activities covered, with beautiful little storefronts selling toys, used books, outdoors gear, and vintage clothing, and the aforementioned food venues, it’s also at the foot of Mt. Beacon, with an enviable collection of hiking trails and stunning views of the Valley from above.

Getting There

Metro-North has an hourly departure from Grand Central on Saturdays at 7:43, 8:43, and 9:43am. We took the third of those options which stops at Peekskill, Cold Springs, and Beacon, while the prior two morning trains also make the stop for hikers at Breakneck Ridge. An incredibly steep hike with panoramic views of the Hudson, it is one of the handful of camping and hiking activities directly accessible by commuter rail.

Total journey time is approximately 90 minutes from GCT. Round-trip for two, including ticket package to Dia: Beacon was $73.00, purchased together at the ticket machine in Grand Central.

Modern Art in Context at Dia: Beacon

It has always bothered me that some works of art are considered so simply because they’ve been placed inside a museum space. Confronting this critique, at Dia: Beacon the art was built specifically to interact with its space: a skylight-filled and expansive former Nabisco box factory set a short walk from the train station along the Hudson. We had the luck to catch a guided tour, which heightened our appreciation of the work as the slanted light of a November afternoon cast shadows among the totems of mangled car parts and smooth swooping cast iron ship-hulls.

During the winter months Dia: Beacon is open Thursday or Friday-Monday 11-4. General admission is $12, $10 as part of Metro-North package. Details at: http://www.diaart.org/sites/page/1/1680.

Exemplary Craft Beer Situation

After the art museum gently nudged us out at closing time, we headed north along the river towards our AirBNB accommodations to leave our gear. On the way we stopped at the first beer-related establishment, Beacon’s first brewery, Two Way Brewing. Tucked away among several other light-industrial uses, we had a great view out over the Hudson as night was falling. We ordered a full flight of their seven tap selections, among which Heart of Darkness Stout was the true standout, dark and malty with good body.

Shortly thereafter, we traversed the length of the picturesque Main Street, settling on Dogwood restaurant for dinner (website, Yelp). My tasty chicken pot pie was paired with a local Peekskill Brewery Eastern Standard IPA. Little did we know, we passed the future site of Hudson Valley Brewery, which is under construction at 7 East Main Street.

Post-dinner we headed to The Hop (website, Yelp), a bar-restaurant with an impressive tap selection backed by an even larger and more varied bottle selection. [Beer nerd alert] Their draft selection included a rotating Hill Farmstead ale, and they had Pipeworks and Grimm cans in their display fridge. I settled on a bottle of Jack’s Abby Mass Rising IIPL and a tall boy can of Port City Brewing Optimal Wit to go, one of my top two favorite wheat beers and which I hadn’t seen in stores since moving away from Washington, DC.

Further west on Main Street, we settled on Draught Industries (website, Yelp) for a few craft pours, starting with Prairie BOMB! (99 on Beer Advocate) on tap, a boozy stout flavored with cocoa nibs and ancho chillies. Paola claimed this as hers after the first sip and it got better as it warmed, releasing more of the flavor of its ingredients. I chose another, Crooked Stave Progenitor, which was a well-balanced wild ale, sour and fruity, yet complex and not overpowering. I followed that with the St. Bretta (Valencia Orange), another sour from the same brewery, with what I suppose was a tint of orange mixed with the sourness. The staff was friendly and knowledgeable about the area beer scene, tipping us off to Plan Bee Farm Brewery and the aforementioned development on East Main Street.

We ambled back along deserted streets and climbed the stairs to our cozy accommodations in the 18th-century farmhouse that was our AirBNB, sleeping incredibly soundly once our heads hit the pillows.

Breakfast on Main Street and Hiking Mt. Beacon

On a recommendation from Trish, our AirBNB host, in the morning we headed to Beacon Bread Company (website, Yelp) on Main Street, where fresh baked bread and pastries tempted us and we ate heartily. Reinforcing the small-town diner feel of the restaurant, our chocolate croissant had been baked that morning by the man now dining with his family in front window table nook. Our steak and eggs, the latter over-easy and served on toast with cheddar cheese, fired us up for our planned hike that day.

Mt. Beacon, forested and rising steeply to over 1600 feet and crowned with cellphone and radio towers, looms over the east side of the Village of Beacon. The trailhead was a brisk mile-and-a-half walk along suburban neighborhood streets until reaching a small parking lot, clearing, and path. The hike up to the top of Mt. Beacon begins with a gentle slope, then heads up several flights of metal-grated stairs which start at the base of the former incline railway. The hit is around 3.5 miles round-trip from the trailhead and it took us four hours to leisurely hit to the Mt. Beacon Fire Tower at the summit. On the way, we passed the gears and wheelhouse of the railway, which once served a casino, and generally enjoyed the wide and well-traversed trail, which was never steep enough to require a scramble.

The views from the top were worth the trip: we could see up and down the Hudson, with the rolling brown-hued leafless hills and mountains of the Hudson Highlands obscuring the towns further downriver. Unlike many similar towers, the Mt. Beacon Fire Tower is fully open to those members of the public not averse to climbing up a narrow metal staircase to a perch on top of the tallest rock in sight.

On our much speedier trip back down the mountain, aided by gravity and the thought of a warm drink, we had resigned ourselves to the cheery yet gray day dissolving into night with no further comment, when the sun peeked out under the clouds and we froze to bathe in the warm orange light. It was one of those moments that reminds you why we get off the couch in the first place.

Heading Home

A perfectly mixed coffee mocha and hazelnut cake at Ella’s Bellas, a coffee shop on Main Street, and we were ready for our 7:12 return to New York. The roll of the train as it sped us back to Grand Central was soothing: no more exertion, nothing to do but kick back, crack a book, and let the locomotive do the work.

Thanks for reading. Until the next adventure!

Tuxedos and Rattlesnakes

Our planned weekend getaway started with the usual New York mad rush, in this case to catch the lone Saturday morning express train from Penn Station. Once safely aboard and having taken stock of our provisions — water, check, map, check, cash, check, wallet, check (twice) — we relaxed into our seats for the one-hour ride to Tuxedo, NY and the trailhead for Harriman State Park.

(Harriman State Park was, incidentally, land donated from the family of politician and former New York State Governor, W. Averell Harriman, famous for his support of George Kennan’s Long Telegram and service as ambassador to Vietnam during the tumultuous ramp-up of the war in Vietnam.)

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Metro-North’s Tuxedo station highlighted at top of photo.

Having arrived at picturesque Tuxedo station, and properly dressed for such an occasion in non-formal wear, we filled up on clean and tasty public bathroom water, rubbed the white blotches of sunscreen properly onto each other’s noses, necks, and ear crevices, and turned ourselves around a few times before deciding the proper northerly direction towards the trail head.

In reverence to our wilderness retreat, we “offed” our cellphones and headed out, reaching down a dead-end road, past the edge of a few suburban lawns, and up into the trees. We were newly sans-GPS for the first time since the last time our cellphone battery ran out after too much texting and Googling — our map, our wits, and several miles of painted tree-swatches would now be our guide.

Self-reliance in the digital age, Ralph Waldo Emerson would have no doubt noted, begins when your extra appendage loses its 4G signal. In our case, we were voluntarily neutered, hoping to thus commune with nature. This digital exile was my bright idea, until, barely out of earshot of downshifting tractor trailers on the highway far below us, I heard an unmistakably loud rattle under my outstretched foot.

Paola had bounded ahead obliviously, as I too would have done had I stepped a few inches to the right. Instead, I was now standing around two paces from the largest rattlesnake I have ever seen. My first step was the one that nearly landed on top of the camouflaged Crotalus horridus. There, no more than six feet away, was the answer to a question I hadn’t thought to ask: yes, New York has rattlesnakes.

(This has been thoroughly researched from the safety of home. I did not, as in the classic Yahoo.com Super Bowl spot, open a search engine in the wilderness to figure out what poisonous reptile almost bit me).

In my formative years as a Boy Scout, I never as much as saw a rattlesnake, bear, or other stereotypical forest-based threat. Now here I was, face-to-face with one very lengthy one, and after several thoroughly enthusiastic yelps of “Hoooooooly shit!”, I needed a digital photo to confirm this mythical “big fish” story.

From a few snake-lengths away, adrenaline still pumping, my concern shifted from fear to whether anyone besides Paola, my lone witness, would ever believe it without verifiable documentary evidence, so out came the camera, Emerson be damned. With the threat safely at bay, we took a few snaps and continued on down the trail.

Preparing for a Weekend Camping Trip: Cooking, Food, and Water Supply (Part IV)

Clean water and nourishing, warm food are fundamental to an enjoyable weekend in the woods, and it doesn’t take much to meet these basic needs. Following the packing list below and you’ll be self-sufficient for a single weekend or for weeks on end.

Cooking and making fire

Nothing beats a warm meal after a long day on the trail. You’ll need a stove, a pot, and utensils, though you could rough it and cook over the campfire.

colemanstoveBackpacking stove

There are several fuels and burner combinations available, from burners and propane canisters (heavy) to isobutane (lightweight) to solid fuels or a campfire. We have an old Coleman Peak One backpacking stove which runs on Coleman fuel (also known as white gas), which is both cheap and easy to carry since it can be brought in a separate fuel bottle instead of a metal canister. Price: around $70 or less.

Fuel bottle with spout

This is a special metal bottle that looks like those new preppy liter-sized stainless steel water bottles, except its for carrying fuel. It generally has a closed top for travel, and then a top with a tiny straw-like spout for pouring the fuel. Price: under $20.

Fuel

Propane canisters cost around $4-6 each, while a gallon of Coleman fuel, also known as white gas, costs from $12-15 per gallon, which will last you for a long time. On our trip we took 3 ounces or so which was more than enough for all our cooking and cleaning needs.

Matches

Matches are matches, though if you have strike-on-box matches, don’t lose the box! Plus, wooden matches or a lighter are better than cardboard, which gets damp. Price: free (from your local steakhouse).

Compact pot set

A special backpacking pot set is ideal, or you may be able to substitute a lightweight aluminum or steel pot with handles, no more than 10 inches in diameter to fit on the tiny stove. These can be purchased at REI, EMS, or any outdoors store. Cost: $25-40 and up.

Personal dish

Take a plastic or metal bowl from the cupboard, or even use a big insulated mug. Price: under $10 or free.

Spoon

You could also eat with your hands, I suppose. Just grab a spoon from the kitchen drawer. Price: Free.

Food

Last but not least, camping is the perfect time to get your fill of MSG, noodles; cured, dried, and tinned meats; oatmeal, granola bars, and other marvels of modern (and ancient) science. Camping food tends to be dried and preserved so it remains fresh and stays lightweight — you can add the water later.

Breakfast

Choose something filled with protein and calories and uncooked, if you’re looking to break camp quickly. Granola or granola bars will suffice. If you want to make something warm during cold weather, you can boil water for oatmeal and hot cocoa. Pour the oatmeal directly into the paper envelope and then you can fold up and pack it away without washing a single dish.

tower of ramen
source: techpoweredmath.com

Lunch

Something quick while you stop mid-hike: Sandwiches of tuna fish or salami, granola bars. This is where those little condiment packets you get from sandwich shops or takeout come in handy, since they’re single-serving and unrefrigerated.

Dinner

On our most recent trip we ate ramen and polenta with spam for dinner. The extra salt makes up for what you’ve lost during the day (or so I tell myself). This is your chance to rehydrate yourself a hearty meal. If you’re boiling water, it doesn’t need to be pre-treated, so you can use the more pungent stream water in the meal with no noticeable effect.

On that note, read on for more about proper water supply and care.

Water Supply

Water is a necessity, and you should plan to carry at least a gallon a day per person. However, as long as you’re within reach of a flowing stream, you can treat your own water

Personal water bottle

This is to drink from and may hang off your pack for easy access. Nalgene is the default brand and the 32oz size is ideal. Cost: $6-10 or free, since you could use an old soda or spring water bottle.

Large water bottles

This large container is for cooking or for refilling your personal bottle and goes at the bottom of your pack. In a pinch you can just use a 2-liter soda bottle, milk jug, or other large plastic bottle. Make sure you have at least 1 gallon per person per day. Cost: $8-15 or free.

Kool-AidWater purification

PolarPure or another similar iodine-based product will allow you to use running stream water to refill your supplies, though the water needs to be at 70 degrees or warmer to fully kill all the nasties (we ignored this rule). This product can no longer be found in stores because iodine is a precursor for meth production (no lie) but I found it on Amazon. Price: $20 for 2000 liters (great!).

Drink mix

If you’re not a fan of the flavor of iodine, you can add powdered Gatorade or Kool-Aid to your water bottle to mask the flavor and give you some extra electrolytes, whatever those are.

Ready to go

Now that you’ve hopefully gone through all our camping preparation advice, you should be ready to head out on the trail. You’ll have the pack, the clothing and footwear, and the cooking and water supplies to last weeks on end, if necessary.

If you’ve been resourceful, for the price of a hotel room, you now carry life’s necessities on your back. This could come in handy for your next cross-country trip or in case of the apocalypse or trip to Bonnaroo.

Here’s a recap of the posts from this series, Preparing for a Camping Trip:

Where to Buy Gear (Part I)

Camp Lodging and Travel Needs (Part II)

Clothing, Cold-Weather Gear, and Personal Items (Part III)

Cooking, Food, and Water Supply (Part IV)

Preparing for a Weekend Camping Trip: Clothing, Cold-Weather Gear, and Personal Items (Part III)

The great part about camping is, once you’ve found everything from the previous list, you’re pretty much set. You can generally just raid your closet and drawers for the right clothing. If you want to look official and spend your birthday money, you can buy all kinds of lightweight and purpose-made gear from one of these places.

Generally, however, just follow these steps below, and get some good boots and socks.

Clothing

Most of the items in this list should be self-explanatory. For items that may get sweaty or rained on, wool or synthetic is the best option. Cotton tends to soak up water and dry slowly.

T-shirts

Just grab one or two from the drawer, ideally polyester or blend.

Underwear

Grab from the drawer, boxer-briefs will prevent potential chafing from the long walk.

Pants

If you can find wool or polyester blend pants, those are ideal, though full synthetic pants have a tendency to pick up tiny holes from campfire embers.

Hat or sunglasses

Sun and rain. Those might be present on your trip, so plan ahead.

Footcare

When hiking, taking care of your feet is very important, especially keeping them dry and free of blisters. If you’ve seen it, think of the scene with Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump:

Wool socks (2-3 pair)

Find thick wool socks for winter and thin wool socks for summer. Wool wicks moisture and stays warm while wet, which makes it the clear choice over cotton, which stays wet and dries slowly. As they said in the Scouts, cotton kills! SmartWool is a popular high-priced brand, though there are many other choices. Be prepared to spend $6-15 or more for a good pair.

Hiking boots

Your boots should have ankle support, fit snugly with some slight space in the toe so you don’t stub your toes when hiking downhill. GoreTex or other waterproof breathable fabric combined with Vibram nonstick soles are the hallmarks of a good pair of boots. Price: $60-200.

gaitersGaiters

If you plan on hiking in mud or snow, these waterproof flaps attach to the top of your boots, wrap around your ankles, and keep things out of your boots like mud, water, and especially snow. Price: $20-30 and up.

Moccasins, sandals, or old sneakers

For wearing in camp once your feet are tired.

Rain jacket

A decent breathable rain jacket costs $80 for a simple shell up to $150 or more. Here is where it makes sense to invest in a decent jacket with GoreTex or equivalent from a reputable brand like Marmot, REI, North Face, or similar. Jackets can be re-waterproofed with a product like this. You can get away with a plastic poncho or rain jacket, though you may end up sweaty or with a poncho torn to shreds on tree branches, be warned.

Cold-Weather Gear

You can go camping well into winter, as long as you make sure to layer

Jacket

Wool or synthetic jackets can be heavy or bulky, while down is light and compressible, though deflates and becomes useless in rain. Down jackets are thus best in winter snow, not autumn rains. Layers of wool or synthetic are good in the rain, but should be layered with a sweater and t-shirt below and a rain jacket on top.

Sweater

Steal an old wool sweater from your grandpa. This is a good layer to keep under a jacket if it gets chilly.

Long underwear (bottoms)

It’s worth it to buy a specialized synthetic pair if you feel you’ll need them under your pants. Price: $20-30

Gloves

I just use old ski gloves or whatever is on hand. The flip-open fingers style gloves can be useful once you’re in camp because you can hold things and not feel like an astronaut trying to eat dinner in outer space.

Knit hat, any will do, as long as it covers your ears.

Thick wool socks, as discussed above.

Scarf or neck gaiter

You may want to cover your face or neck if the wind gets bad, but you can still camp in winter with the right preparation. If you’re in a tough spot, you can use a t-shirt as a scarf to stop wind and cold from getting inside your jacket.

Personal Items

These items should be self-explanatory.

Travel toothbrush
Toothpaste
Biodegradable soap
Sunscreen
Insect repellent
Toilet paper
Bandana
Plastic bags
Trash bags
First aid kit

Other

Optional.

Notebook
Playing cards
Camera
Book

Thanks for reading. Next up:

Part IV: Cooking and Water

Preparing for a Weekend Camping Trip: Camp Lodging and Travel Needs (Part II)

Camp Lodging and Travel Needs

This next installment in the camping gear guide is all about where you’ll be sleeping and how you’ll be getting there. That is, lodging, navigation, and campsite essentials. If you’re curious where to buy this stuff, read the first installment here, otherwise, continue onwards:

The roof over your head

First off, you’ll want to choose a decent tent. You can get by with anything from an ancient pup tent to a Kmart dome tent, though your new home may not last too long in bad weather. However, if you’re convinced you’ll have perfect weather or have the back seat of the car as a backup option, go the cheap route and scrounge an old tent from someone’s basement. Mildew remover, in that case, will be invaluable, trust me.

As far as tents go, style-wise, you have roughly two choices:

Scout or pup-tent-style A-frame

scouttent timberline SQ 4XT

These tents tend to be sturdy and easy to set up, though often a bit heavier. The Eureka Timberline is the classic example of this style, though I have read complaints with the construction of their entry-level tent in recent years and would recommend the Timberline SQ XT model (shown above) for greater durability.

dome_tentDome-style

Most backpacking tents are dome tents, as they tend to be lighter and thus more packable. Dome tents are named because of their domed shape and tend to have flexible fiberglass or aluminum poles that create a free-standing sleeping compartment. Many cheaper tents you’ll find at garage sales and in the attic will be dome tents. Just make sure you can manage the weight between two people and if the rain fly covering the top vent is very small, bring a medium-sized tarp as a backup.

Tent prices and considerations

REI has quality entry-level tents for under $150, while we got our Marmot one for under $100 on sale. Coleman is another known brand with good value in the $40-60 range, though their gear tends to be a bit heavier and lower quality.

Cheap tents will either be really heavy or may break mid-trip, so brand name is key, especially if you’ll be far from civilization. A good 2-person tent will be 3.5-6 lbs with shock-corded aluminum poles, though 8 lbs or more can be split between 2 people with one person carrying the poles and the other the body. Price: at least $70-80 on closeout or $150-200+ full-price.

backpacking_hammock
Source: andrewskurka.com

Other tent-like options

If you’re looking to shed serious weight, leave the tent at home and opt for an enclosed hammock. I haven’t tried one of these, but since they don’t have poles, they fit into the palm of your hand when packed. Of course, if you’re camping in an area without trees, a hammock wouldn’t be too useful, though that isn’t a problem here in the Northeast.

Harriman State Park has lean-tos, so if you’re feeling lucky you could jettison the tent and sleep in the three-walled shelters or out under the stars. Some people use bivvy sacks, which are little less than tarps and are discussed below. I tend to get bitten by mosquitos or wake up covered in a layer of dew on such occasions, so I’d prefer a simple dome tent.

Tent footprint

Unless you like the possibility of a heavy rain or sharp stick passing through the bottom of your tent, you’ll want to bring either a tarp, heavy plastic, or Tyvek to cover the ground under the tent and protect your investment. Price: under $10 at any hardware store or Kmart. This small investment will prolog the life of your tent.

Wrap it up:  Your sleeping bag

The tradeoff with sleeping bags is bulk vs. temperature rating and the choice you’ll have to make is synthetic vs. down. Here’s a link to an external site with an even more detailed rundown, though I wouldn’t take their prices.

sleeping-bags

Synthetic

Stick to a mummy-style bag like the ones above, not a bulky square quilted one. Cold weather synthetic bags can be huge to the point of taking up the entire inside compartment of your backpack, though using a compression sack can help reduce its bulkiness or with an external frame pack you can strap the bag to the outside to save space. The big advantage is price – a decent synthetic bag from a reputable brand such as Marmot, Kelty, or Slumberjack will cost from $60-80, less than half the price of a comparable down bag.

Down

Down bags are incredibly compact, i.e. smaller than a balled-up jacket, and lightweight. They’re like puffy winter coats for your whole body. On the negative side, they lose their loft and become useless if soaked. The cheapest down bags run from $130-200 and up. Serious mountaineers will have a heavy-duty down bag with waterproof cover and newer down bags have specially treated loft, moisture problem solved.

Sleeping pad

A pad keeps you warm, dry, and comfortable by insulating and lifting you off the ground. The foam Thermarest Ridgerests we have – see the internal frame pack image below – cost around $15-30 while fancy self-inflating models can cost well over $100. You can cheap out here and be totally fine.

Second layer

If you tend to feel cold or are worried your sleeping bag won’t stand up to a harsh winter night, you can search out either a sleeping bag liner or bivvy sack – An inner liner of fleece can raise the temperature rating 10-15 degrees and is great for a synthetic bag, while a water and windproof bivvy sack outer cover is great to add a season and some weather protection to your down bag, especially if you can find in waterproof, breathable GoreTex. If you’re adventurous and looking to pack light, you can use a bivvy sack in place of a tent and sleep outdoors. Price: $15-40 for liner, $50-100 or more for bivvy sack.

Carry me home: Your backpack

The backpack carries your gear and distributes the weight onto your back and hips so your shoulders don’t bear the brunt of the load. Packs can easily last for 40 years and remain useful, just be sure that they have a padded waist belt, as the majority of weight should be distributed on your hips, not your shoulders. Heavy-duty nylon and sturdy zippers are two other key considerations if you’re looking to get some serious use from your purchase.

Good brands include Kelty, Jansport, Lowe Alpine, Gregory, REI, and others. Expect to spend $150 and up (new) and as little as $30-50 for a used external frame pack.

There are two styles of pack:

External frame

kelty-front kelty-backkelty-top

External frames are inexpensive, versatile, durable, and plentiful on the used market. In fact, it can be difficult to find much in the way of brand-new external frame packs and there are models from as early as the 1960s that are useable and fully functional today. They tend to consist of a square-ish aluminum pack frame, central compartment for clothing and gear, and empty space below along the frame to attach a stuff sack with sleeping bag using bungee cords or straps. One of their biggest advantages is the ability to hang stuff off the frame, thereby expanding your packing ability.

Internal frame

IMG_0111

Internal frames are sleek, new, and ergonomic. They carry their metal back support inside the main compartment of the pack, hence the name. Since they more closely follow the shape of your body, they can be useful when doing more strenuous or adventurous activities where you need to stay agile. They are also very useful in place of a suitcase on a bus or airplane, since they are self-contained and zip up like a suitcase or buckle shut.

We have two Kelty internal frame packs from 1995-2000 and both are going strong. We recently had to replace the buckle on the hip belt on the older pack, but it was a simple $4 replacement part at REI.

Backpack cover

If you get caught in a downpour, it’s great to have a cover for your pack. These are just modified tarp-like squares of waterproof fabric with either a drawstring or elastic around the edge to close around your pack. Price: $12-30.

Knife or multi-tool

A knife is the ultimate camping tool, whether prepping a bandage, preparing dinner, or cutting rope. Generally, the blade shouldn’t be wider than the palm of your hand – around 4 inches – and should lock into place when open, for safety. A blade that folds closed protects you and stops you from poking holes in your pack. As long as your knife is sharp enough, fits in your pack, and has safety features, it should be enough. Price: an inexpensive Swiss army knife will cost under $20.

Headlamp or flashlight

New LED light last for days and are inexpensive. This is the biggest jump in technology since I was a Scout, so make sure you’re not relying on an old incandescent flashlight. Headlamps are especially useful if you plan to set up camp in the dark. A simple LED flashlight can be found for under $10, while headlamps cost from $15-20 and up.

IMG_4427Map

Why would you go camping without a map of the area, unless you enjoy getting lost? A good map has clearly marked trails and physical features like mountain peaks, rivers, and elevation. I buy the map and then make photocopies for everyone in the group, highlight the route with a highlighter, and place the map inside a ziplock bag for protection against water, that way your original map stays clean and crisp.

The New York / New Jersey Trail Conference sells waterproof topographical maps of NYC-area trails on their website and through REI, EMS, and Amazon. Price: $8-16, depending on the map.

Extra cash

This should be self-explanatory. There are no ATMs in the woods.

Parachute cord or rope

When camping you should hang a bear bag, which is a stuff sack full of your food and smelly items to hide from animals. How to hang a bear bag: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_WA-ZWv4cA

You’ll need load-bearing cord or rope, around 50-100 feet, for hanging the bag out of reach over a tree limb. We bought ours on Amazon though all outdoors stores and most hardware stores will have it. Price: around $10 for 100 feet.

Compass

IMG_4421

You’ll want a compass with a rotating bezel. This is so you can orient your map and point yourself in the right direction. Good brands include Suunto, Silva, Brunton. Price: $10-20 for a starter compass. Since I couldn’t find any simple tutorial videos, I’ll get into using a compass and map in a subsequnt post.

That’s it for now. If you’re ready to head out with no clothes, you’re set, otherwise, read on:

Part III: Clothing, Cold-Weather Gear, and Personal Items

Part IV: Water and Cooking

Preparing for a Camping Trip: Where to Buy Gear (Part I)

This guide will get into the where and what of getting your gear, I’ll get into more detail on how to choose the big-ticket items (boots, backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and stove) and head out on the trail in the next few posts.

The solitude and fresh air of the great outdoors are much better when you’re prepared. So, in advance of the write-up of our first outing to Harriman State Park, I’m pulling together the collected knowledge of my formative years as a Boy Scout and presenting it here.

Camping is fun, inexpensive, and way easier to prepare for than the typical National Geographic article or outdoors magazine would have you believe. In the case of Harriman, the trailhead is within reach of public transit, so you don’t even need a car! However, a minimum of preparation is needed – like the Scouts say, Be Prepared – so feel free to follow this collected advice:

Where to Buy Gear

Most of my gear dates back to those Boy Scout years, as camping equipment tends to last a generation or more with infrequent use and proper care. Mainly just don’t put anything away wet. Since we’re married there are two of us now, so we had to update our repertoire with doubles of many items. Your biggest purchases will probably be boots, backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and backpacking stove, the tips below will help you shop around.

If you’re looking to browse in person in NYC or buy either really big and heavy or really small things, REI on Lafayette Street in SoHo has the best selection in the city. I’ve done extensive research, and while their prices seem high, they’re generally the cheapest published prices you’ll find on the items in question. If you join as a member, you receive a 10% rebate each year and are sent periodic 20% off coupons, which can really help with the price of a big-ticket item. Additionally, they offer a no-questions-asked one-year guarantee (similar to L.L. Bean’s Lifetime Guarantee, only shorter) on any purchases, so you know they only sell quality.

Eastern Mountain Sports has a similar yet smaller selection than REI and also has a store in SoHo. I haven’t been to this particular location, but we own two EMS-brand down jackets that have stood the test of time.

Tip: When buying backpacks and boots in particular, in-person professional advice from a place like REI or EMS can really help you get the best fit. They both also tend to give good advice on outings and carry the local trail maps and guides.

Campmor is in the NYC area, in Paramus, NJ on Rte. 17. They’re famous for their long-running discount catalog mailing and they ship across the county. You’ll find some of the best prices on gear of any website. If you’re on their email list, they constantly have a 20% off one item coupon or some other great sale, plus they give 4 points per dollar at the Amtrak Guest Rewards shopping portal (worth an additional 12% back), which you can later cash in for train travel (more on this travel tip in a later post).

Dick’s Sporting Goods doesn’t have any locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Queens, though there is one in Staten Island, Westchester, and there are dozens around the country. Their online store is well-stocked and they ship quickly and for free (hint, it’s not dicks.com). I bought a two-person Marmot tent here this summer for an unbeatable price and both my current Kelty backpacks were purchased at their Syracuse store 15-20 years ago (and going strong). If you sign up for their email list, they constantly sent out coupons for $20 off a $50 purchase. Their prices tend to be slightly lower than the competition, though the gear is not all high-end like the other retailers listed above.

Sierra Trading Post and Backcountry.com sell the same collection of products as the sites above and may have a better price, based on closeouts or online coupons.

Amazon.com is very useful for assorted items, though stick to comparison shopping on known brands and products, since there is a lot of off-brand junk mixed in with the good stuff, with inflated prices to cover 2-day shipping. We used Amazon to get our Thermarest pad, PolarPure water purification, parachute cord for the bear bag (more on that later) and compass, though could’ve purchased most of these items in-person if we wanted.

Lastly, Craigslist is a good option if you don’t mind lightly worn-in gear. Quality backpacks in particular can be found regularly at a steep discount over buying new (e.g. $30-50 for a $150 external frame pack). We have both our backpacks already, but we did find a lightly used EMS down sleeping bag for $30 (normally $120 or more).

Everything else you can probably get at Kmart or the local hardware or dollar store.

Take a quick look at this camping checklist from REI before I explain how you don’t need most of that stuff in the following posts:

Camp Lodging and Travel Needs (Part II)

Clothing, Cold-Weather Gear, and Personal Items (Part III)

Cooking, Food, and Water Supply (Part IV)

Weekend Getaway to Peekskill, New York

The wife and I are car-free in New York City, so when the subject of a weekend getaway comes up, we either have to get creative or stay close to home. Luckily, with Metro-North, Long Island Railroad, or even a trip to the end of the subway line we can get away both affordably and without getting stuck in traffic. Given our shared love for exploring and my slight transit-nerdiness, this leaves us many places to visit and too little time.

Arriving

For her birthday weekend, we placed a pin on the map where I found a craft brewery next to a commuter rail stop and decided to visit Peekskill, NY, a beautiful little town in north-western Westchester County right on the Hudson River. Knowing nothing about the town other than its location.

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Peekskill is on Metro-North’s Hudson line, only slightly over an hour from Grand Central Terminal. Day-hiking destinations Breakneck Ridge and Garrison are located on the same line, with express departures at 7:48 and 8:48am on Saturdays for the outdoors crowd. Bear Mountain is only a short ride across the river from town and on our list of must-visit camping destinations within easy reach of the city.

Saturday

Our jam-packed Saturday began with a trip to the small farmers market downtown, followed by a good standard pancakes-eggs-bacon at Burger Diner. Nicely, they also offer whole wheat pancakes and turkey bacon if you’re looking to be healthy. I was not and had some great banana-and-blueberry pancakes. Unfortunately we didn’t linger long enough to try Kathleen’s Tea Room, though the decor and grandma’s living room vibe made me want to hang out with a good book.

After meeting our incomparable CouchSurfing hosts, Susan and Glenn we did some grocery shopping before she led us back to  home. We picked up a number of hard-to-find Mexican snacks, sauces, and spices from the local Latin supermarket, which also sells whole chickens – head and all – and other traditional specialties. Another traveling couple, Andre and Natalie from Germany, were staying the night as well, Andre being on a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail and needing to rest his legs and his girlfriend joining him for a few weeks along the way.

The six of us went back to downtown Peekskill to soak up the music from the weekend festival that we lucked out on. The day’s activities centered around the Paramount Theater, an old movie house from the 1930s, now a multi-purpose venue. The biggest surprise was that in this small town there are at least half a dozen live music venues, and we heard R&B, rock covers, jam band, and bluegrass all in the same evening.

Dinner was at Birdsall House (website, Yelp), which has locally sourced food and a craft beer menu to match any I’ve seen, including the latest Hill Farmstead (VT) release, the Mary pilsner. To end the night, we had coffee and listened to the strumming of banjo and mandolin at the Peekskill Coffee House before walking back in a steady, cool rain.

Sunday

Waking refreshed to a leisurely breakfast and an afternoon departure, we couldn’t depart before visiting Hudson Creamery (Yelp) for some homemade ice cream and Peekskill Brewery (website, BeerAdvocate) for a handful of some of the tastiest craft beers we’ve had in the NYC area, paired with a skillet of poutine – fries, cheese curds, gravy, and topped with a burger. The Galaxy-hopped Amazeballs American Pale Ale really stood out.

After lounging along the river, we caught one of the numerous express trains back to Grand Central, and just like that we left small-town suburban Peekskill for the hustle and bustle of the city. We hope to return again soon for a breath of fresh air.