Doing camping right -hacks for roughing it in the woods

As a parent who has not been outdoor camping since I was a Girl Scout decades ago, the experience was all-new to me when I enlisted to accompany 10 boys on a Cub Scout overnight in the Shenandoah National Park this fall. My crash course in roughing it in the woods taught me these hacks that might help other camping rookies on their adventures.

Arrive early

Reserve well in advance for those campsites that allow you to book online or by phone; but for those that operate on a first-come-first-booked basis, arrive early. Those in the know camp out at the gates hours before opening to get the best spots.  If you are with a large number of people, there are often a limited number of group sites, and these are usually most in demand, so get there extra early if your posse wants to pitch tents close together.

First things first

Set up as soon as you land at your campsite.  It might be tempting to explore or relax after your drive to arrive, but it’s easier to assemble a tent while you still have plenty of energy and daylight, and the warmth of sunshine.  If anything is amiss, you have time before nightfall to deal with it.

It’s in the bag

Snoozing under the stars can be an all-nighter of tossing and turning or a cozy crash until morning, depending on your sleeping bag. Invest in a sleeping bag suited for the weather and your sleep preferences.  I got a good night’s sleep in the Slumberjack Sojourn 20° Sleeping Bag (regular length $179), a warm mummy bag that has an “arms out” feature so you can free your arms to manage tasks without getting out of your bag. It also features a specially treated down filling that stays drier and loftier than common down or synthetic fillers, and the bag is constructed with a water resistant insulation technology and waterproof foot and hood panels in case of wet weather. If temperatures rise, you can vent the bag with dual zippers on the sides. The bag is lightweight so it is easy to carry on a hike, and it is rated for temperatures as low as 20 degrees — or you can opt for models designed for 0 degrees or 40 degrees.


If the bag fits

Your sound sleep will not only depend on the comfort of your bag but that of your pint-sized sleeping companions. Kid-sized bags are best for children because little ones stay snug and secure in them. Slumberjack’s Go-N-Grow ($69.95), rated for 1 to 30 degrees, comes in boys and girls colors and features an expandable foot section that lengthens the bag by 10 inches, so they can use it through the years as they grow.  It has a snug hood and a two-layer construction to prevent cold spots and an anti-snag zipper for ease of in and out, and it has a built-in pocket in the hood to keep a pillow in place. Lastly, it weighs under three pounds, so they can carry their own bag just like a grown-up camper.


Freshen Up

Keep your bag fresh and ready for the next night.  Especially if the weather is damp, spread out your bag somewhere sunny to dry completely.  Down bags are light and compressible which makes them ideal for backpacking. The only problem with down is it loses it’s warm in damp or wet conditions. For maximum performance and warmth, choose a bag with a water-resistant down such as DriDown.

After the lugging

After the camping trip, extend the life of your sleeping bag by taking it out of the stuff sack and airing it out and making sure it is completely dry. Then put it in a breathable storage sack, such as a mesh sack. Stuff sacks are great to keep bags compact for backpacking or packing in your car, but constant compression will remove a lot of the loft from your insulation, and loft is what keeps you warm at night.


From the ground up

It’s a no brainer to choose a flat spot and clear the ground of rocks and sticks where you will set up your tent. Always use a ground tarp with your tent. It will help keep the interior of the tent drier and more comfortable while preventing sharp objects on the ground from punching holes in your tent’s floor. Minimalists may use a roll-up foam pad underneath their bag, but for newbies like myself, I recommend an inflatable pad or air mattress. If you are hiking in from a distance, a compact self-inflating pad will be easiest to tote.  If you park close by and won’t have to haul your gear too far, then an air mattress is the way to go. Make sure you have an air pump that you can plug into your car.  Airhead makes one affectionately called the “Air Pig” which attaches directly to your car batter, while the car is running, to blow up inflatables in minutes.

Pitch a fit

Arguably the most important gear of your camping trip will be your tent, so choose a size and model built to suit. Resist the urge to go big for the sake of it. Large tents may be impressive, but they will take more space and longer to set up, not to mention they are heavier to haul to the site. If there will be only two or three occupants, a two-person or three-person tent will be just right. The SJK Daybreak 3 Tent ($119) was the perfect and affordable tent for us. The simple pole configuration made for easy set up and allowed plenty of living space. It features a single, large mesh door for easy access to the outdoors, and the steep walls meant we didn’t have to sit hunched over inside. A full coverage fly keeps occupants and their gear dry and can be configured into a shaded porch area with trekking poles.  If you’re camping where it’s dry and there is no rain in the forecast, you can leave the fly off for better ventilation and star gazing.  See video here:

After camping in rainy conditions, dry your tent out completely before storing it for any extended period of time. This will keep mold and mildew from forming which can create unpleasant smells and shorten the lifespan of your tent.

Prevent uninvited guests

Campers must always take precautions to not attract bears and other wildlife by leaving food unattended, even for a few minutes; and of course, never feed wildlife. Clean up all traces of food before leaving your site or retiring for the night.  This means even syrup spilled on table tops or bits of popcorn by the campfire. Other scented items like chewing gum, toothpaste and even cosmetics are also bear bait, so keep these out of reach of bears, such as in a locked car.  Campsites often provide metal lockers with hidden handles, called bear boxes, or a bear pole with hangers and a pulley system so you can suspend items high above the ground where bears cannot climb.


Breaking bugs

While not as dangerous as bears but also pesky are biting and stinging insects, so bring bug spray and reapply as directed. Beware of bug sprays that contain strong chemicals that can be dangerous. Organic bug repellents can be safer, such as Bugs be Gone (4.5 oz., $11.95), made with herb infused Witch Hazel. For another barrier of protection, wear insect repellent clothing, such as long-sleeve shirts and pants that are triple protection against bugs, sunburn and poison plants.


A mosquito net is a must-have if you are sleeping under the stars; or if you are in a tent, keep your tent zipped up at all times, even when unoccupied, or else you may find spiders and their six-legged friends in your sleeping space. Just in case you do have a run-in with an unfriendly bug, make sure you have a first aid kit handy. Green Goo makes a line of first aid products using all-natural, therapeutic and nourishing ingredients in environmentally friendly tins and sticks for convenient packing and easy application.


Woodland style

The scout motto is, “Always be prepared,” so suit up appropriately for the weather. Invest in camping apparel built for comfort and function and quick-drying fabrics, like Craghoppers outdoor clothing with insect shield, SolarShied UPF protection. Dress in layers that you can easily peel off. Look for features like pants that convert to shorts, pockets with a built-in sunglasses wipe, and ventilation panels.  Craghopper’s Nat Geo Response CompressLite jacket ($95) is the perfect outerwear for fickle fall weather. The jacket’s insulating hollow-fiber fill materials and outer ticking with ClimPlus technology make it warm yet breathable, and when not in use it is super light and compressible so that you can carry it in its handy stuff sack. It also features a grown-on hood, zippered pockets for all your goodies.

Treat yourself

The easiest and most convenient meals to prepare cooking outdoors are hotdogs, burgers, and beans, and of course s’mores are mandatory; but for a special treat that’s easy to prepare bring along a Dutch oven to whip up some yummy peach cobbler.  Dump six cans of peaches in the bowl with the syrup drained from three of the cans.  Layer on a box of yellow cake mix, then layer on pats of butter.  Place the Dutch oven in the embers for about 40 minutes, or less if the pot is already hot.  The results will be a steaming crumbly fruity mixture that can be served in a bowl for a tasty and satisfying treat around the campfire.


My GILT-Y indulgence of food delivery


In the old days, you used to have to have to have an “in” with your local butcher to get deals on the best cuts of beef or the tastiest pork ribs, or you had to go to a seafood purveyor to get the best prices on hard-shell crabs and lobsters, but thanks to GILT City these foods are available at your fingertips and at discount prices that will make your mouth water.

GILT City is a collection of deals for services, events and experiences available in cities across the country. GILT negotiates exclusive offers that their members can access each week. The deals are usually for a limited time, and inventory is limited, so savvy GILT users check the website and the weekly GILT email newsletter for the latest deals to get the best selection as soon as the sales go live.


While many of the services are specific to a city, GILT also has national offers, such as many food delivery deals. I was able to feast for a month with three offers for premium food products which cost me a fraction of the regular price.

From Pig of the Month, GILT offers deals on all-natural ribs, pulled pork, brisket and other gourmet meats delivered to the customer’s door. Deals include the Best of BBQ package for only $65 which includes two racks of Memphis-style baby back ribs, one pound of pulled pork, one pound of pulled chicken, and one bottle of Love Me Tender Memphis barbecue sauce. Other GILT offers include a larger portion of the meats in package called the Big Barbecue Fiesta for $165, or members can get a 50% credit on purchases of $100 and $60. The meats are free of hormones and antibiotics and nitrates, and you can also load up on sauces like cattle King Texas Brisket and Key West Citrus Grilling to slather on to meats at home.

Through GILT’s exclusive offer for Butcher Box, for $89 I got a monthly subscription, which is normally $129. GILT also offers a Steak and Chops Box for $129 or a Beef and Pork Box for $99. I chose their fabulous tasting 100% grass-fed hormone-free and antibiotic-free beef.  Other options included organic chicken and heritage breed pork. Each box comes with 7 to 10 pounds of meat, which is enough for at least 20 individual meals at a 5- to 8-ounce portion size and averages less than $6.50 per meal. After you place an order, it’s delivered free in 2 to 5 days.

For those not lucky enough to live close to Maryland and have access to the state’s famed blue crabs, GILT CITY offers a number of deals for crabs, as well as lobster, through Harbour House Crabs, a family owned seafood company. For instance, they offer 30 Maryland blue crabs for $109, which is a half bushel. The crabs are delivered straight to your door seasoned, steamed to order and shipped the same day for freshness. Also through GILT they also offer Surf and Turf or two for $59 and Dinner for Two for $79, and my favorite, eight Maine lobster tails for $79.

The cost savings on these deals is one major part of the appeal, but for me, the convenience of having these foods delivered to my door is a huge draw. Not only are the products superior from what I could get at the local market, I save time by ordering online and getting them shipped direct.

Now if GILT could only make a deal with our local farmers markets for produce for my side dishes, then I would never have to leave home again.

Six Santa Monica restaurants to dine for

What's for Dinner LA?

peri-viewThe beach city of Santa Monica is known for its iconic pier and beaches, but it is also renowned as home to many of the finest and trendiest restaurants around Los Angeles.  Here are some of the favorites for locals and visitors alike, to suit every taste.

Welcome to Italy on the Westside

Locanda del Lago on the 3rd Street Promenade does Italian right, with extraordinary service with a welcoming family vibe.  The rustic Italian menu and ambience is inspired by the cuisine and culture of Bellagio, an idyllic village in northern Italy known as “the pearl of Lake Como,” where owner West Hooker-Poletti was raised.

The authenticity of the dishes can be attributed to the imaginings of Executive Chef Daniele Turchette, a native of Porpetto, Italy, who began honing his passion for fine food when he helped to cultivate wild mushrooms with his grandmother as a boy.  Later he…

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Skiing in a family way at Lake Tahoe’s Northstar Resort

For anyone who loves snow sports but dreads hauling equipment to the slopes, Northstar Resort on Lake Tahoe’s California side has thankfully perfected the concept of the ski-in-ski-out resort.

Beginners Luck

The Village at Northstar has just about everything a family needs on a ski vacation, from shops like North Face and Burton to family friendly restaurants like Rubicon Pizza Company, and of course Starbucks. Kids can enjoy complimentary s’mores every afternoon around 3:30 at the resort’s many fire pits around the Village, and play on a huge mound of snow in the middle of the Village, located near Ambassador Toys, seller of snowball makers and launchers. Crafty kids can make ceramic souvenirs at the Village Pottery shop, or they can fill a bag of candy at the Euro Sweet shop.


Snowboard learners at Northstar can attend the world’s only Burton Academy, branded by the famed snowboard and apparel line and featuring a Burton-certified faculty. The resort also has an XS terrain park, designed for learners, and for the more experienced riders, there’s an awesome half pipe. The Adventure, Guiding and Learning Center boasts about 200 instructors and offers a variety of lessons: private, group, kids, adult, beginner to expert, snowshoe and Nordic, and even 4Her sessions with four women learners and a female coach.

Burton Academy.JPG

Well Equipped

The Northstar demo shop offers a service that delivers ski and snowboard gear to your accommodations where specialists make sure you are correctly fitted. The service then has the equipment waiting at their shop at the base of the mountain, and they will even carry gear out to the edge of the slope for you. For those who rent the old-school route, Northstar provides free shuttles to the lifts from resort rental facilities.


Snow Days

If the kids don’t ski, the resort has other options, such as Minors’ Camp for ages 3 to 6 which will entertain little ones with crafts and activities. At 3 pm the Village offers free ice skating, with skate rentals available. There is also tubing at mid mountain for $35 per hour.


Lounge Around

The Summit Deck and Grill at the top of Mt. Pluto and The Zephyr Lodge at mid mountain sport spectacular views of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The lodges all serve typical self-service lunch including hamburgers and chili, along with some surprises like Asian fusion noodle dishes.

The finest dining in the Village is at Manzanita at the Ritz-Carlton at mid mountain. Besides dinner and lunch, they serve a hearty brunch that includes pancakes, French toast, and stick-to-your-ribs favorites like chipped beef gravy, as well as trays of cured meats.

Stay a While

Hotels, private homes, townhomes and studio condos can be leased online, such as the residences at One Village Place at the Village at Northstar. These luxury condos offer one-, two- and three-bedroom units designed for the vacationing family. Amenities include a gourmet kitchen, washer and dryer, bunk beds for kids, walkout balconies, a gas fireplace in a large living room for lounging après ski.



Winning Tickets

Lift tickets can be purchased and reloaded online to save the hassle of waiting in line at the cashier window. Lift tickets from Northstar can also be used at Northstar’s sister resorts Heavenly and Kirkwood. Online prices are around $102 for a one-day pass for adults and $61 for kids, although there are many group deals and multi-day discounts.

Down and Out

Northstar is a well-oiled machine when it comes to keeping the masses moving with 20 ski lifts. Northstar’s season goes from mid-November to mid-April. Northstar usually has plenty of snow thanks to their snowmaking system, the largest in North Tahoe, covering 70 open trails of the resort’s 97 runs, along with seven terrain parks,. For ski conditions and more information, go to


Hurts so good: Nature’s Jeannie’s throat spray and gargle


As the Nature’s Jeannie is all natural ingredients and intended for kids age 3 and up, I anticipated it being better and safer not only for my son if he got sick buyt myself as well.  The spray  contains nine natural healing ingredients to treat sore, itchy, scratchy, irritated throats. One primary ingredient is apple cider vinegar, which is currently en vouge in the natural health community, touted for health benefits ranging from weight loss to diabetes prevention.

I expected the throat spray to be similar to the other chemical numbing sprays I have used in the past, and so I was got a big surprise when I flushed my tonsils with the Yumberry flavor and immediately felt a sharp stinging sensation. I attempted to follow the instructions which said to let it sit in the throat for 20 seconds, but wimp that I am. I lasted about five seconds…

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Doing Disney right – tips for planning your visit to the Magic Kingdom

Planning a trip to Disneyland or Disneyworld?  Disney resorts are known as the happiest places on earth, but it can turn into the most miserable place on earth if you do not plan your trip properly.  Make the most of your family’s Disney vacation with these tips to de-stress your visit and maximize your time at the resort.

Take Two, or More

It’s not just because Disney wants to sell more tickets that they tell you that you need at least two days at the park. While not every family can afford a week-long Disney vacation, at least two days is needed to experience even a short list of main attractions. If visiting Disneyland, park hopper tickets which allows visitors admission to both California Adventure and Disneyland resort over two days is the best deal. Look for online deals for discounted tickets at local grocery stores.

Disney night 2.JPGIt’s all About the…

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Sleeping Tips for Single Moms


It’s National Awareness Month March 1-6, and one particular group is probably the most aware of the need for more sleep – single moms.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that women in general get less sleep than men, and single moms fare the worst when it comes to getting the minimum of seven hours of sleep, which is deemed important for good health.

The Sleep Experience Team of sleep specialists at Luxi mattress offers these tips to single moms, and their children, to get more and better sleep.

  • Stick to a regular bedtime and a routine for you and the children.  When children know the cues for bedtime, such as bath time, brushing teeth, story time, etc., their mind and body prepares for sleep, as does yours.
  • Avoid watching TV, checking email and texting late at night, and don’t allow screen time for children for at least one hour before bedtime. Research shows bright lights from screens wake up the brain, and a stimulated child does not go to sleep easily, which also keeps parents up too.
  • Don’t eat late at night, and don’t allow children to eat or drink one to two hours before bedtime. A full stomach or bladder can make for an uncomfortable, restless night and disruptive trips to the bathroom.
  • Make sure you have a mattress that is right for you. Your body changes throughout your lifecycle — before, during and after pregnancy, and likewise your mattress should change.  Consider a mattress that can be adjusted, such as Luxi, which unzips and configures to soft, medium or firm as your needs and preferences change.
  • Once the children are asleep, practice some relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercise, meditation, and calming visualization.

For more sleep tips, go to


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