Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How to Keep Warm

Learning how to keep warm is an existential problem we all have to face on our own. It takes many years to figure out what works. Being comfortable depends on listening to your own senses and experimenting with the available materials around you. Learning to be warm in a cold environment is at lot like learning to be happy in an inherently hostile world. You have to understand yourself and the forces around you and learn how to manipulate both to your advantage.

In the beginning, our parents dressed us, but they could never get it quite right. Much of the time we were either too hot or too cold. They might insist, for example, that we wear warm clothing in circumstances where we were very active and generating a lot of heat on our own. As with other skills of self-maintenance, our parents might head us in the right direction, but they can't know exactly what is right for us because they aren't us! They don't have access to all the data we have. To be truly comfortable, you have to take control of your own fate and politely push away the advice of others.

Likewise, marketers think they know what will keep us warm -- expensive jackets, sleeping bags or hokey hand warmers -- but of course they have a profit motive in selling us things we don't need. Keeping warm doesn't necessarily involve a lot of money. It requires wisdom about your own needs, knowledge of your environment and the willingness to plan ahead.

Central heating is the lazy man's way to keep warm. If you live in a heated building (i.e. a "home") and you pump enough of active energy into the air, you can lounge around naked regardless of the temperature outside. This, however, is enormously wasteful, both in money and energy. The bigger the space you are living in, the more air and surface area you have to heat, and most of this energy usually comes from the burning of fossil fuels. In the winter in the north, you could end up spending almost as much on heating fuel as you do on rent or mortgage.

Humans survived in harsh environments for thousands of years without central heating. How did they do it? They protected themselves with small shelters and wrapped lots of insulation around themselves, close to their body. Even in extreme environments like the arctic, their body heat alone was enough to keep them alive.

How does this translate to the modern homeless lifestyle? You may need to find, build or rent a shelter when the climate requires it, but a very small one. The smaller you shelter is, the more easily your own body heat will keep it warm. Then, within the shelter, you wrap yourself in insulation -- warm clothes and sleeping bags instead of fur and leather. You add as many layers as needed until you are toasty. There is no outside temperature you can't comfortably survive by this passive method, with no active heat source apart from your own body.

Your needs for warmth are different during the day than they are at night. In the day, you are more physically active, generating more internal heat, and need only about half the insulation you require at night. The real challenge of keeping warm is doing it overnight, when you will be hibernating for seven hours. Everything has to be set up adequately before you begin or you won't get a good night's sleep.

Keeping warm during the day is relatively straightforward: You dress in layers. When you are cold, you add more layers (like another sweater), and when you get hot, you remove some of them. Your own senses will tell you when to add or remove; you just have to listen to them. It may take some people years to catch on -- You have to dress warm to stay warm! -- but eventually they do.

Keeping warm at night is much more of a challenge because ideally you want to be unconscious the whole time, which means you don't have the opportunity to add or remove layers. You want to have everything in place before you go to sleep, anticipating the conditions you will experience later at night. Since keeping warm while you sleep is a greater challenge than doing it in the daytime, the rest of this article will focus on that.

You don't always need a shelter! If the weather is dry and insect-free (like in the desert), you don't need any shelter even down to temperatures as low as freezing. You can just sleep on a mattress out in the open! Significantly below freezing, you might want a tent for added warmth and protection from wind.

In the rest of the world, thought, water is your main enemy. If snow or rain fall on your bedding, they could destroy its thermal value. Surrounding yourself in layers of insulation only works if it remains dry. Water is a heat sink! Many a miserable Boy Scout has learned the hard way that a wet sleeping bag is little better than no sleeping bag at all!

That's the main purpose of a shelter: to keep you dry! A secondary benefit is cutting the wind, which also sweeps away your heat (although not as much as water does). If you are enclosed in a small shelter like a tent or car, your body heat can start working and warm up the space to something greater than the outside air.

An airtight shelter is better than a porous one, which makes a car a superior choice to a tent. (See How to Sleep in a Car and How to Sleep in a Tent.) The smaller the car the better, because it means less space to heat. (In a big van, your body heat has very little effect on the ambient air.) You do need fresh air to breath, and you may need to crack a window a bit to get enough of it (with a corresponding loss in heat), but it is remarkable how small the crack can be. (Don't worry, your body will tell you when you need more air. A lack of oxygen isn't the same as carbon monoxide poisoning. You'll be gasping for air long before you are at any risk of death.)

BTW: Caves are overrated as shelters. First of all you have to find one at just the place you happen to need it. Secondly, they tend to be very damp and drafty. The most you can expect from a cave is protection from the rain. If you go deep inside a cave, you might find the temperature becoming constant regardless of the weather outside, but what's the point of going to all that trouble when a car or tent can do just as well?

If you can train your body to sleep scrunched up in the back seat of a car, you are in a very good position, heat-wise. The seat itself provides insulation on two sides. Add two or three sleeping bags, and you are ready for any weather, even temperatures far below freezing. (Prepare to scrape ice off the inside of the windshield when you wake up.)

Your first defense against nighttime cold is warm clothing. There is no reason you can't sleep in the same clothes you wear during the day, including whatever jackets and sweaters you have. Don't forget a hat! A major portion of your heat loss is through your head. A knit cap is best, one that you can pull down over your face and that will stay on all night. (I get them at the dollar store.)

Don't overlook the value of long thermal underwear for both daytime and nighttime use. Maybe even two layers of it. Nothing beats this kind of tight insulation close to your skin. (Even when I lived in a "home" in Boston, I wore two layers of thermal underwear all winter and was always toasty.)
Then you need a sleeping bag, which works much better than blankets. Probably the worst situation for keeping warm is the traditional, medieval-inspired, Martha Stewart-approved tucked-in bed (with sheets, blankets, bedspread, etc.). Under the covers, you have a relatively huge, ever-shifting space to heat! Your body heat is leaking out everywhere, and whenever you turn over, you come in contact with a new area of cold sheets. You don't have these problems with a zipped-up sleeping bag, which surrounds you on all sides and holds your heat in.

(Note: Even if you live in a "home", a cheap sleeping bag works much better than traditional bedding on a standard bed. If you use one, then you can probably turn down your thermostat at night and save money. Imagine: No bed to make in the morning, and when the sleeping bag gets rancid, just throw it away and buy another. All you need is a bottom sheet over the mattress.... But this whole idea is offensive to the Martha Stewart homemaking ideal, and I apologize for even mentioning it.)

Cheap sleeping bags work just as well as expensive ones, although you may have to use more of them. I am a fan of the 3-pound sleeping bag at Acme, currently selling for $9.88. On cold nights, I buy two of them, using them one inside the other. At this price, you can afford to throw them away when you change location or they start to stink.

Helpful tip: Use a safety pin to hold the zipper of the sleeping bag in place it doesn't unzip on you over the course of the night.
Some expensive sleeping bags have only two advantages that cheap ones: First, that can be lighter and more compact for the same insulation value. This is a a factor if you have to carry your sleeping bag on your back. Second, they are tapered at the foot of the bag rather than square. Tapered "mummy" bags give you only a small space for your feet to heat, while a cheaper bag with a square bottom has a big cavernous space down there that may lead to cold feet in the middle of the night. If you happen to have a mummy bag, you should use it as your inner sleeping bag with perhaps a cheap one outside that.

The temperature ratings of sleeping bags (e.g. "20°F") are a fantasy of the manufacturer and are pretty much meaningless. You'll have to experiment with a sleeping bag yourself, in your own unique sheltering circumstances, before you know what it can do. In my experience, in temperatures below freezing you are usually going to need two sleeping bags, one inside the other. In temps below 0°F, I might even want a third sleeping bag to throw over me.

With some planning, passive heating alone can get you through almost any weather scenario. I would resort to active heat sources only in special situations. For example, if I arrived in a new city without any bedding and no easy way to get it, I might rent a car, run the heater all night and sleep in the back. It works, often at a fraction of cost of a hotel! (Carbon monoxide isn't an issue, since the heater is forcing air into the car from the front.) In the past, I have used a propane-powered catalytic heater when sleeping in a van, but I don't recommend it, due to both cost and safety issues. Best just to add more bedding.

If I am working on my computer in a car (like I am now, in frigid South Dakota), I might turn on the car occasionally and run the heater. The main reason for this is that my fingers are exposed as I use the keyboard. (I can't very well type with gloves on!) A little bit of active heat once an hour is just what I need to keep going.

So in summary, you keep warm by sheltering yourself from falling water then surrounding yourself by as many layers of tight insulation as you need. Anyone can do it! However, there is another factor to consider: the psychological one. Have you noticed how some people are hyper-sensitive to the cold no matter how warmly they are dressed? It turns out ones attitude has a lot to do with keeping warm. I will discuss this at length in a separate entry.

Oh, and there's one other method for keeping warm as the seasons change: Go someplace warm! It sounds self-evident, but one of the perks of the homeless lifestyle is to be able to go where life is most comfortable for you. You can survive in the frigid north if you need to, but its costly and painful no matter how you slice it. Take a tip from the birds if you can and fly south with the sun!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

How to Sleep in a Tent

If you need to spend the night in an uncomfortable outdoor environment, a tent can often provide just enough shelter to get the job done. Tents protect you from insects and light rain and can help you conserve heat. They won't get you through the harshest weather, but they can help you deal with the moderate trials of Mother Nature.

I prefer not to use a tent if I can get away with it. In the desert, you don't need one unless it is especially cold. There are no mosquitoes in the desert and little chance of rain, so just an air mattress and sleeping bag will usually suffice. You also don't need a tent if you have the back seat of a car to sleep in. It takes some training to sleep in a space that is shorter than you are, but it's still usually easier than setting up a tent. A car is essentially a hard-shell tent that will protect you in even the most extreme conditions.

Most people think they need a tent for privacy--to be able to change clothes, etc.--but this isn't a big issue for me, since I rarely use campgrounds, and I will always camp in hidden locations that aren't visible anyway. The cost of privacy (everywhere in life) is less awareness of your environment. I prefer to sleep without a tent when possible because then I can keep track of what's going on around me. If a twig snaps, I can look up and see what it is. A tent only gives you the illusion of security. Real security lies in knowledge of your surroundings.

To me, the purpose of a tent is strictly to protect me from the physical elements during the 7 hours a night when I am unconscious. It is mainly bugs and the threat of rain that will drive me to use one. I will put the tent up when I want to sleep and take it down as soon as I wake up. Typically, I do both under cover of darkness. Under ideal circumstances, no one should ever have a clue I was there -- apart from some matted grass in the morning.

On rare occasions, I may use an actual authorized campground. These are usually located in state parks. (Also National Parks, of course, but those campgrounds tend to fill up fast.) In the US, the commercial "campgrounds" you see in tourist areas are mainly for RVs. They may allow tenting, but you'll feel strange doing it, surrounded by those massive land yachts . Since even a state campground will set you back $10-20/night, it usually seems easier to camp commando-style in any piece of vacant land that seems appropriate.

See The Supercenter Camping Method for one way to find a campsite when driving cross-country (park your car at a 24-hour Acme™ Supercenter and discreetly set up your tent on the adjoining land). If you are on foot or using public transportation, you can study the aerial photography in Google Earth/Google Maps for potential camping spots on the outskirts of a city's public transportation system. Without a car, your range is limited, but you also don't have to worry about a car giving you away, so you may have more siting options. Keep in mind that fences and no trespassing signs don't show up in aerial photos, so you'll need some active field study before you know for sure that a site is suitable. (I will avoid No Trespassing/No Camping signs if I can, but I will sometimes ignore them if there are no alternatives and the chance of detection is negligible.) It is preferable to be able to survey your campsite before the sun goes down, then come back after dark to set up your tent.

I choose a tent based mainly on price, carry weight and ease of set-up. If you stop at any of the big sporting goods chains, like Sports Authority and Big Five, you can usually find a 1- or 2-man tent on sale for $25-35. (Also check the Sunday newspaper circulars.) In a pinch, Acme™ also has tents, but they tend to be a little pricey--more like $35-45. The one-man tent at the top of this entry was bought for $25 on sale at Sports Authority. It is suitable for most situations, and at that price it is semi-disposable (i.e. I can abandon it if it isn't convenient to take it with me). The most important feature of this tent, however, is that it is very light to carry and fits in my carry-on airline baggage.

I have little use for big cabin tents that sleep four or more people and that usually cost $100+. They are awkward to haul around and difficult to set up, and they are certainly not discreet. You also lose the heat advantage of a smaller tent. In a small space, your own body heat can warm the tent by perhaps 10 degrees F while it has little effect in a large tent. If I were traveling in a large family unit (which I did in an earlier life), I would use several small tents rather than one big one. This has the added advantage of allowing some members of the party to sleep even while others insist on being active.

The ideal camping spot is a field of thick grass. The grass may provide enough padding that you don't need a mattress. Of course, if do you have a mattress you'll want to use it. Air mattresses are the best, but you'll also need a pump of some kind because lungs alone may not be enough. Over time, the body can get used to a variety of sleeping surfaces, but hard ground under your tent probably won't do for most of us. You'll need some kind of padding under you.

In the Northeastern USA, you need to be aware of the risk of Lyme disease, which is caused by deer ticks that may hang out in the same grassy areas you might want to camp in. (I became conscious of this risk while camping on an island in Maine.) Here is a Lyme disease risk map. If I were camping in a Lyme disease area, I might avoid grass in favor of hard ground and a mattress. If I had to walk through grass or underbrush, I would wear long pants and carefully check my clothing for ticks before I got into my tent. (The ticks are large enough to be visible and are blocked by the tent's screening.)

To keep warm while sleeping in a tent, you just keep adding clothing and bedding. As long as you are dry, there is no low temperature that can't be addressed by adding multiple layers of passive insulation. Your first defense is your clothing: As the temperature gets colder, you can put on whatever clothing you have and as many layers of it as possible. Don't forget a hat, since your head can lose a lot of heat at night. (If you don't have a hat, use a T-shirt turned upside down, with your head through the neck opening.) Start with one sleeping bag for moderate temperatures, then add more sleeping bags as the temperature gets colder. I have camped in temperatures at low as 0 degrees F using passive insulation alone, and mountaineers obviously endure even lower temperatures on places like Everest. They have expensive lightweight sleeping bags, but apart from the difficulty of transport, many layers of clothing and several $9 Acme sleeping bags should do just as well.

All bets are off, however, once your bedding starts getting wet. No matter how many layers you have, it's not going to keep you warm. You can be camping in temperatures well below freezing with a layer of snow on your tent and still be comfortable, but if you are wet, then you could be miserable even with temps in the 70s. That's when the water protection of your tent becomes critical.

In occasional light rain, or a mere risk of rain, almost any tent will do. Tenting becomes a science only when the precipitation gets heavy. That's when you have to understand how tents work if you hope to sleep.

The walls of a tent are made of porous fabric, not plastic. A tent protects you from rain only because the water flows down the outside of the fabric to the ground before it has a chance to seep inside. Water is inherently "sticky", and it will follow the path of least resistance to get to the ground. If the fabric is always sloping downward, that the water will follow the slope and has no motivation to come inside your tent. If any of the fabric dips, however, then water will pool on the surface and drip inside.

For example, look at the tent shown at the top of this entry. At the low end of the tent (left side), there is a dip in the fabric just before the small pole. This where water is likely to collect and drip inside.
Dome tents, like the one above, have the advantage of eliminating most of the major dip points in the fabric. This tent is probably going be less vulnerable to the rain than the one at the top of the entry. However, it's still not perfect. This dome tent isn't set up on level ground, which generates pooling places along the seams at the bottom. Wherever a seam turns upward, water is going to pool in the crack and seep into the tent. The floor of most tents is non-porous plastic, so once water leaks in, it forms lakes on the floor and will never leave on its own.

It is possible that a better-designed tent instead of the rock-bottom cheapest will do better for you in the rain. It depends on the tent, and you can't be sure until you actually use it. You can also benefit from careful siting of your tent on flat, well drained ground. However, it's a sad fact that no tent is going to protect you for long in torrential or perpetual rain (like I experienced in San Diego). In times like that, you may have no choice but to move inside--to a motel, rental car or nice cave if you can find one.

In dreary places like England or New England, with soggy weather day after day, the wet is going to accumulate in your tent and bedding and never leave. At some point, you'll need an opportunity to dry out. That doesn't mean you can't camp in these soggy places, but you need a backup plan for when the sog gets to be too much.

Likewise, in tropical paradises like Hawaii or the Caribbean, the tourist brochures don't tell you about the Biblical rains or the fact that the windward side of an island gets rain almost every single day. The attraction of paradise may be diminished if you are wet all the time.

As usual, you should move to the dry whenever you have the option. If you can't do that, then you have to study how water works and develop as many backup plans as you can. Tenting may be a painless lodging option 80% of the time. It's the other 20% that you have to prepare for.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Case Study: Campsite Selection in Reno

This past May, I had a social event to attend in Reno. As usual, I could fly there for free, but I couldn't afford lodging. And even if I had the money, formal lodging wouldn't make a lot of sense, since I planned to sleep for only 4-5 hours before flying out in the morning. To maximize my sleep time, a free location I could walk to from the airport would beat a downtown hotel room at any price. The weather forecast was good, with no chance of rain, so all I really needed was a place to lay out my sleeping bag without fear of human contact.

The trouble with Reno is that it's desert. There are no mosquitoes, but there's also not much foliage to hide in. Large plants don't grow without irrigation. The area around the airport is densely occupied, without much vacant land. Where was I going to camp?

(The Reno airport is a small one where the secure areas close at night, so I wasn't comfortable sleeping at the airport.)

I turned to Google Earth to find some potential sites (actually, Google Maps, since I find it easier to use). I focused on the location above, just a short walk from the airport terminal. (Here is the Google Maps link.) It appeared to be landscaping in the unused median between roadways. If you compare this land to the size of the cars in the parking lot, you see that it's quite spacious. The surrounding neighborhood is industrial (no houses), so there's no reason for anyone to be passing through at night.

When I got there during the day, I found it was perfect! It was just as envisioned, with no telltale signs of other homeless people (i.e. no trash). I hid my sleeping bag in the bushes and then came back after midnight to set up camp (at the "X" in the photo). The greenery you see in the aerial photo was indeed irrigated trees and large bushes, and the only people I would expect to come here were grounds-keeping staff maintaining the irrigation. They would be visiting only during the day, so I felt secure there at night.

Landscaping can be a wonderful place to spend the night -- as long as you break camp before dawn. There's one concern, though: The sprinklers usually come on at night! I you choose a nice green lawn, you might find yourself irrigated sometime in the early morning hours. However, trees and bushes are usually irrigated by drip systems, and if you find the drip heads, you can avoid getting wet.

The only camping supplies I had were a tarp (for as a groundcover) and a mummy sleeping bag. I would have brought an air mattress had I wanted a sound night's sleep, but I only expected a few hours of "adequate" sleep before flying out in the morning. I had previously consulted the weather forecast and found that the nighttime temp would be in the 40s. In the absence of rain or high winds, this is fine sleeping weather! If you sleep in your clothes and a jacket, a mummy bag is adequate. (If the temp goes below freezing, you'd probably need two sleeping bags, and you'd want a tent if there was rain or snow in the forecast.)

It went without a hitch! I encountered no humans, got a few hours of adequate sleep (enough to maintain my sanity), then broke camp before dawn. No one knew I was there, which is the ideal circumstance. Yes, I was probably sleeping in a place I shouldn't (probably on airport land), but are police or airport security going to comb the bushes every night?

Compare my luxurious digs to the way the locals sleep in downtown Reno (taken on the same night)....
This campsite selection can only be regarded as stupid. Out in the open like that, you're a target for thieves and thugs. The thing that separates me from these people isn't money but brains. The worst place to be if you're homeless is Downtown Anywhere. Homeless life is always better in the suburbs or the edges of town, and the rent isn't any higher. Why, then, do the visible homeless always seem to gravitate downtown?

On possible theory: drugs. If you need access to booze or whatever your preferred drug may be, maybe downtown is the best place to find it. But drugs don't explain the phenomenon completely. I think homeless people, like humans everywhere, have a need for community and territory. They are attached to other people in their neighborhood -- and to their neighborhood itself -- and they're afraid of being alone or detaching themselves from familiar surroundings. How else do you explain homeless people remaining in a harsh environment like Manhattan or downtown Chicago?

If you're a homeless person with any capacity for logic, you're obviously going to migrate to where the weather and living conditions are best. The fact that someone hangs out downtown is a pretty good sign that their higher cognitive functions have broken down -- from drugs or mental illness -- and they have gone back to their animal instincts of sticking to the surroundings they know.

Since I'm suffering from neither drugs nor mental illness (to the best of my knowledge), I'm going to use all the resources at my disposal to find a safe and comfortable camping spot away from human contact. If others prefer to be miserable, that's their choice.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Walmart Supercenter Camping Method

If you are driving across the country intending to tent along the side of the road, it's pretty easy to find gypsy camping spots in the Western states, at least away from the coastline and the main tourist drags. In states with lots of public land, like Nevada and Arizona, you can legally camp in almost any patch of empty desert. Finding a campsite can be a little more challenging in Western states dominated by private land, like Texas, but you can almost always find a workable solution somewhere.

Once you go east of the Mississippi, though, finding a discreet tenting site becomes much more difficult. It's not that there isn't enough campable land. The Eastern states are rich with woods and fields where a tent could easily be hidden. In even the most densely populated state, you pass endless forests along the highway; the only problem is getting to them. Your Achilles Heal is the vehicle you're driving. While it's easy to find secret tenting spots, it's not easy hiding your car. When your vehicle is parked on a remote road near some woods, it instantly attracts attention, be it from police, neighbors or the criminal element.

Of course, you could try finding a legitimate campground, but they cost money and are rarely available when you need them. Commercial campgrounds may be plentiful in tourist areas, but if you don't arrive in a massive RV, you'll pretty much be laughed off the property. This is America, where "camping" has evolved into a grotesque parody of roughing it, where people carry their whole house with them. State parks are usually the only places in the East to find "real" campsites--without full utility hookups--but locating one takes a lot of planning. A park campsite is probably going to set you back $15-20/night, with rarely even a hot shower to show for it.

If you're driving at sunset and you suddenly decide it's time to sleep (and for some reason you can't sleep in your vehicle), where are you going to go? Where can you easily pitch a tent in the dark without being noticed while also safely parking your car nearby? Personally, I struggled with this problem for years, until I turned to the same organization than solves so many other problems for me: the Acme Corporation!

Picture in your mind the average Acme Supercenter. (One is shown in the photo above.) Where are they located? Typically, these massive structures are found on the outskirts of town, on virgin land near the freeway. Usually their site has been etched out of the woods, and there is often large swathes of unoccupied land adjoining it. Viola, there's your tenting spot!

Most Supercenters are open 24 hours. The parking lot is usually patrolled by security and--at least in most rural areas--overnight parking is explicitly permitted. You know when it is allowed, because in one corner of the lot, a cluster of RVs is usually spending the night. If you are sleeping in your vehicle, an Acme parking lot is often a safe and convenient place to do it, but if you're tenting, this might also be the place to quietly pull it off.

Your first step is to case the area. You walk or drive the perimeter of the parking lot looking for woods, fields or bushes where you can hide a tent at night. Security would no doubt object to tenting if they knew, so your aim is pitch your tent where no one will detect your presence. Remember that many sites that seem exposed during the day are secure and invisible at night. (That's the magic of darkness!) You want to find a place where you can both comfortably camp and enter the campsite unnoticed. Often, this is in the back of the store. For example, the big overgrown field shown below (behind a Supercenter in Virginia) would make a perfect campsite at night, even if it is vulnerable at during the day...
You would avoid being exposed by daylight by setting your alarm to just before dawn and breaking camp before anyone knows you're there.

Once you have found the right spot along the periphery of the Acme parking lot, you can discreetly offload your camping gear from your car into the bushes. ("Camping gear" only needs to consist of a tent, sleeping bag and maybe a mattress, since your only goal is to sleep for seven hours then skedaddle. I find that I don't need a mattress if I am sleeping on grass.) Then you drive your car to a central part of the Acme lot where it will be safe for the night. You return to your campsite on foot, retrieve your camping gear from the bushes, then disappear into the darkness. If you do it gracefully, no one knows you are there, and your car won't give you away.

You can try similar techniques in non-Acme parking lots, but the Acme Supercenter offers a unique confluence of benefits: (1) Conveniently located on the outskirts nearly every major community. (2) Overnight parking is usually permitted. (3) The parking lot is usually patrolled by security, which protects your car from thieves or vandals. (4) Frequently surrounded by woods, fields or dense landscaping where a tent can be hidden. (5) Has clean restrooms open 24 hours. (6) Always Low Prices on whatever food or goods you happen need, including camping gear.

You may not even need a vehicle to use the Acme campground. On one occasion, I found myself in South Florida with little more than the clothes on my back. I hadn't planned to spend the night, but transportation glitches forced me to. As often is the case, an Acme in Florida City happened to be the transfer port for the local bus system. When I arrived there by chance, I checked out the parking lot on foot and noticed a big mowed field on one side. The field would have been totally exposed during the day, but it worked fine under cover of darkness. I went into the Acme, bought myself a $9 sleeping bags, put it down in the field, and slept comfortably. (I might have also bought a tent or tarp, but Acme's are a little pricey.)

In the humid East, you usually need a tent. In the summer you need it to protect you from insects and rain. In the winter, you need the wind protection and extra warmth. I was lucky in Florida City because I encountered no mosquitoes, but apart from the desert I would use a tent if I had one. One advantage of the Supercenter, though, is that you can afford to take chances. You can try sleeping without a tent and see how it goes. If you find you need more equipment, like a tent, tarp or insert repellent, you just go into the store and buy it. Even if you spend $30 to make yourself comfortable, that's still less than the cost of a motel.

There are no end to the uses you can find for your Acme Supercenter! When faced with any travel problem at all, that's the first place to go!

Also see: Walmart Motel for $20/Night

Style Note: "Evil Mega Mart" is now "Acme Corporation"

In earlier posts on this blog, I have referred to the "Evil Mega Mart™" (or EMM™), a certain giant megalithic corporation from which most goods for the blissful homeless life are obtained (at least in North America). I realize now that the label may be inappropriate. It isn't necessarily "Evil". It just is.

Henceforth on this blog, this megalithic retail organization shall be known as the "Acme Corporation"--in homage to the outfit that supplied Wile E. Coyote with roadrunner-catching equipment. True, the equipment always failed, but Acme was unmatched on fast delivery, often arriving within seconds of the Coyote placing his order. Acme can't really be blamed if its products are used for nefarious purposes; that's the customer's choice. Likewise, it may not be fair to blame a single American corporation for all of society's ills. Acme/EMM simply gives the customer what he wants, and if his motives are impure, then the customer himself must bear the burden for the results.

Without a doubt, our Acme is an enormous boon to the traveler. Its standardized installations in every significant city and town mean that you never have to search for basic goods like sleeping bags, shoes or fresh underwear. At Acme, you know you'll find what you need at reasonable prices. The quality may not be superior, but it's consistently adequate from place to place, which is all you really need for survival.

There are lots of bad things you say about the social affects of Acme -- how it has cannibalized small businesses and downtowns across America, replaced high paying jobs with subsistence ones and encouraged sweatshop labor overseas -- be we all shop there anyway, and it isn't clear that you're helping the world by not doing so. Acme is simply an unavoidable public institution, like the U.S. Government or Christianity. You either learn to live with it or you don't.

I visit Acme without guilt. When I'm driving, I may stop there as many as three times a day, for the restrooms if nothing else. Most Acme Supercenters ("Supercentres" in Canada) are open 24 hours a day, so you can drop by anytime. Acme parking lots in rural areas explicitly allow overnight parking, even by mammoth RVs. You don't have to buy anything to take advantage of these services, so why not use them?

Apart from food, there are about a dozen standard supplies I buy at Acme, including $9 sleeping bags, $2.50 pillows, $12 shoes, $5 shirts and $10 jeans. (Just about the only item I don't buy there is tents, which I can usually get cheaper at a chain sports store.) I don't feel that Acme is making a huge profit off me, but I'm getting a fantastic deal from them. At those prices, I can afford to throw away my bulkier supplies when I need to, then reconstruct my inventory at my next landing spot.

Attached to every piece of merchandise is some pain. Acme can sell at such low prices because some sweatshop worker in China is earning only pennies a day making it. Just because I don't see the exploitation myself doesn't mean it isn't happening. But if I don't buy the cheap product, am I really helping those exploited workers or simply putting them out of work? It's a genuine conundrum, and I deal with it in my own mind but not buying frivolously. If I buy something, it is because I truly need it and will use it well, not because it serves my vanity. I don't know if I am helping or hurting world society, but at least I am treading lightly through it.

In the Road Runner cartoons, the Coyote always gets what's coming to him. Acme sells him devices that always backfire, but he never learns from his experiences. I, too, have purchased Acme products that have fallen apart on first use, but I think I have learned a thing or two. Usually they were products that I didn't truly need anyway. Once my motives became more pure, my bad experiences at Acme dissipated.

Once I stopped trying to kill Road Runners, Acme and I have learned to get along.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Truck Stop Showers

When you are traveling cross-country in good weather, you can usually find places to camp or sleep in your vehicle. The main drawback to this kind of accommodation is the lack of shower facilities. Where do you find a shower without paying the full price of a hotel room. Truck stops!

Most long-haul truckers sleep in their vehicles. That's the function of the big box behind the cab: It's camper! There is rarely a shower in there however, so truckers check in at their friendly truck stop for a showers. Showers at truck stops are sometimes free for truckers who fuel up at that location, but ordinary motorists can usually use the showers, too, for a fee. The cost ranges from $5 to $15 (which is at least better than getting a motel room at $40+).

A typical shower is just a private restroom with a shower stall. Towels and soap are usually provided, and you can usually take as long as you want inside.

A lot of rural interstate truck stops have them -- nearly any place with a lot of trucks in it's parking lot. The showers may not be advertised, but if there is a trucker's lounge, there is a good chance there are showers.

The major truck stop chains specify on their websites whether showers are available at each location. Try Pilot Travel Centers, Flying J, Petro Truck Stops and TA Travel Centers.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Roadside Camping in Arizona and Texas

No camping experience in the Southwest is complete until you are surrounded by Border Patrol agents, guns at the ready. It happened to me a few nights ago. I was driving across Texas on Interstate 10 (which bisects Texas horizontally). I was driving someone else's car, and it was packed with stuff. I can't afford motels every night, and I prefer not to sleep sitting up in the driver's seat, so camping is the way to go. In the open desert where there's no threat of rain or insects, I just blow up a $12 air mattress, throw a $9 sleeping back on top of it, and I'm good to go! The photo above shows my set-up near Tombstone, Arizona, where I got a perfect night's sleep. (Also see my photos of Tombstone.) How do I find a place to camp? In Nevada and Arizona, that's no problem. These states consist largely of public land, where there are few restrictions on camping. Just grab a patch of desert and it's yours! In Texas, I figured I'd do the same thing. West Texas is even more desolate than Nevada, so there ought to be plenty of land to go around. However, there were two things in Texas I wasn't counting on. First, nearly all land in Texas is private, even the most desolate parts. It's heavily fenced in with "No Trespassing" signs on nearly every gate. Secondly, the Mexican border seems to cast more of a shadow in Texas than it does anywhere else, precisely because the land is so desolate. Because there is hardly any civilization between the border and I-10, I-10 effectively becomes the border, and it is heavily patrolled by the U.S. Border Patrol. I found this out the hard way when I chose a camping spot near Van Horn, Texas, in the middle of nowhere but about 100 miles from the border. I was on a local highway about 10 miles south of Van Horn and I-10, and the sun had just gone down, so I thought I should choose a campsite while I still had some light. My intention was to sleep in the open like I did in Tombstone the night before. I found what looked like a disused dirt road off the main highway. There was a gate, but it wasn't locked and had no "No Trespassing" sign on it, so I opened it and drove inside. (In Nevada, gates are common on public land and are only intended to keep cattle inside, and I claimed the same analogy here.) It was nearly dark and there were no house lights in view, so I assumed this gate was merely an access point to range land and no one would notice me for the night. I found a flat area near the gate and out of sight of the highway, and I set up my mattress and sleeping bag there. Then I sat in the car and worked on my computer for while. About an hour later, when it was pitch black, I heard the gate open a few hundred yards away. Then I saw a line of flashlights heading my way. "Who are you?" I asked. "Border Patrol," they said. There were about five Border Patrol officers and the county sheriff himself. They were courteous and never drew their weapons, but I got the third degree. Who was I? What was I doing out here in this remote location? I was told that this was private land. I was trespassing and would have to move along. They said there was no problem with my spending the night in any of the official state rest areas along the highway (although I didn't ask I could set up my air mattress). The landowner had called me in. Apparently, he had used the same gate shortly after I did, saw my car and called the sheriff. The sheriff then called the Border Patrol for backup. Anywhere else, the matter would have been handled by the landowner himself speaking to me, but apparently in this border region everyone is on edge. "Don't you feel afraid out here?" asked the sheriff. "Why should I?" I replied. I pointed out we were 100 miles from the border. The sheriff said there were narco-traffickers and illegal immigrants who wouldn't hesitate to kill me if they came across me. I brushed it off at the time, but after I left the area and started driving again, I began to think about it. Yes, this could be a risk anywhere in West Texas. If the Border Patrol is heavily patrolling the main corridors, the illegals are going to be choosing obscure and indirect routes, and if I happened to be parked on one of them, I'd be toast. It's not that anyone cared about me personally, but the car would make a nice getaway vehicle. So where should I camp now? It was about 10pm when I was interdicted, and I was wide awake afterward, so I had a couple of hours to resolve the problem. After the Border Patrol let me leave, I got back on I-10 going east. My first aim was to get out of this here county, so I wouldn't encounter that particular sheriff or his deputies again. After that, I was faced with a dilemma. In Nevada or Arizona, I would simply take the next freeway exit in the open desert and look for a place to camp just beyond the lights of the freeway. I felt protected by the hugeness of the desert. In Texas, however, there were all those fences and gates, and even when I found I place I would normally camp, the specter of the desperate Mexican narcotraficante entered my mind. There were plenty of desolate freeway exits in West Texas but none where I felt safe. There were, however, plenty of official rest areas and picnic areas along the highway, spaced about every 40 miles. I actually feel comfortable sleeping at most rest areas. I felt reassured by the presence of long-haul truckers spending the night there in their cabs. Texas actually allows overnight parking at most of its rest areas, but I couldn't sleep well in the car and the picnic areas were marked like this.... "No Sleeping on Tables or Benches" it said. Notice, however, that there's no sign saying you can't sleep under the tables or beside benches, so that's what I did. I stopped at an unlit picnic area where a dozen trucks were parked for the night. I chose a covered picnic shelter like the one above, since there was a threat of rain.It was dark enough that no one would see me, and I doubted narco-traffickers would hold any picnics here. I blew up my air mattress on the concrete pad beside a picnic table and put my sleeping bag on it. Since it was dark and I was parked a good distance away from my valuable car, I felt that my odds of survival were about the same as staying at the Motel 6--which is all I really ask in life. Just before dawn, my BlackBerry alarm woke me, then I packed up and left before anyone was the wiser. I got about 6 hours of quality sleep. Mission accomplished! Texas is a LONG drive, about 1000 miles stem-to-stern. I spent a night with relatives in Austin, but I needed to camp again in East Texas. I chose this abandoned farmhouse...
It was certainly private property but there was little chance of detection, since I was protected by darkness and broke camp just after dawn. I was far enough from the border that crime wasn't a issue. (There farmhouse was surrounded by miles of empty fields.) Still, this campsite was hard to find at night, and as I headed east there would be even more fences. East of the Mississippi, it's pretty hard to find abandoned farmhouses like the one above. Where could I reliably find a free campsite? (Stay tuned for the answer.)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Secret Airport Sleeping Nook

Last night, after renting an SUV in Las Vegas for $23, I turned in the car and started heading to the East Coast. The red-eye flight I had hoped to take was overbooked, so I found myself stranded overnight at an airport somewhere in the American Southwest. I was safely inside security (having had a boarding pass for the overbooked flight), so it was logical for me to sleep there and take a better flight east in the morning. (See How to Sleep in an Airport.)

Unfortunately, all of the airport seating had fixed armrests as shown above. I can sleep on these seats if necessary (by wrapping myself around an armrest in the fetal position), but it's not my best sleep. I can also sleep on the floor if I need to, but in open areas it makes me feel too vulnerable and obvious.

I cased out the concourse and found no great sleeping sites until I stumbled upon the scene above. It's the same fix-armrest seating, but look again! What's that behind the seating?

It's an abandoned customer service desk! As airlines have cut back in the past year, you find a fair number of these unused facilities. I poked around and found that the door was locked, and there were no computers or other equipment in the desks.

What a perfect campsite!

I felt much better sleeping on this floor than out in the open. (Privacy is nice when you can get it!) No one was going to notice me unless they were as curious as I am, and the small amount of trash on the floor indicated that the cleaners don't come back here often. If security found me, the worst they would do is ask me to move—and there's virtually no security inside security anyway!

I had two blankets with me. One of them I folded up and used as a mattress. It turns out this was just enough padding to allow me to sleep soundly. And I did! I got a solid 7 hours of sleep! (I credit my rigorous physical conditioning.) I woke on my own schedule and boarded the eastbound flight I intended—flying First Class, no less.

Good things come to those who are adaptable!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Case Study: Mobile Lodging in Las Vegas for $23

As an airline flyer who can only fly standby, my life is full of plotting and planning. What happens if I can't get on the flight I want? What will my alternative transportation be? Where will I sleep? Should I take an open flight from one city only to risk being trapped in another? Like playing chess, each decision I make now has ramifications later in the game, so I have to be thinking many moves ahead. At this moment (3pm), I am sitting in the airport in Denver wondering how I will lodge myself in Las Vegas tonight if I happen to get there. I have to do some heavy lifting tomorrow in Las Vegas, so I have arranged to rent a minivan at 7am. Once I have the minivan, then I have my lodging. (See How to Sleep in a Car.) However, the lowest rates on the minivan start tomorrow, not today. I am hoping to catch a flight to Las Vegas tonight, but if I get there, I won't have lodging until tomorrow morning. I'd like to get a good night's sleep tonight, so what do I do? Option #1: Hotel. You can often find good hotel rates in Las Vegas, but not tonight. This is a Saturday night, the peak visitor night in Las Vegas, so there is no way I can find a room within my budget. Even if I could, it hardly seems worthwhile to check into a hotel for only a few hours. It might take an hour (and some money) to get from the airport to the hotel tonight and an hour to get away in the morning. If I get to Las Vegas at 9pm and pick up the minivan at 7am, I wouldn't have much time to sleep. Option #2: Sleep at the Airport. I know the Las Vegas airport concourses are open all night. If my flight arrives at 9pm, I can simply remain inside security (where no one ever bothers you) and sleep until morning. (See How to Sleep in an Airport.) This is option is free, and I have all the equipment I need: warm clothing, blanket, earplugs and eye mask. The only trouble with this option is that all the seating in the Las Vegas airport has fixed arm rests. There is no comfortable padded seating you can lie flat on. I can work around this by curling around the armrest in the fetal position. I can get some sleep this way, but it's not my best sleep. I'd like to avoid it if I can. Option #3: Call on Friends. I could, in theory, call on friends in Las Vegas to put me up for the night, but I almost never do this. I may stay with friends on social occasions, but not when I just need a place to sleep. Since homelessness is my chosen lifestyle, it doesn't feel right to take advantage of respectable mortgage payers in this way. Plus, I would still have the problem of Option #1: It would take me an hour to get there and an hour to get away. Option #4: Camp Away from the Airport. I could leave the airport and find a secret place to camp for the night. This gets logistically complicated, however. Under cover of darkness, it is fairly easy to find a place to sleep in any city without rain, but the ground is hard in Las Vegas, and I would need an air mattress. Getting one requires a pilgrimage to the Evil Mega-Mart™ by public transit. This is not a realistic option on such a short time frame. (Sleeping in the airport would work better.) None of those options are great, so I have had to get creative. I mentioned that I am renting a minivan tomorrow at 7am. Minivans are usually frightfully expensive compared to regular sedans, but I managed to snag a good rate. If I changed the pickup date to tonight, I would lose that rate. So what's the solution? Eureka! I'll just rent another car for the night, solely for the purposes of sleeping. Thanks to rigorous physical conditioning, I can sleep comfortably in the back seat of the smallest rental car. (I do it in Europe where all the rental cars are small.) While room rates in Las Vegas get high on the weekends (due to the influx of Southern Californians), rental car rates get low. Since my rental includes a Saturday night, I can get an economy car for only $23, including all taxes and fees. (Insurance is covered by my credit card.) So if I manage to get to Las Vegas tonight (which depends on the airline gods), I will proceed to the same rental car company I am getting the minivan from (Alamo). I'll rent the economy car, sleep in it, return it in the morning, then pick up the minivan. Brilliant! Since I won't go very far from the rental car center, the gas needle will still show "Full" on the economy car and I won't need to buy any fuel. In addition to lodging, a rental car also provides—at no additional charge—transportation, so I could pick up bedding if I needed it. (I probably won't need it because Las Vegas is still warm in September.) In most cases, a $9 sleeping bag from EMM™ is sufficient. Spending $23 for a good night's sleep is generally within my budget. It's about comparable to a youth hostel. I hate to spend more than that, but I can swing $23. Furthermore, I would be getting more quality sleeping time in a rental car than I would in even the finest Las Vegas hotel, since I'll get to my car quickly and drop it off quickly (faster than checking in at the Four Seasons). BTW: I only rent from Alamo Rent-A-Car when they are available. I like the low rates, the opportunity to choose my own car from the lot, and the lack of additional "holds" on my credit card. Alamo makes fine sleeping cars, and I recommend them to all homeless people! UPDATE8PM The travel gods have been kind to me. Beyond kind! Not only did they see me to Las Vegas, but they gave me a free rental car upgrade—to an SUV! Yes, I paid $23 for the rental of a car that I assumed would be similar to the one shown at the top of this entry—a tiny Chevrolet Aveo or similar. However, when I got to the lot (where you usually choose your own vehicle), no Economy cars were available—and no mid-size or full-size cars either. So the attendant let me have an SUV, a Ford Escape (pictured below). Not only is this a spacious sleeping car, but it may mean I won't have to rent the minivan tomorrow! The SUV could handle all my "heavy lifting" needs. This just shows you that if you're right with the Travel Gods, all sorts of good things will come your way!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

My Own Private Island (Free Sleeping in Maine)

This past Labor Day weekend, I spent four days living on my own private island in Maine. I hadn't intended so much luxury on my $15/day budget, but that's how things worked out.

I chose to head to Bar Harbor (Acadia National Park) for the long weekend mainly to get some work done. I had a book to read and writing I wanted to do. Normally, I would go to San Diego for this, but I was already on the East Coast and had an appointment in Boston after the holiday, so the long flight to San Diego didn't make sense. I needed another place I could work in peace for a few days. Mount Desert Island wouldn't seem like the first choice, since it was a pricey tourist haven with no university library, but the town of Bar Harbor had enough to make up for it: (1) a FREE local bus system, including service to the airport, (2) FREE Wifi in the town's two main parks, (3) FREE A/C power on almost every lamppost in those parks, and (4) plenty of wild woods for FREE camping. The weather forecast was also as nearly perfect as you can get in Maine: daytime highs in the 70s with no chance of rain.

I had visited Bar Harbor the year before (and several times as a kid), so I knew there were virtually unlimited areas to camp. Camping without permission was no doubt illegal virtually everywhere (given the high density of tourists), but in practice it's easy and harmless. With so much forested land, there are always places you can hide a small tent. Only a car would give you away, and I had none.

I prepared from my trip by purchasing my lodging at a Sports Authority™ store in Boston...I needed a new tent to replace one I had jettisoned elsewhere. I consider these $25 tents disposable. I'll use one until it breaks or is inconvenient to haul around. Then when I need another, I pick it up at one of the mega sporting goods stores, where there's almost always a $20-30 tent on sale. (Big Five Sporting Goods™ is another good source.) In this case, the only reason I needed a tent was for protection from the bugs, which Maine is notorious for.

I landed in Maine with just the basics: my computer and camera in my backpack and my new tent and a mummy sleeping bag in my satchel. I flew into the local airport in the evening and took the free bus to Bar Harbor downtown. When I got there, it was dusk, and I immediately started thinking about where I would bivouac for the night. My default plan was to simply walk out of town until I found woods to camp in, but I soon as looked out at the harbor I got a better idea.
There was a causeway to a forested island across the harbor. (The causeway was apparently the "Bar" in "Bar Harbor".) Great! I would blend in with the other tourists, cross the causeway and camp on the island, at least for the night.

As I was walking across, I figured that the causeway was tidal, since there was nothing growing on it. I knew it was probably covered with water at high tide. However, I didn't recognize at the time just how tidal it was.

Here was the first resident I met on the island....
There were no humans. The island was quite large (68 acres I later learned), and I figured I would avoid detection by going substantially off the main trail and camping there. My rudimentary tracking skills told me there were deer crisscrossing the island but that humans stayed primary on the main trail.
I pitched my $25 tent on the edge of a natural meadow and tucked myself in for the night. It was curious to be the only human on the island. I could hear several deer passing noisily a few yards from my tent. (Deer are not the silent creatures you might suppose. They sounded like they were loudly blowing their noses.) Nothing about being here spooked me until I thought a bit more about the deer.

Lyme disease! It's the scourge of New England. The disease is transmitted not by deer themselves but by the deer tick. If you get bitten by one, you could fall into a Sleeping Beauty lethargy that can be life-threatening. I got a little concerned until I googled it up on my BlackBerry. It turns out Lyme disease is not a major problem in Acadia National Park, although officials still warn visitors about it. The first night I slathered myself with bug repellent (which I find repellent myself), but after that I simply inspected my pants for ticks each time I walked through the grass to my tent. I found none, and in fact no bugs at all bit me whilst in Maine.

There was a tide chart posted at the start of the main trail, so I knew when the next low tide would be, and I guessed I would have three hours on either side of the low to enter and exit the island. In the morning, I took my time waking up. I thought my tent was secure from possible discovery, so I left it in place, then I wandered down to the causeway.

There wasn't any! I had missed my tidal window. It turns out I could only count on about 2 hours of dry land on either side of the tide. The tidal swings in Maine can be huge—in this case about 11 feet, which had thrown off my judgment the night before. I was now trapped on the island for another eight hours!

Fortunately, I had a book to read and enough food and drink to get by for the day. I wanted to read the book, but now nature was forcing me to. I lay in my tent all day reading. In the late afternoon, I started to hear human voices on the trail just about two hours before the low. I still had a few chapters left to read, however, so I did not depart from the island until just after the low. I had things I needed to do in Bar Harbor, including recharging my devices, buying some food and uploading some photos. By the time I got back to the causeway, it was well after dark and the causeway was already partially flooded.

I calculated that I had no option but to cross it anyway, since all of my camping gear was on the island and there was no way I could afford legitimate lodging in this town. I walked across the dry part of the causeway, and when I got to the water, I just kept walking. (I was prepared to sacrifice of another pair of $12 Wal-Mart sneakers.) I had to use dead reckoning and memory to try to stay on the causeway in the darkness until I got to the island. (Kind of exciting, actually!) When I reached dry land of the island, at least I had the satisfaction of knowing I was alone here.

The island is called Bar Island and it is part of Acadia National Park. About a dozen tourists a day venture beyond the causeway and follow a short trail to the high point of the island, where they can view Bar Harbor. Camping is no doubt prohibited here, but there were no signs saying that. One sign called this a "fee area", and I hadn't purchased a regular park pass, but I wasn't worried about that either. The only way I would be caught was if there was a park ranger inspecting bags on the causeway or if a ranger thoroughly patrolled the island during the four-hour window. Both possibilities seemed highly unlikely. As in most national parks, rangers patrol where there are people, not where there aren't.

Having got into the rhythm of the island, I stayed two more nights there. In the morning, I crossed to the town, spent 12-14 hours using their free power and internet services, then crossed back in the evening. (A fourth night, I camped near the airport so I could take an early flight out.) I shopped at the small local grocery store every day, and my only other expense was $13 for a lawn chair, which I sat on at a park while I computed.

After four nights in the woods, I probably smelled like a moose, but I got a lot of work done. I could have visited Acadia National Park on the free bus system, but I had done it before. Instead, I read a whole book and even started writing one of my own. (I wrote this sample book chapter in a single day as I sat in a seafront park.)

Unlike San Diego, I don't think I could have stayed her indefinitely, partly because of the risk of discovery but mainly due to Maine's fickle weather. Still, I got my money's worth out of Bar Harbor and have nothing to complain about.

Here are my photos from Bar Harbor from both this visit and my earlier one.

©2009, Glenn Campbell,
Released from San Diego.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Manhattan for $20/Night

New York City is famously expensive to visit. It's tough finding a hotel room under $150, so what would you think about staying in Manhattan for only $20 a night? I did it last night! I not only survived but was quite comfortable. No, I didn't sleep on a bench in Central Park. I stayed at a youth hostel in Harlem.

I had an evening social engagement in Midtown. I probably could have stayed with friends in the outer boroughs, but since I knew I would be coming in late, I didn't want to be an imposition. Instead, I went to about a week ago to see what they had available. After scrutinizing the listings and the reviews, I chose Hostel 99 in Harlem. The lowest priced bed was $18.95 in a dorm of 14 beds, but I chose to go First Class and reserved a room with only 6 beds for $21.95.

When I was growing up, Harlem was thought of as a slum. This may have been true in the 1960s but not today. It's now a dense and diverse residential neighborhood indistinguishable from any other in Manhattan. I felt no great risk in walking there, even late at night, but I did feel a little apprehensive about the accommodations. What could I really expect for $20?

In fact, I expected very little. I only wanted a safe place to sleep. I needed a padded horizontal space to myself, hopefully larger than a coffin. If I could get some WiFi and an AC outlet for my computer, that would be icing on the cake. Being accustomed to hostels elsewhere, I was prepared to accept some quirks and the usual initial shock factor. ("I'm going to be staying HERE?!")

The location of the hostel on 129th Street in Upper Manhattan was beyond walking distance to any attractions in Lower Manhattan but an easy subway ride there. The hostel also turned out to be easy to reach by a city bus from Laguardia Airport (M60—always a sardine can), which stopped at 125th Street. (Warning: You need $2.25 to catch that bus at Laguardia, and it must be in quarters!) After a 5-minute walk from the bus stop, this is what I found at the given address....
The hostel is the 3-story brick building on the right. Here is the entrance....
Notice there is only "99" on the door with no indication of a hostel inside. It is a good bet most of the neighbors don't know it exists. This is what you would expect in a hostel in urban America. It wants to attract well-behaved foreign visitors and not local lowlifes, who would turn this sort of cheap accommodation into a drug-addled Skid Row. There have to be barriers, real or perceived. Some New York hostels explicitly exclude locals. (For example, you may need both a passport, to prove your worldliness, AND an out-of-state driver's license.) Hostel 99 doesn't have these restrictions, apparently relying on its anonymity to protect it from the surrounding neighborhood. Since most guests make their bookings through HostelWorld and similar websites, there is no need (or desire) for walk-in traffic.

Immediately inside the front door (which is unlocked), there is a registration desk, manned 24 hours a day...The registration desk occupies what was once the foyer of a 3-unit apartment building. There is one large apartment per floor. The upper two apartments and part of the ground floor one are used for dorms (with the 2nd floor reserved for women and the other floors mixed gender). The public kitchen and dining area is on the ground floor, and in the basement is a TV room/computer room.

The apparent assumption by the owners is that they can make more money by renting $20 beds to a lot of travelers than by renting the apartments as apartments. Naturally, they will want to warehouse as many bodies as they can every night while keeping all of their costs low. Their major cost has to be the labor required to keep this place running 24/7. It has to be a tough business model!

It was mid-afternoon when I checked in. My assigned bed turned out not to be in a 6-bed room as I reserved but a bunk in a 10-bed dorm occupying the living room of the third floor apartment (as pictured at the top of this entry). I wasn't informed of this change and didn't know about it until I reached the room, but I was also charged less than I expected and was happy to have a lower bunk, so I saw no reason to complain.

Or at least I thought it was a 10-bed dorm. After I got back from my social event, this is what I found....With three mattresses on the floor, it was actually a 13-bed dorm! (Probably the "14-bed" dorm offered on HostelWorld.) That was my shock factor for the visit. While I have no objection to cramming a lot of people into a small area, which is what all hostels do, mattresses on the floor seemed to have broken an unwritten rule. When you book a "bed" online, you should reasonably expect a mattress AND a bed frame not in the direct flow of foot traffic.

At the time I came here to sleep, the room was dark, and I sensed the mattresses and the bodies on them only by ESP. I used the light from my BlackBerry™ to navigate from the bathroom to my lower bunk. (Yet another use for that universal device!)

Another problem was inadequate showers and toilets. This single bathroom on my floor served 30+ people (although there were more toilets on other floors)...None of this fazed me for long, since these problems had already been well documented in the hostel's customer reviews at HostelWorld. I was not there as a building inspector, only to spend a safe night as cheaply as possible. For that, there must be compromise. There were no door locks or security to speak of, but my follow travelers were mostly foreign tourists, more than half of them woman, and I felt no safety issues. The hostel was also very clean and reasonably well maintained. In spite of the load conditions, it wasn't a slum or Hell's Kitchen tenement, more like dense military barracks.

Breakfast in the morning was free and consisted of oversize muffins and croissants from Costco, toast, coffee, milk and the usual unidentified orange-colored breakfast beverage (UOCBB) found at other hostels. It was served (or you served it to yourself) only between the hours of 9 and 10 AM, which seemed to be a
sort of capacity control to prevent too many people from eating it. I had a big muffin that would probably have cost me $3 on the street, so I didn't feel cheated. Here was the kitchen/dining area at breakfast...While space was at a premium in the upper floors, there was plenty of it in the basement...There was a big-screen TV but little furniture. There were also pay-per-use computer terminals, available for 10-cents a minute....Some travelers may grumble about having to pay for internet, but I have no objection to the hostel making some money on sundries like this. The WiFi was still free, and it was strong throughout the building. I found myself a luxurious little corner in the basement where I could work....That's all I really need: power, WiFi and a dim place to sit. Noise isn't an issue, like from the TV, because I always carry foam earplugs with me. (It's a marvelous noise-canceling technology even better than the electronic kind!)

My bed itself was bigger than some I have slept in, and the sleeping function was accomplished successfully (with no memories of it retained). By the 11am check-out time, I was gone from the hostel and heading out of Manhattan.

Was it $20 well spent? Certainly! In terms of my practical needs, a $200 hotel room couldn't have given me much more. (And they often make you pay for WiFi!) There was no mint on my pillow, but they're fattening anyway.

It wasn't pretty, but it did the job. When I come back to Manhattan, I wouldn't mind staying there again.

©2009, Glenn Campbell,