Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Perfect Campsite in Kansas

Sept. 2, 2010 — The sun just went down in central Kansas, so it's time to pull off I-70 and find a safe harbor for the night.

Last night, in Wyoming, I stayed in the lap of luxury: Motel 6, Laramie. It was cold (40s) and very windy (sub-freezing chill factor), so it seemed worth the 40 bucks. In Kansas, though, the weather is a lot more mild, and every night I can spend outdoors is money saved (and more time I can spend in Europe, where hostels about $20/night). The car I am in is packed with luggage, so there is no space to achieve the critical element: bringing my legs to the same level as my head. (I can sleep sitting up, but it isn't comfortable.)

Tonight, I didn't have to look very far. Kansas has big, spacious rest areas where you can usually get away with camping under cover of night. (Camping on the ground wouldn't work at most rest areas in other states, where space is at a premium.) This rest area near Russell has a vast area of mowed grass behind the restrooms, big as a football field. There are about six 18-wheelers parked at this rest area for the night, but I'm the only car, so I've made myself at home. I have set up camp behind a big bush in the middle of the field, so it's impossible for anyone to detect me. (The car is obvious, but it's normal for it to be parked here.)

My "camp" consists of a sleeping bag, a camping mattress and a 6x8 tarp for a ground cover. The low temp tonight is expected to be in the 50s. Very little wind and a clear sky full of stars. Since it is only 9pm, I'll easily wake and break camp before down.

Here's my exact location if you care to join me.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Wal-Mart Motel: $20/night

By Glenn Campbell

When you’re driving in the USA and can’t afford local motels, Wal-Mart offers a secret “motel” for $20/night. You just have to know about it.

In an earlier posting I discussed the Supercenter Camping Method. If you’re driving across America, finding a discreet place to camp is difficult, not because America lacks open spaces but because it is difficult to hide your car. My solution is to hide the car in the open, in a place where cars would normally be parked at night—like the parking lot of a 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter! At least in rural areas, open land or woods are common around Supercenters, since these monstrosities are usually located in newly appropriated land on the outskirts of town.

My preference is to sleep in a car when I can, but if the car is full or you really need to stretch out, camping in the overgrown areas near Walmart is an option.

Last night, I successful practiced The Method yet again, this time in Pennsylvania. I was driving Interstate 80, couldn't find a cheap motel and didn't have any camping equipment with me. What to do? The trouble with Pennsylvania and other Northeastern states is the lack of cheap motels. Motel 6 is relatively rare and often high-priced when available, and other chains aren’t cheap. (Hostels, of course, exist only in a few major cities.) I was prepared to spend $35 for a night’s lodging but not $65, which was the lowest rate I could expect in these parts. The alternative? Check into the nearest Wally World.

A Supercenter is distinguished from a traditional Wal-Mart in that it has a full-size grocery section and is open 24 hours. Supercenters are located along the interstate highway system throughout America, usually adjacent to an exit, often with some undeveloped land beside it. In America, Wal-Marts are far more frequent than official highway rest areas, and they are a lot easier to find on mapping programs like Google Maps. When I am driving (which I do for a living), I typically check in at Wal-Marts a couple of times a day—to use the reliably clean restrooms, stock up on basic supplies and just soak in the ambiance. Every Wal-Mart is the same, and, yes, it gives me a feeling of home in being there.

So my challenge is to spend a comfortable, safe night within a short walk of my car while spending as little money as possible. If I was going to spend $35 on a motel, then I can comfortably spend $20 on camping supplies that I may throw away the next day.

The weather last night was clear with no rain in the forecast. This is the tail end of summer and it gets a little chilly at night—which is good! Coolness is going to suppress my most significant adversary: the mosquito. For one thing, I can hide deep in my sleeping bag and expose less of my skin, but mosquitoes are also less active when it’s cool. They aren’t much of a problem below 65 degrees F and they are no issue at all below 55.

At dusk, I checked my BlackBerry for the next Wal-Mart along the highway. It was in Clarion, Pennsylvania, and it turned out to be perfect! There was a field of tall grass and brush on one side of the parking lot, so 50 feet from the car I could be completely invisible.

…Invisible at night, that is! Thanks to the power of darkness, you can camp in some amazingly obvious places. The only catch is that you have to be sure to wake up and break camp before dawn, because the landscape completely changes during the day. It's like the Invisible Man losing his superpowers.

(For sunrise times, see

Here's my exact camping spot...

View Larger Map

After selecting my camping spot in the last light of the day, I made first pass through Wal-Mart, picking up two essential items: A sleeping bag for $10, and a plastic tarp for $5. The sleeping bag is a summer model stocked year-round at all Wal-Marts. It is rated at 40-60 degrees (more realistic for 60 than 40) and currently sells for $9.88 (photo). In winter, I might buy TWO of these bags and stick them one inside the other, but for tonight one would do.

The tarp (6 x 8 feet) is found in the automotive section for $4.50, and I use it as a ground cloth. It is also big enough that I can fold it around me. In the lush East, the grass under the tarp serves as a mattress, providing (at least to me) enough padding for comfortable sleep. In the barren West, however, I would buy a camping air mattress instead (for about $13) or a swimming pool air mattress (about $6), since the desert ground is too hard to sleep on without it. (You need a pump to blow up the camping mattress: $10-15.)

In the humid East, you must be wary of rain, but there’s also another form of falling water that happens more often: dew. Dew is condensation that covers everything after dark—like having light rain every night. (photo) Dew rarely happen in the desert, but in the East (or near the ocean) where the relative humidity is close to 100%, it can be drenching. (In the winter, it manifests as frost.) When your sleeping bag is wet, it doesn’t keep you as warm, and once dew forms, it won’t evaporate until morning.

I address this problem by wrapping the tarp around me like a burrito. The tarp has grommet holes along the edges and I fasten these together with plastic cable ties ($1 from the hardware section). This "tortilla" can’t be too tight, however, because your body and breath are also generating moisture of their own, which forms dew on the INSIDE of the tarp. (That’s why sleeping bags have to be made of fabric, not plastic.) The aim of the tarp tortilla is to cut down most of the dew but not all of it. There have to be gaps to let your own moisture out.

The tarp can also protect you from light rain, but significant rain would preclude this kind of tentless camping, as would high temperatures that bring out the mosquitoes and force me to leave my sleeping bag. Low temperatures, however, are not a problem. In temperatures well below freezing, I can do just fine with two summer bags (one inside the other) wrapped in a tarp burrito--even in snow. (For added warmth, I might sleep in my winter clothes and jacket.)

Of course, I could also use a tent. I sometimes travel with one, but tents at Wal-Mart are expensive ($45+). (I buy tents on sale at sporting goods mega-stores for about $25.) For one or two nights in good weather, a tent is usually not worth the expense or even the bother to put up. I like the freedom of not having to carry anything with me, and I don't like how a tent cuts me off from my environment. With the burrito method, you check into Wal-Mart with $20 and walk out with everything you need.

What about a pillow? It’s free! The $10 sleeping bag comes in a zippered fabric pouch. Fill it full of clothing and—viola!—a pillow.

Safety? Not an issue. There aren’t people wandering around in places like this, on the outskirts of rural towns far from any residences. Your car is safe, because Wal-Mart usually has a night-time security patrol in the parking lot, but they aren’t concerned with the surrounding woods and grass. Their vehicle has a big flashing light on top, so you an easily evade them when coming and going.

Wild animals and insects? Apart from mosquitoes, there aren’t any to worry about. Civilization has killed off all the lions and tigers and bears. Snakes and rodents regard you as a danger and will give you a wide berth when they can (except maybe to steal you food). I have never had a creepy-crawly climb into my sleeping bag with me, and I wouldn’t regard it as a danger if they did. Your only potential threat is human, and these animals rarely leave their cars except to waddle into the Wal-Mart.

Weather? It happens, but at least you can look up the forecast and have a good idea of what is possible. Unlike living in a “home” or staying in motels, weather is the camper’s constant companion and you have to listen to it and understand it. If the forecast calls for a low of 40 degrees, experience should tell you what you need. Rain, of course, my require you to use a tent, and heavy rain may make even tenting impossible. You have to seek other accommodations, like a motel or sleeping in the car. (I can sleep sitting up in the driver’s seat. It’s easier than sleeping on a red-eye flight but rarely offers a sound night’s sleep.)

Is is legal? Of course not! Vacant land around a new Supercenter is probably owned by Wal-Mart itself, since they have a habit of buying up all the land where they know they are going to build one. (Clever, eh? They lease out the land to other stores and take advantage of their own halo effect.) Most rural Wal-Marts allows RVs to camp in their parking lots, but open-air camping is another thing and would probably attract an unsavory crowd if it were explicitly allowed. I camp there, however, under the principle that what Wal-Mart doesn't know won't hurt it. As in most things, discretion is the key. If I arrive after dark and leave before dawn, and no one ever knows I was there, I don't feel that I'm trampling on Wal-Mart's property rights. Besides, I'm a good customer!

Can’t sleep? Just pop into your neighborhood Wal-Mart for a snack. Remember, though, that your coach turns into a pumpkin in the morning. You must have some kind of alarm clock to wake you up before dawn, because as soon as the sun comes up, your cover may be blown.

Last night, however, I had no trouble sleeping, and because the location seemed secure, I chose to sleep until after dawn. I got a solid 7 hours of sleep, as good as any motel. There was no opportunity for a shower, but if I felt the need, I could pick that up at a truck stop. I kept the tarp and sleeping bag, but I could have thrown them away (or left them in the parking lot for other thrifty Wal-Mart patrons to snatch up). Either way, I was a winner, getting a good night's sleep while saving about $50.

Thanks again , Wal-Mart!

Friday, June 4, 2010

On Hiatus

This blog is on hiatus for the summer. (I'm taking advantage of my free travel while I have it.)

You can still follow me on Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and my Home Page.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Airport Camping: Ontario, California

I am writing this from a sleeping bag in the middle of a field adjacent to the Ontario International Airport (on the eastern outskirts of the Los Angeles area). The time is 7:18 pm (Feb. 28, 2010). Less than two hours ago, I had no idea I would be sleeping here, but now I’m comfy as can be, planning to get a full night’s sleep in the open air.

An hour and a half ago, I was driving a rental car down I-15 from Las Vegas, planning to catch a flight from Ontario to a major airport where I spend the night 2 or 3 times a month. As I came down the Cajon Pass, however, I hit heavy traffic and I realized I wasn’t going to make my flight. It was my own fault; I had all day to make the 3 hour drive, but I dawdled along the way, and cut the travel time too close. Since I fly for free (as a furloughed airline employee) I can afford to be cavalier about missing flights, but this 7pm departure was the last one of the day. Missing it meant I would be trapped in Ontario overnight.

By 6pm, I realized there was no chance I would have time to both turn in my rental car and check in for the flight by 6:30 (given the 30-minute check-in cut-off). The car was also due at 6:30, but I knew I had a 29-minute grace period, so I could turn it in as late as 6:59 and still avoid additional charges (but miss my flight). It was beyond my budget to stay at any local hotel or rent another car to sleep in; each of those options would easily set me back $80 or more. I had to come up an alternate lodging plan and implement it quickly, before the rental car was due.

I had been to the Ontario airport only once before, when I flew in three days earlier. (I was heading to Vegas but chose Ontario for a cheaper rental car.) Ontario is a small airport where the secure area probably closes at night. If the baggage claim area remained open and I was allowed to stay there, I would be sleeping on relatively hard seats with fixed armrests, giving me no opportunity to lie down. Even if the floor was carpeted (which I can't recall), I knew from experience that it would be too hard to sleep on. I could “survive” in the baggage claim area if I had to, but I wouldn’t get a good night's sleep there.

As I drove down the Cajon Pass (from the dry high desert to the lower and more humid coastal desert), I took a mental inventory of the supplies in my possession. I had a single light sleeping bag, my standard $10 model from Acme™ that I had purchased three days before so I could sleep in the car. My plan was to jettison it with the rental car, but now I could use it to camp with. However, I knew it wouldn't be enough. This 3-pound bag was adequate for the enclosed car (where heat is retained), but it wouldn’t be sufficient to keep me warm outdoors.

I checked my blackberry for the weather report. No rain was in the forecast, which was good, but there is usually heavy dew in the L.A. area, equivalent to a little light rain every night. The nighttime low was forecast at 45 degrees F. That’s a little below my own comfort rating for this bag when out in the open, especially given the dew. I felt I would need a second bag both for warmth and for padding underneath me. Experience told me that two sleeping bags laid down on grass or soft dirt, would provide adequate padding.

I also checked Google Maps on my Blackberry for aerial images of the area. I had no real worry that I would find a place to camp. I knew that the airport was in a relatively sterile industrial area, away from any housing and probably without any homeless population. The aerial photos showed lots of open land and landscaping where I could easily hide. I could resolve exactly where after I dropped the car.

At the base of Cajon Pass, I stopped briefly at the Acme™ Store on Foothill Blvd. All I needed was another sleeping bag. My usual $10 model was out of stock, so I upgraded to a posh $15 model (4 pounds). This $15 would be my only additional expense for the overnight stay (and my mistake in missing the flight). I would simply discard both sleeping bags in the morning. (This always pains me, but it beats paying $80 for a hotel.)

I then raced to the airport, getting there after dark at about 6:45. As soon as I got close to the rental car center, I noticed a big empty field across the street. Voila! That would be my home for the night! I drove into a driveway of a communication shack (shown on the upper left on the image above), and under cover of darkness I offloaded my sleeping bags. Then I turned in the car in the nick of time and walked back to the field.

This field is the sort of place that is totally exposed during the day and yet completely secure at night. You can thank the magic of darkness for that! Unlike other parts of the airport, this field isn't well-lit. I can see adequately now that my eyes have adjusted, but no one in a car can see into the field. Since I’m going to sleep early, I’ll be awake well before dawn and will break camp before anyone knows I am here.

To the south of me is a main access road for the airport and to the north are active railroad tracks. I chose the middle of the field to be as far away as possible from both, as well as from any path a pedestrian might take (highly unlikely anyway). I feel completely secure here. It will be a little noisy from the trains, but there is no way anyone is going to detect me or stumble upon me accidentally before morning. There is no trash in the field, so humans rarely come here. The only threat might be gophers, who have riddled the field with holes and who might try to steal my food. I'll engage them in hand-to-hand combat if necessary.

I’m comfortable using the better-quality $15 sleeping bag to sleep in and the $10 one as a mattress. No complaints! I expect to sleep as well as in any hotel and certainly better than I did at the Denver flophouse. I control my environment and have no humans to contend with. What could be better?

MORNING UPDATE: I slept well and woke up at about 3:00 am (8pm-3am = 7 hours). The rail line must be a major one because many trains passed by during the night. Surprisingly, they didn't seem very loud to me; I was vaguely aware of them but they didn't significantly impact my sleep. I awoke to find a layer of water covering everything. If you are camping anywhere apart from an inland desert, dew is something you have to factor in. Fortunately, I anticipated it and sealed up all my bags. My sleeping bag was soaked on the outside, but the moisture didn't penetrate into the interior. No gophers attacked me. In all, a successful sleeping operation.

By 5am, I had broken camp. I folded the sleeping bags on the pavement near the communication shack, where some passer-by would surely see them and take them home. I walked to the rental car center, worked on my computer there for a few hours, then took the shuttle bus to the main terminal. As the bus left the rental center, I caught this daytime glimpse of the field I had been sleeping in...

You would never guess that someone could camp there and not be seen, but that's what darkness can do. It gives you a safe campsite almost anywhere!

(Also see my similar entry: airport camping in Reno.)

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Denver Flophouse

Not all hosteling experiences are warm and fuzzy. A few days ago, I stayed at a Denver "hostel" listed on that was little more than an urban flophouse.

Here are my annotated photos of the 11th Street Hotel in Denver, Colorado.

I didn't go into this blind. The reviews at HostelWorld gave me a good idea what to expect, but I didn't have many options. I was flying into Denver at 9pm and had to be in the suburbs at 7am the next day for a business engagement. All I needed was a place to sleep for about 7 hours. I had previously tried to sleep at the Denver airport, but this was less than optimal, since all seating there has armrests. (I would have to sleep on the carpeted floor, which just too hard for sustained sleep.) There was a legitimate youth hostel in Denver, but the front desk there closed at 10pm, and I preferred not to make special arrangements with them (and pay a fee) for my late arrival. Another option was to take the city bus to a Motel 6, but that would have taken me an hour more each way and eaten into my sleep time. Instead, with a sense of adventure, I tried this place.

The hotel itself could pass for a funky hostel in Europe, but instead of lodging with German and Australian tourists, I was staying in a room full of local men who were going nowhere. Since I see myself as the "up and coming" homeless, I'm not thrilled to be associated with the down-and-out homeless, who are the clientele of this place. The men staying here were working and paying rent, but "recently released from prison" could probably describe most of them.

I have never spent a night in prison, but sleeping in the windowless 12-bed basement dorm gave me a feeling for it. Men were coming and going all night, and even those who were sleeping were very loud, snoring and talking in their sleep. A man two beds away from me kept shouting out, "I wanna fucking KILL somebody!" Not a pleasant environment in which to sleep, and I didn't. I slept no more than three hours, than got up to work on my computer.

I didn't feel afraid for my safety so much as being a fish out of water. This hotel seemed relatively clean and well-run for a transient hotel, but it's not a place that I or any other literate traveler should be hanging out. It wasn't the hotel itself but the clientele who made the difference, and the clientele here was dysfunctional enough to put me on alert. You can't really relax in those circumstances.

Whenever you stay in a hostel in the USA, you have to make sure that they have a mechanism in place to keep out the local riffraff who would take advantage of the low rates. For example, some US hostels require you to have both a passport and an out-of-state ID. This keeps out the local druggies who couldn't even conceive of getting a passport.

The rent was $16 a night, and for once I got what I paid for! In retrospect, I probably should have stayed at the airport! See the photo album above for my comments and my final HostelWorld review.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bargain Food Source: Buffet by the Pound

Earlier, I talked about the buffet as an important food source for the unhomed, especially when you are driving across this great land. When you don't have a kitchen, a buffet gives you a rare opportunity for a balanced meal that you can't get from fast food or even an expensive sit-down restaurant. At a buffet, you can actually eat a lot better than most people with kitchens, because you don't have to prepare what you eat, just select from a wide variety of prepared items what you think makes the best diet. Sure, you can make bad decisions at buffets. From the girth of many of the patrons, I'd say that most people choose poorly, but the options are there for a healthy, nutritious diet if you choose to construct one.

The best nationwide buffet chain is Golden Corral, now found nearly everywhere along the Interstate highway system. Others are HomeTown/Old Country Buffet and Ryans (both owned by the same company). The price is reasonable: usually $8 or less for lunch and $12 or less for dinner (with nearly the same food at each).

I see only one problem with a buffet: I find it virtually impossible to not gorge myself! I consider myself a buffet professional from my Las Vegas years; I should be able to control my intake, but I still find it difficult. The cheapskate inside me is saying: "The food is all free now, so why not tank up?" It's hard to resist that one extra helping that pushes you into a stupor and eventually into obesity. This temptation is one reason I quit buffets for several years in Vegas. I saw my waistline slowly expanding!

Not only do find myself eating too much food at buffets, but I am not always eating the right foods, being drawn away by the richer stuff while healthier things like vegetables get neglected. Finally, I usually spend too much time in the buffet, often as much as an hour, when I could be doing other things.

But I have found a solution! There's a way to reap all the benefits of the buffet without falling prey to its temptations. Buffet by the pound!

For example, at Golden Corral, you can bypass the cashier line and get a take-away tray (as shown above). Load it up judiciously with whatever you think you should eat, then take it to the cashier to be weighed. The price is amazingly low at GC: always less than $5 a pound and often as low as $4.19 a pound....
To put this into perspective: Uncooked meat or fish that you buy at the supermarket easily costs $4 or more per pound. Here you are getting cooked and seasoned meat for only slightly more. (And you have to consider that it takes about 1-1/2 pounds of cooked meat to make 1 pound of cooked, making the deal even better.) You wonder why smart working parents don't stop by Golden Corral every evening. They could stock up on the entree, then cook the vegetable and starch at home.

What's more important to me, though, is portion control. When I fill up my tray at Golden Corral, I am making a conscious decision ahead of time about what I should be eating, rather than deciding on the fly as I gorge. Since I am paying by the pound, my internal cheapskate assures that won't buy too much, only what I think a proper meal should be. When I'm done, I essentially have a box lunch I can eat anytime. I can stop at the buffet in the morning when I am not hungry (and my choices are more rational) and then eat in the afternoon only when I am truly famished. When I am satiated, I can stop eating without feeling any pressure, knowing that I will still have the food for later. (I don't have refrigeration, but I don't see any storage safety issues in the few hours between purchase and consumption.)

Now, instead of gorging myself at one $8 buffet in early afternoon, I will go to Golden Corral when it opens around 11 am, fill up two trays with sensible food, pay about $6 for a pound and a half, and that food lasts me for the rest of the day. Pretty smart, actually!

I can even go into GC just for a snack. If I decide I want a salad, I fill my tray with just that. Since there is no minimum purchase, it ends up costing only about $2.50 for a salad I made myself, vs. twice as much at a fast food restaurant for something a lot more bland and lifeless. I can also visit the buffet on weekends and evenings, when the normal buffet price is over $10 and still pay only $4-5/pound.

When you think about it, this can be an incredible scam for the consumer. If you cherry-pick only the highest value items, you can come out with a lot more food value than you are paying for. Why spend $8 for two pounds of bacon at the supermarket, when (at the weekend breakfast buffet) you can pay $4.19 for one pound of crisp cooked bacon (equivalent to two pounds raw)? Same applies to a lot of other items: shrimp, nuts, fish, meat. I have even seen pine nuts occasionally at Golden Corral, which often retail for $20/pound.

It's not my intention to scam the restaurant, though, just get a balanced meal that's more than burritos and burgers. Since I am no cook, any buffet is going to give me far better nutrition than I could ever put together on my own, even if I had a full kitchen at my disposal.

Hometown/Old Country Buffet and Ryans also have buffet-by-the-pound options (although I haven't used them yet). If you're in a tony neighborhood, Whole Foods also has an excellent salad/hot food bar, with some more exotic (and putatively healthier) items than your common buffet (photos). The price, however, is almost double: $7.99/pound. Still, you can do a lot better there, both in value and nutrition, than at any restaurant. You can always use buffet-by-the-pound for high value items while using common supermarkets for heavier low-value items like bread.

When I tell people about my nomadic lifestyle, they say, "Oh, you poor thing! How do you eat without a kitchen?" My reply is: "Probably a lot better than you!" Furthermore, I don't have to waste time grocery shopping, preparing meals, cleaning up and maintaining all that complex kitchen infrastructure. I simply choose my food and eat it. What could be simpler, cheaper or easier?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What you don't need for sleep

In an earlier entry, I talked about the minimum requirements for sleep. Sleep is one those critical elements of life that we know little about. When you talk about where "home" is, you are really talking about where you are going to sleep tonight. If you can work out where to be safely unconscious for 7 hours, then all the other functions of a home are negotiable.

In this entry, I’d like to explore sleep in more detail by discussing the things you may think you need but really don’t. Everyone has their own perceived sleep requirements. They insist, "I can't sleep without X." Turns out, most of those sleep requirements are imaginary, and you'll do fine without them if you only have the courage to try. Over the course of my travels, I’ve slept in many contorted positions and unusual circumstances. I’ve had a lot of bad experiences where I've hardly slept at all, and many surprising ones where I slept soundly in spite of rough-seeming conditions. You don’t need a Martha Stewart-style tuck-in bed with a special mattress in a heated room. However, you do need to both listen to your body and be willing to push it a little.

To understand the requirements of sleep let’s talk about the things you don’t need:

You Don't Need: A “made” bed. The traditional bed from the Middle Ages – with sheets and blankets tucked in under the mattress – is absolutely the worst for retaining heat! In a made bed, you are trying to heat the entire surface area under the sheets. Since you are essentially a lump under two flat panels, heat is always escaping out the sides. As soon as you turn over, you encounter a new expanse of cold sheets.

A sleeping bag retains heat much better! No heat escapes out the sides, and when you turn over, your bedding stays with you. If you buy cheap sleeping bags (like the $10 one at Acme™), then you don’t even need to wash them; just throw them away when they get rank. (Not to mention the time saver of never having to make your bed in the morning.)

You Don't Need: Active heating. At night, your body generates a lot less heat than during the day; consequently, you need more insulation. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you need central heating – or any fuel-burning heat at all! Anything that can be accomplished by outside heat can also be accomplished by just adding more layers of insulation, as close as possible to your skin.

Start with wearing all the warm clothes you have, including sweaters and jackets. Then you sleep in a sleeping bag, not in drafty blankets. If you are still cold at night, you can insert the first sleeping bag into a second one, maybe with a third draped on top. Finally, it helps to be sleeping in a small enclosed space, like a car or small tent. The smaller this space is, the better your body heat will keep it warm (so a car or one-man tent work better than a van or cabin tent).

In my experience, there is no low temperature that can’t be addressed at night by simply adding more insulation, provided it is dry. You don’t need to use any fuel at all! (I have done zero degrees F but can't speak with authority about temperatures lower than that.)

The situation is different during the day, when you are moving around and can’t carry all that insulation with you. To type on a keyboard, for example, the ambient temperature has to be warm enough so your fingers will work. (At this moment, I am lying in a car with the heater turned on.) When you are out of your cocoon and need to get things done, you may indeed need an active heat source, but if your body is still bundled up well you probably don’t need as much heat as you think you do. Wearing more clothes is always cheaper than turning up the thermostat.

As for having a human sleep partner to warm you up... that heat source is overrated! To begin with, your partner is a localized heat source. He/she does not heat or insulate you on the other side. Furthermore, your sleep position is rarely in sync with theirs. If you insist on sleeping naked with this person, then you’ve lost as significant layer of insulation (warm clothing). It may get complicated emotionally, but strictly in terms of heat retention, it is far more efficient to sleep alone.

You Don't Need: Special Mattresses. You can’t sleep for long on a hard, flat surface. I’ve tried many times, and it doesn’t work. The problem is that your body is bumpy, not flat, so there will be narrow pinch points where it comes in contact with the hard surface. After a while resting on these pressure points, the blood circulation gets cut off, and it begins to hurt. To sleep well, you need some minimal padding, but you don’t need Memory Foam™, a water bed or a Serta™ Sleep Number™ Bed. You just need enough padding to distribute a point of pressure onto several square inches. Then you will turn over several times throughout the night so that this wider area doesn't become sore.

You may protest: “But I have a very delicate back, and I need this special mattress to protect it.” Rubbish! For millennia, humans have been sleeping without special mattresses and have gotten by. You have to ask yourself whether your back problems aren’t caused by your cushy mattress and posh existence (not to mention your rich diet!). Like any body part, your back is going to work best if it is exercised – put through a little stress – and maybe one way to do this is to sleep with minimal padding.

In my experience, a half-inch of hard foam is sufficient, but a full inch is better. An air mattress is luxury, indeed! Car seats are fine. Sometimes the grass under the floor of a tent is sufficient. In a pinch, you can use blankets or a sleeping bag as padding underneath you. You can look around you for available materials. After sleeping on cushy Memory Foam for years, it might take a while to get used to anything else, but it is something your body can adapt to, and eventually you’ll be sleeping just as well.

You Don't Need: Lots of Space. When sleeping in cars, I have often squeeze myself into some very confined areas. It's like living in a tight space capsule. I have curled up in the fetal position in the back seat of some tiny European cars and still slept well. You don’t need a queen-size bed to toss and turn on. In fact, the smaller space might actually be better. It is certainly better for heat retention, but I also find that I go to sleep faster in a confined space.

You do need to be able to lie level, with your head at about the same level as your feet. If any body part is significantly lower than the rest, blood will pool there and it will eventually become uncomfortable. (You can sleep sitting up on occasion, like in airplanes, but it is rarely optimal sleep and it may be damaging to your cardiovascular system over time.)

When sleeping on a big flat bed, there is a preferred sleep position your body usually reverts to. Some people usually sleep on their backs, others on their stomachs, etc. If you sleep in a confined space, you may be forced into a different position. This may take a few nights to get used to, but your body will adapt. (I traditionally sleep on my stomach, and I end up that way on a hotel bed, but I can sleep just as well on my side, which is how I usually do it in a car.)

One thing you do need is the opportunity to change position during the night. It is normal to “turn over,” or change sleep position, several times throughout the night. This prevents bed sores on the part of your body that is bearing your weight. This is one reason that sleeping in a coffin wouldn’t work: You have to have enough space to turn, or your body will protest and wake you up in the middle of the night.

You don’t need an infinite number of sleep positions, however; only two! You need your "primary position", and you need a "relief position" to give the pressure points of your primary position a rest. You sleep in your primary position until it becomes uncomfortable; then you shift to a secondary position. After a few minutes in the new position, the pressure points recover, and you can turn back to your original position. So, when choosing a confined space to sleep in, you don’t just need to be able to fit; you also need to be able to turn to a second position, resting on different parts of your body.

You Don't Need: Quiet and Darkness. Your brain needs protection from sensory input to sleep well. It is hard to sleep in a noisy or brightly lit area – or when CNN is blaring at you from a screen overhead. (It is also a significant danger to your hearing to sleep in a noisy place.) There is no reason, however, that you can’t create your own quiet and darkness locally when the environment would give them to you. Quiet is created locally through use of foam earplugs (available in the firearms section of Acme). These are rolled up and insert all the way inside the ear canal, so they are barely protruding from the ear. This cuts nearly all sounds down to murmur. To create artificial darkness, you can use a $3 sleep mask (from the suitcase/travel department at Acme). If you don’t have one, you can use a wool cap or a shirt pulled down over your eyes.

Earplugs are handy accessories even when you’re not trying to sleep. Cuts down the noise of everyday life! For example, if you find yourself in a waiting room with a TV blaring, just insert your earplugs and you’re in heaven again!

You Don't Need: A Full Night's Sleep Every Night. College students learn quickly that you can get by without much sleep if you need to. Most people can pull an "all-nighter" and still be reasonably functional in the morning. The one thing you can't do is repeat all nighters several nights in a row. Eventually, the sleep deficit is going to catch up with you.

Without sleep, the first thing you lose is your creativity. Sometimes, lack of sleep is intoxicating, but like other forms of intoxication, you can't expect your judgment to be there too. After more than 24 hours without sleep, you start to go seriously insane, with effects resembling schizophrenia. You really don't want to push it.

But if life or travel circumstances present you with a sleepless night, you don't need to panic. You'll catch up on it later. You want to avoid bad sleep if you can, but if your night gets washed out, you'll make do. Sometimes just a few catnaps is enough to keep you going. You might not be good for much while awake (no creativity), but you'll survive. Knowing this, can give you some flexibility when planning ahead. "I'll get good sleep on Monday and Wednesday, but Tuesday could be rough."

One of the useful functions of sleep is just to help you pass the time in a boring location, when your brain is functioning poorly so you can't get anything done. If you are trapped in a city overnight, and the subway doesn't open until morning, sometimes the best thing to do is give up. Just walk around for six hours and try to make some use of your time. The point is, you can probably catch up on sleep later.

In the course of my normal life at present, I pass back and forth across many time zones. Like airline pilots, I have learned to get used to it. As long as I get 7 hours of sleep in each 24 hour period, I'm fine, and whenever I have a chance to catch more sleep, I take advantage of it. Sleep, I find, is something like a bank account: You can make larger withdrawls on occasion, as long as you are prepared to bank more sleep later.

You Don't Need: Privacy. When looking for a place to sleep, it is reasonable to seek privacy. After all, when you are unconscious you can’t protect yourself from thieves, predators and others who would do you harm. Privacy is the best policy whenever you can get it. For most animals, sleeping and hiding go together.

But you can get a good night’s sleep in public places if you need to. Airports are places I often find myself sleeping, and if you can do it inside security, there is very little risk. With earplugs and eye covering, I can often sleep just as soundly at Gate A19 as in any hotel. For a catnap, you can also sleep on beaches and public parks during the day. You can also in airport outside security if necessary. The enormous value of sleep often outweighs the vulnerability of it.

To sleep comfortably in a public place, you have to pass some significant emotional hurdles. Sleep is a big, dark question mark to most of us. We don’t have a clue what is going o there, so it’s frightening to do it in public. Are you going to sleepwalk or blurt out something embarrassing in your dreams? Are you going to look stupid while you sleep, so people laugh at you? Closing yourself in a private room avoids any such risk, but unfortunately, this kind of privacy can be expensive, both in money and time.

There is no easy solution here. You just have to get to know your sleeping self and be comfortable with it. Once, I set up a video camera to record myself sleeping in a normal bed. I saw that I turned about every twenty minutes and always rotated in the same direction, wrapping myself in my sheets like a mummy. It was very interesting to see myself sleeping, and it contributed to my sleeping self-confidence.

As I have become more relaxed with my waking self (no easy feat in itself), I have come to terms with my sleeping self. My dreams as a child were bizarre and terrifying, and I walked and talked in my sleep. Sleep was frightening! In middle age, however, I have no fear. My dreams today are pretty much an extension of my waking state. I dream about the same things I am thinking about during the day, making sleep a fertile extension of my thinking time. I get lots of things done during sleep, and I don’t have any nightmare unless my life really is a nightmare when I’m awake. Thus, sleeping in a public place (as long as it it safe) isn't really a problem for me.

Males do have a special problem in that during REM sleep, they—um—“expand”. In other words, sleep is nature’s Viagra, and there is a chance this non-sexual boner may be evident to the general public. (For the record, the same thing happens to females at night, but it’s not visible.) You can address this risk by covering yourself with a light airline-style blanket, which you may need anyway to keep warm

I'll always seek our privacy when it is available, but if it isn't I'll make do. The important thing is to adapt to your environment and get some sleep whatever way you can.

And Finally, Some Philosophy....

When people have difficulty sleeping, it usually has more to do with life circumstances than sleeping circumstances. Obviously, if you are under a lot of stress during the day, your problems are going to join you at night. If you are repressing things during the day—that is, refusing to deal with problems directly—then it is likely they will emerge in your nightmares.

It also appears that sleep becomes more irregular as people age. So what's the big deal? You simply sleep when you can and get up and do things when you can't. The only thing that makes irregular sleep a burden is your insistence that it take place during certain hours. Sometimes, the best guarantee of insomnia is the mantra, "I must get some sleep!"

And if you need an alarm clock to wake up, you are cheating sleep. Sure, work and travel may demand an alarm occasionally, but if you can manage to sleep without it, according to your body's own rhythms, then you'll have your head screwed on straighter when you rise.

When you hit the sack and sleep doesn't come, it is easy to blame your bed. When Garrison Keillor mentions the Sleep Number™ bed, you may be duped into thinking some special product like this will solve your problems. There are no lack of marketers willing to sell you something to improve your sleep. Like any other placebo, these products may work if you think they will, but they don't address the underlying problems. They can't fix your head!

Once you get your head around something and decide you can do it, it is amazing how previous barriers get brushed aside. If you are on a mission to climb a mountain, you'll find a place to sleep, and you'll sleep well, because working toward a purpose is more effective than any sleep aid.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Psychology of Keeping Warm

In an earlier entry, I talked about How to Keep Warm. The basic strategy is simple: keep dry and keep adding layers of clothing (or sleeping bags) until you are comfortable. This certainly works, but it doesn't tell the whole story about handling cold. It turns out your state of mind has a lot to do with how cold or warm you feel.

As animals go, humans are pretty naked. We have no fur, so we rely mainly on clothing to keep us warm. That doesn't mean our body has no resources, though. Humans have been living in cold regions for millenia, most of that time without central heating and without much more than loose animal skins to throw over themselves. Think of Eskimos living in igloos or American Indians in teepees. Yes, humans had fire, but you can't stoke a fire all night and still sleep, and fire doesn't help you when you're moving about.

To have survived, our bodies must have numerous physiological adaptations to the cold, most of which we rarely call upon in the modern world. An obvious one is shivering. If your core body temperature falls below a certain level, the body automatically ramps up metabolic activity. Other adaptations are less obvious. One is the restriction of blood flow to the skin and extremities. Others are various chemical processes to produce and retain heat inside the body.

You don't really know what your body can do until you test it. Unfortunately, most of us never really do. When we get a little chilly, we cry, "I'm cold!" and rush back inside.

Yet, there are still people who push the limits. Alpinists climb mountains in harsh conditions, sleeping on the ice with only the equipment they can carry with them. In the Himalayas, monks make long winter treks in the same thin robes they wear in summer. And every winter in northern climates damn fools cut holes in the ice and insist on swimming, if only for a few minutes. Far from being pained by the cold, these people seem to revel in it! The cold certainly isn't killing them. On the contrary, it seems to make them healthier!

What makes these cold adventurers different than those who fear and hate the cold? It's probably not their bodies. It's more likely a matter of attitude.

When you are depressed, for example, you probably won't take the cold very well. You'll huddle under blankets and turn the heat way up. On the other hand, if you are well-motivated and directed toward a mission—like mountain climbers are—you'll brush the cold aside until it becomes a real obstacle.

Part of the difference may be physiological. There could be a mysterious mind-over-body thing where your body responds better when your brain thinks it can do something. But the main reason cold-haters are cold and cold-lovers are comfortable is that cold lovers take control of their situation while cold haters just let things happen.

When people are depressed, poorly directed or regard themselves as victims, they become very passive. "Woe is me!" they say, instead of taking positive actions to address their problems. It is amazing how many people will complain about the cold rather than doing something simple like putting on a damn sweater!

Seriously, when someone claims to be cold, look at what they are wearing. In most cases, you'll see that their clothing isn't suited to the weather at hand. And they would rather complain about their discomfort than actually remedy it!

If you're cold all the time, try wearing some long thermal underwear. It's not very expensive (at Acme™), and because it is close to your skin, it works wonders for raising your body temperature. If that doesn't work, try two layers of long underwear. It's not rocket science! Yet, passive, poorly directed people won't take pro-active steps like this until they have already gone through a lot of pain.

At the other end of the spectrum are strongly motivated people who take control of whatever problem they face. They realize, "I'm getting cold. What do I need to do to address this problem?" They look around their environment for solutions, and they actually implement them!

Passive people tend to fall back on conventional solutions and are reluctant to try anything hidden or unusual (like long underwear). Active people are more creative, independent and opportunistic, taking advantage of whatever tools they find in the environment, even for purposes those tools weren't originally intended for. Passive people often to try to buy their way out of their problems -- say by ordering some sort of expensive mountaineer's jacket from L.L. Bean. Active people tend to solve problems quicker, cheaper and more effectively using the materials at hand. Their ingenuity usually works better than money because they are actually listening to their own senses and figuring out what the real problem is.

Another difference between passive and active people concerns tolerance of mild discomfort. When you're depressed or don't respect yourself, every unpleasant sensation is magnified. Even a little chill seems intolerable and triggers panic. Well-directed people will brush the chill aside. They analyze it and say, "It's no big thing; my body can handle it." The important thing to the well-directed people is pursuing the mission at hand; they are not going to let the cold or any other irritating sensation get in the way of it. Only when the irritation becomes an actual obstacle will they stop and address it.

Of course, the same principle applies to managing heat. Some people insist that they can't live without air conditioning as soon as the thermometer drifts a little above room temperature. Turns out, your body has a lot of built-in adaptations to heat as well as the cold (like expanding the sweat glands), but you have to turn these systems on through actual use. Construction workers manage to get things done in all kinds of weather through a combination of pro-active adaptation and just not giving a damn about whatever irritation gets in their way.

In a wider sense, this can apply to anything. Passive people see obstacles, while active people find solutions. Often, it's just a matter of getting off your hiney and doing something!

You can't make cold or heat go away, and there are limits to what your body can safely tolerate, but no matter what circumstances you are facing, you probably have a lot more negotiating power than you think you do. You just have to get it into your head that the problem is yours, not someone else's, and that you alone are going to solve it!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Okay, maybe it's time we sat down and talked about the birds and the bees. Just because I am suggesting you sleep for free doesn't mean I think you can get by without money. Unfortunately, money is essential in life, and you have to find a way to generate it. Otherwise, your life is going to be difficult and painful no matter how you cut corners.

I propose Free Sleeping merely as a tool in your arsenal to help you control your costs, so you can live comfortably and do the things you want to do within the income you have. You still need an income, though.

What I mean to say -- and you understand this is as hard for me as it is for you -- the thing is, what I want to say is....

You have to get a job!

This doesn't roll easily off my tongue: j-j-j-job. Nonetheless, I have to say it or some of you will get the wrong impression, that you can just live off the land, or off the discards from society, without any filthy lucre in your pocket. Sooner or later, you have to make a deal with the devil. You have to provide a service to someone else that they are willing to pay you for.

It isn't easy. One of the major challenges in life is finding work that will make you enough money to survive while at the same time allowing you to pursue your own goals and maintain your own morals. If you are willing to sacrifice your principles, there is plenty of work out there. It is just a matter of how low you are willing to sink.

For the things you most want to do -- like pursuing some creative art or directly helping people in need -- it unlikely that anyone will pay you for it. That's when you have to be willing to make sacrifices and compromises, and one of them might mean doing without formal lodging.

Generally speaking, the higher paying jobs require more commitment. Most "careers" require turning your life over to them. If you are an engineer or computer programmer, for example, you're going to have to devote your brain to other people's projects during most of your working day. If you feel that your brain time is more valuable than that, then you will have to take more of a "caretaking" job, like security guard, factory worker or airline ramp worker, where your body is working for your employer but your mind is still your own. Unfortunately, these jobs tend to pay far less than those that demand your full brain and full commitment.

The main idea of Free Sleeping is that it lowers your cost of living and thereby increases your options for finding the kind of work that works for you. It means you don't have to make a huge salary to survive.

Likewise, learning to sleep cheaply when traveling means that you'll be able do more of it. Most Americans, for example, never travel overseas, in part because the cost is so daunting. There's airfare, of course but also a hotel bill that often dwarfs it. In Hawaii, the cheapest hotels can set you back $200 a night -- or you can rent a car for $200 a week, sleep in it, and never pay a cent for lodging. In Paris, you can stay at the Sheraton for $200 a night, or you could stay in a youth hostel for a whole week for the same price. The only barrier is you getting your mind around the concept -- of sleeping in a way that may not meet your preconceptions.

And ultimately, you still need the $200, which has to come from somewhere.

If you are out of work now, I don't have any easy solution for you. I know times are tough, with the US unemployment rate over 10%, and most of the readily available jobs of a few years ago have evaporated. It used to be that every fast food restaurant was hiring; now, you may have to fight for even those jobs.

But there are still jobs out there. As I drive across the country (in my own temporary self-made job) I still see Help Wanted signs. They are usually in pockets of relative prosperity that have been little affected by the recession, like Nebraska, but they can be found in hard-hit areas as well. Last week on the Big Island of Hawaii, I saw that a McDonalds was hiring at $9/hour (photo). The only trouble, of course, is that you're not in Hawaii right now, and you probably couldn't afford to live there by any conventional means.

The burden for most people who have lost their jobs is not just the lack of opportunities but the huge infrastructure they built around themselves when times were good. Not only are they out of work, but they are trapped in a house that can't be sold with pets and possessions (and I dare say children) that can't be easily gotten rid of. A minimum-wage job may be heaven to someone with few expenses, but it's a humiliation to someone who has been making many times more and has built their life based on that assumption.

If there is anything worthwhile I can convey in this blog, it's the importance of keeping your life lean and simple regardless of your income. If your living expenses are only a fraction of your income and you are free to change course with minimal notice, then you are by any practical measure "wealthy", even if you are earning only minimum wage. Many who are making (or once made) $100,000/year are in far worst straits than you are, because their obligations and perceived "needs" crept upward with their income.

When you have the money, it's really hard to resist spending it. But spending beyond your basic needs almost always results in new obligations. If you buy a second car or second home, you've also bought a huge maintenance burden you don't really need. If the economic tide turns, all those obligations will come back to bite you. If your income drops from $100,000 down to $50,000, suddenly you could find yourself in dire straits, even if $50,000 once seemed like a lot of money.

What I am trying to do in this blog is explore some of the baseline conditions of life: the lowest point a which you can comfortably get by. If the weather is good, you might be able to buy a $10 sleeping bag at Acme™ and sleep just as comfortably in car as in a $100 hotel room.

Once, this lifestyle might have embarrassed me, but now I am more embarrassed by the people who are trapped in their huge, self-inflicted infrastructure who insist they can't sleep in a car because it would hurt their back. (Get a clue: Your back hurts because you've been sleeping in that cushy bed all your life!) I see no reason to be embarrassed by freedom.

Even at my advanced age, I would work at McDonalds. I'd rather be in the back flipping burgers than up front working the registers, but I could live comfortably on that income. To me, this is a reasonable sacrifice to protect my mind. You couldn't pay me anything to be an air traffic controller or any other job where they expect me to "think" for a living and constantly concentrate on a task that I don't thoroughly believe in.

That's how your life gets sucked away.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Health Club Deal: $300 for 2 Years!

Here's pretty decent deal on a health club membership: $299.99 (aka $300) at Sam's Club for a 2 -year membership at 24-Hour Fitness. That's $12.50/month for unlimited showers and hot tub soaks at the vast majority of 24-Hour Fitness clubs in the USA (excluding only "Super Sport" clubs in certain wealthy neighborhoods). Even if you had to join Sams Club ($35) just to take advantage of this offer, you'd still be getting a fantastic deal.

A health club membership like this means you could sleep in rough circumstances (like camping or in your car) and still maintain your personal hygiene. If you slept in a car, stored your clothes in a storage unit and showered at a health club, your real quality of life (and your appearance to others) isn't going to be different than living in a fixed residence. As long as you aren't into entertaining and don't need television, this is a sustainable lifestyle.

24-Hour Fitness is a national chain, but it isn't located everywhere. It is strongest on the West Coast, especially Southern California, Las Vegas and Phoenix. (Here's their location map.) This chain is not helpful in the Northeast, although there is one Sport club (covered by the above plan) in the Bronx, New York City. There are even clubs in Hawaii, on both Oahu and Maui. (Rent a car, sleep in it and shower at the club, and you can avoid rip-off hotel bills.) In my favorite camping city, San Diego, there are clubs everywhere, some of them adjacent to the trolley line. Even during the rains last February, when my tent got swamped, I could still walk to the 24-Hour Fitness and soak in the hot tub.

24-Hour Fitness seems to be the best club for this purpose, at least in the Southwest. The "24-hour" feature can be extremely helpful at times. Another chain, LA Fitness, has a stronger presence in the Northeast (location map), but I'm not familiar with their pricing or policies. Golds Gym has more locations than both clubs combined, but each club is individually owned and they may not have a national plan.

If you know of any other useful health club deals, let me know.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On Hiatus

New additions to this blog have been temporarily suspended while I focus on my main writing project, a novel.

The novel happens to feature a homeless guy. You can read the completed chapters here....

I expect to reactivate this blog eventually. When I do, here are some of the topics I hope to cover:
  • The Psychology of Keeping Warm
  • Medical Insurance
You can still read the past year of existing blog entries below.