When you live in an Airstream, where storage is as tight as shelf space in a holiday refrigerator, the prospect of receiving Christmas gifts is more alarming than exciting. I have exactly one 15-by-20-inch drawer and one slightly smaller shelf for storing all of my clothes, so more socks, underwear, and extraneous holiday sweaters are unwelcome. My wife, Jen, and I have curated our kits down to the minimum, and I subscribe to the rule that if we get something new, something old first has to go.
But we do have some important, portable essentials. So in deference to the holiday-giving spirit, I looked through our gear and came up with the following few items that are relatively small but so useful that most van-lifers will be happy to find some space for them.
America The Beautiful Pass ($ 80)
Top on the list is an America the Beautiful Pass, which covers entrance fees for a year to over 2,000 federally managed recreation sites, most notably the national parks. It also can get you discounts on additional fees at those sites, including camping, boat launches, and guided tours. This is better than a Visa gift card for a road traveler because you don’t have to choose whether to cash in you dollar value for repairs on your rig instead of see that sight—you just go gaze at Old Faithful, broken doors and leaky tanks be damned. Best of all, it’s the size of a credit card.
Leather Journal ($ 29)
In case your loved on already has a park’s pass, the folks at the for-profit Parks Project sell a collection of NPS-inspired mementos and donate a portion of the profits—they don’t disclose an exact percentage—toward 30 conservancies working on projects in the parks. The pocket-sized Leather Journal is a handy little log for jotting notes and inspiration in the field.
Luci Lux Solar Lantern ($ 20)
The only thing more practical than a park pass is, perhaps, a Luci Lux solar lantern. I know I have already raved about it, but I use and review a lot of gear and I still think this the coolest piece of equipment that money can buy. The circumference as a DVD, this inflatable plastic blows up to the height of a box of tissues, collects power throughout the day by way of the Post It Note-size panel on one side, and provides up to 24 hours of creamy, warm, free light. When we are boondocking, we skip the overhead lights (and their drain on the battery) and illuminate our evenings with a trio of these eco-lamps.
Rumpl Puffy Blanket ($ 99)
At first, I was adamantly opposed to the Rumpl Puffy Blanket because it doubled up on the down comforter we already use for our bed. Two blankets equals unnecessary, in my mind. However, the lightweight, nylon covered, synthetic-fill throw has become a staple because we don’t feel badly dragging it outside, around the campfire, and in the dirt. Those chilly nights under the stars and by the fire have gotten a bit warmer with this over our shoulders and wrapped around our knees. And on cold nights in Artemis, our Airstream, an extra layer over the bed never hurts.
Kammock Roo ($ 99)
File this one under space splurge, but the first thing Jen does every time we arrive at a campsite—sometimes before we’ve even disconnected the trailer and rolled out our front porch—is to find a spot where she can hang the hammock. Built of gossamer, tear-resistant, lightweight rip-stop nylon, the Kammock Roo is a two-person hanging bed that erects in just a few seconds, provided you have a couple of well-spaced trees. Together with the Python Straps ($ 29, sold separately), the whole thing bundles into a space smaller than football, so it’s hard for me to complain too much about its bulk. And there’s no complaining when we’re drifting gently in the breeze and dozing in the sun. Our only complaint is that it’s tough to erect in the desert, where trees are sparse, though Jen is working on a rigging system between Artemis and the truck.
Tenkara Rod Co. Teton Rod ($ 149)
Not everyone is a fisherman, but if you have any inclination and your travels take you near the occasional stream, it’s worth packing along the Tenkara Rod Co. Teton Rod. This 12-foot rod weighs less than a ProBar and telescopes in nine segments down to just 20 inches long. You’re not going to catch the quad-size trout on this setup, but it’s perfect for little creeks and high-country streams, where stealth is the key to getting a bite. The first time we broke this out, we snagged half a dozen Brookies in under and hour using only the line and flies in the package set. This rod is so small that we often have a tough time finding it under the bed, and I even frequently pack it into a bike frame bag for overnight trips into the woods.
S'mores, Cocoa and a Good Mug (From $ 22)
If all else fails and you’re seriously worried about storage, one thing that will never take up too much space—at least not for long—are comestibles. And while I admit that artisanal s’mores sound like something straight out of Portlandia, the small-batch, gourmet, 1972 Smores (yep, made in Oregon) sure taste good. Complete with graham crackers and marshmallows made from scratch and rich dark chocolate tablets, these kits come in a range of wild combinations (think: peppermint, lemon chamomile, and pumpkin pie), though we haven’t found one we like more than the plain old Original pack. Treehouse Chocolate’s Sea Salt Drinking Chocolate ($ 18), a.k.a. seriously floofy cocoa, is perfect for washing it down, and it’s so rich and creamy that it will melt even the most gift-opposed Scrooge.
Put it in a Hydro Flask coffee mug, and it’ll still scald the roof of Santa’s mouth, no matter how late he arrives.