Thursday, June 18, 2009

Road Trip Anyone?

With summer solstice just around the corner, vacations come to mind. Times being what they are, road trips may just be the thriftiest option for a summer getaway, too. They're wonderful adventures with many opportunities to stretch your travel dollars.

For us, savings begin before leaving home. About a week before any trip, we begin emptying the refrigerator of all fresh foods and leftovers – a sparsely packed fridge uses much less energy and we don't come home to UFO's (unidentifiable fungal organisms.) When leaving the house, we also close drapes and blinds on south facing windows; the house remains cool enough to allow the air conditioner to be shut off during our absence. In seasons when heating is necessary, the thermostat is turned down to the usual overnight minimum (approximately 15 Celsius.)

Once we're ready to hit the road, hubby checks the vehicle's fluid levels (engine oil, windshield washer, brake and transmission fluids,) and ensures the tires are at their correct pressure. The latter is particularly important for achieving good fuel economy. Running the vehicle's air conditioner will affect mileage so, when the heat isn't too intense, we roll down windows – lowered a few centimetres this cools the vehicle effectively with slightly better fuel efficiency than when using the air conditioner.

Aside from lodging, meals are often one of the most costly aspects of the road trip. With a little planning, this can not only be easier on the pocketbook, but offer great flavours and good nutritional value. Picnic lunches are fairly easy to scrape together: veggie and cheese sticks, simple salads, nuts and seeds, fruits and juices, all are easy to pack and prepare on the road. Bring a cooler to help keep food fresh and beverages cold. Ice can be bought at most gas stations. I bring along a small cutting board, a paring knife and a plastic bowl so I can wash and cut finger foods for each day's journey.

Another handy item is a water filtration jug, a spare filter and a sealable water jar. Keep the sealable jar filled with the filtered water and snuggled up against the ice pack so you'll always have cold water on hand. Insulated cups will keep beverages cold or hot once they're out of the cooler or thermos. Morning coffee, for us, is a must, so we pack a full thermos from home, which can then be refilled at most restaurants and some gas bar convenience stores, with more volume for less cost than two large cups. I also bring a small container of sugar and cutlery from home, so we have coffee for a few hours without having to stop.

Packing a picnic lunch really adds to the whole road trip experience, too. Those gorgeous highway "lookout" views can now be enjoyed with a nice meal. No waiting for restaurant service or food prep. A stunning setting and a good lunch quicker than any fast-food outlet can produce. And, if destination is more important than journey for you then, by packing a lunch, you don't have to stop at all to eat. The driver may snivel while others partake but, after a brief stop to rotate drivers, everyone gets to eat while safe-driving is maintained.

The only drawback with packing food is the possibility of spoilage. When travelling in a hot vehicle, even with the best cooler and ice, it's good to avoid certain foods which can easily spoil and cause serious illness or death. Salads with a mayonnaise-based dressing should top the avoid list. Salads with oil and vinegar base dressings travel much better. Eggs and meats can also cause dire sickness unless freshly cooked, specially packaged, dried, cured, or pickled. Though, you certainly won't catch me bringing pickled eggs on any road trip!

Once you've finished lunch you'll want to clean up. I bring a damp facecloth, one per person, and each in their own sealed bag. Some rest stops have water taps but, if none are available, the filtered water can be used to re-moisten the cloths as needed. I also pack a bar of laundry soap so the cloths can be cleaned each night. These cloths also come in handy when it gets too hot. Simply dampen and drape it around your neck to stay noticeably cooler.

If a limited budget is driving your road trip, remember that frequent stops gobble more fuel. Fluctuating speed, slowing for municipal speed-zones or simply leaving your vehicle idling while stopped, consumes more fuel. So, if you're looking for the best fuel economy, try keeping "pit-stops" to a minimum, and maintain a steady highway driving speed whenever possible.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Rags to Niches

The debate still continues over the use of rags versus paper towels. In our home, it's not a case of either/or. Both are used; rags far more often than paper towels, but the latter is on hand for specific purposes.

Sometimes, it's more cost-effective to dispose of towelling. For instance, I use paper to soak up oil from fried foods, or "mop" fats from stock – as we seldom fry foods and only occasionally make stock only a few towels per week are required. To use rags would mean washing them separately to avoid oily stains on other clothing – not very economical, nor environmentally friendly. At other times, is just safer using paper to clean up raw meat juices or spilled egg. Rags could easily contaminate other surfaces prior to their laundering, possibly causing dire illness. Disposing of an occasional towel lessens the risk so I'll continue using paper for this purpose.

Rags, however, are my first choice for most other household applications. Some people feel the "environmental cost" (EC) of laundering rags negates any advantage they might have over paper towels. In our home, rags are never washed separately, but with other "like" items (per their colour and/or soiling,) thus making those loads closer to capacity and thereby saving EC in the long run. It should also be noted that saving cloth from ending up in a landfill before it's been fully "consumed" must also have some merit.

All rags are not created equal, though. I once cut up an old sweatshirt to use for rags. The material – a poly-cotton blend – only pushed fluids around but wouldn't soak up anything...except oils. A-ha! I thought. Now, polyester blends are kept in a separate pile and used anytime there's a greasy mess to clean. Old towels and washcloths are perfect for polishing glass and plastic surfaces – after all, kitchen linens were made for this purpose. Old bath towels make the best soakers, for those larger spills like the dreaded toilet or bathtub overflows. Cotton-blend socks are fantastic additions to the rag bag. Worn on the hand(s), they work well for dusting or polishing small items. They're ideal shoe buffers and, when too soiled, instead of washing and perhaps ruining other laundry items, can be used as campfire "starters." Just make sure to store them in a closed tin, in a cool place, until needed. Just don't cook over that campfire until all trace of the "starter" has been burned away.

Second-hand cloth can be used for more than merely rags. I take old jeans apart and use the salvageable cloth to sew tote bags. Old pillowcases are used as storage bags and are particularly good for foods which require ventilation (e.g. onions.) "Retired" sheets could produce a dozen rags, but are used for another purpose. I cut them, across their width, into one-foot strips and then sew those strips onto the foot end of new sheets to extend their length – most sheets are just way too short for my liking! Nobody sees the mismatching foot end, and we end up with sheets long enough to fold over the top blanket.

As someone who sews, I also have a collection of remnant cloth. This doesn't go to waste either. Quilting is a possibility, but I've yet to learn that craft. So, to use those fabrics I recently made cosmetic pads with some leftover fleece sandwiched between two layers of poplin. Using a zigzag stitch, I sewed rows and columns, approximately 1-1/2 inches wide, separated by about 1/8 inch to allow cutting between them. These cosmetic pads have lasted several months now and launder well (though I put them in a "small-garment bag" to ensure the washer won't eat them.),

Ultimately, even rags become too threadbare for practical use. Don't throw them out yet, though. Laundered, they make excellent packing material.

Over time, this has become like a game: How else can second-hand cloth be of use? Do you play the Rag-time game too? Please leave a comment and share your cloth-recycling ideas.