Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Gear After a Year

After nearly a year of continuous travel, our gear held up very well.  A few things failed and had to be replaced; others were eventually sent home or left behind after they were no longer useful to the remainder of our trip.  The bulk of it stayed with us, and with few exceptions we were happy with what we decided to carry.  We covered our gear in some detail originally; we’ll just mention the exceptions here.  This post is probably of limited interest to people who aren’t planning to travel extensively.  We found a lot of very useful, first-hand information on travel gear when we were planning this trip, and always wanted to return the favor to other travelers.
The stars:
We were chasing summer the entire year, but aside from a heat wave in Australia, we were able to stay comfortable by layering, until we reached Asia, where it was not simply hot, but also muggy.  We both bought inexpensive hand fans, and used them constantly.  They were probably our best purchase on the road.  Our handkerchiefs were also very handy for brow mopping from that time onward.  We started the trip with our hats, and wore them nearly every day.  These are very much function over form hats; wide brimmed, crushable, and washable.  David’s is a Henschel Hats Breezer, which is very cool (as cool, if not cooler than a mesh Tilley), and Lana’s is a Wallaroo.
The slim, 3-plug outlet expander, we had was surprisingly handy.  We’d regularly have only one, or maybe two power outlets in our room for the night, and the expander allowed us to use the laptop while also re-charging two other devices or camera batteries.  The fact that it could plug in with a slim profile and pivoting plug made it handy when the only outlet was behind the headboard (yep, that happened).  This happens to be a near-antique item, as it doesn’t have the bulky flange that would prevent you from plugging a grounded plug into it.  None of our travel gear had a grounded plug, and with one or two exceptions, nowhere outside the US where we plugged in had a grounded outlet anyway.  If you don’t have any grounded plugs either, you could certainly cut the flanges off one of the new, bulky outlet expanders, or just search for an old one.
Our headlamps were useful far beyond their primary planned use, on the Inca Trail. We used them as headlights when bicycling back to our hotel after dinner, as flashlights on unlit streets, in caves, spotting lemurs on night walks, and as our only source of light after the generators turned off in several parts of the world.
Lana always carried a pen and a small notepad, which we quickly learned to use to write down the address for our next hotel (very useful when your pronunciation of a street name isn’t recognizable to a local), but also used for phone numbers, tips and email addresses from other travelers, and as a general scratch pad for trip plans, grocery lists, etc.
We carried a fair array of electronics, but never regretted any of it.  In part, they were all compact and light; they also allowed us to keep connected and sane.   Specifically, our stodgy-looking, but ultra-book weight and performance Thinkpad laptop was our most used gadget, allowing us to stay on top of the constant trip planning that long-term travel requires, acting to offload over 500 GB of pictures from our cameras, and allowing us to process all of those pictures and keep the blog updated (well, until May, at least). 
The Nexus 7 tablet also filled in for some light-duty trip-planning and correspondence, when the laptop was being used for pictures. 
The Kindle Fire, like the Nexus was great as a portable library, so we didn’t have to pack the weight and volume of all the books we read along the way.  The Fire also let us continue reading several magazine subscriptions that include a free tablet version with the print subscription.  The New Yorker was an excellent supplement to our e-books for shorter reading, like plane trips.  We also looked forward to browsing the cartoons together, which the tablet version makes very easy.
Our little, smart not-phones (Samsung Galaxy Player 4—wifi only), were a tie for most used gadget, with the laptop.  Their memory card slots allowed us carry our entire music library with us; while some of the most magical parts of our journey were completely silent, we have many happy memories of listening to music together in cars, and hotel rooms.  We followed a handful of NPR podcasts with them as well.   They also acted as alternate e-readers, our primary choice for offline maps of the world, foreign language dictionaries, currency conversion, and other essential or simply convenient travel apps.  Outside of the water, they were always on our persons.
Our camera gear worked very well; the Goldilocks combination of large, medium and little cameras gave us a just-right flexibility for different situations.  Lana mostly used the compact, while David mostly used the DSLR.  However, David would often take pictures with the compact when we were traveling light, with just that camera, and Lana would also take the DSLR at times.  The middle-sized G12 was a great floater camera for both of us, as well as our snorkeling camera, using the underwater housing.  It was a great alternative to the heavier DSLR on hot or long days, but still captured RAW image data, for more creative latitude with the final results.  Its RAW capability was also instrumental in getting excellent, color-corrected underwater photographs when snorkeling.   The total weight and volume of our cameras exceeded that of our electronics, but again, we do not begrudge any of it.  Nor did we feel like we skimped—it was just enough, and not too much.
For the DSLR and telephoto lens, I used Crumpler’s large sized Haven bag insert in a normal backpack, rather than a dedicated camera bag.  It was a huge success.  The backpack was a lot more versatile than a camera bag, as well as being less obviously filled with expensive gear.  The insert’s pockets were also great for organizing things, and I could reach in and get what I needed by feel, very quickly.  Sometimes I moved the insert into my satchel, and that made for an even less obvious camera bag.
Hand sanitizer and wet wipes: yes, it’s anecdotal, but we got sick (flu/cold sick, not food sick) once in the entire trip, and that was from a fellow traveller on the Inca Trail, who was lax at covering a cough.  We attribute our unusual health (we normally have more colds in the same time period at home) to the liberal application of hand sanitizer and wet wipes.  We travelled widely in areas where clean water was not available for hand washing.  We each kept a small bottle of hand sanitizer with us, and surreptitiously applied it throughout the day, and before eating anything.  We wiped down all the surfaces on planes, trains, buses and ferries with hand wipes, as we sat down; with 40 plane flights, we feel like we had pretty good results.
We found very small, roll-on bottled of DEET insect repellent at the Boots pharmacies in Thailand.  They were the size of a travel-size deodorant, and very convenient in both size and application, especially since DEET residue on your fingers can melt plastics you touch—things like sunglasses, cameras, etc.  We were in malaria zones for several months, and preventing bites is much safer than relying on antibiotics (which we also took, don’t get us wrong).
We each packed a smaller bag in our luggage: Lana had a purse, and David had a satchel.  When we’d arrive in an area, we’d unpack those bags, and add our walk-around essentials to them.  They were less conspicuous, and more comfortable (no sweaty back) than our backpacks, as long as we didn’t overfill them.  It was also easier and faster to fill them with just the things we needed for a day trip than to unload everything we didn’t need from our backpacks, to lighten them.  For hikes, we would empty one or both of our packs and and fill it with just what we needed, but in cities, we generally left the packs behind.
Our luggage itself was a critical component of the entire trip—they contained our entire material world for the year.  They were also one of the few items where we both chose the same exact thing, albeit independently.  David initially tried a Rick Steves bag which was similar in size and had the same convertible backpack design as Lana’s eBags Mother Lode Weekender.  After comparing the two, he exchanged it for for the eBags version, which has a lot more pockets for organizing small things, and also more structure (the Rick Steves works great if you put everything in packing cubes—David doesn’t, and it became a shapeless blob when packed).  The many pockets were awesome—we both quickly reached a point where we could lay hands on any piece of gear in our bags in the dark, or without looking at the bag, by virtue of things staying put and having dedicated spots.  That was very handy in the middle of the night, or even for grabbing a pair of headphones without removing the entire bag from overhead storage on a bus, plane or train.  With our daypacks, Lana was the one who drifted to David’s choice; after a few weeks of not finding a bag that was large enough without being too large, Lana got the same Osprey Quasar that David had originally chosen.  She had the foresight to get it in light green however, and that was a much better choice than David’s black one, in the many hot and sunny places we traveled.  We also each carried a pair of rain covers, one for each bag, and they were indispensible in the inevitable rain that fell (not to mention a few distressingly soggy boat trips), as well as acting as a good security cover in crowded areas.
Zipper seal bags, in a variety of sizes, were useful for many things.  The giant sized ones were good at keeping things dry at the beach, as well as quarantining dirty clothes from clean on travel days (the vacuum compression bag below is conveniently close to the dimensions of our eBags, so fit in well, even when filled with several days of laundry).  Tiny ones stored pills in a lot smaller space than bottles, and medium sized ones were the most versatile.  We even used them as a sink stopper while washing clothes.
Clothing choices are fairly individual, and dependent on the destination(s) but a few general recommendations:
Ex-Officio underwear are great—they are much more compact than cotton, about twice as many fit in the space that the same number of cotton underwear would occupy.  They are comfortable and breathable, and when hand washed, they dry by the next morning, even in humid climates. 
Lana found that loose-fitting shirts that covered the shoulder were very versatile for hot climates, or areas where women must cover their shoulders.  A light scarf also works well for for covering head and shoulders, whether for sun protection or to observe local customs.
David found some Drymax running socks that dried very quickly, and were also very comfortable for a full day hiking, or worse, a full day of museums.  He got all long/crew length pairs, so they could be worn with pants or shorts and simply folded the cuff down when he wore them with shorts .  If you care about such things, wearing identical socks for a year of summer will give a pretty stark tan line.  Our Aussie friends even had a name for it—they call it a Farmer Jim tan.  Here, David is wearing different socks than he took on the trip:
We had a few equipment failures, but not as many as we feared.  Lana’s eBag developed a rip near one of the handles, after a particularly vicious yank from a bus luggage handler.  Ebags has a lifetime guarantee, and fortunately the bag held up until we were able to arrange the replacement.  David’s identical model bag survived the entire trip.  On the electronics side, the casualties were a memory card reader, two SD cards (delaminated and lost the write-enable switch), one USB charger, and David’s compact Sony camera (we replaced everything but the camera, going with just Lana’s for a compact).  Lana broke or misplaced about 6 pair of cheap sunglasses.  We had some clothing failures too: David wore out two shirts ; Lana wore out one shirt, two pair of pants, and one pair of shorts.
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We lost very few items: Lana lost her amazing Technicolor scarf (below) in Vietnam, and her soft-sided camera case (and the spare battery it had in it) in London, the day before we flew home.  David’s electric shaver was stolen or lost from his bag when his bag went missing for nearly a week at the Nairobi airport.
We were conscious of the weight of our bags, and as soon as we could, we would leave guide books at hotels, or send home gear that we’d no longer be using, along with our quarterly photo backups.  Although truthfully as the trip went along we either bought a few e-book travelguides or just relied on advice from other travelers we met, and travel app resources, especially in Europe.  We shipped our sleep sheets home after South America, and we shipped our snorkel gear and the underwater camera housing home from Jordan, after our last great snorkeling opportunity. 
There were some items we didn’t use often, but we’d definitely take again, as they were worth it when needed:
Pictured above: travel towels, cheap global phone , sewing kit, small screwdrivers, MacGyver kit (zip ties, gaffers tape, velcro cable wrap, and elastic hairbands) , rocket blower (in a zipper bag to keep dust out of it while stored), travel toothbrush (for scrubbing wounds—yep, that was necessary), USB battery, rain coats for us, a rainsleeve for the DSLR, and an elastic clothes line. 
The epi-pen pictured above was mistakenly included in that group—it was instead part of the gear we never had to use, but wouldn’t consider traveling without (Lana has a bee sting allergy).  The more dire portions (like the large wound clotting patch, or the wilderness survival guide) of the first aid kit were also unused, thank goodness!  Unfortunately, we used a fair portion of the rest of the first aid kit.  A wide selection of band-aids, antiseptic cream in individual packets, and a thermometer were particularly useful.  We also carried an electronic first aid kit of sorts, which we would also not travel without, despite not needing it this time. 
Out of all of our gear, we have a pretty short list of items that we wouldn’t take with us again:
The SteriPEN water purifier and re-usable bottles  (Bubi bottle in the center—rolled up) were well intended, but not practical.  We were usually drinking more than two re-usable bottles in a day, and didn’t have a palatable source of water to purify part way through the day.  Where the water supply was not potable, bottled drinking water was extremely cheap, and available everywhere, even on the first two days of the Inca trail.  Given the choice between drinking too little water, because it tasted bad, and buying water, we went with buying, but being well hydrated.  In many places, recycling was definitely present; in others, locals would generally re-use emptied bottles themselves.
We quickly abandoned toilet paper in favor of multi-tasking pocket tissue packs.  Aside from being useful for other personal needs, they’re likely to always be on your person, which means you’ll have them with you the umpteenth time you realize, belatedly, that the restroom has no toilet paper.
The laundry soap leaves and the universal sink stopper are borderline inclusions.  Mostly we found that hand-washing clothes was not a viable, long-term solution to laundry.  It was great to have the ability every now and again, but we were unable to get our clothes really clean in a sink.  After a couple of washes, they just didn’t smell good.  We ended up contributing to the local economy by using laundry services instead.  With one or two exceptions, it was very inexpensive (around $1/lb. or $2/kg) and ready later that day, or the morning of the following day.  A plastic zipper bag can act as a sink stopper in a pinch, but we probably would take the universal stopper again—it was small, light, and it dried out easily, unlike a bag.  The laundry soap leaves are tiny and light, but we’d probably skip the expense.  We found we could purchase small quantities of laundry soap, often in individual use packets, in most of the world, and it worked much, much better than the soap leaves.
The truth is that since we’ve been back, we’re still living out of our packs.  Since we still have a renter in our house and no jobs on the horizon, we’ve been staying either with David’s mom or Lana’s parents, or up at our family’s cabin near Leadville, Colorado. We’re so fortunate and grateful to have a choice of where to stay, but we certainly don’t want to wear out our welcome anywhere.  It just makes sense to continue to use our bags since we know that anything and everything we could possibly need will fit in there, and we know exactly where it goes. We’ve changed out our clothes for different sets, but we still use just about the same amount, and do laundry just about as often.  And while it is true that it’s convenient, we probably are also clinging to the lifestyle we’ve been living for the last year.  We’re still overwhelmed when we look at all of our stuff in Lana’s parents’ basement. It’s hard to know what to do with it all when you know all you need is what you can carry on your back.
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We know most people won’t be spending their next year traveling the world, but if you’re going on a two week vacation, or even a weekend trip, think about taking less baggage with you. We know no matter what we won’t ever take more baggage that we can carry without wheels.  It can take a while to feel confident that you’ll have everything you’ll need (or that you really won’t need what you don’t have with you), but when you reach that point, it’s a lot easier to focus on enjoying where you are, and who you’re with without being distracted by what you have.