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best travel gear  rugged travel gear

Wouldn’t it be nice if you bought something for your travels and no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t wear it out?

I’ve reviewed hundreds of items over at Practical Travel Gear, last decade on a Blogger site I was doing by myself, then from 2009 on with a team of men and women putting things through their paces. We have been able to screen out most of the duds, but still have run into a few now and then.

Overall though, like the evolution of automobiles, there aren’t a lot of clunkers around anymore. Competition is too stiff. So if you buy a name brand backpack, suitcase, jacket, or pair of hiking shoes, what you spent your hard-earned money on is probably going to last at least a few seasons.

Some items go way beyond that though, living on like The Terminator, unable to be killed. Here are some travel gear items I’ve used so much they should have fallen apart years ago. They’re still around though, still coming with me on a plane. Pay attention to the brands more than the specific items. For the ones I’ve recommended, I haven’t just used one or two things that have held up well. Usually it’s in the double digits.

Eagle Creek Suitcases/Osprey Backpacks

If you’re going to buy a wheelie backpack (not my recommendation, but if you must…) or a suitcase for vacation/biz travel, skip the bargain aisle at Costco or Burlington Coat Factory and buy something good from Eagle Creek. Yes, it’s going to cost you a bit, but you’ll still be using it a decade from now and if by chance something goes wrong because of a defect or maybe even a nasty baggage handler, they’ll replace it for you.

Ditto for Osprey, which also has a terrific guarantee on their suitcases and backpacks. Eagle Creeks seems to have backed off their backpack business to focus on luggage and packing cubes, but Osprey is still going strong and you’ll see plenty of their packs as you make your way around the world. I have never had to take advantage of the warranty for either of these companies. I keep abusing their luggage and packs, they keep on taking it.

ExOfficio Shirts and Pants

I’ve had many a traveler tell me it’s not worth it to buy travel clothing because you can just replace things as you go along. So okay, if a disposable wardrobe is how you like to roll, never mind the quality. If you would like to return from a round-the-world trip thought with pants and shirts you can still pack for the next trip, then head to I have shirts of theirs I have tried my best to wear out but they still look pretty much like they did when I took them out of the package. I’ve got pants of theirs I’ve packed for at least 20 countries and they’re still in peak condition. It’s uncanny. Oh, and they dry in a flash when you sink wash them, which any light packer knows is the key to carrying less.

Craghoppers Shirts and Pants

Take everything I said above and substitute Craghoppers for ExOfficio. These guys even use thin strips of fabric to hold buttons to the clothing instead of thread, so you’re never going to have to replace a button. Fantastic clothing and easier to find on the European side of the Atlantic.

Kelty Backpacks

Kelty backpackIf you’re on a budget and the prices for Eagle Creek and Osprey are scaring you off, go for a Kelty pack and you’ll probably be just fine. Ounce for ounce and feature for feature, these are the best values in the store. I’m still using this one I rode across Missouri with years ago and my family has several daypacks from them we use regularly for travel and also mundane things like going to the market for fresh produce.

Pacsafe Daypacks

How worried are you about security? If that’s high on your list when you’re traveling, you only need to know two brand names: Clothing Arts (makers of Pickpocket Proof Pants) and Pacsafe. These guys are incredibly dedicated to keeping your valuables safe and each year they’re innovating to find better ways to do so. The big change recently is zippers that you can’t jam open with a knife or pen like most of them out there. Their products have an exo-skeleton built in to be slash-proof and lots of cool features that make it next to impossible to get inside your bag.

Ecco, Keen, Wolverine, and GoLite shoes

I think at this point I’ve tried out at least 50 pairs of travel shoes because for whatever reason, footwear companies are very aggressive about getting the word out on their new styles. Either they’re more savvy about online media or they just enjoy some really fat profit margins. Maybe both.

Wolverine hiking shoes

This brand list is not definitive because I really like Cushe, Sanuk, New Balance, and Oboz. And I think Hi-Tec ones are a good value if your budget is tight. But the four brands in the subhead there have proved to me time and time again that they’re built to last. I’ve got some Ecco Biom Grip shoes that I said were pricey when I reviewed them, but a year and a half and 16 trips with lots of walking later, I still pack them a lot. I have a really hard time getting rid of any of the Keens I’ve gotten because they still feel good after lots of wear. My Wolverine hiking shoes were the first ones that didn’t have one single thing I could complain about. And GoLite Footwear makes some really interesting, long-lasting shoes that don’t look like everyone else’s.

Tilley mash-up hat

Tilley Hats

I’ve been challenged in the hair department for a long time and a travel hat is essential when I’m outside in the sun. I’ve been through a lot of hats over the years, but 90% of the time I’m wearing one from Tilley. Again, they’re pricey, but they come with a lifetime guarantee. If you manage to wear it out, they’ll replace it. They’ll probably ask for your story to go along with it. Just be advised that people will automatically think you’re a Canuck when you have one on. In addition to a maple leaf backpack patch and a Roots clothing item, this is one of the essential items a Canadian must pack before going abroad.

Eagle Creek Travel Wallets

This is a small thing, but if you don’t want to be I could be wrong because I have a few of these, but I’m pretty sure one of the Eagle Creek Travel Pouch wallets I loop around my belt is the same one that I was using on my third round-the-world trip in the late 1990s. You only have to cough up $13.50 to keep your valuables safe. No mugger is going to tell you to take off your pants…


I’ve used three different versions of a SteriPen and have never worn one out. I’ve also never gotten sick from the water—anywhere. Neither has my daughter or my wife. And we’ve kept hundreds of plastic bottles out of streams and oceans. You don’t travel with one of these because…?

Any gear you’ve been using for a decade or more and haven’t managed to kill?



Want to get a tour of Guanajuato with me and chow down on some good Mexican Street Food? Follow that link and sign up if you’re heading my way.

The problem with having a job that you can do from anywhere is that you end up doing your same job everywhere. A big reason my family ended up in Guanajuato is that most of the tourists are Mexican tourists and we actually use our Spanish regularly. It’s also a beautiful place to walk around, with weather that encourages you to be outside almost every day of the year. When I’ve got my head down cranking out articles and blog posts, however, dealing with freelancers and advertisers, sometimes I look up and go, “It’s Friday already?”

sope GuanajuatoSo if you come to Guanajuato and want to get a tour that mixes some sightseeing, market tours, and lots of chowing down, come get me out of the house. We’ll get some buns from a bakery and see where they make them. We’ll tour a local market and then later a larger covered one. We’ll sample carnitas, gorditas, tamales, and more, washing it down with fresh-squeezed juices.

We’ll ride a funicular up to a lookout point and walk down the alleys where people have only one way to get to their home: on foot. Then we’ll have some street stand ice cream and go our separate ways for a siesta.

chorizo tacos

I’ve taken out three groups so far and I’ll post some testimonials on the site later with their impressions of my tour guide and food fact-quoting abilities. Hopefully by now I know a thing or two about the highlights of my adopted town and the best vendors to buy from. Check the rest of the site out here for details: Guanajuato Street Food Tours.

Hasta pronto!

Would you like to pay 30-60% less than retail every time you buy travel clothing or a new bag? Or get your shoes for half price? Buy $18 hiking socks for $7? It’s not very hard.

travel clothing discounts

A while back on this cheap travel blog I did a post on how to play the retail buying cycle on clothing and gear. You see, every year I go to this huge trade show called the Outdoor Retailers Market. There the manufacturers like North Face, Columbia, Outdoor Research, Teva, and a few thousand others are showing off their new stuff to buyers. What they’re showing to buyers will not be on your local store shelf for another 9-12 months though. That’s how far ahead retail buyers are making decisions on what they think you’re going to purchase for your adventures.

These decisions are never more than an estimated guess, of course. Sometimes the fashionista designers say, “Orange is going to be hot next year!” and instead everyone wants plaid. A charismatic trends guru manages to get everyone to believe that there’s some pent-up demand for retro backpacks. A year later, it turns out they’re wrong. (They didn’t ask me…)

The result is an inherently inefficient system whereby lots of outdoor apparel, travel clothing, luggage, and gear has a short time in the spotlight. Then it is then cast aside. By “cast aside” I mean marked down to get it out the door. Sometimes those markdowns are drastic, below the point of anyone making a profit. That’s where you step in and find a deal.

Since I’m editor at Practical Travel Gear, I get e-mails every week from online retailers I have affiliate programs with begging me to talk up their new half-off sale so they can move the old inventory out the door. Sometimes this is seasonal: you can find an incredible deal right now on a snowboard, set of skis, or down jacket. When the heat is highest in August, bathing suits and shorts go on sale.

Often though, you can get exactly what you need for your upcoming trip, just in last year’s model instead of this year’s. At this point in the innovation cycle where it’s hard to make fundamental breakthroughs in technology, there’s not much to be gained by buying the 2014 model over the 2013 one. It’s probably just a different color or maybe a pocket moved.

travel gear markdowns

Hunting around at 10 different online retailers every time you are in the market for new travel gear can get tedious though. Lucky for you, there’s one simple e-mail newsletter you can get that will put all the sales, deals, and coupon codes in one place. It comes out an average of one time a month, whenever the timing is best with loads of markdowns happening at once. You can sign up for free here and you’ll also receive a report on “10 Travel Gear Gifts for $20 or Less.” (And maybe you need those gifts yourself.) Sign up here:

Insider Gear Deals List


facebook Tim Leffel

I broke down and started a Cheapest Destinations fan page. Come like me if you like me. Or if you just like what I write about.

From the start I’ve been a reluctant Facebook user. I liked the movie and do I admire the ability of anyone to build something that addictive that fast. We haven’t seen such a concoction since the crack epidemic started. Instead of giving your money and your health though, you give all your personal data and a big heap of all your friends’ data. It’s an advertiser’s ultimate fantasy and everyone is still voluntarily signing up by the millions.

I avoid spending much time on there for a more prosaic reason though: it’s a massive time suck. TV is a productivity black hole too, but after a while you go, “Man, there is just nothing on.” With Facebook that never happens. Every minute there’s something new, designed just for you! Your college buddy just posted vacation photos. Your old boss has a birthday. Your sister got a new job. Your work colleague just posted a video that is hi-lar-i-ous. There’s a half-off sale at your favorite shoe store. A special on your favorite beer at the bar down the street. And look at what that cute cat is doing! Plus it’s not passive: there are groups of people obsessed with exactly what you’re obsessed with and you can talk about it any time of the day, wherever you live.

If you’re unemployed and have nothing to do, great fun. If you’re trying to run a business and support a family, half a day can go by interacting with all this and you’ve gotten bumpkis done.

Facebook addict

…and this is from 2012.

The Trouble with 1,000 Virtual Friends

While I’ve long had pages for the websites I run (links on the home pages if you’re interested), my personal one has been, well, personal. I see updates from real people I’ve hung out with and shared jokes with, in person. Relatives I’ve seen 10 times. People I’ve traveled with. You know, friends, not “friends.”

This has long made me an oddball minority though. One day a well-known Travel Channel celebrity host sent me a friend request and I mentioned it to my wife because it seemed odd. “You accepted it, right?” the wife asked.

“Well, I’ve only seen her on TV. I don’t know her,” I replied. “Not even by e-mail.”

“So what?! Just accept it!”

I did, but it bugged me because it broke my rule. There’s a constant push-me, pull-me tug going on from me trying to promote my projects but also trying to keep some shred of my personal life shielded from my work life. I spent seven years working for a record company where my work life was my only life. It was great fun partying with the same crowd I worked with, but when I left that job, I left my entire social structure and nightlife schedule on 6th Avenue in New York. There was no separation between “colleagues” and “friends,” something I didn’t truly grasp until I suddenly had lots of time on my hands. I may be an entrepreneur now, but that doesn’t mean I have to be selling 24/7.

Leffel working

So I’m bowing to the need to have fans and likes in a way I can’t do on my “friends and relatives” page. I’ll probably post more often on this new page because I won’t feel like I’m boring my friends and relatives who don’t travel—or rubbing it in their face that I’m in a new country every month or two for work. And it’s my job to stay at beach resorts and go hiking through the Andes Mountains.

Come join me on the Cheapest Destinations page and we’ll talk about cheap travel, living abroad, and where to get $1 beers. Hey, if you only pop in once every week or two, believe me, I’ll understand.

Who’s with me?


Guanajuato Mexico

One of the views from my house

I moved back to Guanajuato, Mexico for the second time this past August and as a couple readers have pointed out, I haven’t written much about it on this blog. That and a few consulting sessions lately with people thinking about moving to Mexico has pushed me to do some catch-up on that today.

If you’ve got some time, check out the video below to get a sense of why I liked this small city the first time I came here and why it keeps pulling me back. The aesthetics are great and it’s been here since before any English set foot in America. What you can’t really see in that video are two aspects I also love. First, most of the traffic moves through tunnels under the city, so it’s a very pedestrian-friendly place to live. Second, the weather is gorgeous almost all year. We’re at an altitude close to 6,500 feet here, so it can get a little chilly at night a couple months of the year, but the climate is agreeable enough most of the time that houses aren’t built with heat or air conditioning. It’s usually blue skies, sun, and highs around 80.

I can turn down a bit of the stress in my business here because I’m spending less than half what I did in the USA on basic living expenses. The first time we were here we rented two side-by-side apartments for a total of $800 a month, all utilities and internet included. Now we own a house outright, so we’re pouring money into improvements and furniture instead. Here are some hard numbers though for regular monthly expenses:

- Daughter’s private school is a shade less than $300 per month
- We spend about $100 a month on transportation getting her there & back (it’s not walking distance)
- We average about $50 a month on other local taxis and buses.
- Here’s a picture of one month’s water and electric bills, in pesos. The 114 peso water bill is equivalent to $8.77 and the 324 electric bill is equivalent to $25. Gas comes out to about $6.50 per month.

Mexican utility bills
- Drinking water in 5-gallon jugs averages about $15 a month, delivered to our door.
- Internet is $25 per month for 5mbps. I’d pay more for a faster speed, but can’t get it.
- Mobile phone charges (1 with data, 2 regular) $54 for 3 of us
- Our maid comes once a week and cleans the house top to bottom. That’s $62 per month.
- Food varies wildly, but a liberal estimate is $300 a month on groceries, $200 eating out
- Entertainment and fun $200 per month
- Medical/dental come in spurts, but let’s say $200 per month

Property taxes are paid annually, but would be $16 if paid monthly. Our house repairs, renovations, furniture, and other purchases vary depending on how flush we are that month. But if we estimate $600 per month, that puts the total monthly expenses at around $2,160 not counting travel.

I want to emphasize that this is for a family of three that’s not being all that frugal. We eat out far more than we did in the USA, I don’t hesitate to order a beer or two when we’re out, and we take advantage of things like $6 symphony tickets and $4 ballet performances. You could certainly live here for far less if you wanted and many people do. Considering that we were spending $2,000 a month in Tampa just on rent though and another $1,000 on health care, our Mexican living budget feels like a screaming bargain. We can spend another $1,000 on travel, visas, and shopping and still just be up to what we used to spend on those two items alone.

Guanajuato callejon

Within four months of moving back here I’d lost 10 pounds. I didn’t diet, drink less, or go to any gym. Getting around in this city requires lots of walking at high altitude though and like most people, we need to climb a lot of stairs to get to our front door. Above is the entrance to our callejon—the alley that goes up to our neighborhood. When delivery men brought a refrigerator and stove, they had to carry it up these stairs you see at the right. Walking Guanajuato

My day to day work life hasn’t changed much, which is a bit of a problem in terms of getting better at Spanish. At some point soon I need to break off some time and go back to classes for a while in order to advance. I’m just not using it enough each day because I’m holed up in my home office, working in English. (My daughter is taking middle school classes all in Spanish though, so she’s golden.) I try to take a walk each day or go out for lunch to enjoy where I’m living and I have a glorious view from my office window.

I’ll write more on Guanajuato and living in Mexico later, with more of the hundreds of pictures I have sitting on my hard drive. Meanwhile, if you’re passing through, get in touch! If you want to see the city through my eyes and my stomach, sign up for my Guanajuato street food tour.

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