Browsing Posts tagged travel packing

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?


how to pack with carry-on

All set for a 10-day trip in Portugal

When I travel these days, I’m doing it one of two ways: with my family for up to three weeks, or on a writing trip for a week to 10 days. I sometimes check a bag for the former (especially if I need to backpack with a real backpack), but usually get by with a carry-on for the latter. You get a free checked bag for international flights on all but the stingiest airlines (like Spirit Air), but if you’re leaving the airport city upon arrival, the last thing you want to deal with is lost luggage.

As the editor of Practical Travel Gear, I get loads of apparel, footwear, and gadgets to try out. I personally review close to 100 items a year and the three others who write for me there check out even more. So after all that, what are the best items to pack? Which ones really pull their weight and bulk?

Quick-dry clothing
This is the key factor in packing light. Sure, take a few cotton t-shirts if you want, but the bulk of what you carry needs to be items you can wash in a sink and have dry by morning. I’m a big fan of ExOfficio clothing as it holds up to a crazy number of washings and still looks good. But if you’re put off by the price, try similar alternatives from Colombia Sportswear or just browse the clearance racks, physically or at sites like Sierra Trading Post. A few companies are making polo shirts with built-in odor suppression, something you’ll also find in many wicking t-shirts meant for exercise. These are a nice alternative to the button-up ones.

For pants the usual lightweight tough nylon ones are great for warm places, but companies like ExOfficio, Craghoppers, and Sherpa Adventure are making “trekking pants” that are stretchier and thicker. They still dry fast though and resist a drizzle and stains. I’ve often worn these a week straight without washing them–like I did with the ones in that photo above.

If you’ll be someplace like Delhi, Rome, or Barcelona though that’s notorious for pickpockets, it’s good to invest in a pair of Pickpocket Proof Pants (also known as P^Cubed Pants) from Clothing Arts. They also make shorts and just released some nice lightweight travel shirts as well. It would take an incredibly determined thief and you being passed out for someone to get into these and steal your valuables.

Biom grip shoes

Double-duty shoes
Shoes are the adversary of the carry-on bag. Footwear takes up an inordinate amount of room and if not chosen carefully, can add a lot of weight. Fortunately shoes are getting lighter in general—even hiking boots—and more companies are making ones that pack down flat or close to it in your bag. Scroll through a few pages of travel shoes that the four of us at PTG have reviewed. We go through a lot of them looking for ones that can be worn in multiple travel situations.

Wear the heaviest, clunkiest pair on travel days to lighten your packing load.

Quick-dry underwear and socks
Cotton is not your friend in this area. Underwear and socks are the things you want to replace most often in your wardrobe, so bring at least a few pairs of travel underwear that use merino wool or synthetics. You can sink wash them anywhere and they’ll dry more quickly than cotton. Well-made hiking or running socks usually avoid cotton and will last for years of heavy usage.

Small toiletries
To carry on a bag, stay with small sizes. Hit the trial size aisle at your local drugstore or Target, save the little bottles from hotels, or buy small refillable bottles you can reuse. You can buy cool dry tabs from Sea to Summit that start working when you get them wet and I like shaving cream that comes in a tube as it takes up less space. I use a hanging toiletry kit for when counter space is tight.

Eagle creek pouch daypack

Pack-away jacket and bag
One of my secret weapons in getting by with a carry-on bag is to pack things that stuff down into a little pouch. I love my Eagle Creek packable daypack, for instance, and if I need a jacket where I’m going but sporadically, I’ll bring one that stuffs into a pouch when I’m not using it, like this Helium II windbreaker one from Outdoor Research or this warmer Powerfly Down one from Colombia.

SteriPen Water Purfier
If I’m going anywhere with dodgy water, which is most of the world, the SteriPen is an essential item. It saves the world from your personal mountain of disposable single-use plastic, but keeps you from getting sick from any bad drinking water.

Gadget chargers
I’m past telling anyone what gadgets to bring and how much to use them, but a lot of them have batteries that don’t last very long. I’ve used a Callpod Chargepod for six years now to avoid bringing along a bunch of cords. Then I carry a small charger from Innergie or Eton for times I can’t access an outlet. If I’m going off the grid for a while I might bring some kind of solar charger.

And then…
One belt, usually worn the day of travel.
One or two hats, including a sun hat for sunny places, a beanie for cold ones. Tilley ones are expensive but have a lifetime warranty.
A pair of good sunglasses, usually worn the day of travel.
A loaded Kindle or good book.
Magazines I can throw away or pass on as I read them, lightening the load as I go.

Many women carry some kind of shawl or multi-use scarf to change up their outfits.

Keep an eye on the colors you’re packing. Ideally most every bottom can go with most every top. You don’t want to have pieces that can only go with one other thing.

What about you? What carry-on items or tricks have you found worked best?

Packable winter boots from Teva “weigh less than a pint of beer.”

I just spent three solid days checking out the new travel gear that will be hitting the shelves later this year, at a trade show where all the buyers come in and figure out what’s going to be hot and should be in stock. You can catch individual reviews on Practical Travel Gear as they hit the market (and if you’re a guy, go see a little eye candy on the PTG Facebook page.)

Meanwhile, here’s the big picture view of what’s happening now and what’s on the way—plus how it’s hitting your wallet.

Commodity Prices are Way Up

The Week magazine has a section called “Boring but Important” and this is one of those subjects. It’s not just the filling of your car gas tank that has gotten more expensive. Many synthetic fabrics are petroleum-based and even those that aren’t take energy to produce. Natural fiber prices have seen similar spikes though. Fine wool prices doubled just from 2009 to 2011. Cotton prices jumped 150% in that time because of rising global temperatures and devastating droughts in places like Texas. Sooner or later, companies have to pass on those basic materials increases to the retailer and you.

But Competition is Fierce

Are you looking for a new breathable waterproof jacket, a rolling suitcase, sunglasses, a water bottle, a pair of good socks, or a pair of lightweight hiking shoes? There are anywhere from 30 to 100 companies now supplying each of those items. All of them are fighting for their corporate lives to get your attention and get shelf space in stores so you can find them.  So while prices simply have to go up for these guys to even break even, none of them has the ability to really sock it to you as a consumer. So it’s really hard to find travel gear that’s a bad value these days. Sure, you may find items that are more technical than you need or are aimed at upper-end travelers who are less price-conscious, but you can be fairly secure that if you buy a (legit) name brand item, you’re not going to get something crappy. The stakes are too high. With some companies, they’ll even guarantee anything in their line for life: Eagle Creek, Briggs & Riley, Osprey, Tilley Hats, and Gore-Tex for a start.

Everything is Getting Ridiculously Light

The technology in travel gear, apparel, and shoes has progressed so far so fast that if you have a backpack or jacket from even five years ago, there’s a good chance it weighs twice as much as what you would buy now to replace it. I’m routinely running into backpacks I can pick up with one pinky, wheeled suitcases I can pick up with a forefinger. This wheeled carry-on from Osprey at the right weighs all of four pounds.

Big companies like Columbia Sportswear, Sierra Designs, North Face, Mountain Hardwear, Outdoor Research, and Patagonia are putting out wispy thin jackets that are windproof, waterproof, and heat-reflective on the inside—but pack into a little pouch that fits in one hand. You can get down or Primaloft jackets warm enough to let you travel almost anywhere outside the Arctic or high mountains that will stuff down into your daypack. There’s almost no trade-off now between packing space and comfort. And yes ladies, it’s all getting more fashionable and slim-cut too.

Compact Suitcases for Small Living Spaces

Suitcases, backpacks, and bags have a way of taking up a lot of space in your house or apartment. If you’re fortunate enough to live in a place with lots of storage space, no biggie. If you’re in an apartment in a big city, however, every inch can count. I’m starting to see bags that fold down into much smaller footprints, something I would have drooled over when I lived in Hoboken, NJ and worked in Manhattan. The best iterations of this so far are from High Sierra (see an example on the left, only $30-$60) and Eagle Creek (on the right). Later in the year, Eagle Creek is putting out wheeled duffel bags that still fold down to a size you can stuff in the corner of a closet. Very cool.

Don’t Believe the Hype

Take a pause and go put on some Public Enemy music.

Ready now? OK, all the things I’ve outlined above are real. They’re tangible economic and market forces that influence pricing. Then there’s hype that’s driven more by fashion. A lot of what drives retail buying is what’s new, What’s New, and WHAT’S NEW?!?!

It’s fitting I mention Public Enemy because one of the huge (but baffling) trends I kept running into this year was “retro packs” and jackets. Some fashion guru apparently came out and convinced all these gear companies that Jansport had it all right 30 years ago and we just need to update those designs with some new materials. Yeah right. I used those packs and there’s a reason they’re not around anymore—they totally sucked compared to what you can buy now. You’ll be able to buy these retro packs on the clearance rack two years from now I’m sure. So wait a while before you do the time warp and you won’t pay top dollar for these.

Which leads me to my one piece of advice in all this: get last year’s model. Yeah, if your pack or jacket is from five years ago, it’s probably time for an upgrade to take advantage of the advances in technology. But in general terms, the advances from one year to the next are incremental at best. More often, they’re driven by fashion: a new set of colors, new patterns, or a different stitching pattern here or there. Outdoor Research typically puts out 40-50 new hats per year, Chaos even more than that. Do we need that many new hats to choose from? No, but if they just put out last year’s hats again, there’s nothing to talk about with buyers or the trend-happy magazines searching for a new look (or a new look that looks like an old look…)

If you go to the clearance rack at your local store, or the online outlet equivalent at Backcountry, Sierra Trading Post, REI, or Moosejaw, you’ll find awesome stuff for 50% off. If you’re buying when it’s not the right season—-like Insect Shield hot weather gear for your Thailand trip when it’s autumn in North America and Europe—you might feel like you’ve hit the jackpot.



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travel suitcaseEver since the airlines got addicted to baggage fees—and ones like Spirit Air made it their primary revenue source—most of the rest have piled on in tandem. Still, some are worse than others, both for domestic flights and international ones.

If you’re headed to Europe, EuroCheapo put out a very handy baggage fees chart for 21 Airlines heading that direction.  It gives you all the details on the good (free second bag on IcelandAir); the bad (€80 for a second bag on Finnair); and the downright ugly (€75 for a second bag, €200 for a third on KLM—what are they smoking?). With fuel charges and two extra bags, you could triple the price of your flight.

For domestic travel and a few other routes, there’s a good baggage fees chart over at AirfareWatchdog. Obviously Southwest is your best choice by far in the U.S., provided your bags don’t fly out of a hole in the fuselage that is. JetBlue will let you check one free. Others that used to have joined the customer vacation penalization scheme, going to at least $20.

The worst by far in the U.S. is Spirit, who would charge you for standing up to stretch your legs if they could find a way to do it. They hit you whether you bring a carry-on bag or checked bag and have a lower weight limit to add another gotcha. (Here are a few tips for getting around Spirit baggage fees.)

Fortunately, it gets better when you leave the countries. Even the legacy U.S. airlines will let you check one bag for free. If you have their credit card or have hit elite status, maybe more.

For all that info, see this more comprehensive collection of charts from When you look at that, it becomes even more clear that most Latin American airlines want your business more than the U.S. ones headed that direction. You get a free first and second bag from Aerolineas Argentina, Avianca, Lan, TACA, and Tam. All bets are off for domestic travel on some of them, especially Aerobus in Mexico. (Besides crazy baggage fees, they actually charge you an escalating fee based on how soon you get to board the plane! If you’re with a family, you pay it or sit apart.)

I haven’t found a good Asian airlines chart, so if you know of one, post a link in the comments. But as with the Latin American ones, you’ll have a better flight, better food, and fewer charges if you go book on one of their carriers.

Of course the obvious answer, except for Spirit, is to be smart and travel light. Clothes are washable and you really don’t need seven pairs of shoes for anywhere. Pack some good double-duty travel shoes instead.

In December I spent two weeks traveling around Costa Rica, from Guanacaste to the Osa Peninsula and places in between. Except for the Kelty Station daypack holding my laptop, camera, pens, etc., I did it all out of a 22-inch wheelie carry-0n.

I’m getting ready to get on a plane and head to the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Salt Lake City to check out all the new gear coming down the pike we may want to review over at Practical Travel Gear. So it seems like an appropriate time to run down what helps me pack in such a compact and light manner for a two-week trip.

Take a Lightweight Bag

First the bag. Normally I bring something without wheels, like a backpack, but this was a work trip where I knew I would be mostly in airports, taxis, and hotels. So I used the Eagle Creek ORV 22 wheelie suitcase pictured here. It’s not super-light at 7.5 pounds, but light enough. It holds 43 liters (2,600 cubic inches). You can cram more than this into a carry-on if you ditch the wheels, but keep in mind some airlines also restrict the weight. That includes Nature Air where I was in Costa Rica, but also many budget airlines in Europe and Asia. The heavier your bag, the more you’ll pay.

Go Easy on the Shoes

Speaking of weight, shoes are the big killer, so I usually only travel with two pairs of travel shoes, wearing the heaviest pair on the flights and bus rides. Sometimes I’ll break down and bring a third if I need water sandals or dress shoes for some reason, but at least one pair has to be really flat. If you must carry sneakers for a workout, these New Balance WT100 travel sneakers pack down to nothing and are wispy light: they’re all mesh at the top and have a thin footbed.

Leave the Jeans at Home

The weight of your clothing can add up surprisingly fast as well, especially if you’re packing blue jeans, normal corduroys, or khakis. I’m a huge fan of lightweight, quick-dry travel clothing from the likes of ExOfficio and Columbia Sportswear. I find life so much easier on the road with a wardrobe of this stuff in my bag: the clothing weighs very little, it stays relatively wrinkle-free, and it looks nice enough that you can look respectable at a restaurant or meeting. Sure, it’s not all that cheap, but I’ve got ExOfficio shirts I’ve been wearing for years that still look like new. And hung in the sun, they dry in 15 minutes. Heck, I even pack their travel underwear for the same reason.

Carry Only the Cosmetics You Need for That Period

Too many travelers play the “what if” and “just in case” games when packing their toiletries and end up bringing half the medicine cabinet. With reusable plastic bottles and sample sizes you can bring enough for two weeks and still stay under the TSA carry-on requirements. Plus you can buy whatever you really end up needing locally—usually for the same price or less. Sure, there are exceptions that are a bit tougher, like sunscreen, but not many.

Pack Double-duty Travel Gear

If an item you’re packing only does one thing, it had better do it really well—like a SteriPen or a solar gadget charger. Part of the way I pack lighter is to carry double-duty gear that can perform multiple functions. A belt that holds money, pants that can also be shorts, long-sleeve shirts with button-up sleeves, a coat that converts to a neck pillow, a keychain that’s a corkscrew or bottle cap opener, or a watch that’s also an altimeter and compass.

I love to rag on the Apple hype machine, but I have to admit the iPod Touch is the ultimate double-duty item. The electronic equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife. Carry one of those tiny packages and you’ve got all kinds of apps and e-mail access, yes, but you also have more mundane helpers travelers needed even before the Internet Age, things like a calculator, currency converter, language translator, alarm clock, music player, and (Skype) phone. Put SugarSync on there and you’ve got all your home files with you at all times as well.

Do you travel two weeks or more with a carry-on? Put your tips in the comments!