The Latest in Travel Gear for Backpackers

I mentioned before that last week I attended the Outdoor Retailers show, which is a twice-a-year gathering for manufacturers to show off their adventure travel gear and outdoor apparel to the nation’s retailers. Some of it was geared to skiers, runners, ice climbers, and other active types, but a good bit of it was aimed at travelers as well. A few themes came out of it for me that are relevant to anyone about to take off for a long bout of travel.

GoLite Jam 2 Pack - 3100cu inEverything is getting lighter

Back when I took off on my first round-the-world journey in the mid-90s, I was loaded down with 40 pounds of gear, much of that weight just in my backpack and hiking boots. I stupidly had a tent along too, but we all make mistakes we learn from. Now if I took off with the same items in their 2010 equivalent, the weight would probably be 20 to 25 pounds. Heck, I could even take the tent: I got a demo of a product from a company called Tent Pak that was a roomy backpack, but the bottom compartment held an included tent, with room to spare for a sleeping bag, and the whole thing would come in around 13 pounds. I looked at backpacks from GoLite that hold 50 liters and weigh less than 2 pounds, like this Jam Pack here that lists for a shade under $100.

They make a wheelie suitcase too that’s barely over 5 pounds and I saw about 20 carry-on size wheelies there that were under 7 pounds, including models from Eagle Creek and High Sierra. Ditch the wheels and you can now get down close to 4 pounds.

Clothes Are Getting Warmer with Less Bulk

I can now go out into sub-freezing temperatures with a high-tech baselayer, a wonder fabric shell, and lightweight gloves and be toasty warm. But combined those items come in well under three pounds. Outdoor Research Ergo Down Jacket - Women'sThanks to membranes from the likes of Gore-tex and lightweight fabrics that are good at trapping heat but not moisture, it’s easier than ever to travel to cold places without checking huge bags. The stuff is all getting more flattering and fashionable too, so you don’t look like a layered-up toddler when you walk outside. The same goes for shoes and boots, with many featuring waterproofing in breathable shoes that look normal.

One of the coolest trends I spotted was the transformation of the down jacket. Remember those puffy down jackets that used to be as bulky as a comforter on your bed? Now thanks to goose down replacements like PrimaLoft, companies can make pound-or-less jackets that are really warm but can compress down into a little pocket that is about the size of a mass-market paperback book for packing.  A few are out now, more are coming this fall, from the likes of Outdoor Research, Columbia, and Sierra Designs.

Prices Have Flatlined

There was a while there in the boom times where gear companies had no qualms about pricing a coat at $650 or a multi-function sports watch at a few grand. Thanks to market forces and continually better technology (and okay, cheap labor in China), the escalation seems to have slowed or stopped. Timex was unveiling their newest collection of heavy-duty Expedition watches coming out in May and they were priced at around $200. It would have cost $3,000 to get all the functions in this Casio PAW-2000 watch I reviewed a while back and it’s 1/10 that price. Sure, quality is still going to cost you, especially if it’s not made in China, but the value proposition now is much better than I’ve seen in years for well-made items with a good warranty. Plenty of companies I met with are offering lifetime guarantees, which tells me they believe this stuff will at least last you a year on the road. Believe me, everything is more durable now than it was a decade ago if you buy quality gear to start with.

Multifunctional is Cool Again

Another trend that was driving me crazy the past few years was seeing ever-more-specialized garments and gear, things aimed at the wealthy weekend warrior who enjoyed buying eight pairs of shoes for eight different activities or four backpacks depending on whether their trip was two hours or two days. I saw a 180-degree turn on that during this show, with everyone touting how their particular item could do more than one thing. That’s music to the ears of a long-term traveler living out of a backpack, so thankfully there’s even relief on the backpack front. You know those zip-on daypacks that nobody actually zips on because it makes them feel like they’re goign to fall backwards? Now companies are making them so that the daypack can clip onto the front of your shoulder straps. Sure, you look like a turtle, but at least this way you don’t have two sets of straps going different directions.

There’s also a return to function with footwear. I probably looked at 100 pairs of shoes while I was there that would be good for travel (watch the travel shoes section of the gear blog for reviews of the ones I’m giving a trial run). The talk was all about shoes you could use for walking the city streets, going on a light hike, and wearing out for dinner. Exactly what we need for 95% of the time we’re on the move. Taking a cue from the snobby Europeans who turn their nose up at practical shoes, they’re getting more stylish too.

On another note, this is usually a great time of year to stock up on cold weather travel gear. Whatever hasn’t sold has to go soon so the spring lines can come in. Check sites like REI Outlet, Clearance Bin and Sierra Trading Post. If you’re in the UK, check I’ve personally had the best luck finding what I actually wanted at Sierra Trading Post, but your mileage may vary. Get geared up and hit the road!

  1. Transfer Smart

    Nice travel gears that you’ve featured here, I really like the shoes look so light and strong, thanks for sahring this.

  2. Kevin

    Nice gear!! Love those shoes!!

  3. Jean

    Traveling is both exhilarating and often painful if you have heavy gear to lug around and pack. I too did not realize on my first trip the importance of checking for the weight of your suitcase or back pack. My first suitcase was heavier than the clothes in it.

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