Gear & Gadgets
A semi-philosophical discourse on just why specialty travel clothes, luggage, gear, and gadgets can make travel easier, more comfortable, and less stressful all around—plus, you get just a smidgen of that James Bond feeling, what with all the hidden pockets and such
There's a lot of stuff out there to consider when you're packing—or more precisely, two to three weeks before you start packing (you need time to order it, after all).
Electrical converters and flat-to-round prong plug adapters; a carry-on-sized backpack with daypack or soft-sided wheeled luggage; flat moneybelts to be worn under your cloths to keep your passport and such safe; biodegradable laundry solution, bacteria-killing water bottles; pocket binoculars; respectable-looking walking shoes, teensy folding umbrellas, weensy alarm clocks, military-strength insect repellent, camping towels, silk sleep sacks...
But is it really worth investing in all these travel gadgets and specialty clothing?
Well, if you plan to travel a bunch, I’d say yes. A good travel bag can last you for years. Mosquitoes bite the world over (and most of Europe has yet to discover window screens—which would be fine if they believed in air-conditioning, which hotels below three or four stars generally don't).
Both you and your hotelier will be happier if you don't blow the building's fuses and melt your hairdryer when you plug it in. An umbrella is always wise. The right clothing can make your trips run easier and faster. You can do laundry in the sink since the clothes are made to wash and drip dry quickly.
They're durable as all get out, so they'll last far beyond the time when their cut and color are no longer fashionable (not that travel clothes are ever haute couture to begin with). And they're loaded with security pockets. In fact, what travel clothes are made for is to (a) keep your naughty bits from showing, (b) warmth, and (c) serve as support systems for your pockets.
Pockets Are a Traveler's Best Friend
Whether zippered or buttoned, hidden away inside a jacket lining or waistband or the underside of your belt, or providing just a convenient and classic pouch with a slit at the top, you can never have enough pockets. When I don my full-bore traveling regalia—pants, shirt, belt, and sports coat—I'm surrounded by 23 pockets (give or take, depending on which shirt I'm wearing). And that's before we get to my trusty shoulder bag.
That's why when I travel, I wear specialty travel clothes (gosh, that sounds like a commercial). These pinnacles of the sartorial art are made of the anti-wrinkle, quick-drying, stain-proof (sort of), 98 SPF miracle fibers of the new millennium, ingeniously woven then stitched together in such a manner as to provide the maximum number of pockets per square foot while still vaguely resembling normal clothing (though, with pockets fully loaded, it's tough to resemble anything so much as the Michelin Man with mumps).
My anti-wrinkle button-down shirts have zippered compartments behind both breast pockets, each long enough for my plane tickets. My stain-proof slacks always have a wallet-sized zippered compartment just inside the regular slash pocket to foil pickpockets. My sports coats have nine pockets on the inside and five on the outside (they also weigh a ton when fully loaded).
I actually got terribly excited when I walked into a outdoors and sporting goods store and saw that travel clothing manufacturer Ex-Officio had come out with a brand-new product and on the label it said "17 countries. 6 months. 1 pair of underwear."
I bought five of 'em.
And of course there's that grudging fashion concession to ultimate garment practicality: convertible pants. No, I don't mean that the top comes down; that would be embarrassing and, in most places, illegal. I mean the sort of trousers where the legs zipper off just below the knee to become shorts. A bit goofy, yes, but darned practical for moving from a hot daytime hike to a mosquito-ridden night.
And all those pockets? They mean you can skip the step of girding yourself with a phalanx of fanny packs and day packs and still keep all your frequently needed items close at hand and your valuables close to your body—in hidden pockets and moneybelts—and hence very well protected. (See, and you just thought that whole pocket thing was just a fetish of mine.)
- REI (REI.com) - For 65 years, one of the best all-around outdoors, camping, and adventure travel outfitter, with just about everything you need, whether you're a novice or a hard-core enthusiast.
Lots of high-tech clothing designed for heavy-duty wear, tear, travel, and sport, plus everything from packs to personal mosquito nets to biodegradable detergent and freeze-dried grub—and of course, all the basic gear for camping, hiking, mountaineering, mountain biking, skiing, canoeing and kayaking.
It's actually run as a co-op, so if you become a member ($15 to join for life), you get 8% cash back on your purchases at the store at the end of the year (10% back if you use the no-fee, free credit card they give you, which also generates 1% back on non-REI purchases). They also have a special clearance-sale section.
- Backwoods (Backwoods.com) - A great catalogue company for travel, hiking, camping, and general outdoors gear with FREE SHIPPING on all orders, no matter how small. Their catalogue features all the best purveyors of outdoor and travel clothing—durable, lots of pockets, made in varying weights from tropical to winter, convertible pants, etc.
- Magellan's (Magellans.com) - Clothing, luggage, and lots of travel gadgets—some exceedingly useful, others merely ridiculous exercises in technology (seriously, who needs a portable oxygen mask, or a silver case that automatically dispenses credit cards?). Their prices could be lower, but they do carry some prime merchandise difficult to find elsewhere and Magellan's really is the place to go when you're seeking some obscure but useful travel gadget (and I don't mean the collapsible Lexan wine glasses). I order a lot of my electrical-adaptors-for-countries-you-can't-even-spell-properly from Magellan's.
- Travel Smith (Travelsmith.com) - One of the best catalogues out there for travelers (not so much outdoorsy stuff), with high-quality clothing and luggage (and some gadgets) carefully selected or adapted to be perfect for traveling—durable, versatile, wrinkle-resistant, lots of hidden pockets, and sometimes even stylish. My wardrobe's full of stuff with their label on it—though in recent years, they seem to have become increasingly concerned with offering more and more fashion clothing than their old focus on true travel gear. Sad
Also, I should note that some women (my mom and my wife, to be precise) report that the women's clothing is a bit more hit-or-miss—usually excellent, but sometime a big let-down in terms of quality or looks. The well-stocked "Overstock" section of the Web site offers 30 to 75 percent off items that aren't otherwise moving, and even has an "Under $25" page for true bargain hounds.
- eBags (eBags.com) - The name really says it all, doesn't it? This is the single best online outlet to compare every concievable type of bag, suitcase, pack, purse, backpack, shoulder bag, duffel, and every other conceivable form of carrying-your-stuff travel container out there—along with related accessories. Good prices, too.
- EMS (Ems.com) - REI's archrival. Perhaps a shade more focused on outdoorsy products than travel items, but still a great resource.
- L.L. Bean (Llbean.com) - This Maine camping clothier and catalogue legend was selling flannel shirts long before Seattle produced its first garage band, and decades before J. Crew and Banana Republic co-opted the outdoorsy look and made it Yuppie. Their travel specialty gear is, as with most of their stock, head and shoulders above anyone else for durability, quality, and utility (if not always style). I've bought travel slacks (anti-wrinkle, lots of hidden pockets) from just about everyone, but L.L. Bean's are always the classiest, last longest, and come in more colors.
I used to go through about one travel bag per year from Eagle Creek or Swiss Army before the straps would break, zippers need dentures, retractable handles bend, wheels went wobbly, or exterior feet and corner moldings got ripped off by airport baggage systems. (I once had a very pricey bag from a very famous luggage maker on which the handle snapped off on the third day of a two-month trip.) My little green boxy bag from L.L. Bean survived more than 18 Transatlantic flights, a dozen more trip within the U.S. or Europe, countless weekend car trips, and some five years of constant use. It still serves as the travel bag for my toddler.
Best of all: "We guarantee all items for the useful life of the product." That statement is what has hooked people on this storied outfitter since it sold its first pair of boots in 1912. (Its original bricks-and-mortar store in Freeport, Maine became such a site of pilgrimage for vacationing fans of its catalog that it single handedly created the town's now world-famous outlet store industry.)
Simply put, once you buy something from LL Bean, it's yours for life. It breaks, you send it back, they replace it. You wear the thing out, you send it back, they replace it. You accidentally rip the item to shreds, you send it back...you get the picture. Now that's customer service—and its what's kept loyal customers like myself returning to them for years.
They can have that sort of policy because the equipment, clothing, and sundry items they make are of such impeccable quality that they rarely have to replace anything. With quality like that, it doesn't matter that the actual price might be a bit above what you could find elsewhere—it'll last you three times as long, and that's a wise investment. That said, never fear; the Bean Web site has an "On Sale" section.