Over the past four years of traveling I have carefully honed down to an exact science the very specific things I carry with me when I travel. In fact, I love some of the things I travel with so much that I merely replace them with exact duplicates when they wear down. And in other ways, I have found products and services that make my life traveling exponentially more enjoyable and they are a lovely luxury that doesn’t even take up space in my backpack.
Beyond sharing the stories from my travels, this site is also a platform to share the more practical side of planning and traveling long-term. And today, that means eight things I use on my trip with a mini review of why they are worth carrying on my back day in and day out. And if your family is like mine, they may pressure you to provide a list of gifts you want for the holidays. With that in mind, this is also a holiday gift-guide in that regard. For years I never have an answer to my father’s question “what can we buy you for your travels?”
You see, one of the things I have loved about traveling is how light I feel from the ownership of stuff. At times in my life I spent far more than my means to keep pace with everyone around me (this was most noted when I lived in Los Angeles), but travel lightened me; when I left to travel, I sold everything. And now, I whittle my 52 litre backpack down to the essentials … plus a few luxuries. And that’s what this list reflects, my favorite needs, wants, and the little extras that live in my backpack or laptop.
So, with the idea of portable, useful, and simply enjoyable, here are my eight favorite possessions, and the ones I think other travelers might enjoy too.
Overland Equipment Purse
I searched for years, (three and a half years to be exact) before I found a travel purse I love. I have carried expensive bags (the AmeriBag), cheap sack-like bags from random markets around the world, regular purses, messenger bags, etc, but none of these bags ever quite kept pace with my travels. Earlier this year (May to be exact), I received a complementary Donner bag from Overland Equipment and over the past six months my conclusion is this: it’s the best bag I’ve ever carried. In fact, it’s one of the travel items I will replace exactly when it wears out (and no sign of that any time soon). My full review is on my resources page, but basically: the bag is versatile, comfortable, attractive (which is great since you don’t always get functional and pretty), and I can fit an entire outing’s worth of stuff in it (water bottle, my Panasonic camera, notebook, snack, chap-stick and Kindle). I always carry a purse, and I know not all women travelers do this, but if you like having a bag on you, this one hit all of my positives and I couldn’t find a single draw-back.
We’ll start off right away with my favorite, completely unnecessary extra—Spotify. Spotify is a program you download to your computer and it allows you to stream music, create playlists, and discover new artists based on your choices … all without purchasing the individual songs. Spotify has a free option that works in the U.S. and has radio ads, I happily used this for many months. Then, I received a year subscription to Spotify Premium and fell even further in love because now I can stream music anywhere in the world and sync playlists to my mobile devices; I took the Spotify on an international test run on my business trip to Spain this fall, and I had flawless service.
As a gift: For travelers, you really have to upgrade to Spotify Premium, which is why a year subscription would make a killer gift for any traveler who loves music.
Panasonic Lumix Camera
I waxed poetic about my camera earlier this year, and I still consider my Panasonic Lumix micro-four thirds one of my smartest purchases to-date. I would rather ditch half the crap in my backpack than go back to a point and shoot camera. My point and shoot was great for my early travels (and if you’re going that route I recommend the Cannon S95 or S100 for full manual mode but tiny and pocketable), but my Lumix is compact, almost a full DSLR, and helped me take my photography to the next level, which was a major goal of my long-term travels.
As a gift: I now have the GF1 with a pancake lens and plan to ask my parents for the zoom lens this Christmas since they want to buy me something useful. Beyond the camera itself, a lens, bag, or add-on for cameras make great gifts for travelers. I consider this Panasonic micro four thirds the perfect travel camera for intermediate photographers and anyone going on a long-term, round the world trip.
I tend to travel very gear-heavy on the road because I work regularly from the internet, but one of my essentials is an unlocked iPhone. I use the phone’s apps, the quick community and social sharing aspects (like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter), and I buy a local SIM card on the road so that I can phone ahead for hotels and easily meet up with other travelers and locals. The device is my: music player, wifi stealer (it’s much easier to sneak a wifi signal on a smartphone/tablet than a laptop), entertainment on long bus rides, note take, and camera in a pinch.
Oh Kindle how I love thee, let me count the ways. My Kindle has changed the way I consume books. I was always a voracious reader, and now I can easily download books anywhere in the world and without adding weight to my backpack. I know some travelers combine their reading/entertainment by doing so on their smartphone/tablet, but I find the screens on e-readers are worth the small added weight because it uses e-ink technology and thus doesn’t cause eye-strain as much as screens. In fact, the e-reader is even changed my niece into an avid reader too as our travels progressed and I loaded it up with the Hunger Games trilogy—Ana was hooked and has her own Kindle now.
As a gift: I have a post coming in the next few weeks with a pro, con, and how to find free Kindle content, but suffice to say this is an easy hit if you’re looking for a reasonably priced gift for someone leaving on a trip. I have the $69 Kindle 3, but I deeply covet the new Kindle Paperwhite (priced just a bit more at $110) because you can read in the dark with the back-lit display.
I used the TripIt app for the first time on my recent business trip to Spain to speak at the TBEX conference and I immediately knew I had to review the app on A Little Adrift because it was SO useful. Not just “oh hey, that’s a great app,” but instead “wow, where have you been all of my life.” The TripIt app has both an online and an app interface and it helps you plan and navigate every aspect of your trip, from flights to hotel bookings and tours—all the information is integrated into a cohesive and easy to navigate interface.
As a gift: The app is free, but TripIt Pro has a few extra features ideal for frequent travelers and it would make a great gift for anyone traveling with a smartphone.
This isn’t the sexiest of the items on the list, but my friend Sean gave me one of these a few years ago for Christmas and it has proven incredibly useful in giving my USB devices an extra charge on long bus rides, flights, and in countries where power is either intermittent or scarce (Myanmar had intermittent electricity and Nepal only had power eight hours out every 24 hours). My charger is tiny, fits in the same pocket where I store my headphones and is well-loved (ie. scarred and battered from so much use).
As a gift: I recommend one of these two if you’re gifting one to a traveler: the mid-priced and compact Anker Astro, or the Innergie charger, which is more expensive than one similar to the model I carry, but several prominent tech magazines gave it great ratings.
I’ll end on a simple note, because a gift or purchase doesn’t have to be elaborate, or even electronic, to be super useful; I love Moleskin notebooks and having several of these in different sizes is a cornerstone of my travels now. I have several and each one has been given to me by different friends over the years, with a new one magically being given just as the other is nearly used up. These notebooks hold up incredibly well, the paper is perfectly think for jotting notes, thoughts, observations, reservations–they take down the practicalities of travel, I track my budget and expenses in it right along side my deepest musings and personal thoughts. Entire blog posts are often drafted in these handy notebooks and this would make the perfect gift for a new or established traveler.
As a gift: Consider the large sized Moleskins for someone who likes to journal, or one (or two) of the pocket-sized versions travelers can stuff in their bags and always have one on hand—they come in fun colors too!
That wraps up the handful of my very favorite items that make it into my backpack on each trip, despite the extra weight. And there are other things I love (my backpack, my hiking boots, etc), but each one of these items have made my travels better in some identifiable way. As a traveler, every single thing I add to my backpack adds to the weight I carry on my back–so for this reason I am ruthless and meticulous about what I allow into my bag … some might even go so far as to say I have an almost anal retentive tendency to methodically pack and pare down my travel gear.
With that in mind, if it’s on this list there is a pretty good chance the traveler in your life will like one of these items too.
And if you travel and have a favorite item you think a new or established traveler might love to find under the Christmas tree, please share in the comments (and tell why you love it!)