Gear & Gadgets

Travel gear

A philosophical discourse on how specialty travel clothes, luggage, gear, and gadgets can make travel easier, more comfortable, and less stressful

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 shop and order it all from a catalog, after all).

Flat-to-round prong plug adaptors; 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; biodegrabadle laundry solution, bacteria- and virus-killing water bottles; pocket binoculars; respectable-looking but durable walking shoes, teensy folding umbrellas, convertible pants with zip-off legs and hidden pickets, military-strength insect repellent, pack-slim campig 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 all over the world (and most of Italy 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 umbrellas is always wise.

Most importantly, the right clothing can make your trips run easier and faster. You can a bit of laundry in the hotel sink each night since the clothes are made to wash and drip dry quickly.

Travel specialty clothes are 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 jacket—I'm surrounded by 34 pockets (give or take, depending on which shirt I'm wearing). And that's before we get to my trusty daypack.

On travel clothing

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 the 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 have a wallet-sized zippered compartment just inside the regular slash pocket to foil pickpockets (plus hidden "cargo" pockets, zippers along the leg seams, for my iPhone).

My jackets have anyhwer from 12 to 23 pockets (the latter when wearing my Scottevest fleece). Yes, the jackets weigh a ton when fully loaded, but they are actually pretty well balanced (front/back and left/right), and since they hang directly off my shoulders it's really my skeleton that does the carrying, not my back muscles as with a backpack.

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.)

Outside ResourcesPartner

  • REI (REI.comREI) - 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 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.
  • Partner
  • Magellan's ( - 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.
  • Partner
  • Backwoods ( - 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.
  • Travel Smith ( - 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 "Sale & Clearance" section of the Web site offers 30 to 75 percent off items that aren't otherwise moving, and even has an "Under $50" page for true bargain hounds.
  • PartnereBags ( - 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 ( - REI's archrival. Perhaps a shade more focused on outdoorsy products than travel items, but still a great resource.
  • L.L. Bean ( - 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 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.

Tips & links

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How to pack it all into a carry-on
  1. Lay out everything you think you’ll need to take and consider the pile.
  2. Put away any item that’s not really necessary.
  3. Take what remains, pack half of it, and leave the rest at home—you won’t need it.

Pack for ultimate mobility, versatility, and necessity. Make travek an exercie in simplifying your material needs.

When in doubt, leave it at home. Whatever you forgot or discover on the road you need (sunscreen, bathing suit, sandals) you can also just buy it in Italy—and have a nifty extra souvenir of daily life to bring home (I often come home with odd, foreign brands of toothpaste).

Speaking of which: you should have a little space in your pack for accumulating souvenirs.

If, as you travel, you find yourself running out of room, stop at any post office to ship home the personal items you've found you didn't need, or just before flying home, mail your dirty laundry to yourself. This way, you can carry your new purchases instead of entrusting them to the Italian postal system.

» more

How to tell if you've overpacked
  • If it doesn’t all fit in one carry-on sized bag plus a daypack, you have overpacked.
  • If you can't lift your bag over your head and hold it there for 10 seconds, you have overpacked.
  • If you can't shoulder your load and walk five times around the block without breaking a sweat, you have overpacked (and should probably also hit the gym—all the walking you'll do makes travel in Italy an aerobic workout and you need to be ready).

Trust me, you'll be thankful later when you easily shoulder you bag and zip off to your hotel while the guy who sat next to you on the plane gets a hernia just trying to get his luggage out of the airport.

Cardinal rules for travel clothing
  1. Nothing white
  2. Nothing that wrinkles
  3. Clothes you can layer
  4. Lots of pockets
  5. Very few

Remember: Clothes take up the most room in your luggage, so be stingy with what you take. Take a maximum of 2–3 each of pants and shirts that can all mix and match toegther.

Believe me, it's easier to do a bit of laundry in your room every few nights than lug around a ton of extra clothing.

Only your immediate traveling companions will know you've been wearing the same outfit for the past three countries.

Socks, T-shirts, and underwear—the clothes that ripen quickly—are the easiest items to wash out and dry overnight.

Make sure you use a moneybelt

Keep your all valuables in a moneybelt: one of these large, flat, zippered pouched you wear under your clothes.

A moneybelt is like a wearable safe for your passport, credit cards, bank/ATM cards, driver's license, plane tickets, railpass, extra cash, and other important documents.

In your wallet, carry only a single day's spending money—maybe €40–€60. (Replenish this as needed from your stash in the moneybelt.) » more

Assorted packing tips
  • Some bags have zip-away straps and waist belts that convert the pack into a more respectable soft-sided suitcase for waltzing into your hotel lobby.
  • To keep the bulk of your bag under the carry-on requirements, layer any thick sweaters and coats and such to wear on the plane (you can strip down once seated).
  • Label your bag: Whatever sort of pack or suitcase you choose, be sure to put a slip of paper with your name, home address, and destination inside each piece of luggage as well as attaching a sturdy luggage tag with a concealed address window to the outside (some criminals peruse visible luggage tags at the airport, collecting the addresses of people leaving on vacation).
  • TSA-approved travel locksGet as many tiny travel locks you have zippered compartments on your pack and daypack. Make sure it is one of the special combination locks that have a red diamond-like symbol meaning they're TSA-friendly (baggage screeners carry a secret code and a special back-door key so they can open the lock if they feel the need to paw through your valuables and dirty undies).
  • Note that the TSA is considering once again will allow you carry small knives in your carry-on bag. However THIS RULE HAS NOT YET BEEN PUT INTO EFFECT (despite some early news reports to the contrary). For now, you will still need to pack any knife in your checked luggage. Here are the official TSA regulations.
  • Split up your stuff. If you're traveling with others and plan to check your luggage, distribute everybody's stuff throughout all the bags. Have your traveling companion pack some of your clothes and you pack some of his. That way, if the airline loses just one bag, both of you will have something to wear until it turns up.
  • Many bags come with zip-off daypacks, which is an excellent idea (or bring a small backpack). Keep in it your first-aid kit, sections of your guidebooks you stripped out for the day's use, tissue packs, water bottle, journal and pen, pocket knife, and umbrella.
  • Let's see. Besides a waterproof bathroom bag for the toiletries I think that's it.

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