After a year on the road, some of my gear has held out beautifully. Other things? Ditched in the first month. Here’s how my day-to-day travel gear fared over the last year of travel.
I bought an REI backpack that was on sale for $100. Over the course of the last year, I beat that pack down. I tossed it into the underbelly of buses, dragged it around airports, and dropped it hard when I arrived at the hostel. Aside from being a bit dirty (ok, a lot dirty), the bag is in perfect shape.
Upside: I liked the pulls that I could use to tighten the straps as I wore it. The interior pocket was perfect for a laptop. Nothing ever fell out or got damaged in my bag, even as checked luggage (I flew about a dozen times and only secured the loose straps down before checking it).
Downside: This model backpack has Velcro connecting the bottom of the pack and the stabilizing belt that goes around your waist. The problem is that when you sling the bag over a single shoulder, the weight of the bag pulls the Velcro loose. This would undo the entire structure and the pack would slid down, like I was dragging it by a leash (instead of balancing on my hip and shoulder). It was always a hassle, as I’d have to properly climb into my pack every time I picked it up. When you’re getting off a bus or trying to otherwise get out of the way quickly, this is a major impediment. Next time, I would definitely get a pack that has sewn-in attachments for that bottom strap.
Tips: Pick a pack that fits your size. Bigger is not better! The nice thing about my pack is that no matter how full it is, I can still carry it comfortably. My husband’s pack was much bigger, and I could barely lift it, but that worked for him. Also, we both went to REI to get fitted for packs, and they used weighted bean bags to test the fit with a full pack. I surprised myself by getting the cheapest one, because it actually felt the best. Any REI will fit you for free, just ask.
If you’re planning on digitally funding your travels, a laptop is a must. If you’re just traveling for a year, not working and want to travel light– skip it. You can buy a memory stick to download camera pics and use internet cafe’s to get online. For the amount of hassle, care, concern, and weight, the laptop is only worth it if you’re really going to use it.
I had two computers over the last year. A Dell XPS M1330 (my “nice” computer) and a Dell Inspiron 1525 (the backup). I’ll just put this out there: I’ve had lots of problems with Dells. But I keep going back for one reason: the refurbished Dells are about 50% off retail price, are in great shape, come with a 1 year warranty and are cheaper than any comparable product out there.
Upside: For about $1300 my XPS M1300 had every bell and whistle (and massive disk space) that I wanted. I could download gigs and gigs of photos from my dSLR and not have to worry about transferring to another storage device for months. It’s light, compact, but not so small I feel cramped working on it. It’s a very pretty machine.
Downside: Did I mention I had a backup PC? Yeah. The hinges on Dells are very delicate. I’ve broken them on both machines. Bumping the corner of your laptop is enough to crack it, and once it snaps, opening and closing the PC becomes a nightmare. Also, the Nvidia card burned out and had to be replaced by Dell support (this was on the XPS M1300, and common for that model). They had some trouble figuring out if I was a real customer because the original order got auto-cancelled by their theft department because my shipping and billing address didn’t match (fun with customer service that I thought I had put behind me months earlier). It took about a month for them to figure it out and authorize the repair.
Tips: Would a Mac be better? Maybe. I still like cheap. Cheap is good, and cheap I can do. The back up PC cost about $400. My husband travels with a Mac and PC for his job (he’s a designer) and if you’re really, seriously, screwed if you don’t have a working laptop on the road, having a backup with you is worth the piece of mind. (Admittedly, I am incredibly rough on my computers, so your results might vary).
The big dilemma I had about clothing before I left was whether or not it made sense to invest in “technical” or high end “travel” clothing. In the end, I went with mostly regular clothes, but my rain jacket was a high-tech Marmot. As I traveled, I replaced most of my clothing over the course of the year. Since I traveled light, the wear-and-tear on clothes was at least 10 times what you’d normally experience at home. It makes sense, since I’d wear and wash the same three outfits over and over again, but it was a bit surprising to see how fast my clothes were deteriorating (especially items I had had for years). However, it’s easy to find new clothes as you travel, and you can better match what was appropriate for that area. For instance, on the beaches of Costa Rica, a tank top, skirt and bikini is everyday wear. In the cities, you’ll want to cover up more.
Upside: I didn’t spend a lot on clothes I wouldn’t need, and often picking up a t-shirt or a new skirt was much cheaper overseas. I also didn’t have to carry clothes for every season. When it was cold, I bought a sweater, when I moved further south, I gave it away. Since I only paid $10 for it, it was easier to let clothes come and go in my life.
Downside: Technical clothing is really worth it as far as durability. As you can see from the picture to the right, my cheap Old Navy tank top barely survived as the fabric had pilled. Sun dresses formed holes on the seams, and t-shirts became thin from frequent washings. While a good piece of technical clothing will set you back, it is incredibly sturdy (my Marmot coat still looks like new after a year of use).
Tips: Buy the clothing appropriate to your first destination and pick up the rest up as you go. There are exceptions to this, for example: if you think you’ll need highly specialized gear further in trip (for the most part, if you need it, so do the locals, so it’s likely available where you’re going). If you’re a bigger size or tall (for women: bigger than size 12 US or for men: 38 waist) you might have more trouble finding clothes that fit, depending on where you are in the world. I’m a bit tall (5’8″) and at times in Central America, I felt like I was shopping in the juniors’ section. There’s usually ways to work around this, for me it was just buying skirts instead of pants, a perfectly fine compromise.