Almost Fearless

A Year of Gear: Road Tested Results Part One



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.

The Backpack

gear, review, usa, around the world travelI 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).

gear, review, usa, around the world travelDownside: 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.

gear, review, usa, around the world travelTips: 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.

The Laptop

gear, review, usa, around the world travelIf 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.

gear, review, usa, around the world travelDownside: 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.

gear, review, usa, around the world travelTips: 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).

Clothes

gear, review, usa, around the world travelThe 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.

gear, review, usa, around the world travelDownside: 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).

gear, review, usa, around the world travelTips: 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.

Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”

THERE ARE RARELY HAMMOCKS.

http://christinegilbert.com

37 comments

  • When I started travelling I carried an 80 litre Kathmandu pack and a satchel for my laptop and teaching gear. After around a year, I swapped the pack for a 45+8 litre Berghaus…and I love it to bits — it’s a great pack. About six months ago I swapped the Kathmandu satchel for an ultralight Berghaus daypack, which was designed for racing. I really enjoy it too, although Linda gives me a hard time for being a walking Berghaus advertisement. THAT’S a pain.

  • Thanks for this post. I’m heading out for six months into really varied environments and I’m trying to reduce the amount of one-purpose stuff in my pack. For example, I’m thinking about not bringing a towel (I don’t like the feel of most of the travel ones) and using a sarong instead, which will do double-duty at the beach. Is there anything you’ve ditched along the way because you’ve found something else will work just as well? And is there a non-obvious one-purpose item that you can’t live without? Thanks again.

  • Thanks for the gear update and good advice 🙂 This article goes into my re-read folder for when launch day gets closer.

    If you set out again what will you do about the velcro pack issue? New pack or get it attached somehow?

  • Excellent information! We just bought our packs. Aracely at 5’2″ got a 55L and I at 6′ felt good in a 75L. REI was great to us as well. They filled all the bags with the weight as we tested out several of them. Hmmm, did I get one that was too big? I will be carrying a tent, laptop, video camera, etc. I can still return it.
    .-= Jason´s last blog ..Choosing the Right Backpack =-.

  • I had a Dell M1330 and suffered the same problems as yourself. The video chip failed a month before the warranty ran out and then failed again a couple of months out of warranty and was going to cost around £300 to replace. I ended up buying a netbook to replace it. I’m just glad that this happened before I hit the road!

  • Nice post! I don’t even remember what I started with but it’s hugely different to what I have now. I’m never happy with what I end up sticking in my pack… it’s always too much. I’m already planning my next journey’s pack contents and will take this advice on board. Carting around a broken SLR and two biggish lenses has been a downside but on an electrical upside, my laptop has been great.

  • Nice info. I’ve also given up on Dell computers. I’ve messed up the power plug (in the computer) on 2 machines. I’m now using an HP dv6500 and love it except that it’s heavy for travelling. I just purchased a Lenovo Ideapad for travelling — weighs under 3 pounds and fits in my purse. I’ll be testing it out on a trip to Europe in about a month. It has 160 Gig hard drive and I have a 250 gig external hard drive (weighs about as much as a deck of cards). I should be able to manage all my photo downloads with the two.

  • Laurene: I ended up losing my travel towel (although I loved it, it was a very plush one) so the last few months I used a sarong, just like you described. It works perfectly well to dry off from the shower, to sit on the beach or just to cover up after a swim. So I say go for it, maybe bring two so you can alternate.

    Shawn: I think I can sew it. I’m not sure, I love the pack, so it would be a shame to toss it. I also thought about just super gluing the velcro shut. I’m not sure if there’s any reason it needs to be detachable.

    Jason: The good thing is that you’ll get stronger as you travel, so as you slowly start picking up stuff on the road, you probably won’t notice it. That being said, try not to start out with an over packed bag!

    CIndy: I forgot to mention that! The power plugs… I always have that problem, where the battery won’t charge. It’s happened with work Dells, on my husband’s Dells. It’s crazy.

    Hopefully I’ll answer the rest of the questions in Part Two!

  • Do you travel with two computers, or was the backup computer one you picked up once the first died? I’m hoping it’s the former, because then I’m not the only one to travel with two–one (ridiculously enormous) Dell for work (provided by work, who wasn’t considering the inconvenience when I began “extreme” telecommuting) and my little Macbook, which is the perfect traveling computer. It fits perfectly into a laptop bag that looks nothing like a laptop bag (LL Bean), so there’s no risk of theft. It slides into any pocket.

    BUT (there’s always a but) I worry about the Mac. And you’re right, it’s terribly expensive to replace. So, if you don’t really need it, stick with a cheaper computer–or head to Apple’s refurbished shop for a cheaper version.
    .-= Liz´s last blog ..My Job is Making Me Fat: Weight Loss Strategies for Extreme Telecommuters =-.

  • Add my voice to those thanking you for this post! 🙂 I’m a few weeks away from a one-year trip, so I’m pondering the difficult questions of which pack to take right now. My partner and I are really “big” on going as small as possible… We’d really like our backpacks to be as tiny as we can make them (and still have clean underwear most of the time.)

    On the subject of laptops, a nice recent development is the Netbook. I got myself an Aspire One from Asus. I have only used it for 1 week in Hungary, but I was pretty satisfied with it. For the purposes of photo uploading to Flickr, and for blogging, I think it does the job perfectly. I can also do budgeting on a spreadsheet through Google Docs. Of course, all of this assumes a wireless connection, but the fact it’s the size and weight of a hardcover book makes it a pretty good deal, I think.
    .-= The Backpack Foodie´s last blog ..The Cost of the First Step =-.

  • I have realized a great deal of things over the last 6 months of travelling as I can see that you have too. First of all I got an 80 litre backpack, something that I will never do again.. It’s not that its THAT big, but I can definently fit a lot in it and I therefore tend to carry stuff longer before I ship stuff back home again. Just to toss my thoughts in on the laptop scene I have been using my Acer Aspire One on the road for 6 months now and its worked great for Raw editing, blogging, picture uploading and so on! It is along with my SLR my best buys for this trip 🙂

    I read a lot on packing before I left, but somehow I guess that some things you just have to learn yourself.. the hard way!
    .-= Christian Haugen´s last blog ..The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu =-.

  • Dells? Goodness.

    I travel with an eeePC netbook and have a card reader/harddrive combo for downloading photos. My system works pretty well.

    What are you using to listen to music and how did that hold up?
    .-= Stevo´s last blog ..How to breeze through airport security =-.

  • I love my REI Mars backpack. REI has a lifetime guarantee too, so you can take things back. I brought my in once after it got shredded by while traveling and got a new one, no question’s asked.

    REI can be pricer, but the warranty and service makes it worth it.

  • Great post. We’re leaving on our 13 month round the world in two weeks and I was just @ REI picking up some last minute clothing. I found that I’m staying away from cotton and I have a lot of synthetics (polyester, nylon, etc). We picked up our bags @ REI as well. We found our backpacks on the REI outlet site (www.rei.com/outlet). Similar to the DELL outlet site (www.dell.com/outlet), we saved 1/2 price on our bags by buying the last years model.
    Originally, I bought an REI Mars (80L) but that was just way too big. I swapped it out for a 2 piece backpack (40L backpack w/ a 20L day backpack) and that will work out better. That way we won’t have to check luggage as much.

  • John:

    Yes, at this point, we both always travel with two computers. BUT we never check them. He has a laptop bag and I have a day backpack and we take them as carry ons. Never any problem getting through security, just have to put each in a different bin.

  • Very engrossing post, Christine. I plan on journeying overseas myself during college. I’ve never traveled with anything less than a giant suitcase, so it’s refreshing to hear that a lot of stuff isn’t necessary to bring on year long trips.

    I hope you and your husband have a fun time traveling.

  • So much can be stored on a thumbdrive including an Operating System?
    See http://lifehacker.com/5208533/six-best-portable-operating-systems for some portable OS ideas. Your image editing software, spreadsheets…all that stuff can be carried on the thumbdrive.

    Multiple times in my SE Asia journeys I found myself needing to travel with all of my belongings via motorcycle taxi (a few times the moto taxi was the only thing avail, and definitely cheaper). A giant pack, or two mediums were too much. I fit everything (sometimes including my daybag) into a 50 liter backback…enough stuff to keep me warm in chilly places like Dalat, VN or Huaraz, peru or comfy on thai beaches & jungles. Kelty Redwing 3100, not a toploader, has zippers so the two main compartments are lockable, sized for airplane carryon dimensions. Have fun, I’m jealous!

  • The buttons on the Dell mouse track pads also don’t last long at all which is pain when trying to work on a plane or train.The CD drives are also poorly designed and don’t last for a long time but buying and replacing Dells (for the moment) is still cheaper than going with a comparable Macbook.

  • I’m thinking about getting a netbook for my upcoming trip, the Acer ones look pretty good, possibly the Asus EeePC as it has a 9.5 hour battery.

    I’m also thinking of getting a portable 500gb hard drive which at about $100 seems a convenient way of keeping all files, music etc.

    There are some of the smaller essentials to travelling – especially if you stay in hostels. My number one recommendation – ear plugs! They are an absolute godsend in noisy hostels, on buses,
    .-= Roy´s last blog ..Link Love – Touring Blogs =-.

  • We have been debating whether or not to take two laptops. We weren’t planning on working on the road but both of us have been offered opportunities that we feel kind of stupid not to take. Good to hear that it’s not too troublesome.
    .-= Akila´s last blog ..healthy tropical granola =-.

  • Isn’t it funny how a road test, REALLY let’s you know what you need and what you don’t? We dumped our high end global phone almost immediately as free skype calls work just as well for much free!

    I’d say go with the mac…we have 2 of them and 1 PC and the macs get MUCH more use and abuse as they are used much more. Hubs is still using is macpro that we bought in 2006 with not one problem and it is worked to death and transported on his back over 96,000 miles so far! ( small targus daypack is what we use for months of travel even in 3 seasons of weather and often carrying 2 laptops).

    Some things buy good. I am still wearing the on sale ( 2nds) one pair of smartsocks that we bought in 2006 before leaving. Our few clothes have held out amazingly well considering….except my black goucho pants that I bought at Ross for Less and wore absolutely to death the first year. Gotta a new pair on sale when we returned for a visit last fall, we will see how long these will last.

    Even high end clothes eventually wear out if worn to death. Hubs exofficio stuff finally got rotten and ripped easy after 3 years of daily hard wear. Some things last forever like his 25+ year old jacket that we still have with us for cold. 😉

  • You should write a few direct requests to companies asking for equipment to stress-test. Sure, there’s probably a zillion and one people out there that have asked for the same thing, but you might be one of the people they choose. Can’t hurt.

    Long story, but when I was off to University I had no money and sent a letter to 600 CEO’s asking for $250 toward my university education in return for a quarterly report on university life. Without saying much more, I did very well …

    You can use your subscription list, your hits, ad revenue, etc. to build a pretty good basis for them supporting you. You can probably get a nice HP rugged laptop, backpacks, cameras, peripherals, other gear, etc. Make it a real letter on real paper with a real stamp.

    Just an idea.

  • My husband bought a refurbished Mac Book Pro because he wanted the matte screen, and he saved a lot of money. He recently priced a refurbished Mac for me (can’t remember if it was Mac Book Pro) at $1,300.

  • Excellent points, Christine. And I’ll second what Chris G said about contacting various companies for possible reviews of equipment. Doesn’t hurt to give it a try.

    I know some bloggers are against sponsored reviews though, but I don’t see anything wrong with it as long as honesty comes first.

  • An article that speaks to my inner Wanderlusty Simplist.

    I’ve recently been mulling over what I’d need to really get out on the road for any duration. Light, durable clothing, definitely – the few items of “space age” clothing I have weren’t cheap, but they’ve become priceless. I’ll never travel with bulky clothes again, when lightweight & more efficient (warmer / cooler) alternatives are out there. No compromise.

    In terms of gadgets – no iPhone / smartphone / palmtop etc.? I’m using a Vario III (Kaiser) and I’ve found it a great backup mini-laptop for the basics (Microsoft Word, getting online & blogging, getting e-mail etc.)

    I’m not sure I’d take a Mac on the road – I’d be too twitchy. But neither would I take a Dell. 🙂

    And…I presume you’re going to post about the things that didn’#t even last a month before you gave them the heave-ho? Hope so – that would be a fun post. (And cathartic?).

  • The best combo for “backing up” is a Dell laptop, an Apricorn “EZ Upgrade” kit with matching drive – and a matching Dell laptop (either already purchased (new or used) or future purchase via eBay).

    Travel with one laptop and periodically duplicate the drive contents. If the main drive fails, bang, no problem with a quick swap out. If the whole laptop eats itself or otherwise becomes unusable, put that drive into your spare laptop mailed in from home via FedEx. Keep the backup drive in its Apricorn case in a separate bag in case the laptop gets ripped off.

    Dell laptops & eBay are a great combination for repairs, parts and duplicate machines.

  • Tips for travel clothing:
    Wear linen. Depending upon the brand, it’s very sturdy and can withstand lots of washing. It’s also is cool in hot weather and warm enough in cold weather.

    Depending on where you are traveling: pick up a change of clothes at thrift shops along the way. I ended up in Maui once when it was unseasonably cold, and went over to the thrift store and found a jacket. Maui is expensive and I didn’t want to shop retail. I had an apartment with laundry, so it was easy to wash and wear my new stuff.

    It was amazing how much gear they had, too. Everything from surf to hiking. Probably tourist leave behinds.