Gadling Gear Review: This Year’s Favorite Gear

I’ve been reviewing gear for a few years now. I wrote for a snowshoeing magazine and a site focused on gear for travelers before I joined the Gadling crew. That means I’m kind of a tough sell when it comes to new outdoor and travel clothing, bags and accessories. And I test everything, I ride my bike in the rain to see if that jacket is really waterproof, I wrangle that roller bag into the overhead bin, I wear those noise-canceling headsets on a long-haul flight. I pay attention to what always makes it into the bag, to what gets used more than once, to what works. Here are six things that really worked from this year’s gear.

Birki’s Skipper Slides
: You could not have told me that a shoe from Birkenstock would become a (fair weather) travel favorite, but they’re great for long-haul flights, easy to get in and out of at the airport, they do double duty as slippers or flip-flops when you’re running down the hall to the ice machine and, though they may not suit your style – they’re very casual – I love these things and think they’re great if you’ve got room for a second pair of shoes in your bag.

Ozone Ultralight Roller from Osprey: Just about perfect as a weekender, at its smallest size, this super light bag holds everything you need for a three-day getaway. What’s causing it to miss the 100% mark? It needs a shoulder strap for when it’s not appropriate to roll it. That aside, this is an extremely well designed bag with lots of pockets in sensible places – there’s even a place for your netbook or tablet – and it looks cool.

Gregory’s Border Laptop Backpack
: Everyone’s got a system for getting you through the TSA checkpoint with your laptop pack; most of them are fine. They all seem to use the same open flat configuration, but that doesn’t mean they also make a great day pack. The Border pack is full of sensible pockets that are exactly the right size and shape for whatever it is you’re carrying. If you can’t find the right place for it in this pack, you don’t need to be carrying it. (Ok, one exception: it’s not built to carry a DSLR.) This is, hands down, the best laptop pack I’ve tested.Mophie Juice Pack Plus: Addicted to your phone for travel apps, podcasts, photography, etc.? Yeah, me too. Which means I’m always burning through the battery. The Mophie Juice Pack Plus doubles the life of your phone by wrapping it in a case with an integrated battery. Strategists can shut down some of those power sucking things like Wi-Fi or data to get even more time out of it. That’s a terrific extra for the mobile addict.

Panasonic Lumix: I’m a devoted photographer and at times I carry a big heavy DSLR with big heavy lenses. But I sprung for a new Lumix this year and I left my DSLR at home for two big trips. I’ve been so happy with what the Lumix offers me – excellent optics, works beautifully in low light, all kinds of customization settings for photo nerds, and it fits in my pocket. I love this thing. Love it.

SmartWool Anything: Lots of brands are making nice stuff out of merino wool these days and it’s good stuff. Icebreaker makes styling clothing and base layers, Nau makes cool pieces that pack well; it’s all great stuff. SmartWool has been around forever, though, and while they’re not the cheapest and don’t always have the edge on style, they’re stuff is consistently excellent and it lasts for a very long time. I have SmartWool gear that I purchased more than ten years ago and it’s still in great shape. Their gear fits, wears tough and lasts. Get whatever you like, but the midweight stuff that they came out with this year? Aces. It’s rare that I’ll endorse a specific brand so whole-heartedly, but I am never disappointed with their gear. Never.

[Image credit: Packing for NZ by herdingnerfs via Flickr – Creative Commons]

Gregory “Alpaca” Roller Duffel Bag

Gregory Alpaca Roller DuffelHere’s my issue with many rolling duffel bags: they don’t hold their shape. There are a few other nits — the material is too light and punctures or tears easily, the zippers give out, and weirdly, they’re heavy, making me wonder why I didn’t just go with a hard sided bag. Gregory’s new Alpaca Roller Duffel addresses all these complaints and then some, plus, the frame has been re-engineered so it doesn’t eat up valuable space in your bag.

Gregory’s Alpaca Roller Duffel is sort of a hybrid bag — the bottom and the wheelbase is lightweight molded plastic covered with tough fabric — this helps the the bag keep it’s shape; it also makes it easy to pack because unlike a lot of roller bags, the bottom is flat and the hard sides help it hold its shape. The upper part of the bag is treated fabric, tough, waterproof and hey, mine is red so if I do end up checking it, it’s easy to spot on the baggage carousel.

The handle is so much easier to use than the misnamed quick release handles on my other roller bags. There’s a strap to hold it in place when it’s down, but I imagine myself losing that and finding that, oh, look, the handle still stays down just fine. The big fat wheels mean it’s easy to maneuver, though I don’t yet know how that translates in the narrow aisles of a coach cabin.

The straps on the top of the bag Velcro together with a grip like most bags, but the straps themselves are designed like backpack straps. This is a nice compromise, it means when you’re finding your destination in that neighborhood that’s all narrow walkways or navigating the staircases of the train station, you can carry your bag like a backpack. That’s a really thoughtful touch. You can take the straps off, too, they’re designed to be easily removed if you’re not using them.
The interior lid of the bag is a netted, zippered compartment; there’s a strap with a clasp on it sewn in place, answering the question of where to put your keys while you’re not using them. There are cinch straps at the bottom of the bag to keep your stuff in place — and cinch straps on the outside for additional security.

On the outside of the bag there are lots of loops and tie downs; I suppose you might tie your muddy hikers to them, or your wet swimsuit. There’s a little pocket for your ID, and another small zippered pocket for odds and ends — it’s probably a convenient place for your travel documents while you’re wheeling through the airport.

Getting the perfect piece of luggage is tricky, that’s probably why I have so many bags. A soft-sided bag isn’t going to protect all the electronic gadgets I haul around; that’s a concern. I’d love an outside pocket for sandals — it’s bad form to have stuff flopping all over when you’re boarding a plane. But the Alpaca 22 (the 22 is carry on size, it comes in a 28 as well) , paired with my favorite digital backpack, is big enough, sturdy enough, and versatile enough to see me through a week or a month of travel.

The Alpaca Roller comes in Tarmac Black or Sunset Red. The 22 retails for $299, the 28 for $349. The bag hits retail stores in July, 2011.