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]

Gadling Travelers On Their Favorite Gear

Brookstone Neck PillowGadling contributors are, by occupation, a well traveled lot and they’re hard on their kit. They want stuff that works – stuff that lasts, stuff that’s genuinely useful, stuff they’re never sorry they packed. While you’re hunting little extras to gift your favorite traveler, consider this list of favorites from some of the most traveled people on the Internet.

McLean Robbins: As a traveler who can’t manage to ever get comfortable on an airplane or with hotel pillows, I can’t leave home without this Brookstone accessory. I purchased it on a whim before a long-haul European flight where I thought I’d be stuck in a middle coach seat, and have used it on even short domestic flights ever since. The pillow is great in its U-shaped form, but I place it under those flimsy hotel pillows for extra support too. Best of all? It compacts nicely into my carry-on bag as well.

Jessica Marati
: Melatonin. This natural sleep aid is the best way to get rest on redeye flights and combat jet lag. I don’t travel without it.

Chris Owen: I usually pack specifically for each trip but one thing that always makes it is my bag full of cords, plugs, power converters and backup battery power. It’s called a Flex Pack and made by Victorinox.

Dave Seminara: I travel with a Princeton Tec headlamp so I can read in hotel rooms (or tents) after my sons go to bed! [Note: There’s always a headlamp in my pack too. And if you get one that’s got a red light mode, you can dig around in your bag or find your way to your bunk in the hostel without waking and/or blinding your roomies.Kyle Ellison: The two things I never travel without are duct tape and nylon cord, both available at your local hardware store. With the tape you can fix a rip in your backpack, seal a cut on your foot, create a waterproof barrier on anything, make labels, bookmarks, a lid for your food … anything really. With the cord you can make a clothesline, tie a tent down, fix a backpack, make a tourniquet, a belt, shoelaces … again, it’s a life saver.

Mix these in with a Leatherman multi-tool (opening cans, getting out splinters, cutting your tape and cord, opening wine bottles, sawing through wood, unscrewing air ducts in hotels, which are vibrating, fixing your glasses, hammering in tent stakes, etc.) Unfortunately, your multi-tool can only travel with you via land travel or checked baggage.

Laurel Miller: This small, rip-stop compact folding duffel bag. It has zippered side pockets so you can stuff it into itself, and it compacts to the size of a sandwich. I keep it in the bottom of my backpack and use it to bring home the inevitable souvenirs or press materials that accumulate on my travels. It also makes a great overnight bag, especially if I’m on a big trip that has some side trips where I can leave my backpack behind.

Meg Nesterov: I love the TotSeat portable high chair. It fits in a purse/bag, weighs almost nothing, and is handy anytime I want to put my baby in a regular chair and have her stay there. It is way superior to the other “travel” high chairs that are as big as phone books (if that reference even makes sense anymore), though it is essentially like tying your child to a chair!

Alex Robertson Textor: It’s super un-techy but I don’t like to travel without my Moleskine Classic Large Ruled Notebook. Notes feel more substantial in a paper notebook.

What do you want to add to your travel kit this year? What are you giving your favorite traveler?

[Images courtesy of Brookstone and Leatherman]

The Travel Outfit That Will Let You Breeze Through Airport Security

After years of fine-tuning, I may have just mastered the art of dressing for airport security.

It wasn’t easy, mind you. For many years, my travel uniform consisted of jeans, a belt, a white T-shirt and sneakers. But my belt would always set off the alarm, my sneakers were cumbersome to slip off and my jeans made it difficult to get comfortable once I was onboard. Not to mention the stains that would build up on my crisp white tee after 36 hours of international travel.

Then there was the jeggings-and-boots phase. But try getting in and out of knee-high motorcycle boots while juggling a laptop and boarding pass. Not fun.

Now, my go-to travel outfit is comfortable, stylish and allows me to zip through airport security in the time it previously took to zip up those godforsaken boots. Here’s what it consists of.

Note: This post is geared toward women, but men may be able to glean some tips from it too.T-shirt dress
A long-sleeved t-shirt dress can keep you warm on cold flights, but adapts well to warm climates – perfect for that mid-winter getaway to the Bahamas. I wear the Holstee Dress in black, which is made from a comfortable blend of hemp and organic cotton and contains a handy pocket for my passport and boarding pass. Plus, the dress folds into its own pocket for easy packing later in the trip.

Black leggings
A great pair of black leggings is a travel essential. What other item of clothing transitions seamlessly from the airplane to the opera to a yoga class to bed? The Ibex Energy Tight is a splurge, but its blend of Merino wool, nylon and lycra is made for warmth and movement. Plus, it’s odor-resistant.

A versatile wrap
A great wrap can easily go from a hoop scarf for the airport to a blanket for the flight. The Versalette from {r}evolution apparel may just be the most versatile of them all, with buttons and drawstrings that allow it to be worn in more than 20 different ways. The Infinity Scarf from KCA by Fashioning Change, made in Los Angeles from a cotton-hemp blend, is another great option.

Slip-on shoes
Forget pesky laces and zippers. A great pair of slip-on shoes isn’t just comfortable, it also makes the security screening process much easier. TOMS are a great bet, and some of their new winter versions even contain a soft fleece lining for chilly flights.

Additional tip
When loading your belongings at the TSA checkpoint, place your shoes/belts/jewelry into the first bin, your laptop/toiletries in the second bin and your bags last. That way, you can redress while the rest of your items are still being screened.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Inha Leex Hale, Holstee, {r}evolution apparel]

Gadling Gear Review: Tieks Foldable Ballet Flats

Tieks foldable ballet flatsShoes are always the packing puzzle I can’t quite solve. Travels that require evening dress are a struggle. I once gave up valuable space in my luggage for a pair of strappy platform sandals; the evening dress I packed took up probably a quarter of the space I needed for the accompanying shoes. I ended up carrying my shoes around later that night anyways.

Tieks by Gavrieli are foldable ballet flats that take up a tiny amount of space in your bag and they dress up very nicely. They’re cute – they come in a whole lot of colors and styles – and they absolutely work with your cocktail dress, the one that takes up no space in your luggage.

I was surprised at how little breaking in they needed, the pair I tried (I went with the sparkly Obsidian Black) were comfortable on my feet right away. They looked great with my evening event outfits (you really can’t go wrong in basic black) and my feet were much happier than they’d have been in heels. But they didn’t quite make it through the second night – my feet were tired after two hours on the reception patio’s concrete floor. There’s no arch support – that’s a sacrifice for a shoe you can fold in half.

Tieks come in a big array of colors and some patterns, you can have snakeskin or something floral or something blingy with sparkle. A basic solid color pair will set you back $165, the snakeskins run $295. You can spend a lot less on a foldable ballet flat – a quick search turned up a few brands that have a similar sturdy sole, but they don’t offer the range in style that the Tieks do.

Tieks are all about the style – they come with a carrying pouch and a reusable bag, probably for throwing your heels in when you’ve switched shoes at the end of the night. And they’ve made a nod towards comfort – the flats fit well and are really fine for walking in, though I’d not choose them for all day wear.

They’re cute, they look great and they fold up to pack away very easily. I’d think twice about making them my shoe of choice if I’m going to have to be on my feet for a long evening, but if I just need to make sure I have shoes for a dress up night out while I’m traveling, they’re a great option.

[Image via Tieks.com]

Gadling Gear Review: Birks? Really? Yes

A long stint in central Europe (and residency in the crunchier regions of the Pacific Northwest) means that I don’t look twice at someone in big wooly socks and a pair of battered “Birks.” But I do not suggest them as a travel shoe; it’s a bit too much like recommending a pair of bedroom slippers. (Sorry, Birkenstock.)

There’s a spinoff line from the old standard – Birki’s – that have some broader utility and some cute new colors and styles. Setting aside any conversation about fashion for a minute (sorry again, Birkenstock), they’re really comfortable. They’re great for driving, for slapping down to the pool deck, for padding through the hotel lobby to get coffee, for that lunch stop at the roadside diner – they’re just easy for knocking around in. They’re shoes that feel like you’re on vacation – seriously.I got my last pair of Birks ten, maybe 15 years ago. They last a very long time. They’re now available in purple suede and fuchsia and lime green and a bunch of fun colors; they’re not just your natural leather anymore. There’s a new sport line (I checked out the Salina) – they’ve got a spongier foot bed and the uppers are water resistant. They’re pitched as a “recovery shoe” so if you’re off to do something sporty, it’s nice to leave a pair in the car for after your day on the trail.

But the style I’m totally digging is the Skipper, a slip on that’s got some lazy style. They’re great for airports and planes, easy to get in and out of, and comfortable for wearing for long hours. They’re made from a tough canvas and have a bit of a rough finish. They look and feel like your favorite old beat-up pair of shoes almost right away.

Traditional Birks set you back some bank; this line runs just a little more affordable. They list the Skipper for about $120.00 and the Salina for about $80.00. They make a great pair of comfortable knock about shoes that will serve you as well at the airport bar as on your walk to the swim-up bar and are a good addition to your travel wardrobe. I was surprised; I didn’t think they’d make the cut for more than taking out the garbage, but they’re great and I’m wearing mine for my next road trip.