Three Unsung Travel Gear Items

I registered for the Summer Outdoor Retailer Show, a gear extravaganza that takes place twice a year in Salt Lake City. Unfortunately, “day job” stuff got turned on its head such that I can’t attend, though fellow Gadling Gear Guy Kraig Becker will be representing and will have his eyes open for new, cool stuff. Because I’m listed to attend, I’ve got an inbox full of press releases and invitations to check out the newest, latest, coolest … and a surprising number of those releases are for gear that’s really hard to say anything about. It’s critical stuff, don’t get me wrong, you need these things. But how much can you say about these items?

  1. Socks: Merino socks, toe socks, performance socks, recycled fiber socks, socks, socks, socks. I know, when you were a kid and you got socks as a gift, you thought, “Really? SOCKS?” but as a grown up, I appreciate nice socks. But what can you say about socks that the laundry basket and your sock drawer and time do not tell you? The bad ones are at the bottom of the drawer, the good ones are in the wash. I struggle when presented with a pitch for socks because, really, socks? And also, yes. They matter. Good socks are a travel essential; they should be seasonally appropriate and wear well. You can’t have too many SmartWool socks, I’ve become a fan of Darn Tough Vermont socks (hey, American made, if you care about that) and Dahlgren’s winter alpaca socks are super cuddly. So, yeah, socks.
  2. Water Bottles: One that doesn’t spill when I knock it over, thank you. One that doesn’t weigh a ton. One that seals up properly and doesn’t leak when it’s in the bottom of my backpack or knocked sideways on the luggage rack over my seat on the bus. But any water bottle is better than none, and I don’t know about you, but I pick these things up as swag almost everywhere. So maybe there are those with standout qualities, but like your camera, the best water bottle is the one you have with you.
  3. Flashlights: Portable lighting switched to LEDs a while back. That was a huge improvement in brightness, but once you’ve got a new LED light, you’ve got a new LED light and you’re done. Sure, they come with bells and whistles – flashing modes for emergency, multiple brightness settings, waterproofing, maybe a beam that you can focus – but before you go all crazy, think about what you need your light for. I keep a Petzl headlamp in my bag; it works well for reading in the tent or finding my way back to my cabin at the luxury off-the-grid resort (funny how these two things share that low light quality). And I have a little hand held flashlight from Icon – it’s super bright and great for picking out the eyes on hyenas in your safari bush camp, but I have a hard time imagining you ending up with a flashlight that you really hate. Remarkable shifts between brands? Uh, I’ll let you know when I see that. But essential? Absolutely.

Other stuff – tents and related camping gear, (we’re big car campers at our house), great luggage, clothes that travel well, shoes? That stuff keeps evolving. Fashion and new materials and interesting leaps in design, style, and tech toys? That stuff I find I have things to say about. But these three basic additions to your travel kit? I’m not seeing great leaps in the technology, but you need this stuff, regardless. My advice? Get some. Don’t cheap out. Nothing here is glam, but it’s stuff I pack for every single trip.

[Image: Pattern-aholic by Capture Queen via Flickr (Creative Commons)]

Gadling gear review: Bushnell HD Torch flashlight

The Bushnell HD Torch flashlightLets face it, a flashlight is one of the most useful pieces of gear that we can own. Who amongst us hasn’t found themselves caught in the dark and wishing we had a bright light to help find our way. Flashlights come in handy around the house, in the car, and even when we travel, and the HD Torch from Bushnell is one of the most versatile and useful of all, even if it does come with a hefty price tag.

Built from lightweight, yet very rugged, aircraft grade aluminum, the first thing you’ll notice about the HD Torch is that it feels very solid and tough in your hand. The high quality construction inspires a sense of confidence that this light can take a beating and still be ready for action when you need it, whether that’s around the house during a power outage or at your campsite at the end of a long day on the trail.

Cranking out 165 lumens, the HD Torch offers plenty of light when and where you need it, but that level of illumination isn’t the only thing that sets it apart from the competition. While the output from most flashlights is round in shape, Bushnell’s offering is actually square. The result is a very focused beam of light, that provides more intensity across the length of the beam than most other offerings, which tend to see their light diffuse more on the edges. When I first read about this feature, I thought that it was simply a marketing ploy, but seeing it in action, the square design does indeed make for a more efficient light. It was actually quite astounding to see it in action.
Bushnell incorporated some other nice features into the HD Torch that users will appreciate as well. For instance, the light has a very useful “find me” feature which illuminates the “B” on the rear of the cylinder, making it easy to locate in the dark. That same “B” changes color from green to red to indicate the remaining battery life on the light too. When it turns red, its time to change the power cells. The HD Torch is waterproof and has both high-beam and a safety strobe modes, the latter of which can be used to signal for help in an emergency. While burning at full strength, the Torch has a run time of about 90 minutes, although while I tested the flashlight, I found that it managed to eek out a bit more time than that.

While the HD Torch is indeed a well built, rugged, and bright flashlight, there are a couple of things that may give travelers pause. First, it is a bit large, measuring over nine inches in length and weighing in at about 10 ounces. For a high performance light those specs are actually fantastic, but when compared with other travel options, the HD Torch may not be the best choice to take along on your trip. A small headlamp remains a better option for those who want to pack light.

The other thing that sticks out about this flashlight is the price tag. With an MSRP of $109.95, it is more expensive than other options for travelers, even if it does perform at a higher level. Depending on your needs however, the Bushnell HD Torch is a fantastic alternative. Hunters and campers will definitely appreciate its rugged build and very bright light, which truly show their strength while out in the field. This is a piece of gear that will prove itself useful around the house or in the car, and I more than recommend it in those situations. That said, there are clearly less expensive options available for travelers.

A Headlamp is a Travel Essential

Scenario 1: Sure, there’s a campfire, but it’s not enough to let you see what’s on your plate. You’re alternating between a fork and a flashlight. That’s no way to enjoy your ramen.

Scenario 2: Digging through your bag for your earplugs when your tent mate has shattered your sleep with her snoring takes both hands.

Scenario 3: That budget hotel is on generator power, and that goes off at 10am. It’s 3am, it’s as dark as the inside of an elephant, and you have to pee.

You need a headlamp. I’ve tested a few of these and I’ve settled on a favorite, Petzl’s Zipka Plus 2. Here’s what I like about it.

The Zipka has a spring-loaded retractable cord rather than a typical elasticized webbing headband. It’s super compact right from the get-go because the design has cleverly eliminated the strap. I like that you can strap it to your hand or your arm or whatever – tent pole, beer can… if it’s the circumference of your melon, you can put the lamp around it and it will stay put. Win.

Next up? There’s a red light mode. That snoring camp buddy? You don’t have to paste her with high wattage while you’re rooting around in your bag. You’re not a jerk. This is a really nice feature I didn’t know I wanted, and now, I think it should be standard. The red light is just, well, it’s more polite, so it’s great for dorm rooms, too, or any situation where low light is a better choice.

There’s a blinky mode, too, so if you’re striving to be seen (say you’re using it as a bike light), you can set the blinker to go off in either red or white light. It’s really bright when it’s blinking in the full power white light mode, if they’re within visible range (a maximum of 35 meters, according to Petzl) your crew will find you. When it’s blinking in red light mode, it’s not as bright, but it’s still useful for making yourself seen by those around you.

You can use the white light in two modes — full and “economy”. In economy mode,the light is plenty bright for reading and, according to the specs, the light will last for up to 140 hours. That’s a good long time.

Finally, if you’d like to attach the light to something, Petzl has an adapter kit that allows you to mount the light in bunch of different scenarios, including to a standard elasticized headband.

As I mentioned, I have a few headlamps (including the Irix, that Gadling Gear Guy Kraig Becker reviewed here) but this one is my favorite. It’s tiny, it’s bright, it has more features than I thought a headlamp could possibly need — and I like all of them. Mine lives in my travel bag now, I don’t head out on a trip without it.

Gadling’s ultimate camping gear guide

With Memorial Day just around the corner, we are rapidly approaching the unofficial start of summer and, with it, the start of camping season. Of course, many people go camping all year long and either live in perpetually warm climates or simply don’t mind bundling up and enduring the cold. The vast majority of campers, however, eagerly await the arrival of Summer so that we can pack up our cars, hit up our favorite campsites and enjoy as many weekends as possible in the great outdoors.

Several of us Gadlingers are psyched about the arrival of camping season (while others who shall remain nameless prefer to stay only in luxury hotels and bathe regularly), so I polled the team on what gear is most essential when heading out on a camping trip. Our list is primarily geared towards car camping, which allows for more (and heavier) gear. But even backpackers will want to grab some of the equipment listed below before heading out on their treks.

We touched on some camping basics in an episode of Travel Talk, but now we’re going to help you pack everything you need before you leave the city (or suburbs) behind.A roof above your head

When you think about camping, what’s the first image that pops into your mind? If you said, “Getting killed by Michael Myers,” then you’ve watched too many horror movies. Most likely, visions of tents pop into your head. While some people choose RVs or campers, most people hunker down for the night in a tent. There are countless tent manufacturers and styles from which to choose.

If you only plan to camp in pristine conditions and perhaps only once or twice a year, you can probably get away with a cheaper, less durable tent. However, investing in a good tent ensures that you will have it for years to come. Meaning that it will have a chance to eventually pay for itself in the enjoyment that it provides over time.

For your large tent needs, the Big Agnes Big House 6 is phenomenal. With 90 square feet of space, you won’t be piled on top of your friends and it’s good for gathering the whole group together for a game of UNO if it rains. Add the optional vestibule and you’ll have a total of 154 square feet of space, meaning you can keep all of your gear close by and covered. For more information, read the full Gadling review of the Big Agnes Big House 6.

For two person trips, the Mountain Hardwear Raven 2 has plenty of room and is fantastically lightweight (only five pounds). Meaning that it’s also a terrific option for trekking. With two doors, two dry-entry vestibules and a color-coded pole system, the Raven 2 is easy-to-use and sacrifices nothing with its light weight.

Both of the tents recommended above come with a rain fly included. Rain flies are essential for keeping you and your gear dry in inclement weather. We also recommend purchasing a footprint for your tent to provide an additional layer of material between you and the ground.

Sleep like a mummy

Once it’s time for bed, you’ll want to curl up in something warm. A comfortable sleeping bag along with a quality pad will help you forget that you’re far away from your expensive Swedish sleep system. Sleeping bags are rated by the minimum temperature at which you would still be safe from the elements. If you are a casual camper planning on camping only in the spring and summer, there is no need to shell out the money for a 0° bag. You want comfort for the conditions in which you will be camping. Anything beyond that will leave your wallet emptier and you sweatier.

The EMS Solstice Switchback 25/45 is my personal sleeping bag of choice. It has thicker insulation on one side, meaning it can keep you warm should you elect to use it during the shoulder seasons or in the midst of an unexpected cold snap. The less insulated side is more than warm enough for your typical summer evenings in the woods.

If you plan to take your significant other into nature with you, you’ll enjoy The North Face’s Twin Peaks two-person sleeping bag. More than warm enough (it’s 20° rated), it allows for a little romance and coziness in the wild. If you’re joining a group on an excursion, an invitation to share your Twin Peaks may be the perfect way to escalate things with a new friend. The extra size does mean that it’s significantly heavier than other packs, but you won’t mind the weight once you get to the cuddling.

Under any sleeping bag, you will want to place a pad. The Big Agnes Air Core pad is durable, lightweight and doesn’t leave you winded after inflating it. If you prefer a pad that is self-inflating, the Big Agnes Hinman pad is incredibly comfortable. It even comes in a double-wide (50″) size which is perfect for pairing with The North Face Twin Peaks bag.

Let there be light

Your bladder doesn’t care what time it is. Come nightfall, that walk to the bathroom facility (or into the deeper woods) is going to be pitch black. Campfires provide some light, but they sit in one spot and burn out once you call it a day. Portable light sources keep you safe and also allow you to enjoy time in your tent before falling asleep.

Headlamps keep your hands free to cook dinner, do emergency repairs on your gear or simply unzip your pants. The Black Diamond Cosmo headlamp is perfect for the casual camper or the hardcore outdoorsman. It offers three brightness settings so that you don’t accidentally blind your tentmates.

If you prefer a good old-fashioned flashlight, the Gerber Option 60 may be the last flashlight you ever purchase. It’s water-resistant, bright, lightweight and can take AA, AAA or CR123 batteries. It can handle being dropped and is sturdy enough to use as a weapon should someone try to steal the last hot dog.

When it comes time to retire to your tent to study maps of hiking trails or simply talk with your companions, a lantern is the best lighting option. The Black Diamond Apollo lantern is small yet powerful enough to illuminate even the largest tents. It’s easy to pack and its collapsible loop makes hanging it from your tent a cinch.

Chow time

Plenty of campers cook all of their meals on an open fire. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, though it does add an element of danger and diminishes the control you have on the cooking conditions. If you want to make some eggs for breakfast or brew some coffee without singeing your fingers, you’ll want to pack a camping stove.

A camping grill with one stove top will provide you with all of the flexibility that you’ll need when cooking outdoors. The Brunton Profile Duo can whip up a full breakfast, lunch and dinner even if you can’t get that campfire started. At only ten pounds, it’s easy to pack and can burn for an hour-and-a-half on a single gas tank. It provides a spacious grill and a sturdy burner to meet all of your cooking needs. Obviously, you’ll need to pack a propane or butane tank (or two) to power the grill.

As far as what cookware you’ll use on that grill, it all comes down to how persnickety you are with your pots and pans. I have never used a dedicated camping cookware set. I’ve always packed one pot and one pan from home. However, if you are going to be cooking on the fire, using a cookset with a removable handle will save you from having to worry about ruining your home cookware and scalding your hands.

When it’s time to eat, there may be no better camping utensil than then Light My Fire XM Spork. It’s heat resistant, doesn’t melt, won’t scratch your cookware, comes in an array of colors and it’s a spork that has a serrated knife edge on one its fork prongs! It works perfectly with Sea to Summit’s X Bowl and X Plate. Both are collapsible, which makes them easy to store and perfect for car camping or backpacking. They’re the right size for hearty meals by the fire, easily rinse clean and can take a pretty good beating.

Safety first

Never go camping without a first aid kit. It’s that simple. The Adventure Medical Kit Ultralight/Watertight .9 has all the basics and then some should something go wrong on your trip. We cannot stress enough that a first aid kit is a must-have when camping.

Bug spray is another necessity. Ben’s Insect Repellents keep mosquitoes, ticks and other potentially disease-carrying bugs at bay. They do, however, contain DEET. If you’re not a fan, there are plenty of DEET-free alternatives out there. Like first aid kits, bug spray is a must-have. Whatever your brand or chemical preferences, be sure to pack some kind of repellent to be safe.

In that same vein, you’ll want to pack enough sunscreen to last you the weekend. Something waterproof if you plan to enjoy a nearby lake or will be sweating while you hike. Shoot for something SPF 30 or higher for proper protection.

If you’re in bear country, be sure to bring gear to suspend your food above your site. Regardless of wildlife, pack containers to seal up any food and be sure to keep perishables on ice in a cooler.

Whether you’re simply driving in multiple cars on the way to the campsite or splitting up on a hike, maintaining the ability to communicate outside of civilization is critical. A couple of sets of Motorola Talkabout MR350R two-way radios will ensure that your whole party can stay in touch even when cellphones lose signal. With a 35-mile range in optimal conditions, 22 channels, 11 emergency weather channels and 121 privacy codes, these two-way radios will allow you to find an unused channel for communication and track any storms that may be heading your way. 10-4, good buddy.

Pack a pack

The benefit of car camping is that your entire car becomes your pack. However, for the day hikes and short treks that you’ll be taking on your camping trips, you’ll want a solid pack to carry your water bottles, lunch and that first aid kit we talked about. The Black Diamond Nitro pack is comfortable, sturdy and big enough for a day spent away from camp. Available in 22 liter and 24 liter sizes, it’s spacious while not being unwieldy.

Since hydration is key and you won’t have a faucet handy, you always want to have water with you while you’re at camp and when you set out for the day’s activities. The Camelbak Octane 18X hydration pack can carry up to two liters of water while also providing 18 liters of storage space for snacks, trails maps and the Cabbage Patch Kid that you’ve taken everywhere since you were six.

Odds & ends

Any list of camping gear could go on forever. You can truly pack just about anything and make the case for why you need it in the wild. But these items will be handier than others:

A good multi-tool is great for minor gear repairs and saves you from having to pack an entire toolkit. The Leatherman Juice S2 is a pocket-sized dynamo that even the most casual of campers will enjoy. It may not have all of the bells and whistles of its big brothers, but it has scissors, screwdrivers, pliers and a can opener. All of which may come in handy when you’re roughing it for the weekend.

Do not leave home without several books of matches, a couple of lighters and, if you really want to cover all of your bases, a DOAN Magnesium Firestarters Tool. Unless you want to spend half of your trip rubbing sticks together, you need to pack your own fire.

Creature comforts

Beyond the essentials listed above, you can certainly customize your trip to make it more comfortable. To take your trip to the next level, you may also want to pack these treats:

A camping/travel pillow goes a long way towards making your sleep more restful. The Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow significantly enhances the comfort level of your sleeping bag and pad setup.

Camping chairs provide more places to sit around the fire and, more importantly, dry spots to sit after a rain.

A camping hammock turns your campsite into a resort. Not in the mood to go for a swim or exhausted after a hike? Steal a nap on the Eagles Nest Outfitters Double Nest Hammock. At only 22 ounces, it’s easy to pack but holds up to 400 pounds.

Camping is about keeping things simple, so don’t go too overboard with the gear. Pack the essentials, be safe and then get out there. If you enjoy camping, then you know that adaptability is key. Follow our suggestions and you’ll be able to handle nearly any situation that comes your way and enjoy your time away from modern life.

Oh, we do have three more items that are 100% necessary for any camping trip: graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows. But those should go without saying.

What are your favorite pieces of camping gear? Did we leave out any essential items? Share your thoughts on camping equipment, suggestions about gear and tips in the comments below!

Pack a flashlight (and spare batteries) – International travel tip

If you live in the US — or any developed nation — you’re most likely accustomed to electricity being readily available around the clock. Unfortunately, this infastructure may not be as reliable when traveling abroad.

My family and I found this out on a trip to the Dominican Republic where we stayed at a 4-star resort that lost power from the middle of dinner until very late in the night. There were virtually no emergency lights during the outage; it was extremely dark and unsafe. Luckily, I had packed a small flashlight that easily fit into the small purse I carry with me at all times.

[Photo credit: J. Ronald Lee]