Top five travel gadgets NOT to take on your next trip (and what to pack instead)

gadget, gadgets
I’m in the throes of packing for a two-month journey to Ethiopia. I try to pack light, other than the inevitable pile of books. While some tech freaks pack a lot of travel gadgets, I find these to be more of a hindrance than a help. Here are five things that you might want to leave behind if you’re heading out for some adventure travel.

GPS
Yes, these are handy, but they can break with rough handling and are very attractive to thieves.
What to bring instead: A compass. It’s cheaper, much less likely to break or be stolen, and with a good map is just as useful. It also makes you notice the terrain more and become more aware of the lay of the land.

Ereader
Ebooks certainly save space, and many travelers like ebooks, but ereaders are far more stealable than some tattered old paperback. Plus you need to recharge your device and you can’t give or exchange books with the locals.
What to bring instead: A paperback or three. Preferably something you don’t mind trading or giving away.

IPod
Music is fun to have on the road, but it cuts you off from the sounds around you. I want to hear the muezzin’s call, the chatter of foreign languages, the local tunes blasting from shops and cafes. My playlist is part of my life back home, so I don’t need it while I’m away. I can listen to it when I get back.
What to bring instead: Nothing.Translation software
Translation software has improved a lot in recent few years. There’s even Word Lens, an iPhone app that overlays English onto foreign writing. When Jeremy Kressmann visited me in Madrid earlier this month we tried it on a menu. It was impressive but didn’t translate some of the culinary terms. I prefer learning a language the old-fashioned way. Except for France, all of the 31 countries I’ve visited are filled with people who want to help you learn their language. What better way to hook up with locals?
What to bring instead: A good dictionary and phrasebook. Also pack a good attitude.

Laptop
To be honest, I do take a laptop on some of my trips, but not on an adventure. My laptop means work, and while part of my work is travel writing, the best way for me to do that job is to focus on what’s going on around me. Computers can be a huge distraction and you always have to worry about them getting stolen or blasted by a power surge. If you do take your laptop to a developing country, pack a voltage regulator.
What to bring instead: A notebook and pen. Don’t worry, even Ethiopia has Internet cafes.

If there’s a theme to this, it’s that all of these gadgets distract you from the place and people you’re visiting. Doing without them for a month or two can be a welcome break, and your trip will be richer because of it. I didn’t need any of these things twenty years ago when I started doing adventure travel, and I don’t need them now that they exist.

[Photo courtesy user rkzerok via Gadling’s flickr pool]

App review: MapQuest for Android with turn-by-turn spoken navigation directions

mapquest android navigation

Yesterday, MapQuest unveiled their Android mapping application. This new app offers something fantastic – navigation with spoken turn by turn directions. I took it for a spin and can safely say that this is the new best free navigation package for Android.

Everything you expect from a decent GPS package is in this app – spoken directions and street names, traffic information, points of interest and voice recognition. Even though they are by no means the first Android map app with turn by turn directions, the MapQuest interface is by far the easiest to use. Maps are also very clean and crisp, making use of data from map leader Navteq.

Navigation results can be provided for driving or walking, but not for public transit or bikes like in Google Maps. The quick link bar at the bottom of the map can instantly display any of the categories on your map, and you can minimize the bar by clicking its down arrow.

Maps load and scroll very fast, and even on a sluggish data connection, I rarely had any blank map tiles. In addition to this, map tiles can be locally cached.

The new MapQuest for Android can be found in the Android market at this link. You can also scan the QR code in the video after the jump – probably one of the first ever QR codes completely made out of Lego!

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[Full disclosure: AOL is the parent company of both MapQuest and Gadling]

Geotagging your travels: why you should, and how to do it

geotagging your travels

Even casual travelers know the wonders of GPS. It’s hard to imagine how we functioned on the road just a few years back without a satnav at our disposal, and now that our smartphones are also well equipped to guide us from point A to point Z (and everywhere in between), having a true sense of direction isn’t quite as necessary as it once was. But GPS satellites are useful for quite a bit more than just routing us. In the photography world, geotagging is becoming an increasingly attractive way to effectively track ones travels in a unique, refreshing visual fashion.

If you aren’t familiar with the term, geotagging refers to embedded GPS data on each image, which can then be read by various photo applications and mapping software. When you take a photo using any existing DSLR, a great deal of “metadata” is embedded onto each image; this data enables individuals to see what aperture, shutter speed, white balance setting and focal length (among other things) were used when a particular shot was composed. These pieces of information are remarkably useful when comparing shots after the fact, and geotagging adds one more vital bit of data to the mix: coordinates. Read on to find out how you can start adding GPS data to your images, and why you should make the effort to do so.

%Gallery-115291%The easiest way to make this happen is to buy a camera with a GPS or Hybrid GPS module built-in. A number of newly introduced compact models include this. Fujifilm’s FinePix XP30 has inbuilt geotagging support (not to mention a rugged, waterproof casing), and Casio’s Exilim EX-H20G is a non-rugged alternative with integrated geotagging. It’s an easy feature to find — either a camera has it built-in or it doesn’t, and manufacturers will generally go out of their way to ensure you know if a particular model does.

geotagging your travels

If you aren’t in the market for a new point-and-shoot, existing DSLR owners can upgrade their camera to support geotagging. Nikon makes a module of their own that fits certain models (GP-1), and if your camera doesn’t have a first-party add-on, Gisteq offers a (mostly) universal solution that connects via Bluetooth (PhotoTrackr Plus and PhotoTrackr Mini).

geotagging your travels

Once your camera is equipped to embed geotagging data, all you need is a program that’ll read that data. Apple’s iPhoto (displayed throughout this post) is a great example; any image that you load into iPhoto can be sorted by ‘Places.’ If you have an Internet connection, you’ll see pins populate the map (as shown here) in order to represent all of the locales where photos were taken. Google’s Picasa is another solid option, as is the popular Flickr.

geotagging your travels

What you’re left with is an incredibly visual way to look at a trip you recently took, all by way of photographs. In a way, these specific location points tell a story in an of themselves. Rather than simply telling friends and family that a certain group of photos were taken in Montana (for example), geotagging allows them to see exactly what routes you took on a road trip and precisely which trails you skied at Whitefish Mountain Resort. If you took multiple images at a certain place, you can easily sort those by selecting a single pin. The images throughout this article show (most) of the photos I took on my Casio Exilim EX-H20G while in northwestern Montana, including a number of shots while on Big Mountain itself.

geotagging your travels

On a grander scale, geotagging all of your images for the foreseeable future would enable you to create a lifetime travel map that visually shows where you’ve been in the world. It’s certainly a lot easier than trying to remember every off-the-wall stop you made, and it’s most definitely more satisfying than some Bucket List you’ve generated in Microsoft Word. On a smaller scale, sending your child off to camp with a geotagging camera would allow you to see where all the counselors shuttled your young one around — after all, kids have a thing for not keeping a very detailed journal, and this would make their job of explaining what all they did a lot easier.

geotagging your travels

Interested in getting started with geotagging? Listed below are a few recommended GPS-enabled cameras, geotagging add-on dongles and photo applications that work well with geotagged images.

GPS-enabled point-and-shoot cameras:

Geotagging add-on dongles:

Geotagging applications:

NAVTEQ Natural Guidance promises friendlier GPS commands

NAVTEQ is behind the maps on some of the most popular GPS units in the world – and a new technology from their labs may help make those GPS units “friendlier”.

At the moment, most GPS units are pretty dull – they tell you when to turn, and where to turn, but their commands are hardly friendly. NAVTEQ Natural Guidance is designed to deliver turn by turn directions the same way a human would give them. Instead of telling you to “turn left on Spooner street after 100 feet”, the system generates its guidance based of natural landmarks – providing commands like “turn left at the white water tower”.

The technology has not (yet) made it into any devices, but the experience is on display at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in a demo version of NNG’s iGO MyWay navigation application.

Other upcoming technologies include NAVTEQ Green Streets designed to deliver optimized routing for hybrid vehicles and a routing system designed for electric vehicles that minimizes hilly terrain and regular start/stop streets.

Ordnance Survey maps: sometimes government CAN do a great job

map, maps, OS maps, OS, Ordnance SurveyThe BBC recently interviewed a cartographer for the Ordnance Survey. This government department is in charge of mapping the United Kingdom, except for Northern Ireland, which has its own agency.

If you like maps or plan to hike in the UK, the Ordnance Survey maps are simply amazing. They’ve been measuring and drawing this green and pleasant land since the eighteenth century and produce the best maps I’ve ever used. In the interview, cartographer Dave Wareham explains how he uses GPS satellites and OS ground stations to get his measurements to within “a maximum tolerance of 2.6cm.” That’s one inch to you Yanks.

The smallest scale maps are truly amazing, with every fence, building, postbox, and public telephone carefully marked. If you know how to read a map and use a compass, it’s virtually impossible to get lost with one of these in your hand. Unfortunately, a poll back in 2007 discovered that the majority of Brits can’t read maps. If the UK government wasn’t ruthlessly slashing education spending they could add a map-reading course.

It’s nice to see a government project that works well. In the days of GPS and Google Maps, the Ordnance Survey still sells three million copies maps each year. They even turn a profit. My only quibble with the OS maps is that they’re updated only once every three or four years, which isn’t enough in some parts of the country, as I discovered while hiking the East Highland Way.

Still, they’re the best maps you’re going to find. If you’re having trouble shopping for that outdoorsy type in your life, grab some of these to inspire their next hike.