Travel health gift guide: what to get the incessant wanderer on your list

travel healthTravel junkies are a special breed. Only a very distinct personality type gets a rush from being on the road as much as possible, or relishes the discomforts and situations most people go to lengths to avoid. Homesickness is a foreign concept.

I know, because I too suffer from this malady. It started early, because I have a vivid memory of bursting into tears when I was six or seven, after we dropped a friend off at the airport.

“What’s wrong?” my dad asked. “I’m sad because we’re not getting on an airplane,” was my reply (ironic given my aviophobia, which had its onset about 12 years later).

A paralyzing fear of air travel hasn’t stopped me from roaming, however. So, whether you have a loved one who practically lives at Club Med or one actually enjoys sleeping on the ground or in janky Third World hostels rife with cockroaches…lucky you. You have a travel addict in the family or as a friend.

One experience incessant wanderers don’t go looking for? Illness or injury. While not inevitable, the more time you spend abroad, the greater the likelihood of suffering from anything from an infected bug bite or Bali Belly to…worse. But as I’ve always said, you can get hit by a bus crossing the street.

Of course travel isn’t inherently unsafe, but there are precautionary measures that minimize the odds of having health issues on the road. Below, my road-tested gift picks for frequent travelers (especially those who visit sub-tropical or tropical climes) and outdoor enthusiasts.

SteriPEN or LifeStraw portable water filter
Reasons why one of these is a worthwhile investment:

  • Saves money on purchasing bottled water in developing nations/places without potable water
  • Better for the environment (see above)
  • You can contract giardia or other nasties from improperly “bottled” water (trust me)
  • You don’t have to be out in the backcountry to have a potable water shortage; owning a filtration system is good insurance you stay hydrated and healthy, even in the city.

[Photo credit: Flickr user fauxrealphotos]travel healthTravel first aid kit
Even infrequent travelers should carry basic first-aid supplies: band-aids, gauze pads, Neosporin, OTC meds, etc.. Personalize your gift by tailoring a pre-purchased kit (REI is a great place to find different types and sizes) to suit the interests and needs of your recipient.

Wilderness first aid class
CPR or a general first aid class is a good idea for anyone, but if any of your loved ones live for backcountry pursuits or traveling off the beaten path, a WFA course can be a lifesaver–literally. Look one up in your area through the American Red Cross.

Controlled-release DEET and/or Insect Shield apparel
There was a time, several years ago, when I shunned DEET unless I was in a malarial region. Why, I asked myself, would I willingly douse myself in a pesticide? Why would I inflict said poison upon the environment?

That philosophy is all well and good until you get bitten by something harboring an infectious evil (in my case, it was sandflies carrying the Bartonella bacilliformis bacterium) that anti-malarials can’t prevent. Also note that malaria prophylaxis is not without considerable side-effects and may not protect you against certain strains of the disease. Be sure to talk to an infectious disease, tropical medicine, or travel physician experienced with actual working experience in these regions.

These days, I’m all about DEET if I’m traveling somewhere with potentially harmful biting insects, especially now that there are controlled-release versions on the market (there are various brands on the market; Sawyer Products is highly recommended). One application is good for up to 12 hours.

As for clothes, I love my Insect Shield long sleeve button-up shirt from ExOfficio. Good for up to 70 washings (after which you still have a good-looking, lightweight travel top), bug-repelling garments are treated with permethrin, EPA-registered, and free of toxic-smelling fumes.

Sun protective clothing
As you likely know, heat exhaustion or heat stroke can be serious; even fatal. In addition to a good sunblock, sunglasses, and a hat, sun protective clothing is a seriously smart idea for outdoor types. Once again, I recommend ExOfficio, or REI own brand, which will save you a few dollars.

Bear bell or spray
Google “2011 grizzly attacks.” ‘Nuff said.
travel health
SmartWool
socks
What they say in the military is true: you gotta take care of your feet. Once your dogs go, you’re SOL in the backcountry or tropics. Keeping feet clean and dry (and warm, if applicable) is of utmost importance (at the very least, fellow travelers will appreciate your hygiene efforts). These moisture-wicking, stench-resistant socks are invaluable even if you’re just planning an extended trip.

Ibex woolies
Getting chilled can quickly become serious or fatal, and hypothermia prevention in the form of extra layers is key. These 100% merino wool underlayers from Vermont-based outfitter Ibex are the bomb. Comfortable, warm, moisture-wicking, and seriously odor-proof (anything that remains fit to wear in public after a month-long backpacking trip from the Andes to the Amazon–sans laundry–is a product I heartily endorse). Plus, they come in cute stripey designs as well as solids.

[Photo credit: Band-aids, Flickr user m.gifford, feet, Flickr user Cin]

How Deep Vein Thrombosis Develops

Lariam Dreams (which pills do you pop?)

If you’ve traveled to a tropical country, you’ve probably heard of Mefloquine. It is the most popular prophylactic against malaria, and is often sold under its trade name, Lariam. Lariam can have some serious side effects such as depression, anxiety, paranoia, nightmares and insomnia. You might say, “having nightmares is better than catching malaria and ending up in a hospital or worse.” I’m sure everyone would agree with that.

But when you wake up in a strange foreign land after a Lariam-induced nightmare…and you aren’t quite sure if you are really awake or if your waking state is just another extension of your dream, it can be pretty unnerving.

After such an experience, you might ask yourself if it is really necessary to ingest Mefloquine every time you enter a tropical region. I’ve known people who pop the little pills once a week when they are in Hong Kong or Singapore where the chance of catching malaria is akin to the chance that you will win the lottery. I guess some travelers choose to err on the side of caution when they enter any unfamiliar place.I haven’t even mentioned the host of shots and other pills that some guidebooks and doctors say you might want to consider. Typhoid is a big one. Cholera is another. Neither of these have vaccines that are 100% effective and they can bring about particularly nasty side effects. That doesn’t stop doctors from recommending them and people from getting the shots.

So what do you really need when you are traveling in a developing, tropical country? I guess it depends on how apprehensive you are. For me, Lariam and obscure vaccines are out unless I find that I am entering an area where a particular disease is truly a threat (see the WHO web site if you want to research a country you plan to visit). I also keep up to date on basic immunizations like tetanus and Hep B. And keep in mind, no matter how Lariam happy you get, there are diseases like SARS and H5N1 out there to remind us that health concerns are always going to be a scary part of traveling. And so I ask you, Gadling readers: what do you consider a necessary part of your travel-sized medicine cabinet?