Travel Hacking: Best Holiday Gifts For Low-Tech Travelers

I’m an unapologetic Luddite. My colleagues at Gadling will attest to this. The fact that I write for AOL is both cosmic luck and hilarious irony given my initial reluctance to embrace the digital era.

I can’t help it; it’s hereditary. At least, that’s what I tell myself, whenever I watch my dad pecking away on my grandparent’s 1930s Smith-Corona (not a lie), or fumbling with the remote.

It’s unsurprising that when I travel, I try to keep things as low-tech as possible. It’s a matter of both practicality and part of my old school aesthetic that leads me to eschew costly devices and other gadgets. I’m also incapable of figuring out how to use them, so I look at it as less items to get stolen or malfunction.

I know I’m not alone, so I’ve compiled a list of holiday gifts for the die-hard travelers on your list who refuse to change their old-timey ways. Just remember, one of these days, us minimalists are going to be cutting-edge for being retro.

Gift card to an actual bookstore (preferably independently-owned), or travel store.
Yeah, books are heavier to lug than a Kindle or a Nook, but as a writer, I value the written word. So do a lot of people, and one of the joys of traveling for us is exchanging books with fellow vagabonds or trading in at a guesthouse or hostel.

Prepaid international phone card
Cheap, abundant, and a hell of a lot less of a hassle than dealing with Verizon overseas (in my experience). A prepaid international card is easy to purchase, although do note it’s usually less expensive for travelers to purchase cards at their destination. It’s the thought that counts.

Netbook or airbook
I may be tech-challenged, but I’m not crazy. I can’t earn a living if I don’t travel with a computer. My inexpensive little Acer has seen me through a lot of countries and fits neatly into my daypack, along with its accessories. Don’t forget a wireless mouse to go with it.
Waterproof journal
Many travelers keep journals, and some of us who travel occupationally still carry notebooks (I don’t even own a tape recorder). It’s a huge bummer, however, when the inevitable rain, beer, wine, or coffee renders covers soggy or writing illegible. An all-weather notebook is the solution.

Ibex undergarments
I used to work in a mountaineering/ski shop in Telluride, and I swear by Ibex. Their 100% merino wool, American-made boy shorts, long johns/long “janes,” cami’s, sports bras, and adorable, long-sleeve, stripey tops are the ultimate underlayers for cold weather adventures. I road-tested some items on a month-long backpacking trip through Ecuador, from the Amazon Basin to one of the highest active volcanoes on earth. I was able to do laundry exactly twice. Ibex: 1, Stench: 0. Men’s and women’s items available; they also make outerwear.

Travel scarf/shawl/blanket
Many women get cold on airplanes and long, AC-blasted bus rides. Since I backpack, I’ve found several different drapey items in my travels that pull triple duty. Depending upon what part of the world I’m in, I’ll use a soft, alpaca shawl to dress up outfits, as a lap blanket, or an impromptu pillow. In the Andes, I sub a llama wool poncho. In the tropics, it’s a pretty, airy sarong. When I get home, I have a wonderful souvenir.

If you’re buying for someone departing on a trip, any department store will have a wide assortment and price range of pashminas or scarves. Just be sure it’s a dark color, to hide dirt and stains, and that it’s made of soft, preferably natural-fibers, so it won’t absorb odors as readily. The item should be able to withstand sink-washing.

Multi-purpose beauty products
Regardless of gender, everyone loves multi-purpose travel products: more room for souvenirs! I like Josie Maran Argan Oil, which can be used as a lightweight, yet rich, face or body moisturizer, or to condition hair (use just a few drops for soft, gleaming strands). Rosebud salve comes in cute, vintagey tins, smells lovely, and soothes everything from dry lips and cracked heels to flyaways. Many top make-up brands produce multi-use products: I crave Korres Cheek Butter, which is also gorgeous on lips (all available at Sephora).

Lush makes luxe bar soaps that work on body and hair, but perhaps the kindest gift for the female adventure traveler? Inexpensive fragrance that does double duty as perfume and clothes/room freshener. I never leave home without Demeter’s Gin & Tonic Cologne Spray.

[Photo Credit: jurvetson]

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

Travel 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 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.

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]

Ask Gadling: How do I pack for a trip to Antarctica?

No matter where you go, packing right is the first step to ensuring a positive travel experience. So, what if you’re heading off to a more extreme destination, one that very few people have ever been to? This week’s question comes from Cedric in Amarillo, Texas:

“I’ve just found out that I may be going to Antarctica at the end of the year. I have no clue what to pack but feel like I need to dress like an Eskimo. Any tips as to what I should buy or bring?

Gadling: Antarctica is the coldest place on earth, so bear that in mind, however, know that most recreational travel to Antarctica takes place in the austral summer (November to March), which is comparatively warmer than usual with average air temperatures that hover around freezing (32°F, 0°C). That’s a whole lot warmer than either Moscow or Montreal in the winter.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

What causes discomfort in Antarctica is the wind and the wet, so preparing yourself against the elements is what matters most. The weather changes constantly, so like San Francisco or Scotland, the key to real comfort is wearing layers. Your packing list also depends on what you plan to do in Antarctica. Are you taking a cruise or are you going to live on a base? How much time will you spend outside?


Before you run off and drop a thousand bucks at REI, dig deep into the back of your cluttered drawers and see what you already own. Anyone who survives a snowy North American winter should already own a lot of necessary clothing for a trip to Antarctica. That horrible homemade sweater embroidered with pineapples that you got for Christmas last year? It’ll keep you toasty and nobody will actually see it when you wear it.


Start with the important stuff–long-sleeve long underwear is essential. The generic cotton kind you grew up with (the kind favored by Seattle grunge rockers) is fine, but the synthetic blends that wick away moisture are far superior and will keep you both warm and dry. Nylon and polyester are optimal, as is silk. Basically, you want you first layer to be warm and form-fitting so that you look and feel just like a sexy superhero.OUTERWEAR
You absolutely, positively MUST have a pair of waterproof pants–if you’re going to spend money on something, make it this outer layer (ranging from $75-$100). These can be nylon or gortex but just make sure that it’s 100% waterproof and not simply water-resistant. A strong pair of Insulated snow-boarding or ski pants add extra warmth, but if they get wet, you’ll be miserable. This light outer shell layer can be worn right over your long underwear or you can add a pair of sweat pants or nylon action pants underneath.

For your upstairs, add as many layers as you need or want: long-sleeve t-shirts, flannel button-downs, or a good, strong polar fleece. Turtlenecks with sweaters are good, but again, avoid cotton if you can help it. Wearing so many layers will cause you to sweat and wet cotton just stays wet and makes you cold. Wool outer layers will keep you very warm. Once you get to Antarctica, you can judge how many layers you’ll need to feel comfortable. Always have an extra dry layer available to add in case the wind picks up or the temperature suddenly drops (which it does frequently in Antarctica).

Obviously, the coat thing is kind of important. Realize that most coats you find at the local mall are not up to Antarctica standards. Overall, you want a parka that is fairly heavy-duty, waterproof, insulated (!), long-ish (going well past your waist) and with a drawstring hood. Zip-out insulated liners are great. Also, consider wearing a coat that’s one size too big in order to accommodate all the extra layers you’ll be wearing. Be sure you can move comfortably in it.

Please note that if you are taking a cruise, most shipping companies will include appropriate parkas for passengers, and that the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) also issues coats to its employees.

You might also want to bring a lighter, waterproof windbreaker for those times when the you are going to be particularly active or when the air is warmer.

Bring lots of dry socks–preferably long, over-the-calf socks. Thick, woolly hiking socks are good. No matter how “warm” the air is, you will often find yourself wearing two (or three) pairs of socks on your feet in order to keep your feet warm. That’s because you are likely to be walking in snow or on ice, exposing your feet to the lowest temperatures around.

Knee-high rubber boots or “wellies” (wellingtons) are the overshoe of choice for Antarctic cruisers as you will be landing from a small zodiac boat right into the waves. These provide total protection from the water but are not very warm or supportive once you’re on land. If you plan on hiking a lot, then bring a very sturdy, dependable pair of waterproof, broken-in hiking boots. Put your waterproof pants OVER your boots or wellies to avoid water seeping in.

Bring gloves that allow you some movement which close tightly around your wrist (stuff the outer glove inside your coat sleeve to prevent cold wind from cooling your wrists). Mittens are especially warm but not everyone’s thing. Snowboarding gloves are both waterproof and durable (and my own preference). Some travelers also like to wear a pair of tight, knit gloves under a pair of mittens. Also (personally), I found my pair of neoprene wetsuit gloves allowed my hands to get warm while keeping them dry (when kayaking). Pack two pairs of gloves for your trip, and always keep one of the pairs dry and available.

Pack a wool or polar fleece-type hat that covers your ears. Ear muffs work, too, but you always want something covering your head. Also, bring a scarf. There will be moments when you don’t need it and other moments when you’ll be readjusting and re-tying it around your neck to chase out that one little knife blade of wind. Neck gaiters are also very useful and comfortable.

Take your very best camera and a way to backup your pictures regularly (laptop, extra flash cards, external hard drives). Bring a dry bag and carry your camera in it as often as possible. Be vigilant in keeping your photography equipment dry. Otherwise, you’ll end up with an expensive, camera-shaped paper weight.

Unless you’re trying to ski across the continent or circumnavigate by kayak, you don’t need a lot of specialized gear so leave the compass and MRE’s at home. What you do need is sunglasses (polarized), serious sunblock (30+ SPF), a day pack (small, light waterproof backpack with a dry pair of gloves and an extra layer), a water bottle, seasickness pills, chapstick and some intense skin moisturizer. Last of all, be sure to bring a swimsuit. Most ships and bases will have a jacuzzi, and Antarctic plunges are a common tradition.

In conclusion–don’t fall prey to the ideology that you are going on some major, unprecedented expedition and that you need to special order a ton of gear. You don’t. Antarctica in the summer is far warmer than most people expect, and as long as you have the essentials, you’ll be fine.