Lessons from a Year of Travel Gear

Truth: Writing gear reviews is fun. I get to play around with a lot of different toys, try on clothes that are polar opposites of what passes for my personal style, and most of the people I meet in the outdoor gear industry are great fun. They’re just like you and me; they like to travel and camp and be kitted out nicely while they’re doing it.

The tough part about being a gear head is that you actually have to try the stuff out to say anything meaningful about it. This means finding the right situation for that one thing in your review pile, putting on some shoes, and heading out into the world to get dirty. I’ve ruined some stuff this way and while it’s all in the purpose of research, it makes me feel kind of bad when something doesn’t hold up. I want to like everything, but I just don’t, and sometimes, maybe I like it but it’s just not good travel gear.

Through testing and laundering and using and carrying and schlepping every single thing I review, I’ve come to a few broad conclusions about what works and what doesn’t. As this year closes and next year’s new stuff starts to appear in my review pile, I’ll share with you my lessons of this year in travel gear.

It’s got to be able to survive the washing machine. Yeah, I know it says dry clean or hand wash only. It doesn’t matter, everything I test goes into the laundry. I ruined a really nice cashmere blend sweater from Horny Toad because I washed it. I’m bummed, but if it can’t survive the laundry, it can’t survive my travels. Cashmere, you are staying home.It’s got to be wearable for the duration of a long haul flight. I don’t care how hot those boots make you look or that you can’t wear that top without that one bra. You have to be able to survive the indignities of coach in it for 10 hours without suffocating or screaming “Get it off me! Just get it off me!” Whatever it is, it can’t bind, be itchy, be too tight, cause your extremities to swell… you get the drill.

It’s got to fit in the overhead bin. If it can’t be carry on, it’s not going. Oh, I’ve checked a bag (then prayed for its safe arrival) but I want to know that if I have to carry it on, I can. I avoid any luggage that’s too big to take on the plane. Aside: I’ve got to be able to heft it up there myself, too. Sure, I can often find help, and people take pity on me because I’m short. But I need to be able to haul my own gear.

I’ve got to want to take it along. I’m looking at you, TSA approved luggage locks, weird camera mounting system, and a few other odds and ends kicking around the office in the “to be reviewed” pile. If I’m not excited about it from the get go, I’m probably never going to be.

You have to try it on in the store, then order online… mostly. Sizing is all over the place. I think I’m a pretty standard medium. Columbia Sportswear thinks I’m a large. (They’ve never ridden the bus I take downtown, clearly.) Sometimes you get lucky, other times, you hope you’ve chosen a company with a generous returns policy for their online shopping.

If I’ve totally ruined it in the test, I did my job. Turns out bug repellent totally eats the plastic those packing cubes are made of, go figure. If I broke a zipper, it means that the hardware isn’t up to snuff. Busted seams, torn fabrics, dirt stained fabrics… that’s the stuff. If I manage to really drag something through the wringer and am still packing it, I know I’ve got top notch gear in my hands.

You absolutely have to try the stuff out to know if it’s any good. I got my hands on a couple of things that I really loved this year. The Keen McKenzie hybrid sandals, a terrific roller bag from Gregory (you can carry it as a backpack and it’s tough, too), SmartWool base layers, to name a few. But I know I like this stuff because I’ve used it over and over and over again, three four trips out.

You can’t have too many pairs of really good socks. You can, however, have too much polar fleece.

I’m looking forward to see what stays in my bag for whatever adventures 2012 throws my way. And I’m curious — what’s your favorite piece of gear from 2011? Anything you think I should check out?

Photo: By Smath. via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Video of the Day: Tiny overhead bins

We’ve all seen it: that guy who has crammed a large bag in the overhead bin of the airplane and then can’t seem to understand why the door won’t close. It’s aggravating for everyone witnessing it. Why do so many people lack such basic spacial relations? We were reminded of that frustration when we discovered this commercial for 1Time, a low-cost South African airline. Granted, the ad is a few years old, but it’s message is no less topical today: we either need larger overhead bins or we all need to pay more attention to what we’re trying to cram in there.

MSNBC launches Overhead Bin travel blog

A new competitor enters the market! The good folks over at MSNBC launched a new travel blog this month called Overhead Bin, where “MSNBC.com’s travel reporters and editors look at news, destinations, deals and, of course, the joy and hassle of traveling.”

With some serious flagship writers such as Harriet Baskas from Stuckattheairport and Rob Lovitt blogging for the team, the site has some impressive firepower, and we’re expecting some really great travel content to emerge from the group. Already they’ve covered all of the recent travel buzz including At Sea with Kiss, Dr. Ruth and Dan Rather, Memorial Day topics such as Is it cheaper to Fly or Drive and even viral videos where photogs swim with jellyfish — there’s no doubt that their editorial strategy is right on point.

Currently, the site seems to be sticking to relevant, recent news and vacation related content, while on-the-ground destination and first person coverage seem to be either still in development or taking the back seat. Either way, at the rate at which they’re churning stories we’re sure that there’s much more good content to come. Welcome to the fray, team MSNBC.

[flickr image via Fields of View]

Virgin Blue flight attendant puts baby in overhead bin

A Virgin Blue flight attendant has been fired after putting a 17-month-old baby in an overhead compartment as part of a peek-a-boo joke. Passenger Natalie Williamson was on a flight from Fiji to Sydney with her husband and son when the flight attendant put the baby into the overhead bin and locked it for 10 seconds.

“I stood up and there were people laughing and then I said ‘Get my son out of there now’,” she told Australia’s Sunday Herald Sun.

Virgin Blue admits that the incident happened but claims Williamson’s husband had been playing peek-a-boo with the overhead bin when the flight attendant joined in. The airline has offered apologies as well as three free flights, but the mother claims she and her child are too traumatized to redeem them, and her son still suffers from anxiety and withdrawal three months after the incident.

[Photo courtesy Flickr user David McKelvey]

Five ways to beat the competition to the overhead bin

There’s nothing so gauche as to stick your carry-on into an overhead bin far ahead of your seat, grab a book or magazine from it and walk 17 rows back to your seat. Because, whether you know it (or give a damn), one of the passengers sitting under your bag may not have a place to put his. Then, when the plane settles in at the gate, he’ll try to shove his way to the back of the plane (where he was forced to stow his stuff) while everyone else is moving the other way. It’s a recipe for disaster.

And, it’s getting worse.

Airlines have had to cope with shrinking budgets, thanks to a dismal travel market, and that means making cuts. So, when there isn’t another pill water, peanut or blanket to chop, the airlines have to take away the planes themselves. Airline capacity is falling almost across the board this year, making planes more crowded. That translates to fuller overhead bins. The other airline money-making scheme – charging fees for extra baggage – has also cramped the cabin. Passengers are hoping to dodge the extra cost, even though it is modest.

When there’s an airline problem, of course, Congress rushes to devise some sort of solution – an obvious move given the track record legislators have had “fixing” the industry. The latest move appears to be an effort to limit and standardize carry-on sizes across airlines, with the TSA enforcing the rule at checkpoints. What will this accomplish? Well, your security wait just got longer. Not only will they have more work to do, but you’ll have the joy of waiting behind 27 people who all need to argue with the TSA employee about how the new rule is bullshit.

Until Congress comes in and accomplishes nothing, what matters most are strategies for making sure you can get as much of your stuff as possible into the overhead bins, especially if you want to keep some foot space under the seat in front of you. Here are five ways to make the whole process easier.

1. Board early
Chance favors the prepared. Get onto the plane as soon as you can. If you have elite status, use it. Linger by the gate to wait for your zone to be called. Then, strike when the announcement is made.

2. Be honest
You could become a scumbag and toss your carry-ons into the first overhead bins you see … or you could play it straight and put your bags in the appropriate bin. Become a part of the solution, not the problem.

3. Consolidate
Don’t carry too many carry-ons, and if you do max out the gear you can tow, bite the bullet and stick some of it under the seat in front of you.

4. Gate-check
You’ll have to wait a little longer for your bags, but it isn’t nearly as bad as having to linger by the carousel. This is as close to a win-win as you’ll find in the hell we call air travel.

5. Deal with checked luggage
Sometimes, you’re going to have to suck it up and check your damned bags. Don’t try to fight with the flight attendant or gate agent over size or amount. You’ll only delay the process … especially if the flight attendant has to announce that some of the bags in overhead bins will need to be checked. Don’t push the envelope, and learn to live with the rules.