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

Virgin Blue flight attendant puts baby in overheadA 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]

Spirit Airlines to Congress: paying for overhead bins helps the poor


You just don’t need to take your bags on vacation, said Spirit Airlines CEO, Ben Baldanza. He’s told Congress that his airline, which brands itself as a “super-low-cost” carrier, actually makes it easier for the proletariat poor to take to the skies, even if it does require that they plop down $45 to stuff a carry-on into the overhead bin.

In a sense, it does. If you choose not to check a bag, that’s $5 bucks shy of half a C-note you’re tucking back in your wallet, but the cheap tickets can run a tad costly if you go with all the up-charges, according to a report by ABC News. So, the poor are all set as long as they exercise some restraint, it seems.

According to Baldanza, “We are certain that Spirit’s decision to unbundle services not essential to the transportation of passengers, has enabled more passengers to fly at lower cost.” He added, “Indeed given our low fares, it has allowed many to travel who otherwise simply could not afford to do so.”

So, what’s next for Spirit? I’m guessing that cake will be served on every flight, for a fee of course, which the airline will gladly let the poor eat.