The Way: Martin Sheen treks the Camino de Santiago

I’m often skeptical when Hollywood forays into the realm of ‘travel films’.

Don’t get me wrong; there have been some wonderful movies in recent years that capture the true essence of the world of travel & the beauty of venturing on a grand journey: Lost in Translation, Into the Wild, L’Auberge Espagnole, Before Sunrise, Up in the Air, and The Beach (did you really think I wouldn’t mention it?) are just a few examples of travel narratives done right.

But those successes aren’t enough to stop the certain feeling of dread I get whenever I learn that Hollywood has again attempted to tackle the travel theme. Perhaps certain blasphemies like Sex & the City 2 or the recent rendition of Gulliver’s Travels keep this fear alive every time I shell out $11 to go on a two-hour cinematic adventure.

That being so, when I first heard about The Way; a film directed and developed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen, I expected the worst. An adventure film produced on the magical wings of nepotism? Sounded like the perfect storm.

But Wednesday night’s New York City premiere in partnership with the Walkabout Foundation promised a dazzling list of A-listers (Former President Bill Clinton, Ivanka Trump, Dhani Jones, Wyclef Jean, & the Sheens, among others) and promised to benefit a good cause, so I packed my cynicism away for a few hours and decided to see the film.

%Gallery-136040%

So, is it worth the trek to the theater? Click on through to find out.

The Way is the story of a Tom (Martin Sheen), a father that loses his intrepid son, Daniel (Emilio Estevez) as Daniel sets out in the French Pyrenees on a solo journey along the historic Camino De Santiago. Devastated by the loss and desperate for a way to reconcile their distanced relationship, Sheen’s character decides to embark on the Camino himself, carrying his son’s ashes every step of the way.

In brief, the Camino De Santiago (or the Way of St. James) is a 500-mile trail that starts in France and ends near the Northwest tip of Spain. It was first trekked in the 9th Century by pilgrims hoping to visit the remains of the Apostle St. James upon their initial discovery. In the early days, it was an arduous undertaking; weather, meager provisions, and difficult terrain all took their toll on the dedicated peregrinos. But by the 14th Century, it’s estimated that 25% of all Europeans walked the Camino and today, over 200,000 hikers complete the pilgrimage every year; for many different reasons.



Through Tom’s journey and the friends he makes on the trail, a very poignant illustration of the Camino De Santiago is presented; the beauty of the environment is vivid, the community among pilgrims is familiar to anyone that’s bonded with strangers on the road, and over the course of the film, the mood of sun drenched afternoons walking, eating, and drinking through the Spanish countryside is tangible. The characters all feel genuine and there’s enough clever humor throughout to make the film a fun adventure to be a part of.

One of the best parts of the film is that the story feels real; from a traveler’s perspective, it’s relatable and stays true to its roots of telling the story of the Camino. It strays from the typical over-dramatized treatment that Hollywood loves and instead tells a very real story that will resonate with many people who have trekked the Camino & anyone that’s ever ventured on a journey to cope with a personal battle. For this reason, I think it joins some of the other great travel narratives as a movie that’s definitely worth seeing for those interested in adventure.

The Way succeeds in staying true as a travel story partially because of how it was produced; Estevez insisted that the crew was never larger than 50 people (including actors), a large part of the film was shot on the go using a versatile Super 16mm setup, and the actors actually hiked a good portion of the Camino throughout the course of production.

In all, I give The Way 4 out of 5 St. James’s Shells. It opens for a limited release in theaters today and a wide release on October 21st. So long as you don’t have to make a pilgrimage of your own to go see it, give The Way a second look this weekend.

Gadling gear review: The Osprey Stratos 24 Backpack

The Stratos 24 backpack is an excellent addition to any gear closetAs an active traveler, I have grown to have a certain affinity for backpacks. In fact, I have one for just about every occasion, ranging from small daypacks for short hikes on local trails to full-on expedition level packs designed for weeks, or even months, in the field. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate a well designed, versatile pack that not only fits well, but also offers you plenty of storage options in an easy to access and clearly defined way. With the right pack, an active trip can be a very pleasant experience, while the wrong pack can be an endless source of frustration.

Recently, whenever I’ve been in the market for a new pack, I’ve found myself gravitating to those made by Osprey, a company that has been designing great outdoor gear for nearly four decades. A few months back, I added their Stratos 24 daypack to my gear closet, and after testing it out extensively on three continents, I can honestly say that I’m in love.

The first thing that you’ll notice about the Stratos 24, or pretty much any Osprey pack for that matter, is the fantastic build quality. These are packs that are built to last and they can withstand whatever you throw at them. Case in point, in the five months I’ve owned my Stratos, I’ve taken it cross country skiing in Yellowstone, hiking in Colorado, on safari in South Africa, and volcano climbing in Chile, not to mention a couple of day hikes in Texas as well. After all of those adventures, it still looks practically brand new, with nary a scuff mark on it.The Osprey Stratos 24 Backpack in South Africa The second thing that you’re likely to notice about the Stratos is that there are an awful lot of belts, straps, and chords dangling from the pack. These can be a bit daunting at first, especially if this is your first outdoor oriented bag, but they each have a purpose that becomes clear when you start to adjust them. For instance, as you would expect, the Stratos has a belt that goes around your waist, as well as a strap that crosses your chest. When both of these are used in conjunction with the adjustable shoulder straps, you’ll be able to accurately fit the pack to your body, making it comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. There are also straps for carrying an ice axe (handy for the serious climber) and a pair of external belts for strapping gear, such as a pair of snowshoes, to the outside of the bag as well. Add in a tow loop for the adventure racing crowd, and gear loops for your trekking poles, and it can be a dizzying affair just to get acquainted with the pack. But after using it a time or two, it’ll all make sense, and you’ll be adjusting everything with ease.

Osprey didn’t skimp on the storage options either, as the Stratos includes a large internal compartment for carrying most of your gear, along with two zippered pockets on the pack itself. Additionally, there are two small mesh pockets on the hipbelt, as well as another on the right shoulder strap, that help keep small items, such as energy bars, a multi-tool or a camera, within easy reach. I personally appreciated all of these options, as the pack allows me to comfortably carry all of my important gear, including a DSLR camera, extra clothing, food, and more. Other features include a built in hydration sleeve that holds a two liter water bladder and an integrated raincover that helps keep your gear dry in inclement weather.

One of the more impressive aspects of the Stratos is the ventilation system built onto the back of the pack itself. Designed to help keep you cool by allowing air to flow, between your body and the bag, this system proves to be a most welcome addition on trips to warmer climes. I’ve used similar ventilation options on larger backpacks before, but this is the first time I’ve encountered such an effective one on a smaller daypack. On longer adventures, it can really make a difference in how comfortable you are on the trail.

The Stratos is a very versatile pack that works well not only on the trail, but as a carry-on item on a plane as well. When I’ve used it while traveling, I’ve loaded it up with my laptop, iPad, DSLR, lenses, and other fragile equipment I simply don’t want to risk checking with the airlines. Fortunately this lightweight bag offers plenty of capacity to comfortably carry all of that gear as well, and it still fits nicely under the seat in front of you. That means that when I reach my destination, I can take out the tech gadgets, throw in my outdoor gear, and head off for the wilderness without the need of yet one more pack.

The Stratos 24 BackpackIf I had one knock against the Stratos however, it would be that all of those belts and straps that I mentioned above are excessively long and can get in the way at times. In fact, after I’ve adjusted them to fit my body, they still tend to dangle all over the place. This became a bit of an issue recently when I fed the pack through an x-ray machine at an airport, and one of the straps got caught in the conveyor belt. Needless to say, the TSA agent was not amused.The issue can be avoided by shortening the straps when not using the pack on the trail, but it is a bit inconvenient to have to adjust them so often.

Other than that, the Stratos is quite possibly the best daypack I’ve ever used. Everything about this bag demonstrates refinement that only comes from years of evolving design and a clear understanding of the needs of your customers. Osprey has built a pack that is versatile, comfortable, and nearly indestructible. They even back it up with a lifetime guarantee. What more could ask for out of any piece of travel gear?

The Osprey Stratos 24 retails for $99 and is also available in a 26, 34, and 36 liter sizes as well.

Spider Holster’s Black Widow DSLR / camera belt holster review

spider holster

There aren’t too many new camera peripherals that do something truly new. Sure, quite a few of them complete a familiar task with more ease and less clutter, but the Black Widow by Spider Holster is an entirely new way to manage your primary or secondary camera. What’s unique about this device is that it can be used by both professional photographers as well as vacationers who simply wish to keep a camera at their hip at all times. Those afraid of missing “that moment” can probably relate. The concept here is really simple: it’s a belt that’s attached around you via a wide Velcro band, and there’s a small ‘catching’ mechanism on the side that sits right beside your leg. You screw in a small, silver knob into the bottom of any camera that accepts a traditional tripod thread screw. The knob then slides down into the socket on your waist, and there it hangs until you need it. A small red thumb switch unlocks the slide, allowing you to easily release the camera with one hand and pull it out for use. When you’ve got the shots you want, just drop it back in the holster. Read on for my full review, as well as a quick video showing exactly how the system works.

%Gallery-119802%I recently used the Black Widow while shooting a wedding, and it dramatically improved my workflow and enabled me to capture shots I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to get. Quite simply, it allowed me to always carry around a secondary DSLR with an ultra wide-angle lens lens, and without having it right there at my waist, it would’ve been far tougher to reach into a backpack or messenger bag to grab the second camera. The convenience factor cannot be ignored. It also does an outstanding job of weight distribution. Lugging another camera over your shoulder or back takes a toll on your after a few hours; this hip solution didn’t bother me at all, even during an eight-hour shoot. For travelers, this seems like an awesome solution for carrying a camera while hiking or in a theme park.

spider holster

Why tie up a hand or have something strapped around your shoulder when you can have it around your waist? For adventure photographers, who simply cannot go to a destination without two cameras and at least two lenses, this is one of the simplest ways yet to carry that second rig. The only major nitpick I had is that the silver knob screw-in piece tends to work itself loose after a number of hours, so be sure to check its tightness every so often, particularly if you’re moving around with any frequency. Also, if you’ll need a tripod mount on the bottom, this system simply won’t work. My workaround is to keep my primary camera ready for tripod use, while using the holstered camera as a handheld-only unit. The other option is to buy a $15.99 tripod plate, which enables the use of tripod mounts while also supporting the holster.

Otherwise, it’s $49.99 well spent if you’re the type who is constantly trying to juggle a pair of cameras, or would like to travel and take shots without always having a camera in one of your hands. A more rugged and advanced ‘SpiderPro System‘ is also available now for $135, catering to those with larger DSLRs and lenses; if you have a trusty belt already, the $8.99 Belt Pad can slide onto just about any belt and provide the same holster action. Lastly, it’s totally possible to hang a camera from each hip if you add a socket on each side.


Xcom Global’s MiFi rental service: why you shouldn’t leave the US without one

The goal here was to utilize Xcom Global’s MiFi rental service to stay connected and work while traveling. The trip? Four days in England, followed by three in France. I was scheduled to shoot my first international wedding in Paris, and was spending a few days in England beforehand — partly to enjoy the country, and partly to ensure that no weather problems in the US delayed my flight over. Xcom Global provides a service that every US-based international traveler should consider: they rent MiFi devices for a host of nations (a list that seems to grow each month), and if you aren’t familiar with a MiFi, the concept is pretty simple: it’s a battery-powered pebble with a country-specific SIM card in it. Just press a button, and within a few seconds, you’ll have a WiFi signal that connects up to five devices to a country’s 3G network.

For example, a French MiFi gives you unlimited 3G data with Orange. So long as you keep a charged battery in there, you can leave your smartphone in airplane mode and still use Google Maps to get around a foreign city — just connect your phone to the MiFi over Wi-Fi. If you aren’t familiar with what it costs to use data internationally, it’s around $5 per megabyte. What does that mean? Downloading the emails you missed on the flight over could easily cost $20, and if you maintained that connection for a whole day? It’s easy to rack up $300 or more in data roaming charges. No US carrier offers a decent international plan (at least not anymore), so you’re really left with two options: struggle to find Wi-Fi, or use Xcom Global. These guys will rent you a MiFi for under $20 per day, with return shipping included. That means unlimited Wi-Fi for around $17 a day in a foreign country, and it’s a connection that multiple people can use at once. If your hotel wants to ding you 10 Euros per day for Internet, just use this — problem solved. It’s an awesome way to stay connected while abroad, but honestly, it’s more than that. For mobile professionals, it’s a necessity.

I love my husband very much, I really do. But even he was kicking himself when we took off from the US and realized our MiFis were still in their shipping bag in our vehicle, safely parked at the airport, slipping further and further from Manchester. This piece was slated to be a review of Xcom’s services; instead, it has morphed into a thesis on just how frustrating it is to visit a foreign country without their services. You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone — isn’t that what they say? Read on for more.Both my husband and I were scheduled to continue working while in England. The plan was to use Xcom’s MiFi in our hotel rooms to check up on emails nightly, return any missed calls via Skype and then use the Internet on-the-go. We’d never been to Manchester, and we were banking on using Google Maps Navigation to get us from our train stop to our hotel. Needless to say, we spent nearly 10 Pounds on a taxi ride that we could’ve easily walked if we had the Internet to guide us. And that’s just the beginning. We arrived at our first hotel, a Holiday Inn. It’s a fine place, but they wanted 15 Pounds for 24 hours of Internet usage. Internet that we couldn’t take with us when exploring the streets of Manchester.

At this point, the only reasonable alternative was to find an O2 store, which sells a pay-as-you-go SIM for 15 Pounds that includes 500MB of data. But alas, it’s hard to locate an O2 store when there’s no Internet to find a store locator. We run downstairs and spend a solid ten minutes attempting to take directions from the front desk, and then another 15 minutes wandering aimlessly to a bus station. And then another 30 walking to a mall, and then another 30 waiting for the SIM to be activated. After our entire first morning in England was shot, we finally had data — on one phone, and we could only use around 100MB per day. After that, it forced us to wait until midnight for the next block of data to become usable.

This was obviously far from ideal. We were fortunate enough to own an unlocked smartphone (a standard Apple iPhone from AT&T would never accept another carrier’s SIM, for example). Plus, the Nexus One has a Mobile Hotspot function that pipes 3G data out over Wi-Fi. This enabled us to check our emails on our laptops, but O2 badly compresses all images that are uploaded, so obviously I was unable to create any photo blogs using this solution. To say that this wasn’t the perfect solution would be a tremendous understatement. Had we been in possession of Xcom’s MiFi, we would’ve had unlimited data to use as we saw fit, without any image compression or daily usage limits. Even if you aren’t interested in working while overseas, having the ability to use Google Maps to search for eateries and monuments (and get directions) is a total godsend. Without a MiFi, the only way to do it is to pay absurd roaming charges or to rent a SIM card — provided you own an unlocked device.

Eventually, we took a train to London. There, our hotel also wanted 15 Pounds per day for Internet access, which just so happened to go down for a critical five hour period where my husband was scheduled to make an important Skype call back to the United States. We had already used up the 100MB daily allotment through O2, so it was off to the streets in a frantic attempt to find an open Wi-Fi hotspot. Considering that we had no mobile Internet to guide us, we were forced to remain on streets we had visited the day before and knew were well-lit. It was closing in on 9PM, and we had already spent an hour on Regent Street — one of London’s most popular roads — with no luck whatsoever. The Starbucks closed at 8:30PM, and the only coffee shop that we could find with later hours wanted to charge us 5 Pounds for using their Wi-Fi for just 1.5 hours.

In the end, we ended up standing outside of a locked Apple Store door, borrowing their free Wi-Fi long enough to complete a 20 minute phone call. Something that would’ve taken 20 minutes if we had Xcom’s MiFi in our hotel room ended up taking around two hours, and rather than being able to have a private call, everyone on Regent Street could pass by and have a listen.

In France, it was even worse. Hardly any of the signage is in English, which left us with little choice but to Google Map something in our room and then write down instructions before heading out. We were also unable to make Skype calls on the go, as we weren’t able to procure a local SIM here. Unlike the UK, there’s no carrier in France that openly sells prepaid SIM cards with data; it’s possible to get one from SFR, but it takes over a day to activate and it requires fluency in French to sort through a phone menu to have the data feature added.

In the end, I found it interesting that going a week overseas without Xcom’s Global MiFi rental service is the best possible advertisement for the service. It may be easy to assume that “you’ll be fine” without Internet access, but consider the life that most of us lead today. We’re perpetually connected. We rely on Google Maps to get us anywhere. We lose connections with people if email sits around for two days. And as for ponying up for Internet at the hotel? That’s a frustration that no traveler should have to face. Looking back, I would have gladly paid Xcom Global $17 per day to have unlimited access to the Internet both in my hotel and everywhere I traveled to while overseas. Suffice it to say, this has taught me to never leave home without one when traveling abroad — in my mind, it’s just as essential as a passport. If you still have your doubts, you could head overseas for a week and do your best to find the Internet. I wouldn’t recommend it, though.

Columbia Omni-Heat Circuit Breaker Softshell electric / heated ski jacket review

columbia circuit breaker

It’s a mouthful of a name, but Columbia’s new Circuit Breaker Softshell heated jacket is exactly the kind of hardware that avid winter adventurists and residents of frigid locales have been clamoring for. Heated gear has been around for awhile, but older implementations have generally been prohibitively expensive, extremely bulky and short on life. Reviews have generally been mixed, and the cold weather world at large has really been waiting for battery and charging technologies to advance to a point where a heated jacket could be taken seriously. The Omni-Heat Circuit Breaker is it.

This coat is one of three new launches from Columbia for next ski season (it’s slated to go on sale to the public on October of 2011), accompanied by a pair of Omni-Heat electric boots and a set of electric gloves. For this review, we’re going to focus on the most sophisticated of the three: the Circuit Breaker Softshell jacket, albeit a pre-production version that may be altered ever-so-slightly prior to October. Was a jacket filled with heating elements able to keep our core satisfactorily warm during a frigid snowmobile trip through northwestern Montana and during a near-blizzard at Whitefish Mountain Resort? Read on to find out.
%Gallery-114914%The design of the Circuit Breaker Softshell is what really sets it apart, and why it’s likely to be very appealing to travelers looking to keep their load light as they engage in winter travel. The jacket is essentially the same size as any other non-heated ski jacket, but it’s actually thinner, lighter and more flexible than bulky coats which rely on thick layers to insulate you and keep you warm. This jacket is able to trim down on materials thanks to the heating system that runs throughout the fabric; the electric nature more than compensates for the thickness that’s lost. The other incredible part about this system is that you can’t actually feel it while wearing the coat. If there are hundreds of heating tubes ran throughout, you won’t ever notice them until you feel your body warming up. If you’re concerned about tubes or wires inhibiting your motion while wearing it, don’t be — it feels like wearing any other jacket save for one thing.

columbia circuit breaker

That “thing” is weight. On the inner side of each chest section, there’s a clear pocket where a battery pack is stored. The Circuit Breaker can run off of just one, but the battery life suffers. With both packs installed, the coat is definitely heavier than your average non-electric jacket, but once you’ve put on the rest of your winter gear, you’ll forget about the added weight. In our opinion, the added weight is worth carrying around for the benefit of having heat. This is still lighter than some of the older heated solutions on the market.

columbia circuit breaker

Continuing with design, the outer layer of the jacket repelled sleet and heavy snow with ease, and the hood was always easy to find and flip up onto one’s head. There are two waist-level pockets on the exterior, an external chest pocket, and a handy arm pocket that is perfect for storing loose change, lip balm, etc. Turning the heat on and off couldn’t be simpler; just press the button on the front of the coat for three seconds, and it’s flipped on and set for maximum output. Another gentle press turns it down to Medium heat, and another lowers it to Minimum heat. You can disable to light if you wish by holding it for ten seconds (that’ll force the coat to enter “Stealth Mode”). In practice, the button worked great, even when mashed with a gloved finger.

While the design is stellar in most aspects, we did find a few gripes. For starters, there are no extended zipper pulls on the waist-level pockets nor on the arm pocket. For whatever reason, the only extended pull is on the outer chest-level pocket. Columbia should’ve included extended zipper pulls on all external pockets; any skier will understand the difficulty in operating a zipper with a gloved hand, and having no extended pull really made these particular pockets difficult to access. Moreover, the internal clear pockets that hold the battery packs need to be larger; once the jack to each battery is inserted, it’s a tricky process to wiggle the packs into their holsters. A bit more room on the Velcro pockets would have been appreciated. There’s always the slight possibility that the company would add these prior to a full-scale launch, but at worse, you could add your own pulls if you end up sharing our problem.

columbia circuit breaker

Speaking of the battery packs, each one can be recharged via microUSB, and Columbia (thankfully) includes two microUSB charging cables and a single AC adapter that accepts two cables at once. That means a single AC plug can charge up both packs at once — nice! What really impressed us was the extra adapters that were included; anticipating that some buyers may take this jacket to international ski resorts, a number of internal AC plug adapters are included so that you can recharge your coat regardless of where your travels may take you (Swiss Alps, anyone?). This may be an under-appreciated extra by many, but here at Gadling, we’re huge fans of any company that includes support for worldwide power plugs.

columbia circuit breaker

We heard early on that Columbia expected the Circuit Breaker to provide around six hours of heat with both packs fully charged. When we broke out on the snowmobile trails near Olney, Montana, we placed the heat setting on ‘High’ and never backed it down. The wind chill was quite severe, and we needed any extra heat we could find. Within seconds, we felt a rush of warmth all throughout our core region, and it didn’t stop until right around five hours later. We had briefly used the jacket’s heating functions earlier in the day for around a half-hour, so all told, we managed ~5.5 hours of battery life. That’s pretty close to the stated six hours, and it’s even more impressive when you realize that bitter cold temperatures have a tendency to drain batteries.

columbia circuit breaker

Would we recommend the $850 Circuit Breaker? If you live in a location where temperatures routinely drop into the teens, or you’re a frequently traveler to frosty destinations, it may be a worthwhile investment. Non-heated jackets of similar quality can easily reach $500 or so, so the price premium for having five to six hours of heat may be worth it if you’re tired of freezing whenever you step outside. The good news is that the jacket really does do an exceptional job of keeping the wearer warm, and it’s about as elegant an implementation as we have seen. The biggest problem with this coat isn’t in the coat itself — it’s that you’ll probably be itching to splurge on Columbia’s Omni-Heat boots and gloves after you get one. For instructions on how to connect the battery packs, check out the video below.

As a side note, Columbia is planning an entire range of these heated jackets to launch in the fall of 2011. While this specific model has an $850 MSRP, there will be nine electric styles in total ranging from $750 to $1,200.