How To Turn Your Daypack Into A Traveling Office

No one is ever going to accuse me of being a tech junkie. But as a journalist, I’ve had to temper my Luddite proclivities so that I can earn a living while on the road.

Compounding the issue is my essential frugality and innate dirtbag tendencies. I only travel with a backpack, using a daypack in lieu of a purse. For low-maintenance or business/pleasure-combo travelers such as myself (although I recognize that not everyone has the luxury of ditching business attire and trappings; I’ve been known to stuff a nice computer bag and dress-to-impress items into my backpack), a daypack easily transforms into a portable office.

Because I also keep my passport, money, credit cards, camera, cellphone, adaptor, and other essential documents and items on my person at all times, it also means my netbook is never left behind. This serves the dual function of ensuring I have access to a computer should I need to edit a story or file a deadline, as well as alleviates theft concerns due to entrusting my valuables to my room or hotel safe. If you’re a budget traveler, I firmly believe it’s better to risk carrying anything of value on your person than entrusting them to the vagaries of youth hostels, dodgy guesthouses, or cheap hotels.

The key to creating a user-friendly portable office lies in choosing the right daypack. I’ve written before about my preference for using hydration packs, because if you remove the bladder, it creates a space to safely store documents. I’m 5’2′, so I also require a woman’s pack, and because most of my trips include some form of outdoor activity, I like having a hip belt (the zip pockets of which double as holders for my mouse and cellphone cord), and multiple exterior and interior pockets.

I highly recommend the hydration daypacks made by Osprey and Gregory. They’re incredibly durable, and have useful bells and whistles. I’m not a fan of CamelBak, as I’ve found they don’t hold up well. The brand and style are up to you, but do check to see if the pack you’re contemplating comes with a raincover. If not, it’s a wise investment, and will spare you the anguish of waterlogged gear and devices.

[Photo credit: Flickr user incase]

Top five travel documents to email yourself before you travel

A lost or stolen passport or ATM card is a surefire way to add stress to any trip. As a preventative measure, I keep a list of travel documents (scanned, as necessary) in my inbox, so I have them at the ready should I run into trouble. Before you head out on your next trip, make sure you have the following documents, copied, prepped and prepared in the event you need them quickly:

1. Passport
If your passport mysteriously goes missing from the hotel security box or hostel front desk, or you’re mugged or robbed on the road, scanning a back-up copy can save you hours of paperwork and waiting. If you need a visa for travel, scan a copy of it, as well.

2. Medical and travel insurance cards (if applicable)
Not all medical insurance covers travel outside of the U.S., so check before you get on a plane. If you plan on visiting a region prone to civil unrest, natural disasters, or general sketchiness, have a medical condition, or are a fan of adventure travel, travel insurance might be worth looking into.

3. Bank and credit card collect call numbers
Keep the bank phone numbers nearby. It won’t bring your cards back if they’re lost or stolen, but at least you can report and cancel/put holds on them, ASAP. Most financial institutions have collect call numbers you can use from a foreign country.

4. Emergency contacts and relevant health information
At a recent appointment with a new physician, he noted that I was allergic to penicillin, and asked what happens if I take it. I explained I have a family history of anaphylaxis, and he asked why I don’t wear a medical alert bracelet, especially given my occupation as travel writer. It’s a good idea that never would have occurred to me. So while you’re typing up that list of contacts, including doctors, add in any life-threatening allergies or medical conditions. Should you wind up in a medical emergency, odds are someone, somewhere, will speak English. Or write it down in the language of the country you’re visiting (Lonely Planet Phrasebooks are invaluable for this kind of translation, even if you need to say it in Urdu or Thai).5. Itinerary
Be sure to send copies of your travel itinerary to family and/or a close friend. If you’re backpacking and don’t know where you’ll be staying or don’t have a world phone, the ubiquitousness of global cyber cafes makes it easier than ever to stay in touch, even in rural areas.

*Bonus round

U.S. Department of State contact info/Embassy and Consulate list
If you spend a lot of time overseas, especially if you fall into the category cited in #2, it’s a very good idea to register your trip with the U.S. Department of State. In the event of an emergency requiring evacuation, you’ll be in their system. It’s also helpful to keep the embassy/consulate link in your inbox and on your person, in case you or a fellow traveler runs into trouble.

Immunization card
Some countries or regions require you to present this, to prove you’ve had the necessary vaccinations before being admitted entry. Admittedly, I’ve never actually had to produce this document, but better safe than denied. For a list of recommended and required inoculations for destinations, go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site.

[Photo credit: Flickr user cubicgarden]

The empty bladder: why hydration packs make great travel companions

I’ve never been into purses. Even at home, I find them loathsomely girly, and they completely jack up my bad back. When I began zipping all over the globe as a food and travel writer, a day pack was the only thing that made sense for my carry-on/on-the-road essentials (my clothes and other gear go in my beloved Dana Designs Bomb Pack).

While I travel pretty light, there are things I require be within close proximity to my body: passport, copies of passport and medical insurance, emergency contact info., cash, credit and ATM cards (always carry a back-up for when, say, the machine in Portugal decides to eat yours), camera, flash drive, water bottle, water purification tablets or filtration system (I’ve finally learned my lesson on why these are non-negotiable), pocketknife (don’t forget to check it before you fly), notepad, hand sanitizer, tampons (Ladies, do not trust foreign countries to have ’em), Kleenex-aka-TP, Imodium and ibuprofen, sunblock, sunglasses, snacks, language guide, reading material, itinerary, sarong for freezing bus and plane rides. These are the items I am utterly screwed without; should everything else get stolen, life will suck, but I’ll be fine.

Due to my somewhat misanthropic tendencies, I choose never to rely upon the hotel safe or front desk for stowage of my valuables.That, my friends, is why I consider my daypack to be an extension of my body when I travel. I remove it to shower, and to sleep (I’ve also kept it hooked upon my arm while sleeping, when I end up in some shit-hole with a malfunctioning door lock). My day pack goes out drinking with me; it goes dancing, fords rivers, rides horses, and climbs mountains.

It’s a bit of a pain (literally and figuratively) at times, but at least I know I’m in charge of my travel essentials. And yes, I look like a total dork, trudging from destination to destination with my big pack on my back, and my daypack worn across my chest, marsupial-style. But it’s convenient, and it doesn’t throw me off-balance the way a messenger bag or purse would.

I don’t do money belts or fanny packs. I find them too small to be of use, inconvenient, and uncomfortable in hot weather. They scream “tourist.” You’re not fooling those gypsy kids in the piazza — they know you’re packing under your Ex Officio shirt. If I’m in a sketchy area or crowded place like a market, I’ll wear my daypack across my chest, because it’s less likely to be vandalized or cut off my body. Sometimes, I’ll also use travel locks on the zippers (which is why having double zips on your pack’s stowage compartments is key). You’re probably thinking, “Paranoid, much?” but put it this way: I’ve never had a theft, and I’d much rather look lame than spend a few days stranded somewhere, waiting for the Embassy to process my new passport.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with a wide variety of brands and sizes, and I’ve learned that hydration packs, like those made by Camelbak, Burton, DaKine, and Osprey’s new Hydraulics line (coming to a store near you this week), make great travel companions. I always remove the bladder, and leave it at home. The zippered bladder compartment makes the ultimate passport/plane ticket/itinerary holder. It’s flush against your back, so it’s theft-proof while you’re wearing it. Documents are also more likely to stay dry in this padded compartment, when you’re inevitably caught in a downpour or if fording that river doesn’t go as planned.

Everyone has different needs, and I’m not loyal to any particular brand because by the time one of my packs bites the dust, there’s something better on the market (don’t forget to check the company’s warranty policy before you purchase). Because I’m petite- 5’2″, and 100 lbs., I’ve come to rely upon women’s lines to give me the right fit. It really does make a difference, and your body will thank you. I could wear a kid’s pack, but they just don’t offer the tech-details and bells and whistles of adult versions. They also tend to be made in obnoxious colors. Come to think of it, it would be nice if all those great-fitting women’s packs weren’t always pastel or adorned with foofy graphics.

I also require elasticized side pockets, a hip belt and sternum strap for serious day-treks, deep stowage pockets with zips, an interior key chain for keeping hotel keys handy, and a reinforced bottom layer that can withstand dragging, maximum weight load, and pointy objects. Top-loading packs, and designs with zips that splay the pack in two are just begging to be pick-pocketed. Also, if your zipper breaks, you’re SOL. I’ll say it again: Look for multi-zip compartments that don’t go all the way down on either side.

Purchase a couple of mid-weight carabiners to clip onto your pack’s front loop (make sure it has one, or the equivalent). They’re invaluable for toting items like travel mugs, wet bathing suits, a pair of shoes (knot the laces together), or small grocery sacks.

Now, go forth and travel. Hold your bladder until you get home.

Before you go, be sure to check out Gadling’s Travel Talk TV! This week, the guys are in VEGAS!

Two weeks of embarrassing passport news

It’s been a bad couple of weeks for passport designers. Several things happened that could alter the future of the technology used in our travel documents.

The first bit of bad news came from the UK, where a van was stolen containing 3000 “virgin” passports. These passports were on their way to an RAF base, where they would be flown to consulates all around the world (previously covered here on Gadling)

The passports were made in a high security printing facility owned by 3M, but of course, no amount of security helps against stupidity. When the driver of the van stopped at a store to buy a candy bar, his colleague (who was still in the unlocked van) was ordered to keep his head down while the thieves drove off, stopped in a dark alley, and unloaded all the passports into a waiting car. The passenger of the delivery vehicle has been arrested and released on bail.

The UK passport service said “computer chips embedded in the passports to store personal and biometric data have not been activated. The service says that means the documents, which are still missing, can’t be used as passports.“.

Turns out they couldn’t have been more wrong, which brings us to the next bit of bad news.

RFID (radio frequency identification) chips in passports have been a hugely controversial issue. Ever since the first trials were conducted, security specialists have warned that they are not the holy grail they are said to be. Back in 2006, right after the first chip enabled travel documents rolled off the printing presses, researchers showed how easy it is to read, and write to the chip in these passports. In a more recent experiment, a researcher read the information off one passport, and altered it, rewriting the data to a different chip, but with a new photo; Osama Bin Laden.

When the standards were developed for the RFID chips in travel documents, a system was put in place that could verify the information stored on the passport with a remote database of “public keys”. So far, only 10 of the countries participating in RFID passports have signed up for this new public database, and only 5 are actually using it. Once this system is in place, a scanned passport will be verified against the data it is supposed to contain.

This technology should eventually make it much harder to use a fake or altered passport at an immigration counter, but only in countries that have the systems in place for using RFID. Any other county will still have to rely on the visible data stored in the passport. Since the RFID technology is only intended for immigration purposes, a fake passport can still easily be used for other purposes, like banking or real estate.

In the meantime, there are 3000 UK passports on the market (worth about $3400 each), and millions of passports being printed each month with RFID chips that don’t really protect anyone.

With each vulnerability found in these RFID passports, the designers are pushed back a little closer to their drawing boards, where they will eventually have to develop an even better method of protecting the countries they work for. Of course, in the big picture of things, nothing can stop good old human stupidity.

Turn your Gmail into an online storage drive

Although I use Gmail primarily to stay in touch while I travel, my account has proved enormously useful for plenty of other reasons. Rather than visiting 3-4 different airline and hotel sites, I collect and “star” all my itinerary info within my Gmail for easy reference. And rather than carrying around all those annoying frequent flier cards, I created a single file in Google Documents that lists my member number for every airline. Not to mention the hundreds of other great ways you can take advantage of Google when you travel.

Now I have another reason to keep coming back to my Gmail – an add-on for Firefox users called Gspace. Gspace turns any Gmail account into 2 gigabytes of free online storage with an easy-to-use interface. Think of it as an easy way to store your photos, videos, favorite music and important travel documents on the road. When you log into Gmail, you’ll see the files you’ve uploaded listed as emails in your account. Head over to the Gspace site, download their Firefox application, and you’re ready to go. You access Gspace from the pull-down “Tools” file menu in your Firefox browser. Check the How It Works page if you’re having any problems.

If you don’t have Firefox, you can download it for free – trust me, it’s better than Internet Explorer. Also, if you’re not already a Gmail user, it’s time to sign up. The best part? You can sign up for unlimited Gmail accounts, so there’s technically no limit to what you can store.