Gear For Travel – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

It is really remarkable how quickly technology has completely changed the face of travel.  Our RTW trip lasted nearly two years, 2009-2010.  As we embarked, we invested in some of the best technology to get the job done that was possible.  We thought of ourselves as flashpackers extraordinaire.  That included a brand new netbook, an unlocked cell phone, and a fancy DSLR camera.  Now, just a few short years later, when I look back on all of that still functioning gear, it just looks so old and antiquated.  That’s the nature of technology.

This old piece of hardware was our PC for two full years.
This old piece of hardware was our PC for two full years.


The Phone – Our mobile phone was nothing but an unlocked GSM flip phone.  We were excited when a SIM card we purchased allowed us to make calls home from the Sahara Desert in Sudan for Mother’s day.  Now with VOIP calling, a smart phone can make calls around the world for free…and from anywhere.  The best part is that there are finally some cutting edge phones (e.g. Galaxy S4 Active) that are water and drop resistant making it even easier to stay connected and travel adventurously.

The Tablet – These did not exist while we were our trip and are a tremendous game changer, at least if you are blogging or sharing pictures while you travel.  We shared one netbook as we traveled, weighing and taking up far more room than two tablets would have taken in our packs.  Any of these today – iPad, Android or even a Windows tablet – are both lighter and more powerful than our “state of the art” netbook was. Plus there is wifi virtually everywhere now making a tablet a really useful tool for travelers to check in.

The Camera – This area has changed a lot less, mostly these cameras now come with more features and more megapixels than before.  However, by and large, they still do the same job.  The big add-ons here are the ease by which photos can be geotagged and quickly uploaded.  Camera processing has also improved allowing for better low-light photography and much better videos.  That would have saved us quite a bit of time geotagging our photos.

This article is NOT about what gear to go out and buy, there are plenty of review sites on the Internet,   It is merely a comparison of what has changed in less than 3 years time.  In the next three years will Google Glass remove the need for a tour guide?  Streaming video and video conferencing might ultimately replace the written word when it comes to blog posts.  We might even be able to sterilize our meals on our plates with a UV light and completely make food poisoning a thing of the past!  Sounds good to me.

Gear: Start to Finish

After 21 months backpacking around the world, through the Sahara, overlanding the silk road and climbing mountains, what gear survived?

These are the items that were with us when we walked across the border into Tiujana, Mexico and were still with us when our plane from Asia touched down in North America. All of these items were with us every step of the way….and survived. If you read any product review we write, make it this one!

Asus EEE PCAsus EEE PC NetbookOur netbook computer (codename: Evelyn) has survived against all odds and I’m typing on it even now. It has survived sand and sun and even the occasional drop out of the back of a certain Land Rover onto the concrete below. The battery still gives us about 6 hours of use per charge and we have no problems with a single key and the screen is still perfect, albeit dusty. The version of windows that came pre-loaded eventually developed insomnia and the ensuing overheating forced us to switch to Linux and that has worked ever since. Now that we’re home, the power-cord is showing some wear, which I fixed, but we were able to order a replacement for $6. The computer shows its age but I have no reservations in recommending an Asus EEE PC to anyone. We picked ours up at Amazon.

Pentax DSLR K200DPentax K200D DSLR Review Our big and heavy Pentax DSLR (codename Peter) is still shooting. We traded in our Canon before the trip because the Pentax is not only cheaper, but has a water-resistant and rugged body…which no doubt helped it to survive given that we only had it in a tiny Zing camera case. The full range zoom lens we purchased to go along with it isn’t ‘rugged’ rated and still works just fine. This camera still gives us better color saturation than any other DSLR we’ve come across and the only way it shows its age is that the sound it makes when you take a picture is different than it was at the start. This is a phenomenal camera (read our initial review) and I will not depart from Pentax DSLR cameras. Although our model is no longer being produced the value offered by Pentax over the more common Canon and Nikon brands is simply too good to pass up.

Pentax Optio W60Pentax Option ReviewThis Pentax (codename Optio) point and shoot has never been quite as good as its big brother. When we purchased it, only one other water-proof camera was on the market. There are a few others out there now so I’m not entirely sure how the newer Optio models compare. This is a great camera for water sports, and that is the reason we purchased it, but if you’re looking for an every day point and shoot camera I’d recommend staying away from this water-proof variety. For our money though, this camera still works just as good as it did on day one and I bet that of the water-proof camera’s, the Pentax models are still top notch.

Eneloop BatteriesRechargeable Eneloop BatteriesThese are rechargeable batteries that hold their charge, unlike most rechargeables out there. When you buy them they are already charged which means they will work just find for your emergency kit as well as your travel kit. If you haven’t switched to these yet, you are about 2 years behind the curve. Batteries are expensive, just order some today, and you’ll never need any more batteries ever again. The full set of batteries we started this trip with is still with us and powering the same electronic devices two years later!

ExOfficio Give’N Go UndiesEx-officio men's boxer briefsAlthough I enjoy the fact that I can again wear cotton underwear (aren’t you glad you asked) I have several pairs of these that have actually survived the entire trip. I cannot say the same for any other article of clothing. We’ve taken our clothes through some serious torture on our bodies and against the washboard and the fact that my underwear is the only thing that lasted two years is pretty remarkable. A few pairs bit the bullet and had to be cycled out, but seriously…this is quality material. If you do any level of exercise you would do well to pick up some of these.

Swiss Army Knife – There is only one option. Used mostly for opening canned food and beer and wine bottles it also does a pretty nice job at spreading peanut butter and emergency maintenance on eyeglasses and whatever else might need help.

Chacos – There is only one sandal I will ever wear. My pair of Chacos were new at the start of the trip and lasted until the final month…but not through that month. In the end the straps were finally torn by grit and dirt that had worked their way between the straps and the sandals. I had given myself a few extra weeks with a creative application of super glue but I can think of no other footwear that could have survived volcanoes, mountains, beaches, showers, swamps, jungles and deserts better than those Chacos. I already have a new pair.

So, wondering what those code names are all about?  We named our electronics so that we wouldn’t stand in the middle of a busy market asking if the other person grabbed the computer or camera.  Remarkably, thieves understand those words no matter what language they speak…better to be looking for lost “children.”  Interested in more travel tips?  Click here.

Review: Jammin’ to a new language

When we were approached about reviewing this smart phone application, I was excited. There are tons of applications out there to help travelers learn European languages, or even a few words of Cyrillic or eastern languages, but I find most of them lacking. The idea with Earworms Musical Brain Trainer is that listening to the language downloads will put words and phrases into your long-term memory, so you can actually recall it when you need it.  The lessons are put to music or rhythms which improves the brain’s recall function. Given that epic stories from thousands of years ago, like the Odyssey, were put to music so a poet could remember the whole thing, I think the creators on to something here…

I love languages and to be completely honest I speak three of them, but as I learned on the road, that wasn’t enough. To try out this app, I wanted to put it through the ringer so I chose two languages that are considered difficult to learn: Russian and Arabic.

Getting Started: It was easy to download the different languages on my iTouch. You have to buy each language individually and most languages come in a few volumes- beginners should start with volume 1 with introduces a traveler to the key phrases for getting around: hotels, restaurants, etc… Along with the audio, you can read the phrases on your smartphone with the lesson.

How it Works:

For volume 1 downloads, each language come with 10 modules: 1) I would like, 2) To order, 3) Have you got?, 4) To the airport, 5) Numbers, days and time, 6) Where is there..?, 7) Directions, 8) Where, when and what time?, 9) Problems, problems and 10) Do you speak English? Unlike other language applications, there isn’t a cutesy little travel story along with the lesson. It’s a simple repetition of the phrases, by a native speaker and an English speaker. They chat a bit, but it’s clear that the focus is on getting the rhythm in your head. The whole volume was a little over an hour.

The directions suggests you to listen to the whole download on the first day and then regularly listen to the modules over the next few weeks.

My Thoughts:

I listened to the Russian and Arabic modules on and off for a few weeks, usually while running. I actually enjoyed the melodious repetition. Certain phrases, even with just my casual use of the modules, have really stuck in my head. I would definitely recommend these modules to traveler’s looking for an easy, relatively fun way to learn the basics. Plus listening to a native speaker is going to give you a much better accent.

Will it get you speaking fluently? No, but it does give you enough of a basis to be able to formulate phrases on your own. Although it doesn’t teach you to conjugate verbs, it does give you some verbs that you can use to make your own sentences. I also really appreciated the written text which gives a literal translation of some phrases and some grammatical tips, especially for Arabic, this gave me a real sense of place and culture.

Pros: Listen and read at the same time. Hear a native speaker and an English speaker in quick succession. Upbeat and easy to listen.

Cons: The price is overall a little steep, so use the free demo downloads on their website to try it before you buy it.  I think it’s worth it!

Price: $9.99 But check their website for coupons and offers!

Disclosure: We were provided free downloads in exchange for reviewing this product.

Review: Steri Pen Classic

There is no doubt in my mind that this device has already paid for itself simply because we don´t have to constantly buy bottled water when the tap water isn´t clean enough to drink. The fact that it may one day save our lives is an even bigger benefit. There are other, fancier Steri-pen models on the market but we chose this one because it uses AA batteries, which we can recharge easily on the road. The safety features included in this device can make it difficult to use at times, but they’re safety features, so can we really complain?

SteriPen Water Purifier Classic

When the SteriPEN doesn’t adequately clean the water it tells you this with a series of red lights. You know something is wrong and that you shouldn’t drink the water but you don’t know if the problem is a dirty bulb or a lack of battery power or plain old human error. The series of lights usually tell you which it is but it can be difficult to understand; the new models on the market have addressed all this.

Having pointed out the difficulties of using this device I must say that when it does work it works brilliantly. It is surprisingly simple to operate and we´ve yet to get sick, in more than a year of travel, which means we must be doing something right. We use this pen almost daily to clean tap water in cities and stream water in rural areas. The fact that when using this we can drink the water right away and don´t have to wait (like with tablets) to drink has been a lifesaver as well. The only place this won’t work is in dark water as the UV light won’t be able to pass through the water.

Highly Recommended.

Review- Women’s Gregory Jade 50

Gregory Women’s Jade 50 Backpack

As far as outdoor equipment and backpacks go the Gregory Jade 50 seemed like a dream. Cute in style and functional in design, the Gregory Z55 and the women’s version, the Jade 50, won the 2007 “Best All Around Weekend Pack” from Backpacker magazine. Unfortunately the design features that put it to the top for a weekend pack don’t score any points for best travel pack.

High quality construction and designed for a woman’s body, the Jade 50 is great for walking, trekking and hiking around in urban and back country settings. Unfortunately it is difficult to pack correctly. The curve in the back, which keeps your back cool when wearing it, makes the interior pouch shaped like an hour glass. It is almost impossible to fill the bottom of the pack completely, I find the bottom of my pack always has awkward negative space that I have trouble filling. The curve also makes it more difficult to get things in and out of the pack, even with the side zipper, since your larger items will be at the bottom of the back anyway. We use compression sacks for our clothing- again the curve of the back makes it difficult to use the space and I find that I’m constantly unpacking the entire pack to get to the stuff at the bottom despite the side access zipper. I also find that because of the curve the middle of the pack is extended making it more difficult to shove the pack into overhead bins or under seats even if the front pocket is not full. This does not seem to be a problem with the Z55 which is more slim in appearance.

As a bag designed for women, I find that the back fits very well. The proportions are great- I’m 5’7″ and I’m overall happy with the aesthetics of the color and design.

If you can’t tell, my biggest complaint is the curved back – although I am NOT using this for hiking- so that influences my review significantly. Besides the back, the backpack is high quality construction and I love the idea of a side access zipper. I use the front pouch regularly and find that it is easily to secure. The straps on the bottom function well for attaching shoes, but overall the pack is sleek in appearance with out a lot of dangling straps and gadgets. The top pocket can be difficult to get things out of as unlike the Z55, the zipper does not go all the way around the pocket. When its full you have to take almost everything out of the top to get to stuff on the side of the top pocket. I never put anything in there that I might need quickly.

Overall this is a good pack, but if I had the option I would trade it in for something more travel friendly. In my opinion the short comings of this bag would also negatively effect a back country traveler who wants to access things quickly on the go.

If you’re looking for a unisex or male back, check out our review of the Gregory Z55. If you’re looking for reviews of other women’s specific travel products check out what else is in my pack.

Packing your bag makes a huge difference in comfort. Check out this video we put together with tips for distributing weight in your pack, keeping objects secure and packing for comfort:

Gregory Women’s Jade 50 Backpack