November 5, 2009
For our year on the road, we packed a lot of stuff into two relatively small backpacks. We spent a lot of time researching gear, reading packing lists and visiting REI — finally being confident about our whole inventory. Six months later some things have changed, but most have stayed the same. Here’s a quick look at what’s been working for us, and what hasn’t — including some notes about shopping for gear abroad.
Jeremy’s North Face Primero 70L and Eva’s 42L Deuter Futura Pro are chugging along nicely. Nothing’s broken, torn, uncomfortable; we even feel like we’re carrying the right sizes. Overall in terms of features, for us top and bottom loading is a must, but side access isn’t really a big deal. The air-vent/net back on Eva’s is a lot better than we expected. The pack duffles are a must on planes and buses where straps and clips could easily be crushed, and cargo holds are filthy.
Packing Cubes WIN
If you’ve never traveled with packing cubes, run out and get some now. Everything in our backpacks fits into a cube, so we don’t have any loose items rolling about. There’s a separate cube for electronics, clothes, socks, medicine. It’s dead easy to unpack, repack, and most importantly: to make sure we didn’t forget anything when moving from hostel to hostel every 2 or 3 days. The cubes have waterproof dividers and front faces, so if the sunscreen explodes, the mess is contained.
Eagle Creek Koala Shower Bag WIN
Not exactly the one in the link, this dopp kit packs down quite flat, and holds ALL the shower/bath items we both need, together. It doesn’t have any inefficient padding, but the clever folding structure actually keeps bottles reinforced. Again, it’s waterproof, so spills are minimized.
Compression Sacks FAIL
These are just too big. Maybe there are smaller ones on the market, but even our smallest one is much bigger than required. Whatever goes in comes out looking wrinkled and terrible. We’d use these only for sleeping bags, if we were carrying them.
Jeremy’s Ecco Yucatan Sandals FAIL
Though the straps are sturdy and not ostentatious, the insole isn’t made for travel. It’s a soft suede which feels nice at the start, but once some dirt gets rubbed in (inevitable) it can’t ever be cleaned out completely. The rubberized designs on the insole have begun to break down, creating sticky stripes underfoot. They ought to be sold as a city sandal, because they won’t last through tough abuse.
Eva’s Chaco Sandals WIN
Our first try at Chacos, and we’re hooked — Jeremy wishes he had a pair instead of his Ecco Sandals. The Chacos are tough, and can be easily washed. The entire sole is one piece of rubber, and hasn’t shown any signs of degrading. The toe-wrap design of Eva’s pair sometimes pulls itself too tight — the classic Chaco structure would have been better.
Eva’s Merrell Siren Sport Shoes and Jeremy’s North Face Prophecy Shoes WIN/FAIL
Both shoes are “trail runner” type outdoor shoes meaning they are light weight running shoes with dense soles. We chose not to buy the gore-tex models afraid that they would not breathe or dry well enough. With the heavy use, we really need for them not to smell and so far they are doing their job. The only fail is that six months in, the material at the heels is ripping.
Smartwool Socks WIN
An expensive luxury, but unbeatable. They last through tough washes, let our feet breathe, and even air out overnight enough to give us an extra day of wear when laundry isn’t possible.
Super Feet Insoles WIN
Another luxury, not necessary but much appreciated. Like the Smartwool socks, these puppies were pricey (~ $30). They’re very rigid compared to everything else on the market, and give our shoes much more support than their included insoles. They keep our shoes fresh, but the comfort is really legendary.
Eva’s North Face Pants FAIL
While Jeremy’s North Face Paramount Convertable Pants carry on looking a day old, Eva’s have frayed, balled up and lost their shape. The fabric on the shins has literally melted from coming in contact with DEET, and now she mainly rolls them up as shorts. They are far too light weight, and clearly they aren’t meant for actual travel abuse.
Jeremy’s J. Crew Broken-In Ts WIN
A surprising win, one of our few “normal” items that we didn’t give much second thought to. While Eva’s t-shirts have all balled up and gotten shredded from hand-washing, Jeremy’s J. Crew T’s are still smooth, soft and more nicely broken in than ever. It’s a silly thing, but we don’t want to run around shopping for new shirts. Having something just last is a relief.
Jeremy’s Marmot Oracle Rain Jacket FAIL
This item in only a fail because we were so dumb to lose it! The jacket was nicely shaped, lightweight and extremely effective. We hope the staff at the hotel in Portugal we left it in enjoys it.
REI Pack Towels WIN
We laughed at these chamois things for weeks before we left, completely doubting their effectiveness. But, to our surprise, they’re performing just as advertised. They take up less space than a notebook, haven’t gotten funky, dry in less than an hour, and the extra large size is more than enough for an adult, even to cover up.
Sarongs and Turkish Pestemal WIN
We bought a sarong wrap in Brazil and the Turkish towels while on our Blue Cruise. Both are thin and light, but give us something to sit on at the park or beach, and a quick robe in the mornings. It wouldn’t be worth bringing these from home, but they’re a nice useful souvenir to pick up on the road.
We thought this little retractable lock would be paranoid overkill, but it actually gets used quite often — adding confidence in strange places, or crowded hostels. We lock up cabinets with our backpacks inside in hotels, and if a hostel doesn’t offer lockers, we can put our most valuable items into one backpack, and pacsafe it closed. Giving our bags to manned luggage holding stations feels a little better when we know the contents can’t be rifled through.
Braided Rubber Clothing Line WIN
With hand washing comes the problems of where to hang things to dry. We’d strung this line on balconies, over hostel beds and in backyards. The rubber cleans off easily, and the braided design means that clothing clips aren’t necessary. Find the kind with loops at the ends instead of suction cups which can’t be used most places and won’t sustain the pressure necessary to hold up a few soaking shirts.
DEET is lethal. It harms the environment, and can melt your clothes or most other synthetic materials. It’s even been linked to Gulf War Syndrome. We left home with REI’s Jungle Juice (over 90% DEET!) and a less extreme Ultrathon 34% DEET lotion. The stronger liquid made Jeremy’s tattoo break out in a rash, and melted Eva’s pants and a corner of our packing cube. We relied on it a lot in the jungle in Mexico, but it was a constant liability — spilling out and causing more damage (the cap on the damn bottle finally melted partially too, and then the bottle had to be upright to not spill – absurd!). We ditched it before we even made it to the Amazon. Ultrathon is more skin friendly, but we still use it sparingly. Most mosquito-ridden regions have their own unique repallant on sale in the market. These are usually naturally derived, and work particularly well on the area’s bugs.
Our library FAIL
4 fiction books and 2 guidebooks have multiplied into 9 and 4. Book exchanges were common throughout South America trading whatever we had read 1:1 or sometimes 2:1. Europe doesn’t have it as good… we rarely find good book exchanges and have had to buy used books more than once. We’ve been hoarding these finished books, too sad to throw them out. Perhaps they’ll be a book exchange at the next hostel? Bad idea! We’re now shlepping a whole bookshelf on our backs.
Moo Business Cards WIN
100 unique cards for $20 was cheap, and now we’re able to give our blog address to new friends easily. They’re memorable, fun, and really convenient. Even if we were just sharing our email address, these are much better than handwriting on scraps of paper.
Apple iPod Touch WIN/FAIL
We love showing off photos to friends and family on the big touchscreen, and it’s alarm wakes us up most mornings. Many web apps like Currency and Metro work offline, and provide quick solutions to puzzling problems. Our Stanza App has over 30 books downloaded (as if we weren’t carrying enough already!) It’s only flaw unfortunately lies in the very reason most long-term travelers have one: wifi access. The antenna simply isn’t very powerful, and it often fails keeping a connection where our laptop can. We wouldn’t rely on it as our only source of internet access.
First Aid and Medicine FAIL
It’s always better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it, but when fitting your life in a 40L backpack, a overzealous med kit probably isn’t a good idea. We’ve used the neosporin and antihistamine cream, but not much else. Basic medications like aspirin and immodium are available everywhere (often for much less than at home) and we could easily slim our gear down in this department. The one thing that can’t be bought abroad (or at least not easily) is dayquil and non-drowsy allergy relief. Bring these from home, but leave the gauze and motion sickness pills.
Hostel International discount cards
Most of the First Aid and Med Kits
Drain Stopper (hostel sinks are too small anyway)
Restocking on the road has been easy and cheap, usually we only need basics like toothpaste and shampoo. In Mexico, we loved Chedraui for one stop food and gear shopping. Throughout Europe, the Carrefour chain takes the place of our American Target store.
They sell everything from groceries to televisions. Store brand versions of most goods make our budget go farther than elsewhere, and stores are easy to find. Pint-size Carrefour Express stores appear centrally in town, and complete Carrefours are in shopping centers along major transportation lines.
Travel gear is expensive at home and even more so abroad. The single exception seems to be the Quechua brand, found so far in both South America and Europe. Quechua makes everything: sleep sacks, shoes, tents, bikes, backpacks. Their prices are much lower than our North Face or even REI brand goods, but the quality isn’t as high. For cheap replacements it’s more than enough, however, and the best place to buy Quechua gear that we’ve found is Decathlon, all over Europe.
These stores are typically in big shopping plazas on the outskirts of town, reachable by bus or metro. A quick internet search usually yields one or two in large cities. Decathlon sells Quechua brand goods, as well as cheap knits brand Domyos, and some North Face and Columbia items. Prices in Spain were excellent (T shirts for 2 Euro!), but high in Poland — your experience may vary based on country.
Here’s what it all looked like before we left. Want to see our original packing list?
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