Simple Travel – Gear Tips

I have no idea who this is, but he looks happy

I’ve traveled a huge amount over the years. My Dad is in the travel business and it forms one of his principle passions. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved new places, as much for the perspective and variety.

Only recently do I feel I’ve started to travel effortlessly. Although I’m loathe to admit that ‘stuff’ can make a difference, I do attempt to travel simply, lightly and responsibly and limited to the bare (bear) essentials (necessities).

Here are my top gear tips that helped in making my trips more comfortable and (almost) stress-free:

1. Bag:

Having a good bag can make a big difference. Yup, simple folks, stuff can make you happy.

I own a Victorinox E-Motion (this link is for a second-hand model). I don’t think they make them any more, which is a great shame – it’s perfect. Here is the same brand’s Latest model.  It has wheels and a rucksack, which is fantastic. It also has a detachable day-bag that I use at home as a briefcase. They may be expensive, but it’s one of the best investments I’ve ever made – I’ve used it everyday for the last 3 years. Other recommendations include the Eagle Creek Travel Gear Thrive 65L Bag.

I regularly go on 1 month trips with it as hand-luggage and nothing else. Being able to carry everything you need with you, easily Don’t ever travel with more than hand luggage unless you HAVE to carry a guitar, kite-board or bike etc. You know the score.

2. Shoes:

I’ll always try to go barefoot if I can, wherever I am in the world. However, as I write this, I have 3 stitches in one foot, imposed by some oysters clearly imparting revenge for previous eating of their mates. The other foot has about 10 sea urchin spines and a few coral cuts, as a result of a separate incident – an aborted kitesurfing session, which led me into trouble in the shallows. I’d like to apologise to all corals and urchins disrupted. I’m hopping (ehem) you get better soon.

Sometimes, it seems, it’s worth wearing footwear. There’s only one shoe I wear, ever, except when I have to wear a suit (rarely) or play sport. It’s the most comfortable, versatile shoe I’ve ever had and I have about 8 boxes of them lined up in my cupboard for when the current ones wear out. Sad, I know, but if you find something you like…

They’re the Terra Plana Vivo Barefoot Oak. Most of mine are in black as they are the most versatile no matter what else you’re wearing. They also fold neatly into your luggage, if need be. These shoes are the closest things to being barefoot without the risk of getting cuts and stitches.

For hiking or sport in hot weather, I take a pair of sports sandals also from Terra Plana. I’ve managed to happily play tennis, hockey and run in them.

I used to carry a pair of Crocs, and occasionally a pair of Vibram Fivefingers which are great for walking in rock pools, rivers etc. although I find them a little hot and after they’ve got wet, you have wet feet for the remainder of the day which also makes them stink. However, some people swear by them. Other people recommend the Newport Bison Sandal. Here’s some more info from my great friend Tara at Wildfitness about which barefoot shoes to buy, and why!

3. Money

Banks and credit card companies, like mobile phone operators, seem to believe that it is reasonable to make a fortune out of you as you travel, merely because you haven’t ‘opted’ for a travel account, or ticked a box. Paying 7% fees for some electronic system to automate a payment for you is scandalous. I’d love to hear recommendations about best methods if you have any.

I’ve gone for a credit card offered by the Post Office, which offers very low travel fees. I have a direct debit set up from my current account so I never have to worry about paying. I collect points with my business card and personal card when at home for flights. I also have a spare VISA card, as the Post Office is a Mastercard. It goes against my principles to have too many cards, but the advantages do outweigh the hassle of setting up an account once and then sorting your direct debits. Here are some more travel credit cards in the UK.

I never carry around large amounts of cash, aside from a few dollars in case of trouble. Even Madagascar has an ATM, so don’t bother making expensive trips to the airport exchanges.

4. Phone

I used to have an iphone in both the US and the UK. I got so bored with the monthly bills that I’ve canceled both, but still use the phones with a minimum monthly charge and no data roaming. I can’t use apps, but if there’s wireless I can still use the internet and it has my music and address book. It’s a great way of cutting the monthly cost whilst still having 80% of the benefits.

When abroad, I leave a message on my phone saying please email me, I’m not checking messages. I also buy a local SIM if I’m going to be anywhere for a while. I use Skype for business and personal calls and have a London and San Francisco number which come through to me wherever I am and costs me nothing for people to ring me. It means I can stay in contact wherever I am and I’ve done all sorts of business over Skype from far-flung places without people knowing I’m not round the corner (save for the waves in the background, or singing crickets!).

5. Books

I can’t be bothered with digital readers. Although light, and perhaps simple, I don’t want to spend £10/$15 on each title only to drop the device in the sea or get sand in it. However, I’m guilty of always packing more books than I need. Nowadays I buy all books second-hand, to save resources and take 2/3 books which I swap or buy more as I go. After all, other people’s books are always more interesting than your own. 

6. Computer

I take my 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro everywhere and it’s lasted 4 years. I’ve not bothered to buy and ipad or a travel computer. It does me fine, and it’s tough. I travel with music and a bunch of films for nights in transit.

Here’s a tip for you that Apple might not like me for (but they’re doing OK, eh?). Just before your warranty, take in your Apple to the store and ask for a complete once-over. I did this recently about 2 months inside my 3 year warranty. They replaced half of the computer – hard drive, DVD etc. free of charge. Now I reckon I’ve got another 3 years usage out of this beast.

7. Clothes

Unless you need a uniform, take the simplest of clothes. I’m not one for hand-washing everything in the sink of the places you stay, but limit your load. I brought one shirt, one pair of shorts and one pair of trousers with me on this 6-month stay in Kenya. Within a week I had enough of a wardrobe (both vaguely smart and casual) to last me the remainder of the stay that cost a total of £20($30) for about 15 items. I bought them in street markets and second-hand shops. It was huge fun messing around and interacting with people. Some of the stuff is really good quality and even contains a brand name or two, god forbid.

8. Lotions and Potions

People have this idea that when they’re in a foreign place, they will be attacked by bugs, people, the sun, animals and therefore need a small pharmacy with them in order to deal with the onslaught that their destination will provide. I’ve had 3 tropical diseases and as well as the stitches in my foot currently, I also have a few tell-tale scars from previous mishaps. I try not to travel in continual fear that something is about to get me, and I’ve seen a few tropical clinics.

However, my first aid kit has never saved me, other than from hangovers or a spot of the runs. My tip is to try to get everything into something the size of a wallet. Sure, if you’re trekking miles from anywhere (I once did a trip on a canoe in the middle of Madagascar, 5 days from the nearest pharmacy/hospital) then take enough stuff to keep you healthy should the worst happen. But for the rest of us, if you’ve got a phone on you and a pharmacy nearby, don’t bother packing the whole of Boots/Walgreens with you, you’ll only waste money. If Marco Polo, Darwin and Columbus managed with their limited gear, I’m sure you’ll be just fine.

Oh, and get your recommended injections before leaving. Tropical diseases aren’t fun.

Suncream – This is the best suncream for any water sport – Island Tribe. Surfers swear by it. Otherwise buy a small amount of your normal stuff and you’ll find the rest cheaper on arrival.

Drugs – I’d recommend taking a couple of paracetamol, aspirin, Imodium, some antiseptic and a few plasters. Clothes act as good bandages on your way to the local clinic! The rest I’d leave behind.

Repellant – Mosquitos are a pain in the neck, arms, ankles, wrists. However, most repellants contain large amounts of DEET, often as much as 50%. Have a look at wikipedia’s article on DEET. Canada has banned lotions with more than 30% DEET and there’s a whole list of nasty things it contains and can do to you (see effects on health). Either go with a natural repellant, or just wear long clothes and ignore the bites. I get bitten about 5 times per day at the moment, but it doesn’t bother me at all any more. Better than smearing yourself in harmful chemicals that cost a load.

I’m also going to risk people as well as mosquitos attacking me for the following comment; unless you’re in an extremely high-risk area without treatment facilities, I wouldn’t take malaria pills. If you’re worried, take a malaria self-test kit and if you get flu-like symptoms, give yourself a test (I’ve done two since I’ve been in Kenya, both negative). The pills, Larium and Doxycycline particularly can be bad for your mental and physical health – often much worse than getting malaria. The cure, in this case, seems better than the prevention.

9. Other Pieces

Earplugs – I never travel without a good pair, or two.

Sunglasses – Often you can’t get good quality glasses with proper UV protection when away – I always take a couple of pairs of cheap but well-protected sunglasses with me. If you wear sunglasses without proper UV, they can quickly and permanently damage your eyes even  because your pupils dilate when wearing sunglasses. Don’t buy sunglasses from street stalls or vendors, no matter how well they go with your getup.

Insurance – Get good travel insurance. Make sure it covers your stay and the activities and countries you intend to pursue/visit. If you get sick, call them. They will normally help you out, often paying to get you somewhere better and dealing with doctors, hotel bills and giving advice. After all, if you die on them, they’ve got to shell out way more so they’ll often spend time and money trying to get you better fast. In my time I’ve evacuated two people, organized two air-sea rescues and looked after a friend who’d broken his back. The evacuations and air-sea rescues were aided by insurance, the back had to be done ourselves and cost my friend a fortune, as he didn’t have insurance. He’s fine now for most activities, but it seems to play up when doing the washing up!

10. Go light

Finally,  the key to travel is to enjoy the unpredictability. Having the ‘right’ gear is a personal thing that is different for each of us. People seem to obsess about finding the right things, so much so, that travel is more about being suitably kitted up than spontaneous, fun and free. In my view, the further you can simplify, the freer you’ll be. Try taking almost nothing, it’ll result in richer travel and more interactions. People who worry too much about the ins and outs whilst their out and about are a bore.

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