FOREWORD: This is the more practical continuation of my earlier post, “A Manifesto, Why Not?” Write anytime for more information about the below gear or reasoning behind my purchases.
TRAVELERS ARE FORCED TO RECONSIDER WHAT IS TRULY ESSENTIAL. The space limitations of even biggest backpack make obvious how most material things in our modern life add little quality to existence. For example, I could live without television, but use my laptop daily to organize thoughts. HBO may add flavor to your everyday, whereas Microsoft Word is just a soul-sucking white screen. Tastes vary.
With experience, travelers learn to apply the Cost-Benefit Analysis to each item in their backpack, sometimes obsessively so by removing tags and halving toothbrushes. This weight-shaving mania may seem overkill (my toothbrush is whole), but I understand—an ounce can seem a pound in the Andes mountains.
Below I’ve listed ten items that are not survival-related (as opposed to my water purifier, camp stove, and even cycle computer that calculates distances between water and food sources), but add joy to the journey, making anywhere feel like home. These inventions are worth their weight many times over.
LAPTOP WITH PORTABLE HARDDRIVE: My ASUS Eee PC 1000HE (9.5 hour battery life!) notebook makes internet and entertainment infinitely easier than relying on cyber cafes. Compact, bomb-proof, with a built-in camera and keyboard 95% the size of a regular computer, it’s my international telephone, stereo, theater, and typewriter all in one. iTunes downloads Podcasts and radio programs. Valiantly surviving chest-level falls, bumpy roads, and jungle humidity, I can’t recommend this little guy enough.
Files, photos, music, and movies are backed-up on my Western Digital Elements SE 1 TB USB 2.0 Portable External Hard Drive. Over 5,000 songs, 50 full-length movies, and thousands of high quality photos are stored. Note: the B.O.B. bag design doesn’t allow the computer and hard drive to be stored in separate locations, which means theft of the main bag would mean a complete loss data.
IPOD WITH V-MODA VIBE EARBUDS: A regular-sized iPod is unnecessary weight, unless you enjoy watching movies on a Lilliputian screen. I travel with the smaller iPod nano 8 GB (4th Generation) (capacity 2,000 songs plus video) and use the laptop to switch out music. Many MP3 players do the trick, but Apple’s reliability and quality is undeniable. Better yet: Apple iPod nano 8 GB (5th Generation)—it’s radio can be used to listen to local broadcasts. Buying refurbished is cheaper.
Apple headphones don’t stay in my ears. Wind on a steep downhill overpowers the audio—which is especially annoying during Podcasts. Instead, I recommend V-MODA Vibe II earbuds (with microphone): discrete (unlike the white Apple cables that scream iPod in my pocket), highly-packable, affordable, with a heavy bass comparable to bulkier Bose DJ headphones. Most importantly, the V-Modas stay in my ears. If my first pair hadn’t been stolen in Ecuador and my second left in a Peruvian trucker driver’s cab, I’d be enjoying their quality sound right now.
PORTABLE SPEAKER: The iTour-70 portable speaker was an impulse buy in a pirated electronics market. The light-weight, steel-encased box is loud enough for a house party (well, a dinner party). It’s perfect for entertaining guests around the camp stove or watching movies in my tent. The best part: it’s USB-rechargeable. A short jolt from the laptop keeps it singing for hours.
CELLPHONE: The glories of my Nokia cellphone were listed here. It has been used in every South American country without problems. With a change of the chip I can make phone calls anywhere I can make friends. Oh, it’s my alarm clock too.
SOLAR POWERED FLASHLIGHT: The Sol Light flashlight was a Christmas gift from my brother, one of the best I’ve ever received. (Though I also travel with the highly recommended Princeton Tec Quad Headlamp (2009 Model), I barely use it and haven’t bought batteries in eight months!). A non-cloudy day in the sun provides a night’s worth of illumination. Pointing upward on my chest, the Sol Light makes bedtime reading a pleasure. It’s not just a solar-paneled flashlight either: it’s a Nalgene lid too. Why? Because it turns the bottle into a lantern strong enough for moonless hikes or midnight meals around the camp stove. Note: the old white, BPA-tasting Nalgene bottles illuminate better than the chemical-free, new ones.
THERMOS WITH EXTRA LARGE BOTTLE CAGE: My Thermos kept tea steaming in the cold climates of Peru and Bolivia. In tropical Brazil it keeps water ice-cold. Hot and cold may seem insignificant compared to the hardships of bike travel, but make all the difference when snow spits or climbing a mountain at noon. I keep the Thermos easily accessible in my bike’s bottle cage—money can be hid in the lid.
YOGA MAT: Living out of tent you don’t have a floor. Things left on the ground get dirt-covered and muddy. My yoga mat is used to keep gear clean when packing and cooking. It’s my porch where I leave shoes when entering and exiting my tent, it’s my seat when the earth is wet, it’s my kitchen on which I lay ingredients, it’s my bed during roadside naps (I keep it strapped atop my B.O.B. bag for easy access). Sometimes I even do yoga. It is not, however, my regular bed—it’s much too thin to insulate against South America’s cold nights, even in tropical Brazil….
SLEEPING PAD: Word of the Day: conduction, the act of transferring heat from a warm object to cooler one, from your body to the earth for example. A pad is insulation against this. The best sleeping bag is useless if placed on the ground. I travel with the inflatable Exped DownMat Sleeping Pad. I list this item as non-essential because it’s a luxury that makes sleeping on rocks seem like a five star suite. Many pads fight conduction, not all are an inflatable Hilton (the hotel, not Paris). It packs small, is relatively light-weight, and has an integrated hand pump so your breath’s condensation doesn’t freeze inside it on Altiplano nights.
A BOOK: In South America specific books are hard to find, expensive. That’s why I’m traveling with four at the moment. You may not feel the extra weight necessary, however. Travel with one book, then buy another when finished. Or: bike from hostel to hostel in tourist areas, not only to check their exchange libraries but to haggle with other travelers who read in your language. I’ve exchanged books with random foreigners in parks and sold hardcovers in internet cafes. If you want good literature you cannot be shy—or you’ll be sifting through German romance novels your entire trip.
DIGITAL CAMERA: I travel with an Olympus Evolt E510 10MP Digital SLR Camera. This 2007 Best Overall SLR is my blessing, my curse. The photos are rich and colorful but it’s much too big and expensive-looking to use in South America’s poorest areas, which for me are the most interesting. It doesn’t fit in my handlebar bag. I still don’t know how to use all its functions. For these reasons and user-retardation, I’m not recommending a brand, make, or model, but instead more general advice: smaller is better. Unless you’re a photographer who will actually use an SLR’s complicated wizardry—or want to become one—, a point-and-click is better for bike touring, if only because you’ll actually use it. It’s lighter, more accessible for spontaneous shots, and has video capability, the function I miss most about my stolen silver Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500S 10.1MP Digital Camera with 5x Wide Angle MEGA Optical Image Stabilized Zoom.
Long name, yes. A very long name….