At last! I’m going to start this gear post with a promise, since everyone’s been so patient: the 2016 Gear Post will be out on or before the Monday following Thanksgiving of 2015.
The bad news is that I fear my gear posts are going to slowly become more boring over time. While my main goal is to have the very best gear to travel with, my secondary goal is to have as little of it as possible. At this point my backpack is half empty, and a handful of items are being eyed for removal for next year.
But that’s the great thing about great gear. It fulfills a need so wholly that nothing else is needed to share the burden. And, in some cases, like clothing, the gear is of such quality that spares aren’t necessary.
So, without further ado, the 2015 Gear Post. As usual, many of these links are affiliate links, as this is one of very few posts that I make money on. Some products are given to me for free. While I do try more gear because of this, I never list anything that I don’t think is necessary and the best in its category.
This shirt is amazing. I have literally worn it every single day for the past year and I can’t find a hint of wear on it. I did lose a button once, but I was trying a very advanced hammock maneuver and the button got snagged. Can’t blame them for that one.
The shirt looks great, feels great, and stays clean as you’d expect 100% wool to do. I wash the thing just once every couple weeks, unless I’m somewhere hot where I’m sweating. Even in those places, I can wash it every night if I want to, because it dries so fast.
I’ve been wanting to get a new one because they have even cooler patterns this year, and have altered the cut a little bit, but mine has held up so well that I can’t justify it, even for the gear post.
My one small complaint is that these don’t machine wash very well. They tell you to dry-clean, but everyone machine washes and usually it’s fine. This shirt gets small weird wrinkles that eventually go away. Dry cleaning is the best, but hand washing is also okay. I still machine wash, too, but I wish the little wrinkles wouldn’t appear.
The cut of these shorts is fantastic, but the material isn’t. The felt-like material has proven to not be very durable, and at this point sitting cross-legged would give people a clear view of my wool underwear.
The reason I still have them is because they look good enough to wear around, but can also be used as gym shorts. My old Icebreaker shorts were great for the gym, but not practical to wear elsewhere.
I’m really hoping that Wool and Prince will improve the fabric.
3. Versace Wool Jeans
I know, still the same crazy jeans that no one else can buy. This year I was at an office-warming party when I got a cryptic tweet from a reader saying that I needed to check ebay. I left the party early to bid on the last pair of Versace Wool Jeans.
The cut is good, the pocket layout is decent, but the fabric is incredible. I cut up an old pair and sent a swatch to Wool and Prince, hoping they can find the fabric.
Given that both of my previous pairs of these have torn after one year in the exact same place, I know that I only have six months left on these. I’ve gone through my stock of backups, so I’ll find new pants next year. I have a few candidates already.
I loved my old Earth Runners so much that I wore them until they had two-inch diameter holes in the soles, which took two years. Michael from Earth Runners kept emailing me to offer me new shoes, probably embarrassed that I’m walking around with huge holes in mine, but I loved those sandals, holes and all.
Finally I took him up on his offer, sure I wouldn’t like them as much, but they were every bit as good as he promised. The new material is great, but the real kicker is the leather laces. They are much more comfortable than the nylon ones, and they look way better, too.
The way Earth Runners are laced is much cooler than all other sandals like them. With long pants, you can only see the one strap going from between the toes to under the pant leg. It doesn’t look like enough to hold the shoe on. Believe it or not, this is the one item of clothing I wear that consistently causes people to stop me and ask about them.
5. Smartwool Women’s Hide and Seek Socks (Two Pairs)
Considering my proclivity to wear sandals with holes in them during the winter, you can probably guess that I hate socks. This is embarrassing, but the necessity of wearing normal socks to any event probably reduces my chances of going by about 5%.
Unfortunately, Earth Runners are terrible shoes for motorcycle riding. I did it once in the Azores, and it was only bearable after wrapping my foot with medical tape where it hit the shifter. So I sometimes have to wear shoes instead, and thus socks.
I have no real idea what sorts of shoes these socks are made for, but it’s certainly not normal shoes, and nothing for men. But I ordered some on a lark and I love them. They fall below the ankle and don’t even cover a good portion of the top of the foot. They’re not low-rise, they’re no-rise.
That makes them much easier and less annoying to put on, and it also makes them much easier to air out, wash, and dry. Just about all of the surface can be exposed to air on both sides, so they take far longer to smell bad than any other socks I’ve had.
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Okay, everyone who told me that my fivefingers were ugly has officially won. The model I liked was discontinued, mine were run ragged by trips to the island, and a suitable alternative finally arrived.
I could give you the marketing spiel about handcut portuguese leather and all that, but the bottom line is that these shoes are very well made, use excellent materials, look good, and are very functional. Besides the fact that they’re more annoying to slip on than sandals, they’re perfect.
VivoBarefoot makes a few models of this quality. I think the bannister ones are the coolest looking, but I got the Portos because they have a higher ankle that might do me some good in a motorcycle wreck. (I know they’re nowhere near as good as motorcycle boots, but I also know I’m not going to wear those)
If I anticipate deep snow or motorcycle riding, I bring these. Otherwise I bring the sandals.
7. Icebreaker Anatomica Underwear (Two Pairs)
I tried a bunch of new underwear this year, including the pocket ones, and the Wool and Prince boxer briefs. If you like longer-legged underwear, you’d love either of those. I want my underwear to pack as small as possible, and I don’t really see the point in having an extra layer over my upper thigh, so the Icebreakers win again.
Although I’ve worked out in the Wool and Prince button down a couple times, a t-shirt is much better suited for it. Sometimes I’ll be somewhere like Brazil, though, where it’s over 100 degrees, and I switch down to the t-shirt. Or maybe it’s laundry day and I’ve got to go out in public.
Anyway, there’s not much to say about this shirt that I haven’t said before. It looks good, fits well, and the fabric is great. Mine started to develop holes after a couple years of using it frequently for working out. I also tend to wear it the island, so bushwhacking may have contributed to its undoing.
I made the mistake of hanging my Ex-Light up near a campfire, and it ended up being hit by sparks. Each one made a tiny hole, big enough for down to come out. So now when I move around a lot, you can see little tiny feathers shooting out of my jacket.
I’ve had this jacket now for at least six years, so I don’t mind shelling out for a replacement. After this cold season I’ll probably buy the plasma, only because I’m obsessed with having my bag as light as possible. In practice, I think that either the ex-light or plasma is equally good.
10. Marmot Mica
I still love this jacket as much as I did the day I bought it. It packs down to nothing, looks good enough, and has always kept my dry. More important, it blocks wind very well. The Montbell jacket is very good at retaining warmth in a tiny package, but it doesn’t do much for blocking the wind. Combined, these two jackets can really keep you remarkably warm and take up very little space.
11. Wool Buff
I actually lost my first buff a while ago, and sort of forgot about it. Then Todd and I were traveling through Prague, which was absolutely freezing, and he had his buff. I was jealous the whole time, so I ordered one as well.
The buff is very easy to use as a hat, which is how I use it most. But it has three other uses that I’ve found to be particularly handy. One is to fold it up like a ninja mask for skiing. You can completely cover your face with it and a ski mask. Another is to use it as a sleep mask, especially when it’s cold (which it seems to be in every South American sleeper bus). And last, you can use it as a scarf around your neck when you don’t want a hat to mess up your hair. This may even look good, but who am I to say?
12. Sony RX-100 M3
Wow. I’m putting the camera first because it’s the biggest improvement over last year.
As you know if you’re a photography enthusiast to any degree, Sony’s compact cameras are in a league of their own. The RX-100, which came out in 2012, is still better than any other camera in its class. In two years, no other camera company has been able to match Sony’s initial offering.
Meanwhile, Sony has improved the camera twice, making the M2 and the M3. The M2 was a modest improvement from the first version, but the M3 is in a whole new league. I skipped the M2 upgrade (though I’ve used other peoples’), and waited for the M3.
The first amazing thing about the M3 is its optics. It has the same improved sensor of the M2, but has a much faster lens. The lens is f/1.8 at the wide end, just as before, but remains at f/2.8 fully zoomed, compared to f/4.9 for the older versions. It also has a built in ND filter.
These factors combine to create incredible photo quality, particularly in low light where other cameras fail. It’s very easy to take photos that most people would assume come from a high end DSLR.
The other big improvement is the pop-up optical viewfinder. This is a world first, and it really makes shooting with the camera a pleasure, especially in bright light. Holding a camera up to your face also makes it more stable than shooting at arms-length.
Another feature I love, which has been present since the M2, is the NFC/Wifi connectivity. I wasn’t sure if this would be a gimmick or not, but I use it all the time. After you take a picture, you just tap your phone on the camera and it instantly transfers the photo over. So when you’re traveling and want to post a photo to twitter or facebook, you don’t have to rely on your phone’s mediocre camera.
You can also use the wifi connectivity to use your phone as the screen of the camera. So you prop up the camera, aim it at yourself, and then use your phone to frame the shot and even adjust camera settings. One tap and the photo is taken and copied to your phone.
There are about a billion other awesome things about this camera, but just trust me on this– if you’re going to carry a camera and are not a professional photographer, this is your camera. And even if you are a pro, you can probably get away with using it.
Android phones have gotten so good that even as someone who works exclusively on his computer, I’m thinking about trying to survive with just my phone. It can do that much.
Despite wanting everything to be as compact as possible, I love large-screened phones. It takes a while to adjust, but I’ve noticed that the larger a phone I get, the more I use it instead of my laptop.
I personally use a Sony Xperia Z Ultra, which has a mammoth 6.14″ screen. This is large enough that children come up to me and make fun of me when they see me use it. People gasp in horror routinely at the monstrosity of it. And, inexplicably, people in China love it and call it beautiful.
The main reason I love having such a huge phone is for Kindle. The screen is so good and so large that I no longer travel with my Kindle. It’s also great for web browsing and for watching video. I have a hunch that, paired with a bluetooth keyboard, it will be a pretty pleasant work environment. After all, I wrote my first book on a computer with a screen of the same size (Libretto 1050), and a much lower resolution.
If, like most reasonable people, you’re not willing to have a monster phone, get the Note 4. It’s big, but small enough that children won’t recoil and you’ll get used to it. If you really want a smaller phone, get the Z3. The Z3 and Z Ultra are fully waterproof (you can take underwater photos), and the Z3 has the best camera of any phone.
If you’re an Apple fan who’s unwilling to try Android, I’d go with the new large iPhone. I think you’ll get used to the size and really enjoy the larger screen.
Switching to T-Mobile has literally changed my life. I am absolutely in love with them.
Their plans are the most international friendly by an enormous margin, mainly because you get free international data everywhere you go. It’s very slow, but eminently usable for email, facebook, posting photos, maps, and anything else you do while traveling. In the past 20 days I’ve been to nine different countries, and have never had to buy a SIM card. That’s a complete game changer for me.
On top of that, texts to any country are always free. So I just keep texting friends back home or local friends without even thinking about it. Phone calls to the US or to the country you’re in are twenty cents per minute. That’s a little pricey, but cheap enough that you can do it when needed.
With some phones you can also do wifi calling and texting, and T-Mobile announced a partnership with GoGo allowing for free in-flight texting.
I’m so addicted to this amazing plan that I’m scared I’ll lose it some day because they get acquired or come to their senses or something. I’d hate to go back to the old way.
As I write this, T-Mobile just happens to have an incredible family plan for a limited time. You can get two lines for $100 a month with all of those features, plus unlimited LTE in the US. And the LTE is really unlimited. I get 40Mbps (some areas are now 100Mbps) and have frequently used 20Gb+ per month. This is a ridiculous value.
Here’s an addition that’s totally new for this year. For a while I was carrying around an Anker 5600mAh battery pack, which was extremely useful when on the island or long train/bus rides. It was starting to feel a bit out of date, so I started browsing around to find a replacement.
The HooToo is bigger and has less battery, but it makes up for it by being a full router. You can use it to share hotel internet, rebroadcast internet in that hotel where you only get signal by the door, and even use it to store files by inserting an SD card.
But what makes it really cool is that you can install OpenWRT (works even though it’s a different model), a fully functional router operating system. There’s just about no limit to what you can do with this, including running a bittorrent or FTP server on the device, and any sort of routing configuration you can concoct.
It also serves as a mini SD reader if plugged directly into the computer, which I’ve had occasion to use a couple times in the past.
15. Lavie Z 750
I’ve already written about this last year, and I love it every bit as much now. It’s taken a couple small dents on the bottom from being manhandled, but is otherwise still an ideal laptop. It amazes me that, like the Sony camera, no one has caught up even though it’s been out for 18 months.
I’ve written about it before, but the important specs are the 13.3″ 2560×1440 screen, and the crazy 1.75lb weight. That’s almost half the weight of the competing Macbook, which is worse in every other spec except for battery life.
Having such a light laptop makes carrying it around everywhere a no brainer. It’s so light that sometimes I panic, thinking my backpack is so light that I must have left the laptop somewhere.
It’s also the Japanese model, which has extra keys compared to its American counterpart. So, unlike most US laptops of this size, I have home, end, pageup, pagedown, all of which I use regularly.
You can order this laptop through White Rabbit. It’s not available anywhere in the US, and ordering it yourself there will be difficult. If you’re in the market for a new laptop, this is definitely the one to go with.
Last year these were called Quad Customs, but now they have a new name. They’re the same headphones I wrote about last year, though.
They’re custom molded to my ears and have four drivers in each ear. What makes these earphones incredible is the bass. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard in headphones and somehow recalls the feeling of listening to speakers with a subwoofer.
Last year I wasn’t crazy about the soundstage of these earphones, but now I have no complaints. I think that they’re just different than what I was used to, and now I’ve adjusted.
And, just as last year, these are incredibly comfortable for extended wear and have spectacular sound quality.
17 and 18. USB Cables from Japan
I went through a ton of USB cables this year. I no longer need the dual connector on the one for last year, so I tried to find the perfect microUSB charger. Through this process I was twice left with a broken USB cable, which crippled my ability to use my gear. So now I carry two.
The first is around 6″ long and has as switch to disconnect the data pins. This allows you to charge from a device you don’t trust (since it can no longer read your phone’s data), and also allows some computers to charge twice as fast.
The second is a dual charger, about 8″ long. This allows you to charge two devices at once, albeit with half of the power to each. I mainly use this to charge two things overnight, where speed isn’t very important.
I bought both of these at LABI in Japan (found in most big cities), but then lost one of the split ones and tracked something similar down in Hong Kong. I haven’t found the exact same things on Amazon, but these are close:
As written about last year, this is a full-size 3′ HDMI cable with an extremely thin cable. While older TVs didn’t have HDMI jacks, it seems that most in hotels these days do have HDMI. I’ve tried to use them as second monitors, too, but usually they aren’t high enough quality.
This might be the only item that’s been on the list since the very beginning. I still see tons of travelers carrying around those giant heavy adapters that also convert voltage, but this is entirely pointless these days. Check for yourself, but anything you travel with should be able to handle 110 or 240.
When I was in LABI, I saw some special versions of these, including one that lit up when it was plugged in, so that you can check that the plug is working properly.
This is the smallest car USB adapter that you can get. It’s great to tuck away in a corner of your bag, and then whip out when you’re on a road trip.
I’ve been traveling with a lot of friends this year, and it’s really annoying when you’re sitting three-deep on an airplane and only two people can watch a movie because headphone splitters only split two ways.
This splitter can split up to six ways, or it can combine more than one source and split those out. I haven’t used that feature yet, but I’ve split things three ways plenty of times. My only complaint is that this thing is heavier than it seems it should be.
This cable serves double duty, both to plug in to car auxiliary ports and to be used with the six way headphone adapter above. There’s nothing particularly special about this one, but it’s good quality and hasn’t broken on me.
24. Very Small Power Splitter
It seems like hotel rooms and airports never have enough power plugs. This adapter turns one socket into three and is the smallest one I’ve ever seen. Todd bought it in Japan, but I haven’t been able to find it anywhere else. It even has as swivel, making it useful in almost every situation.
Even if you can’t find this one in Japan, I’ve seen others that are almost as good. If you can find something similar online, please leave it in a comment and I’ll post it here.
Once in a while I forget to bring some of these on a trip, and I inevitably regret it. These plugs are the secret to sleeping in loud hostels, airports, and airplanes. They’re also the most comfortable ear plugs I’ve used.
26. Sleep Mask
For a long time I used the Bucky’s 40 Blinks sleep mask and loved it. But I wore my first one out, and didn’t find the second to be as comfortable as the first. A couple flights ago the airline gave me one of those very cheap thin sleep masks, and I’ve been using it ever since. It’s not as good, but it’s good enough and takes up less space.
27. Vintage Miniature KEM Cards
I don’t play cards as much as I used to, but I love these little cards so much that I continue to carry them around. Unfortunately they’re near impossible to get now, as people (presumably readers of this blog) consistently bid them up to $200 on eBay.
In case you haven’t read about them the past several years I’ve recommended them, these glasses are just like the regular sized Rayban Wayfarers except that they fold up to be small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. I usually fold mine up completely and then hang them over the edge of my pocket. I’ve been through some surprisingly jiggly situations without them falling off.
I do drop them sometimes, though, and they’ve accumulated a few scratches. I haven’t tried them yet, but I did find these really cool replacement lenses that seem to be very high quality, are polarized, and come in a bunch of really cool colors.
29. Tom Bihn Synapse Backpack (19L)
I left this for last because it’s become such a part of my life that it just blends in for the most part. It’s not perfect (I hate the laptop compartment), but it’s the best thing available now and works very well. In particular I love the organization, the size, and the design. It’s fully functional and is inconspicuous enough that I’m constantly asked where my luggage is. I’ve had this one for years now and other than a little wear on the waterproof zippers, it looks brand new.
I was in the process of custom designing my own pack, but it was taking too long between iterations, so it’s currently sitting in my closet unfinished. Maybe someday I’ll do what it takes to get it into production, but it’s looking unlikely.
This pack may not be on the list next year, only because it’s half empty with all of my gear loaded into it. Maybe I can talk them into making a 15 liter version?
I have a few more pieces of gear that I either don’t always bring, or I’m just beginning to test for possible inclusion for next year’s list. Just for fun, I’ll mention a couple of them.
Earlier in the year, Jabra emailed me and offered to send me all of their products. The big Jambox was cool, but I didn’t have a real use for it, and the Jawbone UP seemed pointless, but I really love the Mini Jambox. It’s small and light enough to put in the backpack, and is my favorite way to do language tapes. The sound is perfectly clear, and it has enough bass to be fun to listen to music on. It’s also amazing for the audio to accompany videos being played on a computer. On longer trips, like the 9 week one I’m in the middle of, I don’t bring it, but otherwise I usually do.
On this year’s spring cruise I brought a huge assortment of teaware so that I could make tea for everyone. Just a few days ago, in Shanghai, I popped into a tea store and found a really neat 6-person portable tea set. It’s probably too big for me to carry always, but I have it in my bag now and have enjoyed using it. I found something similar on eBay here.
FinSix Dart power adapter. I don’t have this yet, but it’s the upcoming piece of gear that I’m most excited about. It’s a laptop AC adapter that weighs next to nothing, is tiny, and has a full-power USB port built in. Everything I’ve ever dreamed about for an AC adapter, and, yes, I do dream about AC adapters. Maybe it will be a dud, but I’m very excited about it. I was an early backer on Kickstarter, so hopefully I’ll get it sometime soon.
That’s it for this year. If you go back through previous years, you’ll notice that I have less stuff every time. My goal with excellent gear is to have as little as possible, in quantity, weight, and volume, and still be able to function fully. At this point my gear could stop shrinking and I’d be happy forever, but I am a little bit delighted with my backpack getting emptier and lighter every year.
Photo is almost all of my stuff. I’ve lost a surprising amount in the past couple trip segments, and shipped replacements to the wrong address.