Gear Post 2012: Zen Edition

Okay, okay, okay… I’ll write the gear post before the year’s over! One of the things that keeps me from writing all year is that it never really feels like the stuff in my pack has changed all that much. I switch one item at a time, never thinking I have much to write about. Then the end of the year comes, the citizenry demands a post, and I’m always surprised to see just how much has changed.

I called last year’s gear post the Style Edition because although it was 100% functional, I also made a few choices to have slightly better looking clothing. That trend has continued a little bit this year, but I’m calling this one the Zen Edition because my already minimal packing list has become even shorter.

When I first started traveling, the minimalism aspect of it was pure coincidence. I had intended on buying a normal backpack, but Todd convinced me to go smaller. Our first 28L Deuter Futura backpacks seemed impossibly small at first, but after a year of learning what is and isn’t necessary, space gradually opened up. My response was to fill it with new gadgets– eventually I had a portable kettlebell, a full cot with silk sheets, and who knows what else.

As the years went on, Todd continued to get smaller backpacks, which influenced me to get smaller backpacks as well. I would always pack them completely full until recently. Last year I had some empty space, and now my pack is less than halfway full. If I could find a well organized and designed 12 liter pack, I would use it.

Part of the reason I have less stuff now is because technology keeps getting better. My laptop is tiny and light. The camera I have now couldn’t exist five years ago when I started all this. Everything charges with the same cable. The other reason I’ve continued to reduce what I travel with, though, is because carry unnecessary items makes your trip worse. They weigh your pack down, clutter it up, and make it take longer to pack and unpack. The less I travel with, the better my experience is. At this point my pack weighs 10.7 pounds, which makes it trivial to carry it all day, even when climbing through the mountains.

Before I get into the guts of my gear, I’ll share with you my newest mini project: Best in the Land. If you love gear, go to BestInTheLand.com and subscribe. Every once in a while I will send you an update with gear I’ve found. An email might be a full review of all digital cameras suited for travel, it might be a great USB cable I’ve found, or it might be some crazy deal on a flight to Japan. You might get an email or two every week, or maybe just one a month. I’m not going to commit to any sort of schedule because the point is to only share stuff that I really love. I don’t find that sort of stuff on a schedule.

The links will sometimes be affiliate links (like many of those below) and I may sometimes review stuff that’s given to me for free. If you don’t trust me to remain unbiased, this list isn’t for you.

Okay, onto the gear. First a forty minute video of me talking about every piece of gear, and then a wall of text.

Backpack: Tom Bihn Synapse

I’m still using my trusty Tom Bihn Synapse in Dyneema. I’ve never before used a backpack that reflects such a highly developed understanding of travel. The compartments are perfectly laid out and sized so that they never encroach on each other, even when stuffed. Everything is easy to access. It’s comfortable, even for multi-day hikes, but doesn’t look like a ridiculous backpacker backpack. The only way I could think to improve this pack would be for it to be more waterproof (it’s already good enough that light rain doesn’t concern me, even when my laptop is inside), and for it to be smaller. I think something in the 12-15L range would be perfect.

Also, I should add that the people at Tom Bihn are great. They’ve tweeted and blogged about me a bunch of times and always offer me new bags for free. If they didn’t make the one I paid for so durable and functional, I could actually take them up on it.

Buy at Tom Bihn.

Laptop: Asus Zenbook Prime 11″

I’ve written all about it here, so I won’t go into it again, but the Asus Zenbook Prime UX21A is the perfect nomad laptop. You can read my whole review of it, but the three major features that make this the ultimate travel laptop are:

1. Size and weight. It’s the size of a MacBook Air and slightly lighter. Two and a half pounds, which is so light that sometimes I panic and think I’ve forgotten my laptop, so I have to unzip and check. It’s so light that I bring it on side-trips just to charge other gadgets.

2. Two amp USB charging, even when it’s off. I’ve had laptops that can charge when off before, but never one that pumps out a full two amps and has a control panel to adjust settings on it. This means that it charges my phone, kindle, camera, etc. as fast as they would be charged from a wall socket. If your laptop doesn’t do this, it will sound like a minor feature, but when you’re traveling it’s really great.

3. Best screen on a laptop. The screen is 1920×1080, which is twice the resolution of the MacBook Air, or almost any other small laptop on the market. Resolution is probably the most important factor to consider in terms of actual productivity.

Combine those factors and you have a great laptop that can do anything, charge your other stuff on the go, and is so small and light you barely notice that it’s there.

Buy on Amazon or get the Japanese version through White Rabbit

Camera: Sony RX100

I’m really excited about the camera recommendation this year because it represents a real technological breakthrough, and allowed me to ditch all of the accessories and clutter associated with my old camera. I’d read about the RX100 and even been shown it by people, but it’s so small that I just assumed it couldn’t be very good. I was wrong.

The RX100 is much smaller than my NEX-5N. It’s small enough to fit in my pocket comfortable, and for me to forget it’s there. That means that photos that wouldn’t have been captured otherwise are now being captured. Fitting in a pocket is the only thing the RX100 has in common with it’s nearest competitor, though. It’s more like a miniature DSLR.

The sensor on the RX100 is a 1″ sensor. One inch sensors are found on small interchangeable lens cameras like the Nikon V1, but never before on a pocket camera. Large sensors are important because besides being the most important factor for image quality, they also dictate how narrow a depth of field (background blurring) you can attain, and how well the camera performs in low light.

Coupled with a reatively large sensor, the RX100 has an f/1.8 Zeiss lens. The stock lens on my NEX-5 was an f/2.8, which means that the RX100 lets in twice is much light. Account for the 4x bigger sensor in the NEX, but add in 2 stops gained from the RX100’s optical image stabilization, and the RX100 actually captures about twice the light of the NEX-5N with the stock lens.

That’s all back of the napkin sort of calculation, and I also used to shoot with a f/1.4 on the NEX, but the point is this– the RX100 can reasonably be compared with much bigger and more “serious looking” cameras.

It also has a zoom lens, which goes from 28mm equivalent to 100mm AND can shoot macro from less than two inches away. Sony/Zeiss really nailed it in making a lens that works extremely well in all critical situations (portraits, landscape, medium light, macro) and decently well in all other situations (distance, extremely low light, shots requiring narrow depth of field).

Everything about the camera is highly customization – much more so than the NEX-5N, meaning that you can bend it to your will and really get 100% out of it. I could really rave on about this thing forever. For the first time ever, we’re talking about a camera that can take “archive quality” shots, and fits in your pocket.

Buy on Amazon

Phone: Samasung Galaxy S3

I have a Samsung Galaxy S3. It’s a great phone for traveling, but isn’t so unique that it’s necessity like some of the other items I’m mentioning. The truth is that any modern Android/iPhone can probably do whatever you need while traveling. Here are a few reasons I prefer Android as a nomad:

– Tight Google Voice integration means that you can text from anywhere

– Google Maps lets you cache maps offline

– Nice big high-res screens for watching movies

– More expandable (Mine has 16gb internal + 64gb sd) for storing a ton of media, backing up photos from computer, etc.

That said, a lot of people travel with iPhones, and they do just fine, too. I don’t have one, but I have the feeling a Galaxy Note II would be a perfect travel phone. It’s still small enough to fit in your pocket, but is big enough to use as a tablet.

One thing you may not be aware of is that you can buy these high end phones and then have them flashed to pay-as-you-go carriers like Boost or Cricket. Besides saving you about 50% on your phone bill, you can just stop your service for a few months while traveling.

Buy on Amazon

Headphones: Shure SE530

My headphone recommendation is still the Shure 530 headphones. I think the real ultimate solution is to get custom molded headphones, but I’ve been unwilling to shell out the $1k+ necessary to get a good pair made.

Buy on Amazon

Speaker: SoundMatters Foxl 2.2

I’ve also started carrying around the Soundmatters Foxl 2.2. If you’ve ever seen the more popular Jawbone JamBox, you’re familiar with it– Jawbone licensed the technology to make a nearly identical but slightly more bulky version. This speaker will redefine what you think is possible in terms of compact audio quality. It has real bass that you can feel, and crisp sound as long as you don’t crank it up too loud. It’s loud enough to fill a hotel room full of good quality sound.

Buy on Amazon

Kindle

I really like what Kindle has done with the newer models (I actually bought a Paperwhite, which I later returned), but no Kindle since the 3G has offered free web browsing over 3G anywhere in the world. This feature has been a huge benefit to me, so I can’t upgrade. That said, the Keyboard 3G paperwhite isn’t much of a compromise. It doesn’t have the cool built-in illumination or the high res screen, but at the same time, it’s still a really great reading experience. I burn through books far faster than I would if I had to deal with paperbacks.

Buy on Amazon

USB Cables: iGo Keyjuice

I’ve really fallen in love with this little dual USB cord. It can’t get tangled, is pretty hard to lose, and lets you charge TWO devices at the same time off one socket. Now that we’re in the era of super slim laptops with fewer USB ports, this is a great feature. If you don’t have things that charge off mini and micro USB, you can get adapters.

Buy on Amazon

HDMI Cable: SMD Thin HDMI Cable

Another great little item to throw in the bag. It allows you to hook your laptop up to any TV with HDMI, making it possible to watch movies or do photo slideshows anywhere. I’m obsessed with how thin this cable is.

Buy on Amazon

Shirts: Icebreaker V

I’ve been flipping between Smartwool and Icebreaker shirts over the years as I prefer one style over another. Both are equally high quality. For those who don’t know, wool stays cleaner, smells good for days on end, keeps you warm even when wet, and is effective at wicking sweat. I have only two shirts and I switch off wearing them every few days. My current favorite is the Apollo V from Icebreaker.

Buy on Amazon

Pants: Versace Wool Blend Jeans

My pants are extremely hard to find, BUT two pairs just showed up on eBay. Here’s one (size 31) and here’s the other (33). There was another pair in size thirty, but I just bought it as a backup. These pants are the best travel material I’ve ever seen: 80% Wool and 20% Nylon. Very durable and easy to deal with. If I was greedier I’d buy up both of those pairs and then sell them to you for $300+ because they’re worth it.

Buy on eBay. Good luck. If I was a total baller, I would buy the Christian Dior ones at the top of that list.

Hoodie: Nau M2

The best Wool Hoodie out right now is the Nau M2 hoodie. It’s very lightweight in case you need to stash it in your backpack, but adds a significant amount of warmth. I wear mine all the time in San Francisco, where temperatures are usually between 50 and 80.

Buy on Amazon

Jacket: Montbell Ex-Light

For the longest time now I’ve been wearing the Montbell Ex-Light down jackets. I’m sort of jealous of the new cool colors they have, but my several-year-old one is still keeping me warm. This jacket is as deceptivey durable as it is warm. It’s the only insulation I wore through two seasons of skiing, a trip to Iceland, climbing in the Peruvian Andes, etc. It’s not as warm as a big bulky jacket, but it can handle some pretty serious situations.

Buy on Amazon

Waterproof Shell: Marmot Mica

My original Marmot Mica wore out, probably because of the hood flapping behind me on my motorcycle, but they sent me a brand new one for free under warranty. Judging by the size and lack of heft, you might be surprised at how effective it is at keeping you dry, even through heavy storms.

Buy on Amazon

Shorts: Icebreaker Tracer

I usually only wear these shorts when working out or when doing laundry, but I was in Mexico a couple months ago and ended up wearing these around most of the time. I could have sworn that they had another version that was slightly longer and had pockets, but they’re either discontinued now or a figment of my imagination. Luckily these have a tiny internal pocket that you can put a key and a couple folded up bills in.

Buy on Amazon

Random Wool Warmth Accessory: Buff

I wish I was the genius that came up with this idea. It’s essentially a giant wool tube that can be adapted to a million different uses. I use it most as a scarf, hat, balaclava, or even as a sleep mask if I forget mine.

Buy on Amazon

Underwear: Icebreaker Anotomica Briefs

I wear Icebreaker Anotomica Briefs. I’m not sure how much I can say about underwear, except that they’re very comfortable, fit well, and look pretty cool. And, of course, they’re wool and have all the associated benefits.

Buy on Amazon

Long Underwear: Icebreaker 260 Leggings

Sometimes short underwear just doesn’t cut it– like, you know, when you’re blasting on a motorcycle through the icy expanses of Alaska. In those cases, go with the Icebreaker 260 Leggings. They fit well and you forget that you’re even wearing them, except that your pants are magically warm all of a sudden.

Buy on Amazon

Cards: WW2 Vintage Kem Miniature Cards

A year and a half ago or so I learned the PAO system to learn to memorize decks of cards. To practice while traveling, I bought a deck of KEM cards. The trick is that these cards were only manufactured during World War II, so finding a deck is very difficult. In fact, now that I’ve written about it on this blog, it will probably be impossible. I have two decks, each of which cost me around $40 on eBay.

Search fruitlessly for them on eBay. Good luck.

Flashlight: LD15

I’m still using the LD15. It’s a nice tiny AA flashlight with ridiculous battery life and several different brightness modes to manage the power/light output balance. It’s also waterproof, which would have been perfect for cave diving in Tulum, Mexico, if I had ever once remembered to bring it with me to the caves.

Buy on Amazon

Pen: Ohto Tasche

When I was in college (and gambling professionally), I bought this ridiculous fountain pen (http://www.nibs.com/PelikanWallStreet.htm). Although it didn’t motivate me to take better notes as I had hoped, I really liked the pen. I finally sold it before traveling (for a steep profit, I might add), but when it was time to replace my Inka pen, I decided to see if there were any small fountain pens. Lo and be hold, the Ohto Tasche. I expected that the pen may not write that well, but it’s actually quite good– close enough to my Pelikan that I can’t tell the difference.

Buy on Amazon

Sleep Mask: Bucky 40 Blinks

Over three years ago I bought this sleep mask. I was trying some new gear, and figured that I’d take the ugly pink stripey model because it was priced a dollar cheaper. Three years later it’s still my favorite eye mask (I’ve tried many), and it’s holding itself together well enough that I can’t convince myself to buy a slightly more stylish one. A sleep mask, along with ear plugs, is the kind of item that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when you NEED to sleep on a noisy train, it’s a life saver.

Buy on Amazon (Continue my proud tradition and buy the ugly blue one for $2 less)

Ear Plugs: Hearos Extreme Protection

Just like the sleep mask, sometimes you need to sleep in a hostile environment. Ear plugs top out at 33 decibels of sound reduction, and these Hearos are generally the best rated of the 33db crowd. You can wear them many times in a row, or throw them out each time. I tend to bring one or two pairs per trip and wear them out.

Buy on Amazon

Power Adapter: Kikkerland

I accidentally left my now discontinued APC INPA power adapter in China. Luckily for me (and you), Kikkerland has licensed the design and sells them for ten bucks on Amazon. This power adapter has the unique benefit of being able to adapt any socket to any plug. Even weird one-off ones like a proprietary vacuum cleaner power plug I saw on a Japanese train once will work. It’s also smaller than all of the other ones. Maybe best of all, the Kikkerland one is cooler colors than the APC.

Buy on Amazon

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In case you missed them, or didn’t just get enough gear crammed into your eyeballs, check out my past packing lists:

2011

2010

For even more gear, sign up for my Best in the Land mailing list at http://bestintheland.com. The first email will be a special hiking/camping edition of the gear list, talking about the stuff I brought to Peru.

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