backpacking… upgraded

Archive for the ‘Gear’

Putting the HP in flashpacker

I was flipping through the most recent issue of Time Magazine when I came across a highly favorable review of HP’s new EliteBook 2530p laptop. I’m not in the market for a new laptop myself, having just bought one before this summer’s Southeast Asian adventure, but maybe you are. The 2530p is being marketed toward business travelers, but we flashpackers know a good thing when we see it.

As with any new laptop introduction, there’s plenty of geek-speak to impress you: the 2530p meets MIL-STD 810F, is powered by an Intel Core 2 Duo SL9400 1.86 GHz CPU, has 4 to 8 GB of DDR2 RAM, its HDD ranges from 80 GB to 160 GB HDD or 80 GB SS, Gobi dual EV-DO / HSPA wireless, and whatnot. If you’re really into specs, CNet has ‘em.

What attracted my attention were the travel-minded attributes, not the bonanza of acronyms. To wit…

Durability — The Time piece was called “The Klutz’s Companion,” and this is why. There’s an accelerometer inside the computer that senses when the computer is in free-fall. The laptop responds by locking the hard drive in place so your data don’t get damaged or lost on impact. The 2530p is encased in scratch-resistant, brushed aluminum that holds up to humidity, high temperatures, and dust. And if, like mine, your laptop is rarely more than a few inches away from a steaming mug of coffee, they’ve made the keyboard spill resistant. So if you’re prone to the odd graceless moment, or if your itinerary will see you down some of the world’s bumpier roads, this might be the laptop for you.

Mobile broadband – Thanks to the built-in Gobi chipset, you can connect to the internet just about anywhere in the world by buying a SIM card and jumping on to the local cellular network. Wherever a cell phone works, so will the broadband connection.

Lightweight – After lugging a nearly 6 pounds of laptop around in my backpack all summer long, the 2530p’s sticker weight of 3.2 pounds sounds absolutely feathery. It’s amazing how much difference a few pounds can make for your shoulders and lower back over the course of a long hike or a day of transit.

Long battery life – The new ‘solid-state’ hard drive technology (optional) means that there are fewer moving parts to motor when the computer’s on. So the standard six-cell battery, which sustains my new laptop for about three hours when I’m actively using it, keeps the 2530p running for around seven hours.

The only major drawback to the 2530p seems to be the price tag: the starting price is around $1,500, but with added bells, whistles, and capabilities, that can balloon to nearly $2500.

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Flashpacking as art?

[With technology progressing so quickly and relentlessly, it's difficult to keep up with each new device/synergy/application/mashup. I'm still getting over the fact that my cell phone has an alarm clock AND a tip calculator in it...]

On the heels of advances like digital cameras that can geotag the locations where photos were taken, and in the heels (literally) of the latest generation of satellite-trackable athletic gear, GPS technology is now edging forward the boundaries of self-expression as well. But before we get into that, flashpackers, let’s catch up a bit.

In the past couple of years, digicam producers have been constantly innovative. It seems like every week, new models are released that up the industry standards for megapixels, zoom, video capture, auto-adjustment, even adorability. One of the more flashpacker-relevant advances is the fusion of digital cameras with global positioning systems. The first devices began to appear a couple years ago; accessories like the Sony GPS-CS1 could sync up with digicams to geotag (or identify GPS coordinates of) locations where photos were taken. The newest generation of cameras includes built-in GPS for geotagging on the fly: the GE E1050 and the upcoming Altek camera.

Moving into the athletic realm, Nike and Apple recently teamed up to give you the Nike + ipod. The Nike ‘+’ shoes have a tiny slot carved out in the heel of the left one, beneath the insert, into which you slide a sensor that communicates wirelessly with your ipod. As you run satellites relay information to the ipod, which displays your pace, distance, and calories burned, all the while continuously tickling your auditory nerve with your chosen workout jams. Pretty amazing.

Out-hustled but not outdone, Adidas has joined forces with a Japanese mobile service provider to counter with the GPS Run, an armband with a pouch that cradles your cell phone, whose function is analogous to the ipod in the above description, except that the phone is GPS-enabled. Strapped to your arm as you scurry about, the phone receives real-time information not only on your pace and distance, but also on your route. Assuming your phone also has mp3 playback, it’s a slight step up from the Nike + ipod, albeit one that’s currently only available in Japan.

OK, so we’ve covered digital cameras with built-in GPS and athletic equipment that communicates with satellites as you move around; where does the titularly promised ‘art’ come in? Here.

“Position art” is a concept created for Nokia’s N82 cellphone marketing campaign — I’m not shilling for Nokia, here, I just think it’s an interesting idea — and its occasionally hilarious, eccentric, self-styled genius mascot, Stavros.

Mating modern mapping technology with the human yens to explore and to create, position art turns human beings into paintbrushes, our movements into brush strokes, the planet into a canvas.

Here are some other examples of position art, some more rudimentary than others. But hey, as with all art, my ‘rudimentary’ might be your ‘devastatingly brilliant’.

To find out how to create position art using an N82, check out this blog.

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On sports bras and other survival devices

Inspired by the story of the American hiker stranded in the Bavarian Alps who got the attention of her rescuers by attaching her sports bra to a moving timber cable, I searched all corners of the internet for survival gear. Here are a few interesting and potentially hide-saving devices for your consideration:

I. Etón FR1000 Voicelink Radio — It might be a tad bulky to stash in your pack (11″x6″x4″, including handles and knobs), but this is one gadget you’d want to have in your arsenal in an emergency. Like an electronic Leatherman, the FR1000 is a two-way and AM/FM radio, clock, flashlight, siren, beacon light, and cell phone charger. If the batteries die you can recharge them with the manual crank on the side. I, for one, like the old-fashioned/modern compromise of being able to charge my cell phone by hand. It retails for $150.

II. The LIFESAVER® Bottle — I wrote a post a while back on a wonderful hand-held water filtration system called the Lifestraw® Personal; this is a similar idea executed differently. While the Lifestraw® uses a hydrogenated resin to kill bacteria and viruses in source water, the LIFESAVER® does the same (and is a bit more effective) without using chemicals. A LIFESAVER® filter cartridge can filter up to 4,000 liters (1,056 gallons, more than five times the amount of the Lifestraw®) before needing to be replaced. However, the biggest difference between the LIFESAVER® and the Lifestraw® lies in how quickly they clean out your wallet; a Lifestraw®, which is designed primarily for use in the developing world, costs about $3, while the LIFESAVER® sets you back about $385.

III. The BCK Solar Cooker — Resembling a prop from a sci-fi film, the BCK Solar Cooker is an award-winning, innovative take on outdoor cooking that’s both eco-friendly and good in a pinch. First things first, you open the cooker from the thermos-like position at left. It transforms into a reflective cone, which you then fill with water. The conical shape focuses sunlight into its center, heating the water and whatever you’ve chosen to cook in it up to 90°C (194°F). It requires no fuel other than sunlight, so there is virtually no environmental impact. However, you do need direct sunlight for it to work optimally; at night and on cloudy days, may I suggest canned Vienna sausages?

IV. Spot Satellite Messenger with GPS Tracking — Unless you’re already sporting a state-supplied ankle monitor, you might want to look into buying this gadget before your next outdoor adventure. Little bigger than a computer mouse, Spot is a GPS-enabled device (not a GPS navigation system) that can trigger text messages to be sent to your friends and family with your exact location coordinates, so that they may track your progress as you travel. In case of emergency, Spot also has a 9-1-1 mode that will send a distress signal to an international monitoring station every five minutes until the emergency is resolved. The downside: Spot doesn’t yet work in parts of South America, most of Africa, and southern Asia. While it will knock your balance down a bit with a retail price of $169.99, think of all the money you’ll be saving on postcards.

V. Swedish FireSteel Fire Starter — These have become standard issue for military personnel around the world, and campers swear by them. Slowly sliding the flat, magnesium striker down the FireSteel key creates a 3,000°C spark that will ignite dry kindling (like companion-product Mayadust, $4.50 a tin) in a flash! The bright spark can also be used as an emergency signal. The lifetime of the Army model ($16) is 12,000 strikes, with which you can start more fires than your average dragon.

VI. Mylar Sleeping Bag — This one’s such a cheapie (anywhere from $1.50 to $13, depending where you look) that I couldn’t resist throwing it in the list. Mylar is said to reflect up to 90% of your body heat back to you and it’s waterproof, so in case of emergency you can slide into one of these bags and pass the night without freezing. Or you can line your sleeping bag with one to effectively lower its temperature rating. Their weight is negligible and they fold up small enough to fit in your pocket, so tossing one in your pack is a no-brainer.

VII. I’d like to add a low-tech but highly useful item I brought with me on my current trip: surgical tape. An extremely durable yet easy-to-tear tape, it’s come in handy on several occasions in the past week alone. I’ve used it to secure lids and store food, to patch tears in ziplock bags (which are infinitely useful themselves — here are some serious-business ones), to bind items and attach them to my pack, and most recently for its intended purpose, to affix makeshift bandages to my arm after a motorcycle taxi spill.

VIII. Finally, it’s not a survival gadget but a mental-floss-recommended book, and I’m going to pick it up myself. It’s called Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea, by Steven Callahan. Think Alive, but on a life raft and without the cannibalism. According to the mental floss reviewer, after the author’s sailboat sank, stranding him alone in the raft, he devised ways “to collect fresh water, spear and otherwise trap fish, gather barnacles, plot his position using a sextant made from pencils, and much more…” in order to survive. I figure if I read this book and watch all seven seasons of MacGyver, I’ll be ready for anything.

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The weirdest and best ways to hide valuables while traveling

Knock on wood… I’ve never had real problems with traveling and getting things stolen. Small things have disappeared, but in general I’m more prone to breaking or losing my possessions (if anyone wants to contribute a post on how not to do that, please let me know!).

I don’t go to great lengths to hide my valuables a la the tips I’m going to share here, but I do follow the basics. Most crime experts agree that thieves spend only a few minutes searching rooms or possessions for valuables, so I tend to leave a small amount as “bait”. I also avoid tricks (like the standard money belt that goes under your shirt) that assuredly 100% of the criminal element knows about by now. If you do want some sneaky conveinent ways to hide things, here’s your pick of products.

1. The more literal money belt — Doing double duty as an actual belt, a small zipper on the inside allows you to stash cash (and maybe a key) but not much else. Eagle creek actually has as range of styles to choose from priced around $15. (the above model is more like $40)

2. Fake hair spray, soda cans, shaving cream or any other “diversion safes” – I’m personally less jazzed about this one. First, it seems like a well-intentioned maid could easily toss your vacay stash thinking the weirdly light soda can was empty. And come on, they actually make an aqua net diversion safe. Would you not be immediately suspicious of anyone claiming to still use aqua net?

If you do go this route, make sure to choose a plausible toiletry or a product they might actually have in the country you’re visiting. Even the dimmest criminal might be suspicious that you took the trouble to haul rite aid cola in your suitcase…

3. Skid-marked underwear — I decided (or hoped) that our readership was a bit too genteel for a picture of this one. It’s a pair of fake-soiled underpants with a secret pocket to keep cash; one assumes that no one would want to go near these (there’s even a little “scent” one can add to make it more realistic. gross, gross, gross, gross….) Though I’m not sure going this far is necessary, the strategy of hiding valuables in dirty clothes (a pair of muddy hiking pants will do just fine) is not bad.

4. The secret compartment flip-flop — Nice for convenience at the beach, my guess is any thief that stalks the dunes for quick cash could spot this distinct brand. But I think it could work in a hotel.

5. The “StashCard” — Use the empty PC card slot in your laptop to hide some extra cash. No word on how to keep the computer from getting stolen…

6. Make a hidden pocket — Not a product exactly, but these are good instructions for adding extra hidden liner pockets on the inside of your pants. No word on how to retrieve the cash without looking pervy…..

7. In your socks — A mugger would probably find this one, but it would prevent pickpockets and bag snatchers from getting the good stuff. Try carrying a diversion, a cheap wallet with a few bucks in it while putting your real stuff elsewhere.

8. The fake book — It’s actually called The Fake Book. So much for subtlety.

9. The coat hanger — This one is kind of cool. It’s a slightly thicker version of a coat hanger that can be opened at the ends. Put a jacket over the hanger and it looks pretty inconspicuous.

10. In your boxers with a secret pocket — am I the only internet travel tip writer left who’s not obsessed with stuffing money in my underwear? Restore my faith, dear flashpackers, try to keep your money and your dignity.

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It could save your life, sucka!

Found this while cruising mental floss a couple days ago…

Whenever some benevolent souls introduce to the world an innovative life-saving technology or device, one that will, say, help a billion people gain access to safe drinking water, I think it’s important to take a step back and say, “That’s great for mankind and all, but what’s in it for me?”

The Lifestraw® is just such a device. It’s a “point-of-use” water filtration system, meaning drinking water can be filtered and consumed directly from a contaminated source. With about 6,000 people (mostly impoverished children) dying everyday from waterborne diarrheal diseases, it’s an innovation that can make a tremendous difference among the world’s poorest populations. There are two versions available: the Lifestraw® Personal and the Lifestraw® Family.

The Lifestraw® Personal resembles a hand-held bike pump and works very simply — you just suck water directly from a source into the straw, and blow back into it to clean the filters. Plus, at a foot long, an inch in diameter, and weighing only 5 oz., it’s small enough to hang around your neck on a string.

It’s rated to filter a minimum of 700 liters of water and lasts about one year (for those of you who don’t do metric, that’s about half a gallon of water per day for a year). While it will kill and remove more than 99% of bacteria and viruses from the source water, it does not remove parasites and heavy metals.

The Lifestraw® Family is less compact than the Personal, but it’s designed to filter more than 15,000 liters (4,000 gallons) of water and should last for about two years. Also, it’s a more effective filter, killing and removing 99.9% of bacteria, viruses, and parasites from source water.

Obviously, what’s in it for me (and you, too!) is the marvelous potential of the Lifestraw®, particularly the Personal model, for backpacking and camping use. When exploring areas where there are concerns about water quality, being able to toss the 5-ounce filter in your pack rather than having to boil, purify, or worse yet, carry all your drinking water on your back is super convenient. The Personal filter costs about $3, so it’s cost effective, too.

Despite the inventors’ noble intentions and excellent results, the filter’s cost is still too high for much of the developing world. If you’re interested in donating the Lifestraw® to people who truly need it but cannot afford it, you can do so here

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Packing light

So, you may not know this but pretty much any tweedledum (like me) who has only rudimentary skills in website hosting has probably figured out how to use a stats program to track her website. Included in most such programs are the keywords people are using to get to your website. My top five weird favorites this week are:

1. stranger hostel shower

2. how to find an inexperienced woman at a abar

3. 2009 free love and dating site in maldives 100% free

4. eat bamboo cocker spaniel -panda -ghost

5. quetzal will never die

I find it interesting that people ended up on our site with these phrases; I just don’t remember writing anything about free love in the Maldives…

Anyway, another search phrase that showed up, “packing light,” caught my attention for non-skeevy reasons — it’s a good topic! Especially since checking a second bag on domestic trips in the US just went bye-bye this week.

Let me start by saying that as a veteran traveler, I’ve come to this conclusion: packing light is a tad overrated. I hate wasting time on the road hunting for something I need but didn’t bring. I also hate being drably or inappropriately dressed because I stuck to 5 items, all in the same color family. If I have to wear all khaki polywhatever, it just kills my travel buzz.

That said, there are times that circumstances really force you to pack light and lugging too much will put a serious damper on your travel high jinks. So here are some tips to prevent your contemplating the purchase of some hideous reversible shirt or an unfortunate item from Rick Steves’s light travel line…

1. Rethink your luggage — With restrictions getting tighter and tighter, the weight of your luggage before you ever pack a thing is crucial. This piece from Patagonia doesn’t score in the stylish category but it does weigh only 12 oz. Patagonia actually has a pretty wide range of ultralight packs, backpacks, and even shoulder satchels.

2. Go dry — Instead of packing liquid shampoos, soaps, and laundry detergents, bring “sheets,” which are much lighter and especially useful if you need to go the carry-on-only route. Usually sold in packs of 50, you can get a month’s worth of shampoo-for-two while adding only a few ounces to your pack.

3. Look for gadgets and ask for them for Christmas, your birthday, etc. – Little things add up, so try finding micro versions of literally everything on your list. For instance, this “Micron” umbrella from Totes is only 6 inches long and weighs a mere 6 ounces.

4. Trade in your gear — If someone travels with it, then an entrepreneur somewhere out there has made a lightweight version, guaranteed.  How cool is this thing? 1.5 ounces for a camera tripod!

Got this one from a very useful site for trekkers and backpackers,

Also, take a look at how many chargers you’re carrying and cut back to just one if possible. Try the iGo or a Compact Universal Travel Adapter and USB Charger.

And if you can bear it, travel without your laptop! I’ll probably never get there, but it’s a good idea… You can use a wireless fabric keyboard with a PDA to accomplish most of your on-the-road working needs. It even rolls up nice and neat when you’re done!

5. Sacrifice the shoes — a last resort, but I always find myself here. It’s not really too big a deal since I’ll use any excuse to live in flip-flops, but it’s easier to cheat and buy lighter-weight footwear than to actually figure out which strappy sandals I want to leave behind.

Lightweight and easy-to-pack running/trekking/hiking shoes are key; their standard versions are usually the heaviest offenders.  These wee kicks from Travelsmith weigh just 1.5 lbs.

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Flashpacker = Vagabond + Geek

By definition we flashpackers are enamored of gadgets. It’s hard not to become attached to the convenience afforded by ever smaller, sleeker, and more powerful electronics. Nowadays we can board a plane to anywhere on earth and have our entire life tucked into a carry-on bag: our work, our entertainment, our communications, our everything. It wasn’t always this way.

Only a few years ago we traveled with stacks of books to read (like the internet, but heavier), recording our thoughts and correspondence with pen and paper (obsolete manual word-processing devices), and preserving our memories on rolls of film (ancestors of jpegs, they often succumbed to high temperatures and vindictive photo lab employees). And we couldn’t simply look at a 2.5-inch LCD screen to see if our photos turned out okay. We had nothing to go on but faith!

Today we have placed our faith in the feats of technology; we are geeks and we are not ashamed. understands us, and they’re here to help: Travel Tips for Globetrotting Geeks. The article’s a wiki, so if you have any tips you’d like to add to it, I am powerless to stop you.

Some of the highlights:

Re: Laptops/Internet — If you’re headed abroad with your laptop and don’t want to be restricted to the dim fluorescence of internet cafes, check out for a worldwide list of places that offer (you guessed it!) free w-fi.

Re: Gear — Consider purchasing travel insurance in advance of your trip if you’re going to be toting around a second-mortgage-worth of electronics. Not sure what kind of policy is best for you, or from whom to buy it? Travel Insurance Review is a blog set up to help you machete through the jungle of travel insurance options and fine print. They recommend, an expedia-like search engine for travel insurance, to find the best price for insurance between competing providers.

Re: Digital Cameras — Bring along or purchase some blank CD-Rs on which to burn backup photo files, because some international airports’ X-ray machines are strong enough to scramble the data in your digicam’s memory card. Or, if you have access to a fast internet connection, periodically dump your photos onto a flickr or photobucket account, and the magic of the internet will protect them indefinitely!

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Forget the MacBook Air, I want a bamboo laptop!

When I saw this new laptop from Asus, I was thinking, “How great is it really for the environment?” Though bamboo is one of the most sustainable materials out there (reason #1 I chose it for my kitchen floor), this is probably more about the hype. But gosh it’s pretty.

But treehugger had this to say: “Its case is covered in bamboo, which I suppose is a statement, but the real show is inside. All of the plastic in it is labeled and recyclable; it is lined with cardboard; there are no paints, sprays or even electroplating used on its components. It looks like it is designed to be easily taken apart for self-service and easy upgrading of components, usually the downfall of notebooks.”

So it is eco-friendly! Now I just have to wait till it launches…

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Eco-friendly travel accessories

So, it’s official. Anything can now be made to come in “organic.” Witness the birth of organic, lavender-scented hand sanitizer.

The thing is, I have this nightmare that I’m in a remote location without any knowledge of the city, language skills, etc., and there are two things I don’t have that really freak me out – a Lonely Planet and hand sanitizer. It’s the traveler’s version of the not-being-prepared-for-a-test nightmare. Imagine my relief knowing that I have my hand sanitizer and it harms the planet less.

All jabs at self aside, I have to admit that I love eco-friendly travel products because they usually make the ordinary just a little special. For instance, silk travel accessories can be eco-friendly, which is a nice upgrade from your run-of-the-mill sleep sack and travel pillow. As a defense against being judged a complete prima donna, I have spent months on the road or away from home living in some really dingy, tiny places. As I’ve said before, a scented candle and a cozy throw blanket can really help with the “let’s pretend” coping strategy. Which brings me to… Eco-friendly scented travel candles! Soy candles burn longer and cleaner. Jasmine is one of my favorite scents.

Moving away from the frou-frou stuff and onto things that really could do some good for the environment, I’ve had my eye on a solar paneled backpack (which charges your laptop, phone, ipod, etc.) for a while. I don’t know what it is, but I feel like a Voltaic Messenger Solar Backpack is tech-chic and the backpack style is just geek. It’s 3 lbs., though, so I’m still deciding if I’m prepared to sacrifice a little extra back strain for mother earth.

Plastic bottles for all that drinking water are a major downside to tourism. As someone who’s had every parasite on the block, I wouldn’t always recommend the tap. One great alternative is the Atlantis Water Purifying Cup. From Carolyn Ali at “The device weighs just three-and-a-half ounces and can purify up to 3,700 litres of water. It fits neatly into a one-litre water bottle while it’s working, and folds into its own plastic cup for storage.”

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Get your nose out of that book – Using your ipod to travel

I’m directionally challenged. I managed to get lost for an hour this week while driving home from the airport in my hometown. When I should have been driving north, I ended up driving south — not just once, either, but twice. It was an impressive feat.

So I have a real hard time remembering directions to a restaurant or the hotel without whipping out my guide book, which is so uncool. If you’re like me and want to avoid looking like a doofus, there are a few options these days.

Podscrolls from Rough Guide:

Rough Guides are now providing free eating and drinking guides that come with directions, pictures, etc., and can be downloaded on your ipod. Best of all, they’re free! They only have 8 European cities and 2 American cities right now, but hopefully there’ll be more to come.

ijourneys: A fellow flashpacker turned me on to these downloadable podcasts that do a city tour and tell you where to go while you listen. So you look like a normal person strolling and listening to music, but you’re actually geeking out on tourist info. Other sites, like National Geographic, do audio city tours as well.

Tourcaster & PodAsia: Tourcaster and PodAsia are more general podcastesque downloads for interesting cultural information. Amateur Traveler is a site where travel enthusiasts post their own podcasts on a variety of travel topics.

It’s definitely worth getting out there and googling what’s available as the market is just going to keep growing.

Another option is exploring tips for using your über-tricked-out mp3 player. For instance, here’ s a popular tutorial on turning a google map into an ipod photo. Also, Lonely Planet sells its guidebooks as a “pick and mix,” where you can buy pdf chapters and save them to your portable file-viewing device of choice.

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