backpacking… upgraded

The flashpacker as amateur photographer

Let’s face it. Unless your home is strewn with authentic keepsakes from when you navigated the Amazon on a homemade raft or that time you revived a caribou that had collapsed next to your Mongolian yert (I’m talking to you, J. Peterman…), photographs are probably your most reliable means of reliving your travels. Most of us who travel the world snapping two-dimensional remembrances are not trained professionals, and even with the incredible pace by which camera technology is advancing these days, our best documentary efforts sometimes fail to capture the elusive quality that made something worth photographing in the first place.

With that in mind, here are a few ideas to help you make the most out of your picture-taking short of shelling out for that $5,000 Nikon.

The Novoflex Photo Survival Kit is an alternative to lugging around a bulky and heavy tripod. Basically it’s a system that allows you to connect your digital camera to four different mounts: a mini-tripod, a suction cup (for small cameras and phones), a ground spike, and a clamp that can attach to bike handlebars, among other surfaces. The entire kit weighs only 1.3 pounds (0.6 kg) and is small enough (1.4″ deep, 10.4″ long x 7.5″ wide) to fit snugly into your daypack. It retails for $210.

The XShot is a handheld extension than you can attach to your digital camera to take self-portraits or panoramic shots at greater than arm’s length. If a fear of social contact prevents you from asking strangers to take your picture — or if the video-camera-thief scene from European Vacation has scarred you for life — the Xshot is the perfect accessory for you. It telescopes out to 37″ long but retracts to just 9″, so it easily stows away in your pack’s pockets. It retails directly from the product homepage for $29.95, or you can save a few dollars at

The Aquapac is a waterproof camera case with a clear, LENZFLEX window through which your camera can take underwater pictures. The one shown at left is for smaller point-and-shoot cameras (and retails for $40, though you can find cheaper prices at, but there are several different sizes to choose from depending on your needs. All the Aquapacs are guaranteed submersible up to 15 feet and also promise to keep out dust and sand, taking the worry out of beach photography.

Next up is Joby’s Gorillapod, a lightweight (1.6 ounces) tripod with flexible legs that adjusts to uneven surfaces and wraps around poles, tree branches, etc., to stabilize your camera where a standard tripod would be useless. The original model, which retails for $24.95, is perfect for smaller point-and-shoot cameras, but it’ll only support about 11 ounces (300 grams). Joby makes sturdier models that support up to 3000 grams and cost more accordingly.

I don’t think this one’s actually been marketed yet, but if it the Flee Digital Camera ever becomes available, I’d love to snatch one up. It’s basically an aerodynamic throw-toy with a camera built into it, so you can give it a toss and it’ll take pictures from perspectives you wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise. The concept camera is bluetooth-enabled, so it can snap photos in mid-flight and send them to your mobile phone. The real question about the Flee is not how well the in-flight shots turn out, but whether it can even make a second flight after crashing down the first time. The fact that there are no actual Flee-taken photos up on the website suggests that the prototype may not even be a functional one, but what a cool idea nonetheless!

And on a final note, I just downloaded and started using Google’s newish, free photo-sharing service, Picasa. Picasa enables you to create a web album of travel photos (or whatever) that you can upload straight from your computer. It’s faster than uploading pictures individually to photobucket or flickr, and it keeps your photos organized as you have them on your hard drive. Once they’re uploaded you can brush them up and create slideshows and movies, although I haven’t got there yet.

Thanks for reading!

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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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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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