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Lessons for the long haul

Clockwise from top right, REI fleece jacket, Leatherman tool, Apica notebook, Road Warrior plug adapter, Swiss Army knife and REI ditty bag.
(Damon Winter / LAT)
Times Staff Writer

My friend Mike once shared with me this wisdom about traveling overseas: When you’re done packing, take out half your clothes and put in twice as much cash.

ATMs have made carrying wads of bills less of a necessity. But packing remains a fine balancing act of weighing an item’s usefulness against its poundage. This is particularly true for any journey that outlasts your supply of underwear.

When loading my backpack for a 10-month trek through Europe with my girlfriend, I included many items I sent home a few months later. Money belt? Wore it once. Travel alarm? My watch alarm sufficed. On the other hand, some things I picked up along the way made me wonder how I had gotten along without them. After living on the road, here’s what I’ll never leave home without in the future:

Leatherman: The Transportation Security Administration will insist that this multi-use tool wonder be in your checked baggage, but I’d check luggage just to have it. Mine was used to cut bread in Rome, open beer bottles in Berlin, fix a shower head in Istanbul and turn my khakis into shorts in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

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My girlfriend’s Swiss Army knife had one advantage: a corkscrew, which is handy, well, just about any place. Leatherman’s new Juice line, fortunately, rectifies this deficiency.

Notepad: It was easy for me, a writer, to be seduced by the fabulous stationery stores of Paris, filled as they are by writing implements of countless variety. But when I came across this tiny notebook — 2 1/2 -by-4 inches, bound on the left like a book — my heart would know no other. Luckily it cost about 1 euro, about $1.30. I bought eight and mailed them back to L.A. (I needn’t have panicked: I’ve since found them in two stores just in my Silver Lake neighborhood, Clover and Sunset Orange.)

They’re made by the Japanese company Apica, and each little book has an inscription on the cover that reads, “Most advanced quality / Gives best writing features.” So I might have loved it even if it didn’t fit perfectly inside my $7 wallet from the Istanbul Grand Bazaar. But because it did fit, I jotted hotel addresses, train times, flight numbers and e-mail addresses for people I met from Coimbra, Portugal, to Cappadocia, Turkey.

Not only did these notes keep me on track, but they also were a far better travel journal than my actual diary. Just last week I stumbled across a list of career options that included, “Painting custom wedding cake figurines.”

Shoelaces: In Bodrum, Turkey, I bought a pair of orange nylon laces for my hiking boots that, it turned out, were far too long. Because they cost about 70 cents, I’d have thrown them out if they weren’t useful. But they’re still in my backpack for future trips. In Portugal, where laundromats are hard to come by, they made an excellent hotel clothesline. They were also good for binding up an otherwise unwieldy down jacket and securing sandals to my pack.

Laundry soap bar: We found this bar of yellow laundry soap — bigger and firmer than a super-size bar of Ivory — in a little market in Venice, Italy. Nine months later we were still using it to scrub undergarments in hotel sinks. It had no perfumes and could pull out any stain. I wish I knew what it’s made of — I did seem to lose a layer of skin after washing a sink-load of socks. But it never leaked and was perfectly compact.

Road Warrior: This gadget always made me sing, “Transformers! More than meets the eye!” in reference to the 1980s toys. But the Road Warrior is a whole set of plug adapters in one ingenious spring-loaded, plastic-hinged, copper-lined device. Kept my iBook in juice across 15 borders.

Ziploc bags: We never wanted to buy a whole box of these, so we pathetically scrounged them from expatriate friends living in Paris. You can imagine the uses, from carrying snacks to sealing up your swimsuit after that last dip before catching the train in Croatia.

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Ditty bags: Either you buy into the whole ditty bag scheme, or you don’t. In our traveling party of two, we were split — which was fine. More drawstring bags for me. Loved them. One for underwear. One for socks. A big one for dirty laundry. Suddenly hotel-hopping was no headache: I put a stack of folded clothes and two ditty bags in a drawer and I was moved in. I also stuffed my raincoat or polar fleece jacket into a small sack to force it down to size.

Thorlos: At a certain point, our weeks were planned around socks because only Thorlo extra-thick hiking socks would do for big museums. I wore out wool and pitched plenty of cotton. You may think you have a comfortable pair of sneakers, even with gel insoles. Still, spend the $13 or so on good socks.

Silk undershirt: Skip this if headed to southern Spain in June. But traveling off-season, even in fall or spring, can mean shivering in stone buildings where central heat means a really big fireplace. My long-sleeved silk undershirt got more wear than nearly anything else I packed. I added it as a layer under anything, and it kept me warm in heatless hotels and drafty castles.

Fleece jacket: You may think that khaki pants, baseball caps and white tennis shoes make you stand out as an American tourist. I’m here to tell you that it’s your polar fleece jacket. Wear it proudly. I picked one up at REI as an impulse buy, and I didn’t need a heavier coat until December. My friends snicker at the fact that I’m wearing the same gray-green jacket in about 2,403 of my 3,000 or so photos, but I was warm in nearly every picture.


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