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Travel Tools You Can't Do Without
Watching my well-used backpack tumble down the baggage-claim conveyor belt in Philadelphia last fall, it hit me: I hadn't packed a single pair of socks. Or underwear.
How had I gotten so out of practice?
Thank heavens that was only a weekend trip and there was a mall nearby. For my longer overseas journeys, I'll now use this check list:
Messenger bag. Save the backpack for hiking. A messenger bag is more accessible as you walk or sit, perfect for pulling out the camera, guidebook or reading material. A good one will have interior and exterior pockets so your cellphone is accessible and your passport isn't floating around. One current favorite is the $48 Railroad Messenger from Yak Pak ( 292-5725, www.yakpak.com), which reminds me of one I carried through Europe for 10 months. If I had the Swiss francs to spare, I'd get one from Freitag, which makes bags of all kinds from recycled truck tarpaulins. (Available online at vwww.freitag.ch or at the Museum of Contemporary Art store.
Paper and pen. For some, the electronic PDA has supplanted old-fashioned paper and ink. To me, it's one more power cord to pack, one more thing to get stolen. I settle for pocket-size notebooks and ballpoint pens to record the address of the next hotel or the e-mail of a seatmate on a train. I lean toward the 4-inch Apica CD-5, which I can find for about $1.25 in shops around Los Angeles. But the classicist might prefer the 5 1/2-inch Info Travel Journal from Moleskine ( 822-1036, www.moleskineus.com). Match with a pen of appropriate size.
iPod. Sure, I like ink and paper, but I'm no Luddite. If you have one of these portable digital music players ($300 to $400), you probably already take it everywhere. But I don't take mine for the music. I take it for the alarm clock, address book, digital photo storage, plus the half-dozen audio books I download before a big trip. I also have an audio yoga lesson, so I can do my sun salutations in hotels from Portland to Patagonia ( MY-APPLE [692-7753], www.apple.com/ipod).
Laundry supplies. My motto for a trip longer than six days: Take fewer clothes and add a bar of laundry soap. Fels-Naptha, made by Dial, is widely available (about $1.70 for a bar). In Los Angeles, Latino markets often carry Zote or Lirio. This is harsh stuff, so don't be tempted to take it into the shower. Some of the eco-friendly varieties ( 528-7789, store.botanicalearth.com) might be easier on the hands as well as the planet.
Sewing kit. Traveling light is counterproductive if you can't wear the pants with the missing button. I could put my own sewing kit together, but I tend to adopt the one from my most recent U.S. hotel stay. Or there's a nice $3 version from Walkabout Travel Gear ( 852-7085, www.walkabouttravelgear.com).
Plug adapter. Between Lisbon and Istanbul, I never found an outlet that the Go!con plug adaptor ($28) couldn't handle. The components snap together, so I never lost a piece in transit. And it has so many permutations, it's just fun to play with. It's not a voltage converter, however, so make sure your laptop or other appliance can take direct current. Available at (800) 889-4903, www.madsonline.com. More expensive but equally compact is Tumi's Ultimate Travel Adaptor ( 299-8864, www.tumi.com).
Multi-tool. Weekend in Philadelphia? Stash in your checked baggage the Micra Leatherman (about $20) for its scissors, tweezers and nail file. Two weeks in Peru? I take a bigger Super Tool, complete with pliers (about $65). Really, you never know when you're going to need a Leatherman ( 847-8665, www.leatherman.com) to fix a leaky showerhead.
Ziploc bags. Wet swimwear. Leaky shampoo bottle. Soap. Toothbrush. Dirty underwear. Just not all in the same bag. Ziploc ( 494-4855, www.ziploc.com) now makes 24-inch bags, perfect for vacuum-sealing dirty laundry.
Compass. Nothing kills serendipity like a GPS device. Give me a map and then, so it's more than decorative, a compass. A mini-compass hooked to my jacket zipper or messenger bag may brand me as a visitor, but hey — I can tell south from east on a winter day in London. When I buy my next one, I may try the Trail Pilot from Highgear ($30) — complete with clip and thermometer — so I'll know how cold it is in London too ( 295-4949 or www.highgear.com).
Nalgene water bottle. Some train rider in Paris got a really nice Nalgene water bottle ( 625-4327, www.nalgene-outdoor.com) after my last trip there. Good thing I brought two. The super-durable polycarbonate doesn't pick up flavors, so your water doesn't taste like yesterday's tea. The new Nalgene OTG (On the Go) line ($9.99) holds 24 ounces but in a slimmed-down shape that will fit most cup holders.
Playing cards. Make friends and win money from people around the globe. OK, I never won any money. But there are more hours of social fun in 52 cards than in any portable computer game. And it's much more sociable to say, "Do you play gin?" to your seatmate on a transcontinental flight than, "Want to take turns shooting aliens on my PSP?"