These days, gadgets and flashy digital toys steal the limelight. And I’d be lying to you if I said we didn’t enjoy ours. But sometimes it’s the low-tech items that literally save the day.
From the dollar store to the health food store, we go old school for a moment and highlight some simple, non-gadgety stuff in our backpacks that we’ve come to know, rely on, and in some cases — love.
1. Dry Sack
When you’re off trekking, kayaking, horseback riding or zodiacing around Antarctica, there is always the risk that Mother Nature decides to dump buckets on you. Here is where the simple yet mighty dry sack comes to the rescue. Relatively lightweight and inexpensive peace of mind.
Use it as your camera bag for the day (we usually put a towel or sarong at the bottom as a shock absorber). Or pack your electrical gear inside and then throw it into your day pack.
We acquired our dry sack after several tour companies in Thailand promised to lend us one to protect our camera gear. Instead, they offered the equivalent of a sandwich bag. In response, we bought a 5-liter dry sack in Thailand in 2006 for about $5, tested it in the shower to be certain of its effectiveness and we’ve used it constantly ever since.
2) Hard Drive Tupperware
Quite possibly the gear of the year winner. Why? With the proliferation of external hard drives in our equipment backpacks and two external hard drive failures earlier in the year, we figured some more protection couldn’t hurt.
Enter the Snap-Top Container (i.e., the Tupperware for a new millennium) as a cheap and easy way to further protect your external hard drives from the wear and tear of constant movement, surface shocks and moisture.
The day of cheap solid state drives is coming. But until then, Tupperware.
We keep each external hard drive in its own cloth carrying case. Throw in some bubble wrap on the bottom and a couple silica gel packets to keep things dry. (We’ve heard rice also works in a pinch, but that could get messy.)
You can fit a couple of drives in each container. Again, we’re not talking guarantees here, but peace of mind. Our only wish: that we’d thought of this earlier.
We don’t mean the mountaineer-grade carabiner used to summit Everest. Instead, we’re talking about the ones that are engraved “NOT FOR CLIMBING.” We use them to keep stuff attached to us for easy access: water bottles, GPS data loggers, hand-held camera bags.
For additional security, find a carabiner with a lock at the end. Perfect for attaching phones and handheld camera cases to your belt loop to prevent petty theft. We found ours on the streets of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, but you can find them at just about every outdoor store.
But not all earplugs are created equal. This is where Howard Leight earplugs stand above the rest. Soft, pliable, durable, comfortable. They really work in keeping out motorbike, rooster, screaming hostel mates, snoring, throat clearings, morning constitutions and other hard-to-ignore noises. (I’m embarrassed to admit that one pair literally lasted more than two years. All you have to do is wash them.)
Pair them with a soft, comfortable eye mask from your favorite airline of choice and you’ve created your happy bubble of quiet and darkness.
Cost: $15 for 200 if you’re a juggler or $7 for 20.
5) Tea Tree Oil
One of nature’s miracle extracts. Rub tea tree oil on bites and cuts. It naturally soothes, cleanses and dries out whatever is ailing you. A small amount goes a long way. Dan swears that he was able to run his first marathon injured because of a dose of tea tree ointment applied to his knee.
And tea tree oil smells kind of nice, too. Or, at least that what I’m telling myself as I bathe my legs and arms in it to dry out all the mosquito bites I’ve picked up during the close of monsoon season here in the Gulf of Thailand.
You can find tea tree oil in pharmacies or in health food stores. Be sure to get the medicinal strength stuff.
Cost: $8-15 (depends on size & strength)
One of the keys to packing light (we are forever working on this) is to find items that serve multiple purposes. The sarong is the Swiss Army Knife in cloth form. It knows a versatility that goes beyond a lie on the beach. We bought ours six years ago during our first visit to Thailand. Still have them.
Use it as a blanket when your sleep sack isn’t quite warm enough. Use it as an extra layer of protection between you and that train or hostel sheet that has never been washed. Use it as a bath towel. Or a shock absorber in your bag. Or when all your clothes are at the laundromat, make a fashion statement and turn it into a lungi, skirt or dress.
7) Packing Cubes
In my world of chaos, packing cubes are genius. They enable us to know where things are; their colors cue us to grab the bag we need (for me, the pharmacy is in the striped half-cube, dry sack and winter gear in the green one, clothes in black, undies in blue). When packing, it takes a few minutes to get the cubes into the backpack in the right order and I’m good to go.
Cubes also help me to keep possessions to a minimum by providing a guide. All my clothes need to fit into one regular-sized cube. Medical stuff fits into a ½ cube, same with undies. So, the cubes help me to perform a routine check as to whether I’m accumulating too much stuff on the road and whether I need to clean house, er backpack.
8. Dental Floss
Why dental floss? Never underestimate the value of dental hygiene. Take a look at this: flossing regularly has been proven to prolong lifespan. Not to mention, all the fluoridated water your teeth has become used to at home: forget about it on the road.
Author’s confession: This began as Dan’s obsession, but after being married to him for 10 years I’ve drunk the dental floss kool aid as well.
Not all dental floss is created equal, however. Woven floss with paste or powder is by far the best. Its one of the items we pick up on visits to the U.S. since we haven’t been able to find it elsewhere. Actually, it’s becoming more difficult to find in the U.S. these days. We have friends who understand this obsession; together we’ve formed a sort of support group, giving out leads on where the next supply can be found.
I think MacGyver even used floss to extricate himself from a few sticky situations.
Cost: $18/6 packs (I’m sure you can find single packs if you’re not addicts like us.)
9. Windbreaker in a Bag
We’re often asked how we manage to dress when we go mountain trekking or when we’re faced with cold weather. For me, my windbreaker is an important part of the “layer, layer, layer” equation.
When we climbed Annapurna Circuit and went up to 18,000 feet, I wore no special mountain gear. My windbreaker plus six other layers kept me warm. The coldest place we’ve been so far — the Pamir Highway in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — saw us outfitted with layers of donated clothes, plus a windbreaker on top.
Dan wears his windbreaker while petting a wooly bactrian camel in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan
Although my windbreaker (Dan has a similar one) is relatively thin, it provides a warm and water resistant (no, not waterproof, I’m afraid) layer. And mine bundles up into a tiny bag, hangs from a belt loop and barely takes up any space.
10. Underwater Camera Bag
OK, so this is about as high-tech as this list is going to get. Forget those ridiculous disposable underwater cameras. When we visited the Galapagos Islands, we stocked up on them, thinking we’d be all Jacques Cousteau. What a joke. We were more like Steve Zissou. The pictures were blurry, there was no zoom and video wasn’t an option.
During that week, we watched with envy as one of our boat-mates recorded video and high quality images with her handheld camera protected by what looked like a fancy ziplock bag. It was actually something made by a company called DicaPac.
As you’ll see from this video, we’ve got one of our own now. We haven’t yet tested it out on snorkeling trips, but expect more fun underwater pics from us. (And no, you can’t take it scuba diving unless you want to give your camera the bends. That’s what professional underwater camera housings are for.)
Cost: $20-$25. Check this chart to determine which size to purchase for your camera.
By no means is this a definitive list. Just a few items that we find ourselves recommending often. Someone suggested we share it. So we did.
What’s your favorite low-tech gear for home or travel?