(See other articles in this series in the Travel section. This one ballooned, so I’ve split it into two parts.)
Computer and phone
Electronics make the quickest and most regular movements toward miniaturization and multiple uses. I started my travels with an iPad and a MacBook, and lugged the two a quarter of the way around the world. One of my projects in the Great Downsizing of 2016 was to free myself of the MacBook. I already had most of my data in the Cloud, and just had to find iOS alternatives to my Mac software. iOS is still in its first decade and has very clear paths for improvement, but the App Store is wide and deep. I haven’t found anything I’ve wanted to do that I couldn’t do. 1
An iPad Pro (the 9.7-inch model) is both physically and psychologically lighter than a mouse-based computer. It offers a faster, calmer environment for focusing on what you’re doing now. It also has speakers loud enough to make it your portable stereo and television.
The piece of bent metal next to the iPad is a gooseneck holder. It’s one of my heaviest pieces of gear, but it earns its place. Apple’s Smart Keyboard Cover is a delight. It protects the iPad, folds into two viewing positions, and has a keyboard that’s comfortable for long periods of typing. Still, sitting with a computer screen at desk height is never a healthy arrangement. I can type while looking straightforward, but looking down from time to time still stresses my back. When I can, I prop the iPad on boxes or a shelf and sit or stand with it at eye level, typing on a Bluetooth keyboard. When I can’t find a place to set it, I can often find a place to clamp the gooseneck and twist it until the iPad is at a good height. Clamping it to a table brings the iPad close enough to use as a TV when I’m lying on a bed or sofa. When I get the bottom bunk at a hostel, I can lay it between the mattress and bed springs of the upper bunk, pop in my earbuds2, and have movie night without disturbing my neighbors.
This Bluetooth keyboard is small and light but far from ergonomic. It served me well, but I’ve since replaced it with this folding keyboard. It’s a better typing experience – at least for typing letters. Numbers and symbols require Twister-level function key manipulations. I’ve accepted it because I can fold it and slip it in a pants pocket. With a tiny phone stand and the plus-sized phone I’ve since bought, I have a portable office I don’t even notice I’m carrying. I can set it up in a moment and get some serious writing done whenever I plop myself down in a café.
The larger phone 3 works well enough for reading books, too, so I’ve sold my Kindle.
Going clockwise from the upper left, we have:
A tiny phone stand. This one came with something I bought years ago. The one I link above is as good.
The two parts of a phone tripod. Its legs are flexible. It can stand on them, or they can wrap around a bar or other support to hold the phone where you want it. I got it when Camera+ added a slow shutter mode. I thought I’d try it for that, attach it to a headrest for time lapse photos from a bus, etc. I need to remember to use it more.
The electronics organizer case keeps my bag from becoming a finger trap of tangled wires. In the photo, two of my charging cables are still neatly secured in it. I’ve since adopted simple wisdom overheard on a podcast and color-coded my cables. My watch cable is white, my USB cable is black, and my lightning cables are green. I always pull out the right one. I’ve replaced the two power plugs in the photo with ultra compact ones from Aukey. They work well, have a light to show they’re getting power, and squeeze between other plugs on a crowded power strip.
Below the power plugs is one of three Trackrs. I bought one each for my bag, my wallet, and my vest. They’re supposed to help me find these things using my phone, even if their stolen. I’m not sold on them. They’re a good idea, but they work intermittently and the batteries seem to run out in no time. I just opened the Trackr app for the first time in months, and it says the Trackr attached to my vest two feet from it was last seen 11 weeks ago. I’ve been carrying the phone in my vest every day in between. For the last ten minutes, it’s said “Searching…” instead of “Oh, it’s right beside me.” Useless. Devices like this fill a true need. Keep your eyes open for one that works.
The TripMate Nano, the square gadget to the left, does work, remarkably well for all it does. It’s tiny and weighs nothing, but creates a flexible Wi-Fi network. You connect to its network, open a Web browser on your device, and configure it to use any available network to reach the Internet. If you have multiple devices with you, you only have to plug it in and log in once. All your devices, which already have the password for its network, are instantly online. It can even log in to networks which require authentication through a webpage. If I weren’t slavishly obedient to their terms of service, this would have allowed me to use all my devices on Royal Caribbean’s Wi-Fi at once while only paying for one. My partner and I might even have connected the Chromecast to our cabin’s TV and streamed movies and TV shows.
You can also plug an Ethernet cable into it, which sounds anachronistic until you housesit for someone who’s afraid Wi-Fi signals are a conspiracy between the government and the seventh-dimensional aliens to disrupt her pets’ ability to draw nourishment from the crystals hanging inside her pyramid. Then plugging into her wired network lets you live a modern life for the next six weeks.4 Essential.
Beside the TripMate are two devices that are lower tech but often indispensable when renting a car. A USB car charger keeps your phone alive in older cars with just a cigarette lighter port (only a luxury until you have no GPS maps in an unfamiliar country where you can’t read the road signs). An air vent mount puts your phone at eye level and ensures the health of your new pedestrian friends.
Beneath the car gear is a Chromecast. The iPad is a fine television by itself, but when I’m staying somewhere with a large-screen TV, I sometimes like to throw a big, dumb movie on it. I’d love to have an Apple TV for this, but it’s not portable enough. The Chromecast serves the same purpose, albeit poorly. Instead of streaming from your phone or tablet to the TV, an app on your phone tells the Chromecast what you want to see, and it streams it directly from the Internet. Or doesn’t. Or does, then forgets your phone’s controlling it and ignores you when you try to pause. I’d go mad trying to use it every day, but it takes up no space and is serviceable if you start a movie on it and just let it play.
I try to lead a paper-free life, but some bits of paper are unavoidable. I found this cheap plastic paper holder at an office supply store, and it keeps everything together and undamaged. It’s often good to have a pocket notebook, as well. I like the flexible reporter’s notebooks from moleskine (make sure you don’t get a hardcover version!). They fit perfectly in a pocket, have high-quality paper, and have a pocket in the back where you can stick receipts, cards, or a little extra cash.
All the rest
Going clockwise again, we have my clip-on sunglasses and spare prescription glasses. For buses, planes, and trains, we have a neck pillow, disinfectant wipes5, hand sanitizer, and earplugs. (A wool buff works as a sleeping mask as well as a hat and scarf.)
Below them is a clothesline that can attach to hooks or suction to walls. Two TSA-approved locks lie below the pillow. (TSA locks can be opened by airport security so they don’t have to damage your bag if they decide to open it.) The lock with two wire hoops feeds through the zippers of my bag on one end, then the other secures it to a water pipe or bedframe or whatever’s handy. I can leave it there while I take the second lock to secure my valuables while I’m at the gym or the beach.
Hotels and homes always have towels and hostels often have them to rent. When none’s available, a microfiber towel is light and dries quickly.
A Vapur water bottle lets you fill up at every opportunity and avoid the cost and waste of buying bottled water. Full, it sits upright on its base. When not needed, it rolls up to the size of a cigar.
It keeps you healthy in most of the world but can’t help you in countries where you can’t drink the water. There, you should always have a LifeStraw at hand. When you suck water through it, it removes 99% of waterborne bacteria. Hundreds of thousands of LifeStraws have been distributed by relief workers in crisis zones and saved untold numbers of lives. Yours might be another. Keep it in your bag, and you’ll feel safe going to places you never would have dreamed of seeing before.
- If you’re a nerd with Unix habits that die hard, a $5-a-month Linode with an iOS ssh client like Prompt lets you do all the scripting you’d like in the languages you like. Add a Dropbox headless installation and iOS apps that use Dropbox, and you can go-back-and-forth in the environment that works best for any given task, or open your iOS apps to find their data updated by your overnight cron jobs. ↩
- Since replaced by Apple AirPods. ↩
- An iPhone 7 Plus as of this writing. ↩
- Housesitting is indeed an adventure. ↩
- Yes, I’m that guy wiping down every surface on the plane. ↩