My favorite travel gear: Pro tips for backpacks and accessories
While researching for this site, and in the decades before that, I've literally spent well over 5 years traveling around the world with a backpack and computer bag. In all of that time I've tested almost every imaginable piece of travel gear, and I've also been asked many times what I recommend for friends, family, and readers. Below you'll find a list of items that I use and highly recommend.
If you read any amount of travel advice you've no doubt heard that you should pack as little as possible. I totally echo that sentiment, so I'm only recommending the things I will be bringing on my own next upcoming trip, along with the reasons why I like and recommend them.
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Best backpack for travelers
If you are going for a weekend trip to a nearby city, then bring a roller bag or whatever else you prefer. But if you are looking to travel for 2 weeks or 2 years, then you'll want something that is light, durable, flexible, and hopefully cheap as well. This “travel pack” fits that bill and does everything well.
Roller bags – The wheels and retractable handle add a lot of weight and take up a lot of room, so they are a poor choice unless you are incapable of using something better. They also perform poorly on cobblestone streets, and obviously on stairs as well.
Hiking-style top-stuff backpacks – Most younger people continue to use these “trail ready” backpacks that are really meant for camping. Most do have an impressive number of little pockets and compartments, but the main compartment tends to be small, and only accessible from a small hole in the top. They are a pain in the ass for real long-term travel, at least compared to the style below.
“Travel pack” backpacks – This is what the non-camping pros use, and it's what I use. They are light, built with quality zippers, and they can also have many different compartments. The primary benefit is that the main compartment is larger, and much easier to reach because the whole pack zips open like a suitcase. Combined with the packing cubes mentioned below, they provide flexibility as well as nearly instant access to everything inside.
This travel pack is the best of the bunch anywhere near this price range. The reviews are excellent, and it even comes with an extra shoulder strap in addition to the hideaway backpack straps.
eBags Mother Lode TLS Weekender Convertible
Best packing cubes and luggage system
A convenient travel pack like the one above is made far better when you combine it with these packing cubes. They weigh basically nothing, but they allow you to organize your clothes and gear, as well as stuff more into a smaller space.
This is a set of 3 different sizes, so you can use one for shirts, one for underwear, and one for socks or something else. When you unzip the main compartment of your travel pack, you'll instantly know where everything is so you can pull it out in just a few seconds. Try them and you'll never want to travel without them.
eBags Packing Cubes – 3pc Set (Black)
Best toiletry bag
Toiletry bags come in a variety of shapes and sizes. For many years I used one that had a hook on it, so you could theoretically hang it on a towel rack. But I never used the hook, and the design also made it too easy for everything to fall out.
Eventually I realized that this design is far better. It weighs nothing, it's waterproof, and the envelope shape means it can fit almost anywhere. This one is also cheap, and nearly indestructible.
Eagle Creek Travel Gear Pack-It Sac, Black, Medium
Best men's travel shoes/walking shoes
Bringing the right shoes is a critical issue on trips of one week or more. Most of us do hours of walking and climbing during the day, but when we go out in the evening we don't want to be wearing hiking boots or loudly-styled running shoes. It's tempting to take one pair of both, but obviously that adds a lot of bulk and weight to your pack.
These Brooks Addiction shoes are by far the best compromise I could find. They are built like running/hiking shoes, but they have a black (or brown) leather top so they actually look like dress shoes. They aren't cheap (no well designed and very durable shoes are) and they don't “breathe” quite as well as running shoes. But if you don't want to carry extra shoes around, these are as close to perfect as you'll find. They are sturdy and very comfortable.
Brooks Men's Addiction Walker Walking Shoes
List: US$100 to $120
Best travel sandals (men's and women's)
If you are traveling in cold weather then you probably won't want sandals, but in warmer weather these are the ones to consider. It amazes me to see young people wearing flip-flops from Southeast Asia to New York City, and it's got to be because they don't know any better. These might not look quite as cool, but they are far more functional and much easier on your feet as well.
The thing about flip-flops is that you have to exert a bit of pressure on your toes at all times just to keep the things on properly (whether you realize it or not). With these “sport sandals” you strap them on and they stay put, so you can walk for hours with much less effort, and you can also walk through forests and rivers and up steep steps and anywhere else. They also have a sole designed like a shoe (rather than just a flat piece of rubber) so they are more comfortable and better for your feet.
Best phone and passport case with neck strap
Most people won't want or need this item, but I use it every day and I love it so I thought I'd mention it. I keep my iPhone in the thing, and wear it around my neck most of the time. It's basically like having a breast pocket in a coat, except it's way more flexible.
I've used pouches like this for passports as well, and that works great too. When I'm sitting at a bar or restaurant, I always have my phone right at my fingertips, but in a safe place. Most people set their phone down on the table, and in some places that's a great way to get a phone stolen. When you have something small, valuable, and important like a phone or passport, it's nice to always know exactly where it is.
Leather Neck Pouch for Phone (Style 2) – Black
Best travel power strip/outlets
If you know the Monster company at all, it's probably from really overpriced speaker cables and other accessories. That's why it's shocking that this thing is so cheap, in spite of the obvious quality that went into the design and manufacturing. If Apple made one of these, it would be very similar and it would cost at least twice as much.
This power strip has 4 (US-style) power outlets that are spaced far enough apart (2 on each side) to plug multiple chargers or transformers in. And it has a very short cord that plugs into one of the outlets when you aren't using it. Considering it's usually on sale for around US$13 or less, it's an incredible deal on a very well-built piece of gear.
Monster MP OTG400 BK Outlets To Go 4 Outlet Travel Power Strip (Black)
List: US$19.95 (but usually much less)
Best compact travel camera
Cameras are obviously a big topic, but here's the short reason why I now carry one of these. For years I traveled with a Canon DSLR with a big lens, and I was always happy with the photos and flexibility of the thing. When I bought it in 2008, point and shoot cameras weren't even as good as today's smart phone cameras, so they were a big step down from a “serious” DSLR.
But things have changed and now point and shoots are capable of most pro features like shooting in RAW and recording high-def video. This Panasonic (with a LUMIX lens) is the camera that pro photographers carry around along with their main rig. Considering that it's probably 90% as good as my DSLR and also fits in my shirt pocket, it's an easy choice to make. There are obviously many cheaper point and shoot cameras with optical zoom lenses like this one, and if you don't need the highest quality then one of those might be a better choice.
Best travel headphones or ear buds
Without exaggeration, I've owned at least 20 pairs of earbuds, and probably a similar number of headphones. I also listen to music and podcasts almost constantly while on the road, so good sound is worth a lot to me. These cheapo earbuds are honestly the best ones I've ever tried, including those that cost US$50 or more.
Walk into any electronics shop anywhere in the world and you'll usually have a choice of about 10 or 15 brands and styles of earbuds. In my own experience, most of those will sound terrible, no matter what the price is. These sound excellent, they take up no room at all, and they are also among the most durable that I've used. All earbuds seem to break after enough abuse, and these are still going strong after well over a year of being used many hours each day. Still, I'm bringing 2 pairs with me on my next long trip, because they are hard to find in most places.
Panasonic RPHJE120K In-Ear Headphone Click here and look for the model number above
Best travel guides and books
Rick Steves is quite famous in the US, and yet he has somewhat of a mixed reputation. His long-running PBS TV show spends so much time discussing paintings and sculptures in museums that it's easy to assume his guidebooks are the nerdiest of them all. But every serious traveler I've asked about him seems to love Rick Steves just as I do.
His guidebooks are different from all the others in that they have long entries and specific advice about all the highlights of each part of Europe, and they don't even list the industrial towns and boring museums that are better avoided. He and his co-authors are also very funny, although you often have to know a bit about the subject before you get the jokes. I will continue to buy Rick Steves books to help me visit the last few European countries I've missed so far.
If Rick Steves feels like a generic recommendation for Europe, this one might even be worse. Lonely Planet has gone through some business challenges in recent years, but they are still the gold standard for directory-style guidebooks like this. In a few corners of the world there are companies who are just as good, but overall it's hard to argue with Lonely Planet.
The company continues to publish hundreds of titles of physical guidebooks like the one pictured here, but they also offer downloadable books and chapters from their website. Those are a bit cheaper and are sometimes on sale, but for solid pre-trip planning I still prefer a real guidebook like this.