Gear Geek: 7 Road-Tested Must-Have Travel Essentials

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Gear Geek: 7 Road-Tested Must-Have Travel Essentials

The new year has already been a busy one for the Gear Geek, with travels to high-altitude climes (Telluride, CO, and Chamonix, France), as well as the urban Mecca of Barcelona and the Caribbean’s most interesting (and largest) island, Cuba. All that globetrotting forced a variety of packing demands, from gear-intensive cold-weather outings that included resort skiing, fat-tire biking, ice climbing by headlamp, ingesting huge amounts of tapas, and wandering the cobblestone streets in the unforgiving heat of World Heritage-listed Trinidad, Cuba. More gear and reporting about those trips will come in the ensuing weeks, but here are seven items that served me well on the road, and have become must-haves for future travels.

1. Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled Duffel Bag, $329; 2. Allbirds Wool Runners , $95; 3. Outdoor Tech Kodiak 2.0 Charger , $50; 4. Smith Optics Guide’s Choice Sunglasses, $229; 5. Trew Lightweight Nuyarn Merino ¼-Inch Zip, $109; 6. Klettewerks Flip Backpack , $199; 7. Gobi Gear SegSac, from $20.

Image: Adam Bautz, CC-BY

Nathan Borchelt is a gear-obsessed travel writer and adventurer whose collection of shoes, backpacks, jackets, bags, and other “essential” detritus has long-outgrown his one-bedroom apartment (and his wife’s patience).

Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled Duffel Bag

After a faithful rolling bag practically exploded on me after I over-stuffed it with ski and climbing gear, I upgraded to this pack, part of Patagonia's famed Black Hole series of rolling bags, duffels, packs, and totes. And though I over-stuffed it a lot—including loads of Cuban rum, thank you very much—it's weathered the road beautifully. I went with the 70-liter size, ideal for a week or two of warm weather travel with nominal gear (think city stomping, hiking, or trail running vs. activities that require bulky footwear or helmets). The ripstop poly is bombproof, and comes with a TPU laminate and a DWR finish to armor up against the elements. Otherwise, it keeps things simple, with one internal zipper compartment, twin mesh zip pockets on the flip-top lid, one external side pocket, and internal compression straps. And Patagonia recently introduced a new lightweight series of Black Hole packs, employing the same design concept with lighter, 7.1-ounce, 210-denier fabric, making them ideal for stash-and-forget packs to fill up with everything you want to bring home.

Allbirds Wool Runners

My wife scoffed at the notion of wearing merino wool sneakers in the heat and humidity of the Caribbean—and even though it was winter in Cuba, I wasn't sure how well they'd perform. I'm happy to report that they were a revelation. The fit feels like a pair of slippers—soft, lightweight, and breathable. But they also proved that merino wool does absolutely keep you cool in hot climates. They worked beautifully over streets, cobblestones, and dirt paths. I still don't think I'd use them for trail running; the feel between the foot and the sole can get a bit slippy. But my feet were never sore, even after clocking a ten-mile wander throughout Havana after a seven-mile run earlier that morning. And merino's all-natural odor-free properties were equally appreciated after I kicked the Allbirds off after that long day.

Outdoor Tech Kodiak 2.0 Charger

Truth be told, my go-to portable battery has long been the Brunton Resync 6000, which comes with a convenient solar panel for additional hail mary charging. But that product has mysteriously left the market, so my backup is now my prime recommendation. They Kodiak 2.0 offers much of the same versatility found in the Brunton, including two charging ports to let you refuel more than one device at a time, along with a micro-USP port to recharge the device. It also boasts some solid features the old Brunton doesn't have, like full waterproofness (when the lid is closed) and a clever 1,000-lumin integrated light panel to help you organize that knot of cables in the dark. Outdoor Tech

Smith Optics Guide's Choice Sunglasses

The hassle of traveling with most sport-specific shades? They often only look legit in the field. What works on the bike kind of makes you look out of place in a sun-bathed roof deck. That's where the Guide's Choice excels. Performance-wise, it comes with all the bells and whistles: polarized ChromaPop lenses for optimal clarity with anti-reflective coating, stainless steel spring hinges to reduce wear fatigue, and arms that are wide enough to block out peripheral brightness when you're moving perpendicular to the sun. Beyond all that, they just look sleep. Sporty, but not "I'm just chilling cos my BPR isn't level yet and then I'm gonna wind-sprint a marathon" sporty.
Smith Optics

Trew Lightweight Nuyarn Merino 1/4-Inch

I've praised this base layer before, but it bears repeating: the quarter-inch merino wool long-sleeved base layer still remains the one to beat. I used it skiing, climbing, and running in temps that varied from 20 to 40 degrees and it always performed admirably. And the black/gray design doesn't even appear too gear geek-ish, if that matters. The process of creating the yarn (which includes wrapping the wool around a nylon core) delivers more warmth and stretch than its competitors, and it's also rated to be 25% warmer and dries five times faster. Better still, underarm gusset is made of a slightly different fabric to let the garment breath even when the mock turtleneck is zipped tight. Elastic cuff loops also help with layering.

Kletterwerks Flip Backpack

There are loads of more technical packs on the market—and Kletterwerk's parent company Mystery Ranch makes loads of great ones. But nothing has beaten the beautiful simplicity of their Flip. As its name implies, it boasts a 2/3 panel zip top that flips open, exposing 23 liters of storage space along with a padded laptop sleeve. On that lid, a simple zippered compartment for your smaller items. Otherwise, the design is the same as it was when it was introduced 40 years ago, with padded shoulder sleeves, a handful of adjustable carrying and compression straps on the outside, and an aesthetic that's become timeless. It fits everything—food, layers, water bottles, mid-flight essentials. It's not the pack to grab for backcountry hut-to-hut trips, but for a reliable go-anywhere daypack, it's tops. And if you're a bit OCD like me, you can also use a few smaller organizational bags to keep things tidy; I use an older version of the Crumpler Haven to carry my camera kit (a DSLR body + two lenses), which nestles nicely inside the Flip.
Mystery Ranch

Gobi Gear SegSac

Sometimes the least exciting piece of gear offers the biggest return. Witness the SegSac, which takes your typical backpack-friendly stuff sack to a whole new level thanks to a very simple idea: segmentation. The bag is made of 30D ripstop nylon, with a single drawstring opening and a grab handle down below. Inside? The revelation: four separate compartments, which will let you keep your running kit separate from your hiking or casual socks, or keep your funky post-run/hike/whatever clothes from rubbing shoulders with your remaining clean clothes. And the compression strap makes it easy to crunch everything down at the trip's end, then dump the whole thing into the wash when you return home. Available in 15, 20, and 30 liters.
Gobi Gear