Luck is the residue of design.
A Packing List
alarm clock/watch (batteries?)
Pay particular attention to the needs of your watch for batteries, as these are quite specialized; one is unlikely to be available when you most need it. It's also useful to know how to use your watch as a compass when the sun is shining. If you're inclined to wearing a Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin (or even a Rolex or TAG Heuer), you might consider something a bit less attractive to thieves when travelling far from home; an inexpensive Timex still keeps time very well.
† Some cell phones must remain on to be used as an alarm. With these, calls can awaken you earlier than you intended, so remember to use the phone's "airplane mode" if one is available.
flashlight, headstrap, extra batteries (bulbs?)
City dwellers in developed countries might be surprised at how dark most of the world gets when the sun goes down. A flashlight (torch) can often be a necessity, for navigating dark streets, late-night reading, finding your way to the toilet, coping with power failures (from simple to massive, like New York City, the London subway attacks, and post-Katrina New Orleans), exploring lava tubes in Hawai'i, and more. It's also handy for locating items in an overhead compartment on a night flight, finding small dropped objects on a flat floor (shine the beam parallel to the surface, and the resulting long shadows will make them stand out clearly, especially if you've first turned off the room lights), and conducting a bed bug search prior to retiring in an unfamiliar bedroom (the best way to find bedbugs is to search for them — especially in cracks and crevices — using a bright flashlight). I consider a good light to be an indispensable tool, especially given that one might well save your life in the event of a disaster like a hotel fire or plane crash.
For years I recommended the Mini Maglite® AA flashlight, a particularly elegant solution (especially given the widespread availability of AA-sized batteries), and still a low-cost choice.
Recently, however, the advent of high-intensity light-emitting diodes (LEDs) has revolutionized this market, not to mention flooding it with a huge variety of LED flashlight designs (including countless "key-chain-style" lights, which — while better than nothing — are insufficient for the most important lighting needs). Alas, it's not particularly easy to separate the wheat from the (considerable) chaff, though there are many who delight in spending countless hours discussing the subject. The difficulty lies in the several conflicting goals, especially brightness vs. battery life. Many of these lights target the "extreme brightness" end of the market; the traveller, though, has an overriding interest in battery concerns, both longevity and ubiquity (the latter pretty much mandating the AA size).
Good LED flashlights incorporate sophisticated battery management electronics, making them considerably more expensive than traditional incandescent models (which are essentially just a battery and a heated wire). The added cost brings considerable benefits, however:
- For a given amount of brightness, these lights consume electricity at a dramatically slower rate than the older technology; you will buy (and lug around) far fewer batteries over the years.
- LED emitters easily outlast conventional bulbs; they may well outlast you.
- Better models provide much greater flexibility of use, offering a variety of selectable light outputs; you can choose among low-power modes that will suffice for most uses (and yield phenomenal battery life) and high-power modes that will illuminate the darkest path, and almost blind anyone whose eyes happen to be hit directly by the beam.
- As their batteries weaken, LEDs gradually become dimmer; they don't fade as abruptly — and thus annoyingly — as incandescent bulbs. (Note, however, that modern high-tech LED lights are designed to maintain contastant brightness for as long as possible, which tends to defeat this particular advantage.)
Amidst the plethora of high-tech LED lights in the current marketplace, I offer a fairly conservative recommendation, that of the Fenix E12, pictured here. This light is far from the brightest of the batch, nor does it sport a super-low mode for maximum battery conservation when reading in bed, and it lacks some high-end features (like strobe & S-O-S modes and the like), but it is a solid performer, runs from a single AA battery available worldwide, sports a straightforward user interface, and comes from a long-established company that has a reputation for uncompromising reliability. It's also modestly priced, at well under USD$30 (moving to the next level will take you into USD$50+ territory, and can easily exceed USD$100).
This is not your father's flashlight! The E12 incorporates a Cree XP-E2 LED with a lifespan of 50,000 hours, offering three continuous-illumination levels, the lowest of which (8 lumens; compare this to a little over 5 lumens with a traditional 2×AA incandescent Mini-Maglite) will give you forty hours of continuous illumination (medium brightness is 50 lumens, and high is 130 lumens), with a maximum "throw" of 289 feet (88m). The device is not much larger than the single AA cell that powers it, with a slim, black, type III hard-anodized, aircraft-grade aluminum body. It is a scant 0.75" (19mm) in diameter and 3.54" (90mm) long, weighing a mere 1.6 ounces (44g) with battery. It's also waterproof (to the IEC 60529 IPX8 standard, a depth of 2m for 30 minutes), stands upright on a flat horizontal surface ("candle mode"), and comes complete with a lanyard, spare O-ring, (alkaline) battery, and user manual. This light is controlled by a pushbutton tail-switch (recessed into the end of the body opposite the lens), which is the least likely of the three approaches (the other two being side-switch and twist-body) to be accidentally activated in your pocket). If you have not yet been exposed to one of these high-tech LED lights, you will be dellightfully surprised when you first open the box containing this engineering delight: you may well end up buying additional ones to be used as gifts.
With any flashlight, if you plan a lot of usage (especially of the higher current modes), you'll be better served with lithium or rechargeable NiMH cells.
Periodic lubrication of the O-ring with a touch of inexpensive silicone grease (available at any hardware store) is a wise maintenance measure for any high-quality light of this type.
You'll carry an umbrella when there's only a 30% chance of rain, but every night there is a 100% chance of darkness.
If you want to move beyond the E12, you certainly can. If you switch to a CR123A battery, for example, you can up the lumen output dramatically (and if you're willing to deal with rechargeable lithium batteries or multiple batteries, you can literally blind people with the output). But this is territory for serious enthusiasts only: there are numerous design trade-offs to be considered (not to mention dubious manufacturers), and I strongly advise you to put in some serious study with the many experts at CandlePowerForums and/or BudgetLightForum. My focus here is more on simplicity, reliability, and AA batteries.
The usefulness of any light is increased if you are able to operate it "hands-free". Alas, the excellent — inexpensive, lightweight, adjustable, comfortable, holds lights for both straight-ahead and angled-downward illumination — "Jakstrap®" (pictured here with a Mini Maglite), was discontinued some time ago (though you may still be able to find a few remaining for sale). Nitecore makes a similar, though inferior (non-elastic, single light position) strap holder that is probably the best compromise. Another (more elaborate, heavier, and pricier) option is the Fenix Headband. And remember, for short-term usage, you can always hold a light in your mouth, or rubber-band it to the frame of your eyeglasses.
Some address the "hands-free" desire by using a headband-style light, such as the popular Petzl Tikka Headlamp. Aside from its one obvious advantage, however, I don't think this solution stacks up well against the Fenix light that I recommend. It's more expensive, twice as heavy, considerably more bulky, less rugged (plastic), non-waterproof, non-pocket-friendly, and has fewer illumination modes; further, it uses three times as many (less-common AAA) batteries, which, at a normal street-illumination level, it consumes at a rate ten(!) times that of the E12.
knife, screwdrivers, pliers, scissors
The term Swiss Army knife has become part of the language. They are manufactured by both Victorinox and Wenger (I prefer the quality of the former). In recent years, however, their position has been largely usurped by the Leatherman tools, which are extremely well made and add a powerful pair of pliers to the toolset (and have spawned numerous imitators, generally of poorer quality). Most such multipurpose tools incorporate knives, however, so although excellent solutions for some journeys, they are definitely at odds with the security rules that govern air travel.
A potential exception to this is the Leatherman Style® PS (pictured at left), an elegant tool weighing 1.6 oz (45g) that incorporates spring-action needlenose & regular pliers, wire cutters, scissors, flat/phillips screwdriver, nail file, tweezers, and small carabiner that doubles as a bottle opener. A modestly-sized 2.9 inches (7.5cm) when closed, it sells for under USD$20. Always bear in mind, however, that although this and other tools are designed specifically to be TSA-friendly, individual countries have their own (also ever-changing) rules. Most importantly, you are always at the mercy of individual inspectors, who get to interpret the rules on the spot.
Should you feel compelled to fly with a knife-bearing tool, you can always check your bag (if you consider that an acceptable option) or place the tool in a checked package (a plain cardboard box, or your "emergency" duffel), separate from your carry-on bag. If you choose the latter option, fill the package with something (even crumpled newspaper) to give it some heft, and stop the tool from rattling around.
Alas, it's not only airplanes that present this problem. If you travel on Eurostar between Britain and France, for example, you'll suffer a similar security issue, and in this case without the option of checking the offending item: it will simply be confiscated. So be aware that security rules can apply in unanticipated places.
Luckily, though, you can buy an inexpensive kitchen knife just about anywhere you are likely to travel. Even an upscale model, France's Opinel folding knife — the travel design classic pictured at right — can be found for under USD$15, and it's hard to imagine an easier way to add a proper "European" flair to your adventures. Its carbon steel blade is incredibly sharp, but will rust easily, so keep it lightly oiled (cooking oil is fine); Opinel also makes stainless versions, but the classic original is sharper. Note that the larger knives lock open, which most will consider a safety feature, but the aforementioned Eurostar thinks that makes it a weapon, so don't try to take one aboard, unless you first remove the locking sleeve (not a difficult task for a pair of pliers, and a newer knife will still work for most uses without it — just be more careful).
And should choice or circumstance leave you knife-less, remember that dental floss (one of the best multipurpose tools) does an excellent job of cutting cheese, cake, pastry, hard butter, and much more!
If your beverage preferences lean more towards corked containers than capped ones, you'll be well served by learning how to open a wine bottle without a corkscrew (a prohibited tool in some countries).
Pliers, especially decent adjustable models (the tongue and groove — aka rib joint — design is best), can prove very useful for making a variety of necessary repairs out on the road (as well as bending a wire coathanger into anything you might need!); they are, after all, the main reason that Leatherman tools displaced the Swiss Army knife. A reliable, high-quality version (pictured at left) is the tiny Channellock 424: a mere 4.5 inches (114mm) in length, it weighs in at a modest 1.89 oz (54g). Note that a rubber band wrapped around the handles of one of these converts it to an effective clamp, useful for putting pressure on items being glued, and holding things in position while you work on them.
If you wear glasses, and will be far from optometrists, bring something that can handle the associated screws, even if it's just one of those cheap/tiny eyeglass repair kits commonly available at pharmacies.
A pair of compact, folding scissors can be surprisingly useful. Realize, though, that they might not make it past airport security checks, depending on the country and its "rules of the day".
spoon (fork? chopsticks? spork?),
(coffee tin lid) plate or bowl
One sure way to reduce travel expenses is to limit the number of restaurant meals. Breakfast at your B&B is one way. Picnics are another. Cost savings aside, a lunch in the park, with fresh bread, cheese, yogurt, and fruit from the local shops, is likely to be more memorable than another tourist trap pizza. In addition to your knife, you will likely want a spoon; a good (light, strong) choice is one made from Lexan polycarbonate (i.e., not cheap plastic).
Optional utensils include a fork and a pair of chopsticks (or, as I prefer, the Japanese-style hashi). I am not an advocate of the conventional "spork" (though this spoon/fork combination has an undeniably catchy name, dating back to at least 1909). To me, it has always seemed a marriage of the worst of both instruments: a fork with too-short/thick tines that also serves as a spoon with drainage slots in the bowl. But clever Scandinavian designer Joachim Nordwall has come up with the Light My Fire® Spork (shown at right), a polycarbonate version that turns the usual configuration on its end, and even throws in a sort-of-knife (but not enough to excite airport security) for good measure. Available in a multitude of colours, it's strong, light, and (especially when purchased in a multipack) inexpensive. Getting a few extras is not a bad idea in any event, as you will likely use some as gifts: when people first see them, they invariably want one for themselves! It has been such a successful product that it now comes in a dizzying array of optional models: a larger (XM) size (1.25"/3cm longer), a children's size (which also omits the knife), a serving size (for those planning to host parties while travelling?), and even a version for left-handers (with the knife edge on the opposite side). They also come in a pricier titanium version, which is considerably more rugged than the plastic models, thus probably the best choice for truly remote travel. Normally, though, I prefer the original (which is less than half the weight, and doesn't look strange on an X-ray search); just don't stress the centre portion too much.
What to eat on? Long-time travellers know that the plastic lids used to reseal large coffee (and other) tins make great plates on which to slice fruit, etc., but if you can tolerate a bit more weight (2.8 oz. / 8g), consider one of Sea to Summit's collapsible X Bowls (pictured at left), a modest-sized 6 × 2.25 inch (15 × 5.5cm) bowl that holds 22 fl. oz. (650ml) and packs reasonably flat (0.625 inch / 1.6cm). It joins a rigid, cut-resistant food-grade nylon base (which can be used as a cutting board) to walls made of flexible food-grade silicone (which withstand temperatures well above the boiling point, and make pouring liquids easy).
Not just for backcountry hikers, a simple compass can be invaluable in helping you navigate the urban mazes of the world. When you emerge from the London subway onto Oxford Street for the first time, how will you otherwise know in which direction to walk to reach Selfridges? Or perhaps you've gotten lost in downtown New Delhi, though you know that you're somewhere west of the Red Fort; how will you find your way out? It's possible, if you know the correct time, to accurately orient yourself using the sun, but a compass is much more reliable.
If you're a serious orienteer, and plan to carry a mirror compass, this can also meet your reflective needs for the trip. But urban travellers will save weight, space, and cost with a separate lightweight mirror.
A good whistle is a cheap security investment, able to sound an alarm, summon taxis, deter muggers & other unwanted attention, and help others find you if you are lost, hurt, or trapped (you can blow a whistle much louder — and longer — than you can shout). You can even (as one reader commented) convince a doorman to let you depart a nightclub immediately, rather than wait around disputing your bill!
Louder is better: the loudest mouth-blown whistle you can buy is the astonishing 142dB (louder than a jet aircraft, 50m away) "HyperWhistle", but both it and the (2nd place, about 10dB lower) "Storm" are a bit large for everyday carrying. Excellent smaller alternatives are the 120dB "Fox 40 Sharx" (pictured at right — this is the one I carry), and even tinier 110dB "Fox 40 Micro" (2×1×3/8 inches, pictured at left). The Fox whistles are "pea-less" (instead of a tiny internal ball, they create their warbling pitch using multiple sound chambers), which allows them to function properly even in below-freezing weather.
For comparison purposes, appreciate that a 10dB difference in sound pressure equates to a doubling of perceived "volume" 9though this varies by individual).
I simply carry my whistle in an easily-accessible pocket; some folks tether them to their flashlights (which is particularly convenient in a disaster situation). If you choose to wear yours (or anything else) around your neck, please be safe and use a breakaway neck lanyard.
The compleat traveller carries some sort of portable door lock. In addition to its most obvious use in places where the security may be less than what you would wish, one can also be helpful to secure doors in shared toilet facilities, keep small children safely contained, and even prevent a usually welcome travel companion from stumbling upon a potentially embarrassing situation. My favourite such device (all of the locks mentioned here work on doors that open inward) is the peculiarly named "Howsarlock" (seen at left), two tiny tethered pieces of reinforced nylon: one inserts in the latch hole of a door jamb, and the other wedges it in place there. Very ingenious, very elegant, very strong, and very light (a trifling 0.4 oz. / 12g). Another option, working on the same basic principle and slightly easier to deploy (though not as intuitive: you'll definitely need to read the instructions), is Rishon's "Addalock". This also works very well, but has several metal parts that can rust in the tropics, and is more than ten times the weight of the Howsarlock; it's also notably bulkier and pricier.
The budget solution (though neither as light nor as compact as the Howsarlock) is a simple, convenient wedge-type rubber door stop, jammed solidly under the door at night (as far from its hinges as possible), which will provide you with a good measure of additional protection against unexpected visitors. Doors are hung at various heights, so don't get one too thin. That said, rough/uneven floor surfaces (especially some types of carpet) reduce the efficiency of rubber wedges, possibly enabling a sufficiently motivated miscreant to force the door open anyway (although you are unlikely to sleep through the event). For more serious security along these lines, consider a Veritas® Traveller's Doorstop (pictured at right); this hefty (7.1 oz, 201g) chunk of solid aluminum features a hardened steel anti-slip screw adjustment to tighten the wedge against the door, and prevent slippage across the floor. A door thus secured will break long before it opens (someone trying hard enough might damage the carpet a bit, but better that than you). And if you're looking for a dual use in order to justify packing this, realize that you could probably fight your way out of a bar with one of these things!
Me, I'll stick with the Howsarlock. Just keep in mind that the use of any door security device will delay emergency exits from (or entrances into) the room.