Essential Gear

Outside magazine, Travel Guide 1997-1998

Essential Gear

Have you ever driven a memorable rental car? Generic sedans are okay for poking around a strange city, but they rarely qualify as your dream vehicle, and are often a bit frayed around the edges. Rental outdoor gear is much the same. Shops that rent kayaks, bikes, and dive gear look for cheap durability first; in most cases performance and up-to-date features just aren't on the list. Why not take your own stuff? It's easier than you think.

A folding sea kayak emerges in pieces from one or two duffel bags — which check on any airline as excess baggage — and assembles into an expedition-ready craft in 30 minutes. How expedition-ready? Folding kayaks have crossed the Atlantic Ocean and rounded Cape Horn. Feathercraft makes the most technologically advanced folders, with aluminum frames and Cordura/Hypalon skins. The K1 Expedition ($3,780) mimics the dimensions and feel of much-less-portable hardshell kayaks. Unique to folding kayaks, front and rear hatches ease access to your gear. The Klepper Aerius 1 ($3,400), with its wood frame and cotton canvas deck, is as old-fashioned as the Feathercraft is modern. Traditional materials don't imply outdated capabilities, however — those two feats of seamanship mentioned above were both accomplished in Kleppers. Arch-rival to the German Klepper is the French Nautiraid ($1,250-$2,950), another wood-frame design. Complement your folding kayak with a four-piece Little Dipper or Camano sea-touring paddle ($291-$464) from Werner, which will fit right in the duffel with the boat. Aqua-Bound Technology also makes fine paddles in four-piece versions ($99-$230). A good water shoe to bring along for boating is the Hi-Tec Piranha ($50); it's lightweight and fast-drying with a Durabuc synthetic-leather upper, a neoprene tongue, and an open mesh toe for better drainage.

If you own a hardshell sea kayak, and are driving to your launch site, check out Yakima's new HullyRollers kayak saddles ($110 per set with straps). Pivoting urethane wheels make it easy to roll your boat up onto the roof — even onto tall sport-utility vehicles. The wheels then lock to form a rigid, supportive cradle.

Not impressed with a sea kayak that fits in a duffel bag? How about a bicycle that you can travel with as carry-on luggage? The Brompton T5 ($962) is a cunning English-built machine that folds to a compact 23 inches square by 10 inches wide. Drop the pretzelized 26-pound package into its nylon cover and stash it in the overhead bin. The five-speed Brompton even sports a simple rear suspension. I also like the Bike Friday New World Tourist ($995), which checks as a suitcase and includes water-bottle cages as standard equipment. Bike Friday also makes an off-road model. If you like the idea of a folding bike, but not the appearance, check out the Montague Urban ($900). With full-size, 26-inch wheels and a traditional diamond-shaped frame, it won't collapse as compactly as the Brompton, but it looks and rides just like a regular bike.

If you'd rather bring your favorite bike but are terrified of trusting it to the airlines, ship it in the Trico Sports Iron Case ($299). No, it's not really iron, but it is virtually crush-proof, and the disassembled bicycle (road or mountain) is held utterly immobile by layers of thick foam. So go ahead — pack up your titanium-framed wonderbike, and then scrawl inflammatory remarks about baggage handlers on the outside of the case.

For transporting bikes by car, there are two good ways to go. If you prefer the out-of-the-way-on-the-roof approach, the Thule Aero Foot 400 rack ($177 for the complete system) has mounts available to fit practically any vehicle you could name, and the Thule Ultimate upright carrier ($100) doesn't require wheel removal to carry the bike. The easy-access approach is a hitch-mounted rack, such as the DraftMaster DM-4 ($399), which carries up to four bikes right off the back of your sport-ute.

For helmets, sleeping bags, tents, paddles — just about anything else you might need to transport — take a look at what is likely the best roof-rack trunk on the market, the Packasport ($645-$925). Available in many sizes and custom colors, the Packasport is reinforced with aluminum and Coremat foam, uses all stainless-steel hardware, and opens from the rear for three-sided access.

You can rent dive gear in virtually any reefside resort in the world. But do you really want to use a chewed-up mouthpiece, or a mask 100 other people have cleared their noses in? Make sure your underwater view is memorable with the Mares ESA ($129-$139), the first six-window dive mask in the world. I also admire the SeaQuest Tetra ($78), with its side-mounted purge valve for easier clearing.

Fin technology is steadily duck-marching onward. The asymmetric blades of the Tusa Cetus by Tabata USA ($79) may look crooked, but they produce a perfectly flat down-kick stroke that increases power and reduces fatigue.

A snorkel is pretty much a snorkel (even when they cost nearly $35). But I like SeaQuest's Sidedraft ($33), which has an extra-large reservoir to keep residual water out of the way. A choice of mouthpiece sizes guarantees comfort.

Until now, the first stages of all two-stage regulators were made from chrome-plated brass — durable, corrosion-free, but heavy. Scubapro's new MK20 Ultralight ($342) is constructed instead from a special aluminum alloy with a hard, ceramic-like finish. It's half the weight of conventional first stages. The G500 second stage ($300) is a good match — it's 15 percent smaller than other Scubapro regulators, yet retains full features. Not as lightweight as the Scubapro, but just as advanced, is the Mares Ruby ($799), which uses a synthetic ruby in the first stage poppet valve to insure lifetime performance.

Buoyancy compensators keep getting more comfortable, and one of the best is the SeaQuest Balance ($480), which employs a triangular load-distribution system that would do credit to an internal-frame backpack. Swiveling buckles allow the shoulder straps to settle to the best angle, and plush padding cushions the load. — Jonathan Hanson

Soft luggage with an outdoor pedigree has it all over the pricey-but-brittle department-store stuff. Bags made of Cordura or ballistics nylon are very strong, abrasion-resistant, and relatively light. But materials themselves don't make for a durable bag; Construction does. Here, everything's double-stitched and bar-tacked, the big zippers won't blow out when overstuffed, and handles are reinforced — so it's just a matter of choosing the best design for your trip. Augment it with smaller special-purpose carriers, and you're ready to bag most anything.

I'm a duffel kind of guy. They're uncomplicated, easy to pack, easy to access. I've been a fan of Best American Duffel for some time, and a B.A.D. No. 4 ($104, 25 by 16 by 13 inches) is generally my bag of choice. But for a long trip that requires heavy gear, a big duffel stuffed to the gills is pretty hard on the old sacroiliac. I've been unimpressed with the rolling-duffel genre (crummy wheels and poor construction) — until now. No surprise that B.A.D.'s first roller is a good one: The B.A.D. All-Terrain Bag ($160, 30 by 14.5 by 14 inches) uses smooth urethane sealed-bearing in-line skate wheels mated to a tough Cordura bag with a big horseshoe-shaped zipper.

I've been carrying a shoulder bag for more than 20 years now, ever since I first noticed Euro-pean men toting "purses" unabashed. Why not? It makes sense to consolidate wallet, sunglasses, notebook, pen, address book, and business cards — not
to mention such miscellanea as traveler's checks and airplane tickets. Ex Officio's Saddle Tote ($39, 8 by 10 by 2.5 inches) is my current favorite: six zippered compartments, another six open slots, plus a sunglasses holder on the shoulder strap. Though it's not fully waterproof, its polyurethane coating has repelled a number of downpours. I rarely resort to carrying a hidden money belt, but when I feel the need to protect my cards and currency, Eagle Creek's Undercover Deluxe Security Belt ($12) works well — it puts a soft, fleecy surface against the skin and holds more money than I'd ever want to carry.

The Orvis Battenkill Magnum Rolladuffle ($225, 29 by 14 by 14 inches) is another strong beast of a bag. With four smooth ball-bearing wheels and a sturdy, reinforced bottom, it'll roll any load (though it could use a second grab-handle for stair-carries), and three exterior pockets
let you isolate some items. The heavy canvas fabric is specially treated to turn back weather and is immensely strong.

I've probably used a dozen toiletry kits over the years, but none better than The North Face's new Kit Bag ($34). Its three compartments hold a lot in a compact (11 by 7 by 3 inches) space, and it hangs by way of a buckled strap (hook-style hangers tend to fall off their perches). Eagle Creek's All Aboard Trip Kit ($30) is larger (12 by 9 by 4.5 inches) — it'll carry full-size bottles and, dare I say it, a hair-dryer. I like it as an organizer to keep small nontoiletries (like underwear, flashlight, pocketknife) from getting lost in a cavernous duffel. Bean's Personal Organizer ($25, 10 by 9 by 3 inches) by L.L. Bean is a similar, though smaller, design; a removable mesh caddy lets you hang your hair-care items in the shower.

I like lumbar packs that are big and sturdy enough to be daypack substitutes. I also prefer top-loaders that don't spill their contents when opened. These two are the best around. The Dana Design Madison ($59) is like a klettersack for the hips, with a flap that buckles over an 800-cubic-inch, back-padded main compartment. The hipbelt runs around the bag's exterior, so when you cinch it, the load tucks into your back. It's a decent camera bag, too. The Mountainsmith Day Pack ($85, 1,254 cubic inches) has more bells and whistles, with two zippered compartments, side water-bottle carriers, and trim straps to cinch a load into the lumbar. I use it often as my airline carry-on, then as a daypack for hiking.

I wish I'd had a JanSport Minimalist ($130) for my long-ago Eurail wander through Europe instead of my conspicuously bulky frame pack. It's a streamlined internal-frame pack with a decent suspension and enough capacity (3,900 cubic inches plus a 700 cubic-inch extension topside) to carry a trek's worth of clothes and incidentals. It's not fancy (though I was impressed with the optional, detachable modular pockets I tried: a padded camera bag and a basic shoulder bag), not highly adjustable, not up to big loads of backcountry gear. It's for going light, fast, and inexpensively. The K2 FlashFit RidgeRunner ($130, 2,850 cubic inches) hums a similar tune — it's an oversize daypack ideal for lightweight traveling, with an effective and easy-to-adjust harness system. As for the Lowe Alpine Contour Mountain 40 ($99, 2,400 cubic inches), it's the best frameless daypack I've used — it hugs the shape of my back to carry 20 pounds very nicely. I loaded it up last summer for long day hikes in Alaska and used it as my carry-on for a ton of books and souvenirs.

Patagonia's MLC (Maximum Legal Carry-On; $165, 21 by 9 by 15 inches) is probably overbuilt for its purpose, but I'll take it . . . anywhere. Sized to fit within one
of those airport templates that determine whether a bag gets to ride with you or in the hold, the MLC is a two-compartment suitcase made of super-strong ballistics nylon — an anvil salesman couldn't stress it. The molded-foam, rubberized (nonslip) shoulder strap is the best I've used, and hideaway backpack straps are nicely padded. There's even a small waist strap, though no framework to support a long carry.

An ingenious hybrid bag, Eagle Creek's Cargo Voyager Large ($120, 4,500 cubic inches) has the large horseshoe zippered opening of a duffel, the looks and extra pockets of a suitcase (the end pockets are big enough to hold a pair of day hikers each) — plus hideaway backpack straps for portages. No suspension system, though; this isn't a bag for long carries on the back.

The North Face Lhasa ($250, 4,400 cubic inches) is the rare convertible built to expedition standards, and if you're only going to buy one travel bag, this should be it. It's a pack first and suitcase second, with an adjustable harness and two aluminum stays to transfer weight (it'll haul a good 40 pounds) to the padded hipbelt. The whole harness zips away for suitcase carry. Inside is a tricky little multicompartment organizer for small items, and outside there's a 1,200-cubic-inch, zip-off daypack. Down below, a sleeping bag compartment is useful also for isolating things like muddy shoes or dirty clothes. The thoughtful design, great carry, and clean looks of the Lhasa make it the pack I'd carry for any trip involving serious hoofing. — Bob Howells

I gave up being Mr. Natural years ago. I date it back to the long afternoon in France spent watching a tepid dryer swirl my cotton jeans, T-shirts, and underwear for a good two hours while I fed it very expensive coins. Synthetic travel clothes have it all over cotton and wool. First, they're half the weight and bulk of their natural counterparts. They stay wrinkle-free — not as in your father's starchy polyester, but by virtue of soft, airy fabrics (most are nylon; a few are polyester or blends) that are also amazingly durable and, yes, quick drying. If the prices make you wince a bit, just remember: You can travel for weeks with just two sets of tops and bottoms, supplemented by some judicious layering. You save a lot versus less-versatile wardrobes, and you won't be pouring francs into pathetic clothes dryers.

At the dressier end of the travel clothing spectrum are The North Face's Travel Pant ($78) and Indian Summer Shirt ($78). The smart look of the pleated polyester pant belies its technical features, which include two hidden zippered pockets, a wicking finish, and mesh-lined (easy-draining) pockets. I wore the polyester/nylon shirt as a layering piece while day hiking in Alaska last summer — I appreciated the mesh-vented back when I worked up a sweat — then rinsed, wrung, and hung it up for a couple of hours and looked snazzy in the lodge for dinner. Bonus: The crinkly material and dark plaid never show dirt or wrinkles.

My girlfriend applauds this type of outfit because she's tired of, well, looking like me when we hike together. The flap on The North Face's Tanzania Trekker's Skort ($62) gives it a feminine look — think of it as a skirt at dinner, a rugged (Cordura/ Supplex blend) short on the trail. TNF's Climbing Stretch Tank ($36) is a cool, pliant top for summer that works very well as a wicking layer under a shirt like the Women's Lavaredo ($79) — made of a meshlike nylon that's soft as flannel but stays cool and dry.

Worn solo, Patagonia's Go-T ($34) is my favorite T-shirt, particularly on a sultry day in the tropics: When pure cotton would go soggy, the 50-50 cotton/Capilene stays dry. It also plays base nicely to a midlayer like TravelSmith's Microfleece Henley Pullover ($69.50). No need to pack a bulky sweater: The Henley has cashmere good looks and touch, insulates well, and won't absorb water from within or without. It's the best midlayer around. Unless I'll be backcountry trekking, I regard Sierra Designs' Acti-vent Jacket ($159) as the ideal travel shell. It weighs just 12.7 ounces, stuffs in a fanny pack, is windproof, repels water unless absolutely drenched, and breathes like crazy, helped out by big zippered vents in front and a mesh panel in the rear.

I've worn the men's version of the Royal Robbins Passport Plaid Shirt ($65), which is mostly durable polyester but places softer mesh against back and neck — that and a wicking treatment qualify it well for trail use. The Go Everywhere Skirt ($64), made of the same soft three-ply Supplex, is obviously dressy enough for city interludes, but sources close to the author also appreciate its air-circulating abilities as an alternative to trail trousers. I own a full wardrobe of hats, but the Royal Robbins River Guide Hat ($20) is the one I travel with. It takes up no space, survives multiple pack-stuffings, and wicks perspiration — and I love its zip-away tether. Clipped to my shirt collar, it recently survived 25 knots aboard a catamaran off Maui, and the pocket is handy for holding a few bucks or a fishing license.

I've owned Ex Officio's Baja Plus shirts ($79) for six years now and never travel without one — or two. At 55 percent cotton, they're softer than other travel shirts, but nearly as quick-drying. I've worn one comfortably in steamy Grenada — with side and underarm vents open and the sleeves tabbed up — and in cold, drizzly Alaska with the vents sealed and a TravelSmith CoolMax T-shirt ($22.50) layered underneath. I also love the big-enough-for-a-notebook, Velcro-flapped pockets and the roomy, pleated back. The Ex Officio Nomad Pant ($66) has almost as broad a range: The nylon fabric is soft, tightly woven, and wind-resistant € la canvas, yet these pants are generously cut for a ventilating bellows effect. I've worn them for hiking and as my after-sunset trousers in Hawaii.

The theme and climate of my trips obviously dictate my choice of shoes. Vasque's Montreux Low oxford ($150) has good looks with its pebble-grain smooth-out Crocetta leather upper, and serious intent with a lugged Vibram sole. It's a tad warm, but a great walker that looks sharp in civilized settings. Rockport's Hydrosports XCS water shoe ($100) is my Hawaii shoe: With a mesh upper and drain ports, it's the coolest thing around — a little flimsy for serious walking, but I stick in a pair of Superfeet High Profile Footbeds ($28) for extra support. Salomon's Excentric ($75) is the best all-round travel shoe I've worn — great support from a shock-absorbing polyurethane midsole and a cool split-leather upper with airy mesh panels. I favor the Josef Seibel Advance sandal ($100) for summer city walking and dutiful museum-tromping — the nubuck leather upper is sumptuously supple and is hand stitched to a contoured polyurethane footbed. If I know I'll be trail-hiking a lot, the low-cuts get left behind and I go with a day hiker like Timberland's StrataVarious Multi-Purpose Outdoor 9000GT Mid ($100) — good ankle support from the handsome nubuck leather upper, and a cushy EVA footbed that seems to mold to my feet.

I like a travel vest for the same reason outdoor photographers do — the handiness of the pockets — but I tend to shy away from the wannabe war-correspondent look. TravelSmith's lightweight nylon Rever-sible Cargo Vest ($79) is more discreet yet still serves well, with five sealed pockets on the light-colored "field" side and two more unsealed on the black "town" side. Lowe Alpine's new Dryflo Crew T ($49) may be the best base layer I've worn. The polyester fibers, knit closer against the skin with a larger weave outside, wick like crazy. I have yet to test it in snow, but while working hard in a relentless drizzle I stayed dry and cozy. I wore these Woolrich Cargo Breakers Tradewind nylon shorts ($25) on a hike to one of those pristine rainforest waterfall pools on West Maui. While everyone else was changing, I was already swimming. The amphibious shorts have a built-in mesh brief and all the requisite hiking-short pockets.

For their two-in-one versatility, I regard convertible trousers as the keystone of travel duds, and the Supplex nylon Royal Robbins Zip 'n' Go Pant ($68) is the best I've tried. The zip-off legs effectively mean I get an extra pair of pants for just five ounces, which is what the leggings weigh, plus they're gusseted to slip over hiking boots for a quick trail switch. The Royal Robbins Expedition Long Sleeve Shirt ($60) is also made of Supplex and is almost as versatile; with a cooling mesh neck and back vent plus roll-up sleeve tabs, it's a good all-season shirt. — Bob Howells

Photographs by Clay Ellis

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