A Frequent Flier’s Guide to Travel Gear That Works
The bags, clothes, tools, and drugs that make regular long-haul flights survivable
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I travel a lot. Often to faraway places. Often in bad weather. Often to do active stuff outdoors. And I’ve been doing that for decades. This is the gear that gets me there and the approach that holds it all together.
A few years ago, I flew to Siberia in the dead of winter to visit my friend’s World War II–era motorcycle factory. I did that trip carry-on only. Last September, I spent two weeks crossing Australia’s vast Simpson Desert in vintage 4x4s. I did that trip carry-on only. Back when I was dirt broke after a terrible injury, I couldn’t afford to check a bag on a flight to Moab, where I was testing a new adventure bike, so I managed to get my entire suit of riding armor, complete with bulky dirt-bike boots, into my carry-on. This is the bag that made all that possible.
The Maxpedition Unterduffel has to be the most cleverly designed carry-on ever conceived. I wish it didn’t have the tacti-cool MOLLE straps on the outside, but its 1,000-denier Cordura body is ultra-tough and water resistant. That’s backed up by incredibly strong oversize zippers that have never once snagged or failed to run smoothly. The bag’s cavernous main compartment is lightly padded to help keep things like laptops intact. It has just enough pockets to organize your small items without impeding the bag’s ability to swallow large ones. Heavy-duty straps allow you to cinch everything down tightly.
The best part? Unlike hard-sided roller bags, the Unterduffel is specifically sized to fit in the tight overheads of even regional commuter jets. This bag will never be turned away at check-in. You’ll never have to gate-check it. You’ll never not be able to cram it into the last nook available on the plane when you’re late for your flight and dashing through the boarding gate just as they’re slamming it shut.
The Unterduffel also includes hideaway backpack straps that are overbuilt, strong, and comfortable. When I’m throwing this bag into the back of a truck, I’ll zip the straps away, but they’re my preferred method for carrying the bag throughout air travel. I long ago threw the included shoulder strap into a drawer and forgot about it. Unlike over-the-shoulder bags or those that wheel along behind you, backpacks allow you to move naturally and quickly through crowded terminals, board buses and trains, or run up up a flight of stairs when the escalator is packed with people who won’t get out of the way.
I must have owned this thing for ten years now, and the only wear is a chewed-up handle from when Wiley got to it as a mischievous little puppy. My Unterduffel been strapped to the top of trucks, left out in the rain, dropped in mud, and even survived a sandstorm. I once used it on a 20-mile backpacking trip, but obviously there are better options for that. And I’ll probably get at least another ten years of use out of it.
Fi is Google’s new cellphone service. Google doesn’t provide the network, but instead uses major carriers. In the United States, that’s a combination of Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular. Abroad, it’s typically whichever company is biggest in whatever country you’re visiting. That means coverage is almost always excellent, even in rural areas.
More important is Fi’s contract-free payment structure: $20 nets you unlimited worldwide calling and texting and data costs $10 per gigabyte. You pay only for what you use, and those prices are universal in and between the 135 countries Fi works in. It’s cheap, but it’s also extremely useful. There’s no restriction on laptop tethering, so you can turn on the phone’s Wi-Fi hotspot and connect your computer to the internet as long as you have a cell signal. That’s how I manage to keep up with work when I travel. Not only can you get your computer online virtually anywhere, but you can do so at a cheaper rate and with a faster signal than what’s available in most airports, hotels, and cafes.
My Nexus 5X was replaced this year with the more powerful Pixel, but it’s still available at bargain prices. The only reason I haven’t upgraded is that my old one bit the dust in the muddy outback, and I had to purchase a new one in Australia for something like $750, and I’m still mad about that. You have to use an Android phone if you want to get on Fi, and Google’s own phones are way better than the bloated alternatives from other companies.
I like being the kind of person who can fix his own problems and is prepared and able to help others. But traveling carry-on-only puts some major restrictions on what you can take with you. So I’ve developed a slimmed-down package that can go with me anywhere while still affording significant capabilities.
I’ve written about my keychain toolkit. With a little flashlight, a pry bar/bottle opener, and a small, knife-free Leatherman, my kit is super handy as well as TSA-compliant. It should fly okay through other countries, but many don’t have the United States’ culture of capability and don’t really understand why someone would want to carry a multitool. The Leatherman Style PS is $24. Mine is confiscated once a year or so. I just order a new one from Amazon as soon as that happens so it’s waiting at home when I get there. No big deal.
The multitool gives you the ability to cut things with its dinky little scissors, but it can’t replace the self-defense capability of the knife I typically carry when I’m not flying. You’re more likely to be injured in your bathroom at home than you are to be assaulted abroad, but the irrational side of my brain still likes to have a little force-multiplication ability, just in case I need to stick up for someone else while traveling. A strongly constructed pen doubles as an effective kubotan. A large Sharpie would get the job done, but I haven’t had any hassles when flying with my steel-bodied Gerber Impromptu tactical pen, which also gives me a carbide glass-breaker. Just clip it in your pocket in place of your knife.
Recently, I’ve also been throwing the incredible little FourSevens Mini Mk II in my bag, along with its little charger. This flashlight throws out 1,020 lumens, with virtually no weight or size penalty, which is just an awesome additional capability to have with you.
Relying on Ambien all the time probably isn’t the healthiest thing to do, but it’s so helpful for coping with long-haul flights and adjusting to different time zones that I don’t mind using it occasionally for that purpose.
A typical international trip requires four pills. I take one on the flight after dinner is served so I can grab a few hours of sleep. Then, once I’ve arrived at my destination, I’ll force myself to stay up until a normal bedtime and take the second Ambien to make sure I sleep through most of the night. That’s usually enough to get used to a new time zone. On the flight home, I’ll do the same thing, and a pill the first night home will help me readjust in the same way.
It’s gross, so most people don’t talk about it, but the stress, altered schedules, and unhealthy or unfamiliar food of travel can really give you some trouble with your bowel movements. I carry a little plastic baggie of psyllium husk and regularly supplement with it before and through travel. Doing so helps keep pooping predictable, speedy, and easily cleaned up. Obviously you’ll want a few Imodium tablets, too, just in case you get the runs.
A travel pack of baby wipes isn’t a bad idea, either.
Air travel is like backpacking, just with shittier food and the possibility of encountering an attractive member of the opposite sex with an accent. You want clothes that can keep you comfortable across a wide range of weather conditions and activities but also look nice in nonactive settings.
The first rule of travel is to throw out any white shoes or socks you may own. There’s no faster way to spot an American abroad than by their awful footwear. Next, ditch the hiking boots. You’re traveling through an airport, not the Rocky Mountains.
Since we’re starting from the bottom up, I wear merino wool Icebreaker Hike Lite socks 365 days a year. Wear one pair and pack another. They don’t pick up stink, and they work in temperatures ranging from about 20 degrees up to 100-plus. Over the socks, I try to wear a shoe that will be appropriate for as close to everything I’m planning to do as possible. Something that works as well with a T-shirt as it does a collared shirt. Chukkas do a pretty good job of that for general travel. A nice pair of work boots might be better if you’re visiting winter.
For pants, I wear the only pair I take with me. I’d like to tell you that I wear something hydrophobic and stretchy like Duers, but in all honesty, I wear the same pair of plain old Patagonia jeans I wear every other day. Just wipe them with a wet washcloth or wash them in a hotel sink and dry with the hair dryer if they get dirty.
The best travel shirt, by far, is one of Trew’s merino pocket tees. They look nice, fit well, and don’t stink. Unlike most lightweight merino fabrics, the NuYarn threads stand up to abrasion and washing. Trew’s tees also make a good base layer under a button-down or sweater in colder temps.
Most of the year in most places, you’ll also want a shell and a midlayer. At the very least, trying to sleep on an airplane requires a little extra warmth. Picking stuff that looks nice and works will help lighten your load by eliminating other things in your pack. An ultralight down jacket is still the best option for keeping you warm while packing small and light. I wear the Westcomb Blaze, which manages to achieve those benefits without making me look like a ski bum. On top of that, I’ve always worn my Barbour International jacket. Made from waxed cotton, it’s heavy but looks good while being both waterproof and breathable. The jacket’s pocket situation is ideal for carrying passports, headphones, and whatever. In warmer seasons, I might go for the Mission Workshop Meridien vest instead. It’s made from Polartec NeoShell, the most waterproof-breathable membrane there is, making this vest just right for shedding light rain or cutting the wind on a chilly day. It barely take up any room or weighs anything, but it gives you a ton of pockets. Looks good over a nice shirt at night, too.
People often ask me if where they’re going is safe, if they need to buy travel insurance in case they get sick, or how to deal with language barriers. Honestly, they’re overthinking it.
Are you used to big cities? Have you lived in New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles? If so, you’ll be used to the risks posed in cities anywhere. If you feel safe walking home at night where you live, you’ll feel safe walking home at night where you’re going. Just like here, don’t walk around flaunting conspicuous wealth. Just like here, don’t go around offending people. Just like here, don’t leave your passport laying around. Just like here, don’t carry thousands of dollars in cash.
What happens if you get sick? Well, with all the talk of the ACA getting repealed, you’ve probably heard that universal health care is a thing in other countries. It is. It provides a better level of care than you get here, for free, no strings attached. Medicine in foreign countries is awesome. You can get prescription-strength stuff from a pharmacist, and if you get hurt, their painkillers are way stronger than ours. Trust me, the experience of winding up in a foreign hospital is borderline enjoyable.
What if you don’t speak the language? I don’t. I barely speak English. Study a little before you go, put in a little effort, be polite and patient, and you’ll be fine.
No matter where you’re going, people are people. Be cool, and they’ll be cool back.
This is where the guy who travels for a living tells you the one trick with miles, your credit card, or some secret customer-service hotline that will enable you to upgrade to a better seat for less money. Right? Well, I hate to break it to you, but there isn’t one. Air travel is always a miserable experience. There’s nothing that you, I, or anyone else can do about it.
I hate flying as much as you do. In fact, because I have to do it so much, I probably hate it more. The only thing you can do to make it better is approach it with the right mindset. Instead of letting the inevitable delays, unexpected costs, and rude people get to you, just try to stay happy and positive throughout. Be nice to everyone, don’t let yourself get upset, and adapt to the pain of sitting in a too-small seat with Zen-like patience. The experience sucks, but your attitude doesn’t have to.
You can make your life easier by minimizing what you take with you, leaving plenty of time for travel to the airport so you’re not rushed, and drinking heavily throughout. Being crammed into a sealed canister of recirculated farts with hundreds of the worst people on earth will always be a little easier if you have some alcohol in you.