Friday, March 13, 2009

Gear review!

I still have more to say on Xinjiang, and I never did write about Dufu's Thatched Cottage, come to think of it. But while I psych myself up for those topics, here's a little gear review - what worked and what didn't on my month of travel.

WARNING: this might be boring. But I thought about these issues a lot while traveling, and, you know, I'm kind of obsessive.

First off - I am a bag junkie. Not designer purses, I mean travel bags and gear bags. I'm not sure why, but I just love really well-made and functional bags. Well, part of this is logical enough - if you've done any amount of traveling, you know what a difference it makes, having a good bag versus a bad bag.

For this trip I took Red Oxx bags - their Skytrain and Mini Ruck.

Here's what you need to know about Red Oxx gear - it's expensive, extremely well-made (the owners are former paratroopers and it shows), very functional and awfully cool-looking. I hesitated over the cost but the stuff has a lifetime warranty, and ultimately I'd rather have something I can use for a very long time than a piece I'll have to replace after a few years of hard wear. Plus, on the off-chance that I do end up with a job at some point in the future, I wanted luggage good-looking enough to use for business travel, and while this definitely is in the "rugged, functional" category, the quality really shows.

I'd gotten the Mini Ruck months earlier to serve as my all-purpose shopping bag around town, now that I'm not commuting and pretty much walking everywhere. A load of groceries gets really heavy on one shoulder after a few blocks. I loved the Mini Ruck enough to invest in the Skytrain - after much serious consideration of Tom Bihn's Aeronaut. I've heard many great things about Tom Bihn's products, and like Red Oxx gear, it's all made in the USA. But for once, I wanted luggage that matched, so I went for the olive Skytrain.

The Skytrain was everything advertised and more. It's incredibly rugged and holds a surprising amount of stuff for a carry-on bag (including that huge pair of Sorel boots I got for the cold weather that never materialized. More on that later). There always seemed to be room for one more thing in the Skytrain, and the sturdy seams and zippers never showed signs of strain. Plus, I never saw another bag like it the entire trip. No worries about finding your Red Oxx on the luggage carousel - it really stands out.

If you don't want or need backpack straps and still want Red Oxx, go for the Air Boss. Because I had the Mini Ruck, I generally carried my Skytrain with the Claw shoulder strap - the strap is designed to stretch and for whatever reason, it makes carrying a load on your shoulder a lot more comfortable than you'd expect. But I'm still glad to have the backpack option, because I may be changing up my second bag in the future.

The Mini Ruck made a great bag for all-day trips, especially with the changeable weather I encountered and the need for room to stuff a spare layer, hat and gloves. One caveat - well, two. I like to take photos on my trips, and along with a point and shoot (loved that camera. Somehow managed to break it. Was seriously bummed), I use a compact digital SLR (the Olympus E-410 - love it, though I still have much to learn - I've linked to the last page of a very technical 28 page review - it's a great deal compared to its competitors, and slightly more compact), which while small, still needs some space to carry it in. While there's plenty of space in the Mini Ruck (and the enclosed foam padding along the back offers some protection), it's not the most convenient way to carry a camera, as you are constantly having to get the pack off your back and open it up and take out the camera. Also, the Mini Ruck will not fit neatly under many airline seats, particularly if it's stuffed full. For both of these reasons, you may want the Gator, which is specifically designed as an under-the-seat camera and gear bag. I wished for one all the way across China.

A Gator would not have solved my capacity issues the way the Mini Ruck did, and even with that, especially after I got some unexpected gifts, I was really glad I'd packed my Patagonia Lightweight Travel backpack (mine's a few years old and a little different, but the one linked is close). This is a great, tough little pack that compacts down to nothing and holds a lot when you need it, and even with heavy loads, it's surprisingly comfortable to carry. As mentioned (parenthetically) I've had mine for a few years and it's held up well under difficult conditions.

I needed all that space because I'd packed for cold weather that mostly didn't materialize. It was the weirdest thing. Everywhere I went, there was a mysterious warming spell. I had maybe two cold days, one in Urumqi and one on the Kazak border, in Xinjiang. Otherwise, it was spring and even summer. I never put on a pair of long underwear, wore my scarf once, wore my gloves twice.

For that reason, the Sorel Caribou boots were a big bust. I almost didn't bring them and almost left them behind in Beijing, it was so unseasonably warm there, and I wore them exactly once, in Urumqi.

Don't get me wrong. The Sorels were a great deal (if they don't have your size at 6 O'Clock, check Amazon), they fit me perfectly (I ordered the men's size 7), were really comfortable and kept my feet warm and toasty. They were just way too much boot and took up way too much space for the use I got out of them. I could have easily gotten by with my North Fake, er Face short hiking boots, or the insulated Caterpillar Boots I'd taken to be stretched that weren't ready in time.

That left me with one pair of shoes, and those were a winner: Merrell's Prague boot, ankle-high, water-proof, cozy, very comfortable (I walked for hours on end) and even kind of stylish. As the linked review notes, they have Velcro closures, the perfect thing for airport security lines.

Other clothing: even with the unexpectedly warm weather, it was still pretty cold compared to Los Angeles in a lot of places. But with the downright springtime conditions in Kunming and Dali (during the day), I was really glad that I went with multiple layers as opposed to a heavy jacket.

Now for the winner of the Single Most Invaluable Piece of Clothing Award - REI's Belltown Parka. Okay, along with my strange bag fixation, I have this...jacket thing. I'm always searching for the perfect jacket for every (non-formal) occasion. This one comes awfully close. It's water-proof, breathable, long (comes over the hips), makes a great shell, even looks kind of nice thanks to the drawcord waist, and most importantly, it has really good pockets. Handwarmers, an inside security pocket, and best of all, a disguised chest pocket that's BIG and, well, doesn't hit you right in the boob so you can actually put stuff in it without looking like you've stashed a projectile on your chest. When you're running around with a wallet, a passport and two cellphones (one global with Chinese dictionary, one Chinese only), not to mention a constant tissue stash for uncertain toilet conditions and chronic upper respiratory bugs, believe me, these things become important.

What else? A good pair of stylish enough cargo pants. I wore my pair from the Gap to death. Why cargo pants? See above. Pockets are good.

On days where I might have otherwise needed long underwear, I relied on Ex Officio's XTT pants, which kept me warm in temperatures in the 20s. Be warned: the pants run small (I don't know if this is true of the men's sizes). Bonus: they have lots of pockets. I got them on sale, as I did all of the winter gear I bought. One upside to the global economic crisis, I guess.

Another piece I only wore a few times but was really glad that I'd brought along: the Patagonia Micro Puff jacket (yeah, I got it on sale). I chose the men's because the women's only came with a hood, which I didn't need, and it was too fitted - I wanted something I could layer over a sweater and under a shell. This worked wonderfully, and best of all, it stuffs into a little sack and is really packable. Plus, it's actually kinda cute. And what's really important here?

In general, Patagucci, that is, Patagonia, makes great stuff. Yes, it's pricey. But just about everything I've ever purchased from them is good quality, highly functional and lasts a really long time. I would love to provide a link for my favorite sweater, which has served me so well through so many winter trips, but they stopped making it years ago. For the record: it's black wool, with a full zipper (very useful when going from cold outdoors to overheated inside), handwarmer pockets, and looks nice enough to wear in all but actually dressy situations. I also took a women's long-sleeved shirt, another sweater and a classic fleece vest of theirs. All of this worked really well and held up to a lot of pretty hard travel. Add to that a couple of long-sleeved T-shirts, two short sleeved ones, one other pair of pants, a pair of light gym pants and that was pretty much all the clothing I took (well, socks and underwear too). Except for a technical layer from REI that while very nice and warm, I never needed. I should have left that in Beijing, with the boots.

Oh, I did take one other clothing item: a pair of flannel pajama bottoms. I know the One Baggers will scoff, but I spent a lot of time sitting in hotel rooms, writing posts and such. I loved getting into those pajamas at the end of the day.

What else? An L.L. Bean toiletries kit. Loved this (thanks, Mom!). I got the medium, and it was plenty big for everything I needed for a month, and really nicely organized (even if it did get me in trouble at the Urumqi airport). I'd be tempted to get the small for trips of shorter duration.

A laptop. This is my backup, an old Mac 12" iBook. I loved having it - most Chinese hotels have broadband these days, and blogging and uploading my photos on the road was a blast. But after a while, it really started feeling like a brick. Okay, I get the Netbook idea now. Anyone have any recommends?

And finally, my TRX. I couldn't use it in a couple of my hotels; the doors were too flimsy and the entries too small, even for a device designed to work in very compact spaces. But it's a great thing to have if you want to get a little extra exercise while on the road.

What I wished I'd brought: more books. I was reduced to begging for a novel - any novel - from Richard at the end, so I'd have something to read on the plane. Given my space limitations, I finally see the rationale for E-books and an E-reader. Next trip.

As you can probably tell from the tedious detail above, I'm really interested in what works and what doesn't work on the road. Any of you who travel, I'd love to hear what you've found essential and what turned out to be a pain in the ass. Really! I like this stuff!

UPDATE: Something I forgot to mention about the Skytrain - it has a nifty interior zippered pocket, which I think is intended for cosmetics and sundries. I would much rather carry those in a separate bag, like the L.L. Bean mentioned above. I found this pocket incredibly useful for storing the myriad cables and chargers that our electronic/digital age requires.

Also, despite the stated dimensions of the Gator, it easily holds a 12" laptop in a padded sleeve (I use the nifty one by Built, available at REI, though mine was on sale), along with a digital SLR. A larger MacBook will fit too, though you'd probably need a fitted sleeve a la Built for it to work with a case.

One more note: as mentioned, both Red Oxx and Tom Bihn manufacture their products right here in the USA. Another thing they have in common - both are small, "family" companies with excellent, personalized customer service. If you care about these qualities, think about what you are getting when you spend a little more to buy one of their products. It's worth it to me.

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