Thursday, May 19, 2011

Gear Review! (second in an occasional series)

(The PR-5, Skytrain and Tilley, on the road...oh, and my PJs)

I have one more post that I want to put up about my recent trip, another of my adventures on Chinese trains (and if anyone wonders why I love to take trains, in spite of some hassles, it's because I swear, I get a story out of every ride). But first, it's time for...GEAR REVIEW!

Some of you who know me, know that I'm slightly obsessive on the subject of luggage and bags. Okay, maybe more than "slightly." It's just, with all the travel I've done in the last few years and all the walking I do normally, I'm dealing with bags all the time, and they have a big impact on my life. Trust me, you do not want to be dragging an awkward, cheaply made bag on and off Chinese trains and through train stations.

I came to the conclusion that I wanted bags that were functional, sturdy and easy to schlep. For all of those reasons, I went with Red Oxx. I wrote about my experiences with Red Oxx in my earlier gear review. Since then I've added a few new bags (I don't have a problem, I can stop any time) and have had plenty more experience with the old ones.

(Red Oxx Skytrain)
My workhorse remains the Skytrain. It has been with me on many trips at this point and I can't see a sign of wear. I know that a lot of people are partial to wheeled luggage, and I understand why, but a soft-sided bag like this is easier to cram into tight spaces (overhead compartments, under train seats), and much easier to maneuver when trying to stow over your head, get on and off of trains and planes and up and down staircases. Just don't overload it with heavy stuff, because as sturdy as this bag is, it will support whatever you manage to cram in it.

For my second bag, I got the PR-5. This is another maximum-sized carryon, and it holds a ton of stuff. I find the outside end pockets particularly useful for stowing a pair of shoes (in one) and whatever I want quick access to (in the other). This series of bags also has a passthrough pocket, so if you are using any wheeled luggage or luggage rack, it will slide over the handle. It's actually easy to carry for a shoulder bag; the Claw shoulder strap distributes the weight surprisingly well.

(The PR-5)

I took this larger duffle because of the extreme range of climate I covered in this trip and also the possibility that I'd have to dress nicely on a few occasions. It's just a great bag. But for shorter trips when you don't need that kind of capacity, I love my PR-4. This smaller duffle fits perfectly under airplane seats, and again, the handy end pocket is a great place to put items you want to get at easily during your flight.

(the PR-4)

As mentioned in my earlier review, Red Oxx products are made in the USA and guaranteed for life. Yes, they cost more than a lot of luggage, but you will never have to buy a replacement, and you'll never find yourself dealing with a broken zipper at some inconvenient moment on the road. Their bags come in twelve nifty colors, so you can express yourself too!

Least you think all of my luggage love goes to Red Oxx, let me plug a couple of other useful bags.

First, Patagonia's Travel Tote. I have an older version of this bag that has seen many trips and much hard use and was finally showing signs of wear (for a lightweight, packable bag, these things are pretty damned sturdy). So I upgraded to their slightly revamped current model. The major improvement is longer straps so you can sling the bag over your shoulder when you don't want to use it as a backpack. This is an extremely practical, versatile bag that I'd recommend to any frequent traveler—I honestly can't imagine a more useful alternative for a travel utility bag to this.

(Patagonia Travel Tote, with backpack straps stowed)

I'm not a "purse" person nor am I into briefcases, but there are occasions when I need something to fulfill those functions—going to a meeting, a conference, what have you. For this, I chose a custom Timbuk2 Messenger bag. Like Red Oxx, Timbuk2 products are made in the US (in San Francisco), and come backed with a beefy warranty. Plus, they're cool-looking. I customized mine and had a lot of fun choosing the fabrics and features. The small Messenger is just wide enough to stuff an extra sweater and a larger digital camera (with a standard lens) — it's a tight fit, and not ideal (in fact, Timbuk2, if you're reading this, a little bit of extra width on the Small Messenger would be awesome—the Medium is just too big), but I did it. If the trip had been more about photography, I would have considered taking my Red Oxx Gator instead—its width and padded bottom make it perfect for that (as well as fitting under an airline seat). But those same qualities make it less than ideal for carrying around town to meetings or for use as a "purse/briefcase," so I went with the Timbuk2.

(Timbuk2 small messenger bag)
Two more items that have become permanent parts of my travel repertoire: a Tilley hat and an 11" Mac Air.

Tilley's are made in Canada, high-quality, functional and even look kinda cool. Plus, they come with a great warrantee and a secret pocket! I have the Cotton Airflo. Yeah, not cheap, I know. But I walk a ton, and I'm not always as good about putting sunscreen on as I should be (it gets in my eyes), and this hat is about as comfortable and practical as they come.

Finally, the Mac Air.

I write, blog and post photos when I travel, so a laptop really is pretty essential. And, yes, I'm a Mac person. I tried using a Linux-based netbook once, and while I'm sure Linux is just swell, I really didn't want to take the time to learn to use it, plus I wanted to use the same system to upload photos and keep my stuff so it was easily transferrable. Plus, Windows in China is asking for trouble, given the proliferation of viruses and spyware. For a few years, I traveled with an old 12' iBook. Kudos to that thing for sturdiness and long-life—it still works! But it's just a brick. You don't think so, at first, but after a month-long trip with constant travel, it starts absorbing the weight of the road, I'm pretty sure.

Then the new Airs came out. Wow. This is the perfect road warrior for Mac people. It uses flash memory instead of a moving hard drive, so it's sturdier. It's incredibly light. Incredibly thin. And it's a lovely piece of machinery that's a pleasure to work on.

Caveats: I got the stripped-down version, straight out of the box. It does not have a ton of memory or RAM. It does not have a CD/DVD drive. You can get models with more memory (but you have to order it that way, they are not easily upgradable) and you can order a compact exterior DVD drive if you want to have one. For me, none of this was an issue—I wanted a laptop designed for travel that I could use for writing and photos, and it does those things wonderfully well. In fact it's so nice to use that, well, I'm using it right now (light! Amazing screen! Great keyboard!).

Another small item you will want to invest in: the Air has two USB ports and one Firewire port. There's no room for anything else. That means, no Ethernet port. But you can buy a little adaptor that plugs into the USB port for your Ethernet needs. Many inexpensive Chinese hotels offer broadband access in their hotel rooms, but it's via Ethernet. I got my adaptor at an Apple store, but Amazon offers them too.

(one more thing: Mac Airs don't like Adobe Flash very much. I downloaded a simple, free program called "Click-To-Flash" — I highly recommend it).

One final item you will want if traveling to China, or to anywhere where you have reason to believe that internet security/accessibility is an issue: a VPN. Even with Witopia's excellent product and great customer service, China's Great Firewall makes internet access a huge pain in the ass at times. But I wouldn't consider traveling to China without one. When the Chinese government decides that Gmail is subversive and tries hacking into it? Yeah, I want a VPN.

Well, I think that's it for this year's long, somewhat tedious and obsessive gear review. Other travelers, please feel free to add your tips and favorites! I'm always ready to feed the obsession!

No comments: