Our Low Tech Travel Gear of the Year

These days, gadgets and flashy digital toys steal the limelight. And I’d be lying to you if I said we didn’t enjoy ours. But sometimes it’s the low-tech items that literally save the day.

From the dollar store to the health food store, we go old school for a moment and highlight some simple, non-gadgety stuff in our backpacks that we’ve come to know, rely on, and in some cases — love.

10 Favorite Low Tech Travel Gear Items

1. Dry Sack

When you’re off trekking, kayaking, horseback riding or zodiacing around Antarctica, there is always the risk that Mother Nature decides to dump buckets on you. Here is where the simple yet mighty dry sack comes to the rescue. Relatively lightweight and inexpensive peace of mind.

Dan Takes in the Mountain View - Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
Dan with his Dry Sack in the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal

Use it as your camera bag for the day (we usually put a towel or sarong at the bottom as a shock absorber). Or pack your electrical gear inside and then throw it into your day pack.

We acquired our dry sack after several tour companies in Thailand promised to lend us one to protect our camera gear. Instead, they offered the equivalent of a sandwich bag. In response, we bought a 5-liter dry sack in Thailand in 2006 for about $5, tested it in the shower to be certain of its effectiveness and we’ve used it constantly ever since.

Cost: $5-$15

2) Hard Drive Tupperware

Quite possibly the gear of the year winner. Why? With the proliferation of external hard drives in our equipment backpacks and two external hard drive failures earlier in the year, we figured some more protection couldn’t hurt.

Enter the Snap-Top Container (i.e., the Tupperware for a new millennium) as a cheap and easy way to further protect your external hard drives from the wear and tear of constant movement, surface shocks and moisture.

The day of cheap solid state drives is coming. But until then, Tupperware.

Our Low Tech Hard Drive Containers
Tupperware containers to protect external hard drives

We keep each external hard drive in its own cloth carrying case. Throw in some bubble wrap on the bottom and a couple silica gel packets to keep things dry. (We’ve heard rice also works in a pinch, but that could get messy.)

You can fit a couple of drives in each container. Again, we’re not talking guarantees here, but peace of mind.

Our only wish: that we’d thought of this earlier.

Cost: $1-$3

3) Carabiners

We don’t mean the mountaineer-grade carabiner used to summit Everest. Instead, we’re talking about the ones that are engraved “NOT FOR CLIMBING.” We use them to keep stuff attached to us for easy access: water bottles, GPS data loggers, hand-held camera bags.

Carabiner With a Lock
Caribiner with a lock, handy to secure so many things…

For additional security, find a carabiner with a lock at the end. Perfect for attaching phones and handheld camera cases to your belt loop to prevent petty theft. We found ours on the streets of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, but you can find them at just about every outdoor store.

Cost: $1-$10

4) Earplugs

We’ve sung the praises of ear plugs before, but it’s always worth mentioning again as a good night’s sleep is golden for staying healthy — and happy.
But not all earplugs are created equal. This is where Howard Leight earplugs stand above the rest. Soft, pliable, durable, comfortable. They really work in keeping out motorbike, rooster, screaming hostel mates, snoring, throat clearings, morning constitutions and other hard-to-ignore noises. (I’m embarrassed to admit that one pair literally lasted more than two years. All you have to do is wash them.)

Travel Gear

Pair them with a soft, comfortable eye mask from your favorite airline of choice and you’ve created your happy bubble of quiet and darkness.

Cost: $15 for 200 if you’re a juggler or $7 for 20.

5) Tea Tree Oil

One of nature’s miracle extracts. Rub tea tree oil on bites and cuts. It naturally soothes, cleanses and dries out whatever is ailing you. A small amount goes a long way. Dan swears that he was able to run his first marathon injured because of a dose of tea tree ointment applied to his knee.

And tea tree oil smells kind of nice, too. Or, at least that what I’m telling myself as I bathe my legs and arms in it to dry out all the mosquito bites I’ve picked up during the close of monsoon season here in the Gulf of Thailand.

You can find tea tree oil in pharmacies or in health food stores. Be sure to get the medicinal strength stuff.

Cost: $8-15 (depends on size & strength)

6) Sarong

One of the keys to packing light (we are forever working on this) is to find items that serve multiple purposes. The sarong is the Swiss Army Knife in cloth form. It knows a versatility that goes beyond a lie on the beach. We bought ours six years ago during our first visit to Thailand. Still have them.

Use it as a blanket when your sleep sack isn’t quite warm enough. Use it as an extra layer of protection between you and that train or hostel sheet that has never been washed. Use it as a bath towel. Or a shock absorber in your bag. Or when all your clothes are at the laundromat, make a fashion statement and turn it into a lungi, skirt or dress.

Cost: $5-$10

7) Packing Cubes

In my world of chaos, packing cubes are genius. They enable us to know where things are; their colors cue us to grab the bag we need (for me, the pharmacy is in the striped half-cube, dry sack and winter gear in the green one, clothes in black, undies in blue). When packing, it takes a few minutes to get the cubes into the backpack in the right order and I’m good to go.

Pack-It Cubes To the Rescue
Eagle Creek Packing Cubes, keeps us sane when packing.

Cubes also help me to keep possessions to a minimum by providing a guide. All my clothes need to fit into one regular-sized cube. Medical stuff fits into a ½ cube, same with undies. So, the cubes help me to perform a routine check as to whether I’m accumulating too much stuff on the road and whether I need to clean house, er backpack.

Cost: $8-$15

8. Dental Floss

Why dental floss? Never underestimate the value of dental hygiene. Take a look at this: flossing regularly has been proven to prolong lifespan. Not to mention, all the fluoridated water your teeth has become used to at home: forget about it on the road.

Author’s confession: This began as Dan’s obsession, but after being married to him for 10 years I’ve drunk the dental floss kool aid as well.

Not all dental floss is created equal, however. Woven floss with paste or powder is by far the best. Its one of the items we pick up on visits to the U.S. since we haven’t been able to find it elsewhere. Actually, it’s becoming more difficult to find in the U.S. these days. We have friends who understand this obsession; together we’ve formed a sort of support group, giving out leads on where the next supply can be found.

I think MacGyver even used floss to extricate himself from a few sticky situations.

Cost: $18/6 packs (I’m sure you can find single packs if you’re not addicts like us.)

9. Windbreaker in a Bag

We’re often asked how we manage to dress when we go mountain trekking or when we’re faced with cold weather. For me, my windbreaker is an important part of the “layer, layer, layer” equation.

When we climbed Annapurna Circuit and went up to 18,000 feet, I wore no special mountain gear. My windbreaker plus six other layers kept me warm. The coldest place we’ve been so far — the Pamir Highway in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — saw us outfitted with layers of donated clothes, plus a windbreaker on top.

Dan with Bactrian Camel - Murghab, Tajikistan
Dan wears his windbreaker while petting a wooly bactrian camel in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan.

Although my windbreaker (Dan has a similar one) is relatively thin, it provides a warm and water resistant (no, not waterproof, I’m afraid) layer. And mine bundles up into a tiny bag, hangs from a belt loop and barely takes up any space.

Cost: $12-$20

10. Underwater Camera Bag

OK, so this is about as high-tech as this list is going to get. Forget those ridiculous disposable underwater cameras. When we visited the Galapagos Islands, we stocked up on them, thinking we’d be all Jacques Cousteau. What a joke. We were more like Steve Zissou. The pictures were blurry, there was no zoom and video wasn’t an option.

During that week, we watched with envy as one of our boat-mates recorded video and high quality images with her handheld camera protected by what looked like a fancy ziplock bag. It was actually something made by a company called DicaPac.

As you’ll see from this video, we’ve got one of our own now. We haven’t yet tested it out on snorkeling trips, but expect more fun underwater pics from us. (And no, you can’t take it scuba diving unless you want to give your camera the bends. That’s what professional underwater camera housings are for.)

Cost: $20-$25. Check this chart to determine which size to purchase for your camera.

—–
By no means is this a definitive list. Just a few items that we find ourselves recommending often. Someone suggested we share it. So we did.

What’s your favorite low-tech gear for home or travel?

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Comments

  1. says

    I am a fan of lightweight down vests for fall/winter travel- paired with a windbreaker and extra layers it can keep you warm in moderate to extreme cold. It also doubles as a pillow for sleeping on the floor of airports and as lumbar support during crappy bus rides.

  2. says

    Packing cubes have totally changed the way I travel. I still dread packing my bag but it takes half the time and you´re right it does keep you in check if you´re accumulating too much!

  3. says

    I particularly agree with packing cubes, earplugs (I like Bioears in the UK), and a tiny windbreaker (it’s been waterproof enough for us). Ziplock bags and a small roll of gaffa tape are always handy too.

  4. says

    We’re also big fans of the dry sac and tupperware. The thought, and fear, of losing cameras and computers due to water damage is always in the back of our mind. A few other great tricks I hadn’t thought of! ;-)

  5. says

    Great list guys. I was thinking about that underwater camera bag while we were whitewater rafting in Fiji. We saw guys using them during Songkran a couple of years ago in Thailand and should have got one for our trip on the Upper Navua River. Everyone on our boat had great new waterproof cameras. That is our next investment, but the camera bag should be a good alternative until then.
    Dry bag is a must. Excellent suggestions.

  6. says

    You guys have put together a list that so perfectly mirrors one I would put together! Love packing cubes, tupperware and tea tree oil…I’m also an obsessive flosser but had no idea about this woven floss…intrigued. Will now go hunt down.

  7. says

    @Natalia: A vest is a good suggestion – they can be an awesome layering tool. And, I love the multiple use hat you’ve got on with using it as a pillow or lumbar support on transport or waiting around. That’s what I usually use my fleece for as well.

    @Ayngelina: I think back to the chaos that was my backpack when we traveled in 2000 and really believe that packing cubes were one of the best travel inventions of the century. I still don’t love packing…but at least it’s a fast & efficient process these days and I’m sure not to miss anything.

    @Justin: Yup, ziplock bags are golden as well. We’ve got a stash of them as well & they are great for keeping stuff dry and separated. But, I have to admit that since I started using the packing cubes I don’t need them as much.

    @Erin: A roll of tape is a great suggestion! Gaffa tape is perfect for travel uses. We carry duct tape & electrical tape. It’s surprising how often we end up using it.

    @Cam: Mother Nature can turn pretty quickly, so it’s always better to be safe than sorry with electrical gear. I’ve actually had nightmares of the DSLR falling into water. The dry sack is worth its weight in gold.

    @Fabian: We just thought up the tupperware thing this past summer. Really wish we had been on that earlier. Might have saved one or more of the failed drives.

    @Dan: That’s why we added a picture of our favorite ear plugs :) We’ve used others that look more like corks, but they are uncomfortable and don’t work as well.

    @Jill: Socks are a great idea for extra padding & shock absorber effect. And, at $1 a container at the dollar store you can’t really get any more budget than tupperware.

    @Dave&Deb: We don’t see underwater photography important enough to of our photography portfolio to justify the expense of a good waterproof camera. So, that’s why this DicaPac is perfect for us – it allows us to get video while snorkeling, but we don’t have to invest in new gear. I did read an awful story from another traveling couple about how they took a break between snorkeling trips and it had come unsealed as it tried out. They didn’t notice & their camera was ruined in the PM snorkeling session. So, always double (or triple) check the seals!!

    @Shannon: Ah, I knew there was a reason we got along so well :) Just received a note today from one of the members of the woven dental floss support group. The Target near her in Marina Del Rey, LA just received a supply. She promptly bought them out :) So, give Target a try near you.

  8. says

    Recently a fellow traveler gave me a long velcro strip after I commented on the dozens she was using to keep wires bundled together, extra security on her backpack and even to keep her four boxes of contact lenses as one neat package. And even though I have only one, I’m currently looking to buy more as I am certain that a few of these would help keep my backpack a little more organized.

    I believe they cost about 50 US cents in most hardware/craft stores!

  9. says

    @Earl: I know exactly what you’re talking about. Our friends in Prague have them. Never thought to pick up a few for our travels, but it makes a lot of sense. Much better than the twist-ties and rubberbands we currently.

    @Hans: Tupperware – so simple, yet brilliant.

  10. says

    @Marvin: Glad you found this useful. Packing cubes for us are absolutely essential. Otherwise, there are way too many little bits to keep track of floating around the backpack.

  11. eric says

    Without a doubt the low tech dadget I can’t do without is the folding bowl or bucket (by sea to summit for ex.) 5 o 10 liters. Takes no room when folded and allows you to wash clothes any where , fetch water, wash yourself when trekking etc, just got a new one for 10 pounds from an internet retailer in the UK (backpackinglight.co.uk)
    Eric Spain

  12. says

    @eric: The collapsible bowl. Yes, very handy. We don’t carry one at the moment, but we probably should. Thanks for an excellent addition. Now to figure out what to get rid of to make the space!

  13. Susan says

    Without a doubt, the ingenious She-Wee and a labelled plastic bottle. Particularly useful when camping and the ‘facilities’ are way out in the cold and dark.

  14. says

    @Susan: I’ve never used a She-Wee, but on our recent climb up Mount Kilimanjaro, I was thinking about the she-wee as peeing in the middle of the night was cold. Also, finding “appropriate spots” along the trail were also sometimes challenging. Will need to check it out.

  15. says

    Love the hard drive tupperware idea. Excellent! We have several carabiners. They’re hooked to my purse, backpacks, keys, belt loops, and just about anything else we can attach something too. We found a lot of our stuff at the dollar store. I slept on a dollar store table cloth in a park last year after getting off the train. We carry several packets of tissues, wipes, and dollar store parkas. The parkas may be cheap, but they’ at least help while we run to get out of a sudden rain storm.

  16. says

    @Sandra: Hard drive tupperware has served us very well, both as an organization tool while traveling and as protection for our hard drives. We’ve had fewer hard drive failures since using them — maybe coincidence, maybe the reason.

    Great suggestion on the parkas and dollar store tablecloth. We have old parkas (maybe from Nepal, I’m not sure) squished into the bottom of our backpacks. Handy!

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