For some reason, people find it hard to give me gifts, even though I think I make it painfully obvious. I like a lot of things… and obviously, I like to travel.
Travel is the part that makes it hardest, because as a hardcore traveller, I like things that I can travel with and that help me in my day-to-day life.
I initially started writing this as a list of “gift ideas for men who travel”, but realised everything in here works for anyone! And I don’t think “men’s travel underwear” makes for a great gift.
Gift ideas for Women Travellers, coming soon!
To that end, I thought I’d make Jo’s life easier by writing down a list of extremely unsubtle hints about what I’d like for Christmas, my birthday, or any other day we can come up with between the two. You’re welcome, and thank you!
Coffee is one thing many travellers (like me) do not want to do without.
If you’re camping, you want to be able to make coffee anywhere you wake up. And even if you’re travelling to somewhere developed, there might not be a good cafe nearby, or they might not open until after 10am (like in Taiwan!)
There’s lots of ways of attacking the travel coffee problem. The travel espresso or pod kits are not good; if you want espresso, nothing short of an expensive, heavy machine will do the job (the bare minimum is around $500, the Sunbeam Cafe series). And you can get high-end instant coffee, but I’ve tried several major brands and to me they don’t taste like a step change away from Nescafe.
I happen to know a ridiculous amount about coffee (see this article on the core of brewing excellent coffee while travelling), and have distilled it down to the bare minimum for travel, and identified the best bits of gear to make reliably excellent coffee.
And those are the AeroPress brewer and the Porlex grinder.
Item one: An AeroPress Coffee Brewer for $30 from Amazon
If all you have at home is a filter, then the AeroPress is a great place to start.
The AeroPress is a weird invention that nobody has been able to beat, despite varied attempts (at building big, automated ones, or ones out of different materials). But in case you think “that’s too weird!”, go looking in fancy cafes and you’ll find many offer an AeroPress option (and it’s like $5 a cup!). Plus there’s even an AeroPress World Championship that people are proud to win.
The AeroPress works kind of like a filter (like a Hario V60 for example), except you can control how long the brew is for by using the plunger. It’s kind of like an immersion brewer, except you can use a very fine filter, because you can force the coffee through it. And it’s kind of like a syringe.
Making coffee with an AeroPress is easy. Weigh your coffee (20g is a good starting point), grind it, and fill it with water. With excellent coffee, it’s hard to get wrong.
Optional extra: a metal filter, so you don’t have to keep buying refill paper filters (although it comes with paper filters!). My pick is the Able Brewing Equipment filters. Metal filters let some fines through, which gives the coffee more body and flavor. This set of two lets you choose between different styles of brewing — “coffee”-like and “espresso”-like. (Never mind those vague definitions!)
Item two: A Porlex Grinder ($30, available from Amazon)
There are lots of grinders that are good, but they’re not portable. And there are lots of portable grinders that aren’t good.
The Porlex grinder is made in Japan and is extremely durable, very compact, and high-quality enough to make decent AeroPress or filter coffee. I’ve used it for years.
I’ve also used huge, industrial desktop grinders, plus high-end hand grinders that weighed 2kg. But the Porlex is good enough, very small, and reasonably priced.
My favourite part of the Porlex grinder is that I know that when I fill the canister with grinds, it’s always around 20-25g, roughly enough for a large mug of coffee. I don’t care so much about precise brewing when I’m travelling, because I know that the most important thing is having high-quality beans from a good roaster.
The only downside to the Porlex grinder is that it takes about two minutes to fully grind your coffee. But it easily makes up for that minor inconvenience with its light weight, durable build-quality and high-quality grounds.
Travel Noise-Cancelling or Noise-Isolating Earphones
Getting rid of the noise in an aeroplane — or a bus we were recently in, that was blazing Tanzanian Bongo Flava music non-stop for eight hours — can be transformative. You can arrive sanely instead of frazzled. And you might even sleep!
Headphones are awesome, but they’re hard to sleep with, because they press against your ears in weird ways. So my recommendation is earphones. There are two main contendors.
The Best: Beats Powerbeats Pro Totally Wireless (US$250, from Amazon)
These from Apple (who own Beats by Dr Dre), but better than AirPods, because theyr’e “noise isolating”, water-resistant, and tougher.
AirPods are great (I love mine), but they’re not so good for travel, just because they are hard to hear in a noisy environment. Also I find them very easy to lose! If I drop my case, the damn things go flying into the most unpredictable places.
Noise-isolating isn’t the same as noise-cancelling, like fancy Bose headphones. But it’s actually nearly as good in real life. Buds that go in your ears (in-ear headphones, as they’re sometimes called) in practise are very good at blocking out sound — like earplugs are.
And yes, Powerbeats Pro work with Android; I have used an Android phone for years, and AirPods work with them fine. But it’s best if you have at least one Apple device (like a laptop) to occasionally change the settings (for example, to change what tapping on the headphones do).
Affordable: Plantronics Backbeat Go 410 (US$100 from Amazon)
I really like the Plantronics noise-canelling headphones like these. Surprisingly good, surprisingly affordable at US$100 or so.
These give high quality sound, and even have active noise cancellation. Battery life is good, with about eight hours of use, even with noise cancelling!
Yes, they do have that collar. But there are advantages to it, too. Firstly, if you take off your earbuds, you can just dangle them around your neck (not do what I do, which is put them in my pocket and then immediately forget where they are). Secondly, the battery lasts for wayyy longer than buds like the Powerbeats Pro or Airpods. Those last for 2-3 hours before you have to put them back in their case and charge them. Not these!
I have an earlier version of these, and really would like to get the latest one, if only someone would take the hint…
The Best Hardcore Travel-friendly Cameras
Want to drop a solid thousand US Dollars on a camera for that special someone? You know he keeps browsing camera websites, even though he has a camera already. You know he complains a bout how heavy that piece of kit is. Is it all a coincidence? Probably not.
What do I know about cameras? Well, I’ve owned a dozen, been shooting in 20+ countries since 1998 with my first camera, a 3 Megapixel Sony LX3, and have read everything about every camera ever. I read every review, go to stores and play with cameras, and buy them. Trust me.
“I need to zoom”: The Sony RX100VA
The latest Sony RX100 (the VI) is not actually the best one. It’s the previous generation (The V), updated with the latest firmware (VA).
The Sony RX100 series of cameras has been flat-out amazing since it first came out in 2012. They’re really well-loved because
- They have a large 1-inch sensor that works well in low light, in landscapes, and for portraits
- They have really sharp lenses, with a really wide aperture, that makes them suitable for both portraits (blurring the background) and landscapes (zooming out wide, with everything in focus)
- They can do professional things like shoot in raw format, and control aperture and shutter speed
- They are fast to focus and sense a picture
- They have a viewfinder (great for bright light, like when taking photos in daytime anywhere in the Middle East or the tropics)
- No annoying separate lens cap which you inevitably lose!
- They’re tiny and light, fitting in a shorts pocket
Why not the latest model RX100, the VI? Well, the lens isn’t as versatile. It does zoom in further, but in practise on vacation or travelling, you don’t need zoom because you’re trying to fit in an amazing landscape. And the long zoom comes at a cost to how well it works for portraits, or low light performance. Sony even recognised this, which is why they brought their V model back as the VA. This is why DPReview, the biggest camera review blog on the Internet, calls it their pick for a compact camera.
(We also have a Sony RX10III, which is a lot more expensive and heavier. It’s great for safari though, or occasionally shooting photos of the moon!)
“I just want to shoot wide landscapes and street scenes”: The Ricoh GR III ($900 from Amazon)
An Awesome Flashlight or Headlamp
It gets dark all the time when travelling, and you need illumination. Power goes out. Or there’s no power at all, like if you’re camping in the woods.
Either way, yes we can make do with our phone’s built-in light, but there’s nothing as awesome as weilding a beam of light like a light saber!
The Best Flashlight: the ThruNite Archer 2A V3 ($30 from Amazon)
The Best Headlamp: the Black Diamond ReVolt ($44 from Amazon)
Headlamps are SO useful. They’re not just for camping.
You can use headlamps when:
- You’re doing a night hike (like we regularly do, to try to see the dawn from somewhere cool). No more fumbling between your phone and other things, or worrying about battery life!
- Your motorcycle breaks down and you need to do emergency repairs. Yes you can use a phone, but then you have one less (critical) hand to use on fixing things!
- The electricity goes out because that’s what it does in most of the world (Africa, Asia, Latin America)
Basically a great headlamp has to be
- Super bright! One million lumens!
- Comfortable, with a strap that’s easy to adjust
- Equipped with a “red light” mode, so you can use it without killing your night vision (and let you see stars)
- Practical. Some (like my current one) has a button that always gets pressed in luggage without me realising, which makes the battery go flat. In fact, better it doesn’t have batteries at all.
So my pick is the Black Diamond ReVolt. It’s all of the above. It’s also a well-known camping brand, which helps us trust it!
A Knife or Multitool: Leatherman Signal ($100 on Amazon)
The best multi-tool can do what you need, and nothing more.
It’s hard to tell what you (or your friend for whom you’re buying this gift) might hypothetically need when travelling. But I’m telling you, you need more than a knife.
Here are the things I often find myself needing and using, apart from a knife (which they all have, and my knives often do):
- A can opener. It sounds stupid, but there’s literally no tool on my multi-tool I’ve used more than the can opener. I’ve been in many situations where a can’s ring-pull has failed, or where a place I’m staying has no can opener.Having a manual can opener has been a blessing.
- Wire strippers. This may sound crazy to some people. “Why would you be doing electrical work?” you cry. Easy: dodgy power cables. I constantly find myself repairing wall socket adaptors and even making custom ones, just so I can charge my laptop or phone.
- Hammer: Do you know how often you have to whack something? It’s the only way to open a coconut without hurling the thing at concrete, which isn’t always an option. I open coconuts all the time.
- Weather-proofing. My multi-tool often gets wet, especially if I just used it to cut food or to open a can. I often go to places that are near coasts because the beach is beautiful. So I can’t afford to think “oh, I hope the salt and moisture doesn’t affect my multi-tool”.
After carefully considering all the options, I concluded that the Leatherman Signal is the best. It does everything I need, and nothing more (well, actually a lot more things.)
Just a knife: The Buck 55 Pocket Knife ($55 on Amazon)
If the person you’re buying a gift for is more of a traditionalist, they may just want a knife.
In that case, get them the Buck 55 Pocket Knife. It has a very traditional construction, but everything a high quality knife needs:
- Its blade is less than 3.5 inches, making it legal to carry in most parts of the world (of course, check local laws)
- High-quality 420HC steel (the steel Buck uses on all their blades)
- A really useful “clip”-shape blade
This is a knife that will arouse no suspicion. If you say you need it to cut random fruit and food, people won’t question it. They’ve definitely questioned my more military-grade looking knives when I entered places like Israel. Even though all I used it for was fruit.