Gear Round-Up 2013: Festivals and Minimalist Travel Edition

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fest-gear-roundupRed Oxx Gator and a sandwich in the Kootenays, overlooking Okanagan Lake in Summerland, BC

Well, team… 2013 has been a truly incredible year. 12 months ago, you could find me living in Echo Park, working 3 jobs with some 70 hour weeks, and wondering what might be. Inspired by Vandwellers, minimalist travelers —including Tynan and his 2012 gear post— and my own sense of adventure and festival-making, I began to imagine a major life shift. I geared up my Hyundai Santa Fe (now “Panda Fe”) with a futon and a big Thule rack on top. Now I’ve got some 18,000 more miles on my odometer and a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Mexico and Cuba under my belt. I’ve landed in beautiful, almost-quaint Asheville, North Carolina where I’m shacked up for a couple of months of hibernation, skills growth and business development.

It’s not easy running a one-man roadtrip + consulting business on the road. I’ve spent countless hours researching gear, shopping for deals, entering contests and preparing for my many trips and festivals. I’ve learned a lot on the road and I wanted to provide a definitive “Best Of” gear post for the holiday season. Secretly, my hope is that I might inspire you to take a little life detour and experience some sort of adventure in 2014. You don’t have to do it the way I do it, but these gear recommendations really are some of the most flexible, resilient and smart products on the market.

Most Valuable Product: Buff

The Original Buff (Spain). Who would have thought that a single ring of fabric would be so valuable?! Easy to clean, it will keep you cool or warm, depending on how you use it. This thing rarely came off of my head this entire summer, except for the times it protected my camera in unexpected rainfall or slipped off after falling to sleep with it as an impromptu sleeping mask. It performed admirably at keeping playa dust out of my mouth and nose at Burning Man.

In a pinch, it kept dust out of my eyes when I forgot my goggles and still allowed me enough visibility to walk to better shelter, if not ride. Now that it’s snowing here, I’m using my Buff to keep my nose from running while out walking. PROTIP: two ice cubes, one on each side of the neck, brings your internal body temperature down to a comfortable level in 100°+ temperatures.

Travel Clothing All-Stars 

The 2 pairs of SmartWool (USA) socks that I’ve had with me for the last 6 months have been worth their weight in gold. Every time I see one without the other, my heart skips a beat until I find its match on the off chance I’ve lost one. Versatile, comfortable and easy-to-clean, these don’t smell and they don’t get any sort of crunchiness after a few days of use.

The 2 pairs of ExOfficio (USA/Thailand) boxer briefs I have are a traveler’s dream come true. You can wash these in a sink, but they’ll last you at least 3-4 days at a time without getting uncomfortable or unpleasant. These things are advertised with the line, “17 countries. 6 weeks. One pair of award-winning underwear. (Ok, maybe two.)” I’m sold!

Not Worth It: Wrightsock (USA) Merino Stride socks are a dual-layer sock that keep the wool portion off of your skin. Unfortunately, with any “complicated” product, the more moving parts, the easier it is to find flaws. For me, these socks bunched up and got a crunchy feel after a day or two.

Hood of the Year: SpiritHoods

Urban exploring with the SpiritHood, Canon SL-1 and Red Oxx Gator

Everyone that knows me is aware of my love for SpiritHoods, the Los Angeles-based brand that sells furry animal hats. Having received my hood as a gift in 2011, these caps have made it to countless festivals, been decked out with El-Wire, and gotten me in and out of tons of trouble. Are they silly? Yes. But they’re also the most adaptable hat I’ve ever owned.

The build quality is phenomenal. I may have just delivered the final blow to mine with a poorly executed cleaning (should wash cold and hang dry…), but these have been in the dirt, the snow and in urban grime. With the hood up, you can achieve at least 10-15° of extra body warmth. When the winds change and you’re sweating up a storm on the dance floor, take the hood down and lock it in with the heavy duty button and loop. The hand pockets are big enough to hold tons of random gear, including entire beers when necessary. You can clip decorations in them, sew old wristbands to the inside and hide all kinds of goodies in your stash pocket (that’s where I usually keep a kazoo!).

They’ve got a big sale coming up, and I think I might pick up one of the HB3-style hoods with built-in speakers. Now my dirt naps can have a soundtrack.

PRO TIP: Don’t keep open beer cans in your spirit hood pawkets. 

PRO TIP 2: Take two chemical hand warmers out of their packaging and stick them in your paws. You will be the happiest, warmest festival-goer in the venue. This tip has blown the minds of countless people, including the SpiritHoods reps I’ve met.

HOTY Runner-Up: Alan Joseph Designs 

Alan Joseph Designs (USA). When I first spotted Alan’s hoods at Lucidity this year, I immediately started a deep love affair. With incredible artistry and build quality, I knew I had to have one. After seeing him at Sonic Bloom and finally, at Lightning in a Bottle, I knew the time had come. Since my mom was at LiB and it was a month before my birthday, I got one of his lighter weight hoods in a shiny black fabric. What Alan told me has been incredibly accurate: they perform incredibly in warm weather, with the dual-layered fabric reflecting heat and keeping my neck cool. On hot days, this hood and a Buff was exactly what the doctor ordered. He also makes heavier hoods with fur lining that will keep you warm on cold nights. But that’s what my Spirit Hood is for. Some of Alan’s fabrics are no longer available and some of his designs are in their final production run! Get one now!

Bag of the Year: Tom Bihn Synapse 25

Tom Bihn’s Synapse 25 (USA). When a product comes with a lifetime warranty, you know the company means business. I’m a relatively small guy and when I thought about lugging around a 40+ liter backpack around Mexico and Cuba for 3 weeks, I knew there must be a better way. After tons of research, I knew I wanted one of TB’s travel-centered products, but everything seemed either too big or too small. Then, right as I was gearing up to take on the world, they released the Synapse 25. It’s proven itself time and again to be so much bigger than you think is possible, with deep pockets that hold your stuff firmly in place. I won mine in a contest, and it came with a whistle on the top body strap and a mil-spec flashlight that sits on the bottom of the bag. My travel partner thought it was a terrible idea to travel with such a small bag, but it really made me think smart about what I needed.

I use this bag as my daily working-at-a-coffee-shop bag as well. It’s equally at home on a big trip as it is carrying a mobile office. In the main compartment, I’ve got the 15″ laptop sleeve (absolutely worth buying, with or without the laptop) and my Macbook Pro in there. That pocket holds my chargers, a Moleskine, a reading book, Grado SR-60 headphones, and some other odds and ends. In the center pocket, I’ve got a Google Nexus 7 tablet, T-Mobile hotspot and an external hard drive. The bottom pocket holds my D-SLR with remarkable ease, which continues to blow my mind. Side pockets and front pocket hold pens, pencils, odds and ends. I’m just amazed by this backpack. I wish I had it in college (sorry, Jansport).

Runner-Up: Red Oxx Gator

If I didn’t have a DSLR with me on my Mexico/Cuba trip, I would have traveled with just the Tom Bihn backpack. But I decided to add the Red Oxx Gator (USA) to my arsenal to provide the space and protection my new camera deserved. The bag is also a American-built masterpiece with a lifetime warranty. As many reviews wrote, it’s almost too heavy-duty for its own good. The extra weight in the hardware is the only downside of this bag. That said, the giant D-rings on the sides of this bag and the perfectly designed dual water bottle pockets make this bag infinitely useful. I kept my Klean Kanteen on one side and my spare lens in the other pocket. I also draped a near endless number of accessories on the D-rings with carabiners (I’m obsessed, I know).

The internal storage is incredibly smart for keeping camera accessories organized, and the outer pockets are big enough for everything from 2 spare camera batteries with chargers to a change of socks and underwear. The close-to-body zippered pocket fits a small hardcover Moleskine perfectly with some room to spare for plane tickets, maps and/or your passport. Oh, and on the subject of zippers, like the Tom Bihn bag, the Gator has YKK hardware, which I’m officially sold is a marker for a well-manufactured product.

Worst Bag of the Year: I bought Voodoo Tactical’s MOLLE Compatible Merced Hydration Pack w/ Bladder (China) because I knew my other bags were too fancy for the harsh elements of Burning Man and I needed an expandable bag with a water bladder. But at nearly $50, this bag was still not a cheap investment. I hoped it would be my go-to hydration solution. Unfortunately, it’s that aspect that failed miserably on this bag. The bladder was absolutely awful, had a bad taste, leaked and got caught up in its own hardware. The shape of the bladder made it impossible to fill while still in the backpack. The nozzle tip leaked even when in the locked position if it dangled weightlessly. I had to pin it up to keep it from dripping. I did like the small touch of the bladder being able to hang off of velcro straps off the bottom of the bag. Since removing the bladder, the backpack has functioned sufficiently, but the pockets are too big and stuff just gets lost in it. It is a good size for holding my camera, though. Quite a disappointment, but I enjoy the MOLLE compatibility. So many places to hook carabiners! (To quote my friend Garret: You really like attaching things to other things, don’t you?)

Water Bottle of the Year: Klean Kanteen 16oz 

Klean Kanteen’s (“responsibly made in China“) 16oz stainless steel non-insulated water bottle is no longer for sale, but if you can find one of these things: GET IT. Lucidity Festival’s water bottle of choice in 2013, they could not have chosen a better Festival-ready canteen. With a heavy duty loop lid and carabiner, this water bottle is the perfect size to clip onto ANYTHING. It’s not too heavy when filled and has a weight advantage on its insulated counterpart. If you want to drink something hot out of it, just grab a clean sock or something, but I really only use mine for water. Drinking water out of this canteen is a pleasure, especially when you throw it in your ice chest for 5 minutes. The wide mouth makes pouring easy no matter what vessel you’re syphoning from (many festival spigots leave something to be desired). It’s easy to see how full you are, and I never spilled on myself. The cap never came loose when tightened properly, and it cleans incredibly easily with a few drops of Bronner’s.

In comparison to LiB and Symbios’s bottles, this product was the clear winner. The Do Lab’s choice dents incredibly easily, is hard to clean and cumbersome to wear carabinered to your belt. Symbiosis’ bottle was just poorly manufactured and too small.

Runner-up

Here’s one hell of a combo. Nalgene’s Tritan Oasis Canteen (USA) with this Rothco Vintage Canteen Carry (China) and, optionally, an original stainless steel GI-issued canteen cup (try to find a US-made one. Seriously). The new canteen from Nalgene is built to military spec and is therefore compatible with a variety of different accessories. The ability to carry this bottle over your shoulder with an extra cup is a festival-goer’s dream, especially out at Burning Man where you’ve got to have your own cup to take part in the gift economy of booze. The Rothco case can fit iodine tablets, which came in handy in some of the more harrowing days in bad health in Cuba.

canteen-combo

PRO TIP: Many of the “new” stainless steel canteen cups on the market are not actually stainless steel. Do your research on this product or buy from a reputable Army Surplus.

Sleeping Accessory: Grand Trunk Bamboo Blend Sleep Sack

sleepsack

A panda’s dream come true, Grand Trunk’s sleep sack (US company, not sure on production) is the perfect lightweight travel companion for questionable sleeping situations and for when you just need a light sheet around you. Having this in any number of hostels has been a god-sent. No, it won’t necessarily prevent you from getting bed bug bites in a certain hostel in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, but it will keep you perfectly cozy on any number of breezy summer nights in British Columbia. It’s incredibly soft! Plus it rolls up crazysmall.

Camera: Canon SL-1 with 50mm lens

Right before I left for this madness, I was consumed by an internal debate on how I wanted to capture it. I knew I’d journal some and blog when I could, but the memory is a tricky thing. Pictures capture in the moment what can be later reflected upon. I knew I wanted something separate from my cell phone but was torn between a mirrorless or D-SLR. With the Canon SL-1’s release (Japan), weeks before I left, I found the perfect companion. This is the smallest, lightest D-SLR Canon has ever made. With its APS-C sensor, your lenses shoot at a slightly higher zoom (1.62:1), which can work to your advantage unless you’re trying to get wide angle shots.

The new stock lens that most people buy with their camera is the 18-55mm, a plain boring lens if there ever was one. It’s fast and quiet for shooting video, but leaves much to be desired in depth of field, low-light situations and overall fun factor. In general, zoom lenses sacrifice a lot in “interestingness” for the convenience factor.

The old stock lens is a prime lens that functions marvelously in low-light situations: the 50mm 1.8. Known as the “nifty fifty,” I can’t recommend strongly enough how much better my pictures have gotten by ditching the 18-55. This lens will run you less than $100 used. 50mm on the APS-C is about 80mm, which is near the recommended 70mm portrait distance.

Energy Foods

Honey Stinger Energy Chews (USA): When my blood sugar drops, I feel it instantly and it hits me like a truck. These products are marketed towards high-energy long-distance athletes, but even for your regular Joe, they’re fantastic. Organic, simple ingredients and totally delicious, these chews help me keep doing whatever adventurous thing I might be up to (sometimes they’re mundane, but don’t tell anyone!)

CLIFF Energy Shots (Chocolate) (USA/Canada): Yummy energy gel with caffeine! The perfect long roadtrip companion, when you want to stay on the road, keep your eyes open and not stop every hour for bathroom breaks. I guess these are useful for major athletes too, but they’re just as useful for a tired traveler looking for a second wind before going out for the evening.

Jerkys from Mahogany Smoked Meats (USA): Pure protein from a fantastic shop out of the Eastern Sierras. The thick elk steaks were lifesavers down in Cuba when protein options were limited and the food was uninspiring.

Awesome Carabiner Product: Lighter Leash

Keeping your lighter within arms reach is only a survival tool if you consider how many lighters get stolen, co-opted, lost and stuck in pockets of strangers on accident. Since putting my lighter on a leash, I have lost a total of 0 lighters. One time, I lent out the lighter ON the leash and some drunkard snapped the line. I was mad, but I just went out and bought a new lighter leash. I’ve saved a lot more on lighters than the cost of even two leashes. I recommend the version with the small carabiner of the clip as you’re more likely to have the clip fall off than the carabiner.

Runner-Up Carabiner Product: S-Biner Ahhh from NiteIze

There are plenty of carabiner choices and plenty of bottle opener keychains out there. But the S-Biner from NiteIze has been absolutely perfect for me. It’s never fallen off of a belt loop. It pops on and off quickly. It’s got more than enough leverage for quick bottle top removal. It’s also quite rugged. Highly recommended!

Delicious Liquid: CocoCafe Coconut Water with Espresso

CocoCafe is SO good. Distributed by the same crew that sells VitaCoco, these little boxes of deliciousness have a shot of espresso, coconut water and a little bit of non-fat milk. The only place I’ve seen them available for sale widely is at Target, but you can also get them on Amazon. If this combination sounds good to you, I guarantee that the minute you try one, you’ll be a believer. Also, cheers to the CocoCafe and VitaCoco crew for running a booth with free boxes at Lightning in a Bottle this year and last year.

Festival Gift of the Year: Googly Eyes!

googly-hat

Anyone who’s been with me at a festival this year or seen my photostreams knows that I’ve been giving out Googly Eyes like hot cakes. Inspired by a friend in Austin who I spotted wearing a Googly Third Eye (bindi), I’ve amassed hundreds of portraits of people with gifted googly eyes. In fact, I’m launching a little side project on Facebook with those shots. Googly eyes are silly, and you can put them lots of places for comedic effect. I’ve got them on my camera lens cover, made hand puppets, provided them as pasties… (That’s a good story you can ask me about). Pick up a pack with sticky backs and you’ll be amazed at how well they bond to skin. One friend kept his googly third eye on for an entire Coachella weekend.

Runner-Up Gift of the Year: Chemical Hand Warmers

With a set of these in your pockets, you are the king of the cold night. You can dance and shake hands and make friends in an instant. On especially chilly evenings at Burning Man and Symbiosis, I left camp with an extra 4-6 of these little heaters and made some new friends very happy. They’re cheap, though not particularly eco-friendly. The warmth they provide, especially when stuffed into the paws of a SpiritHood, are priceless.

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