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Top Travel Gear of the Year 2016

This post is part 4 of 4 in the series Best of 2016

We’ve come to love and rely on a lot of tried and tested travel gear over the years–from Karen’s Kaikuna hoodie to Eric’s prescription Costa del Mar sunglasses to this nifty thing that lets us take booze in a backpack. Now we present our short but sweet list of top travel gear of the year 2016 including a game-changing lens, a really cool cool bag and hiking boots that were perfect straight out of the box.

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens

Top Travel Gear of the Year 2016

Canon-100-400mm-zoom-animals

There’s no question that the most valued new piece of travel gear in 2016 was Eric’s Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens. He got a tease with this lens in the Galapagos when another passenger on our M/V Origin cruise let him use his lens. The difference in the quality of the wildlife shots was stunning, so we scraped together our pennies (more than 200,000 of them) and got one. This lens has helped Eric get great shots all year-long (a few of his favorites are above) and though it’s big and heavy and pricey it’s already proven its value time and again.  

Buy on B&H Photo  |  Buy on Amazon

 

Three Legged Thing carbon fiber Brian evolution 3 tripod

It’s hard to find a good travel tripod which combines durability and versatility in a compact and lightweight package. After years of looking, we found one. Don’t let the goofy name of 3 Legged Thing tripods fool you. They really do rock (in more ways than one). See why in our full review of our 3 Legged Thing Evolution 3  Brian tripod.

BUY ON B&H PHOTO  |  BUY ON AMAZON

 

colombia-thermal-tote

Sometimes we need to keep snacks and leftovers cold, for example, when we have a long day on the road with no chance of a lunch stop. Enter our Columbia insulated cold bag. It stays cold, doesn’t leak or sweat, holds more than you’d think, is easy to clean, dries out fast after use, and folds up small and compact when not in use. The only bummer is that the Velcro, which holds the bag snugly folded up when it’s empty, is located on the bottom, so if you fill the tote and then put it down on the ground the Velcro picks up grit. It looks like the specific model we have has been discontinued and only the bigger and beefier Columbia PFG Perfect Cast 45L Thermal Tote is available now.

Buy on Amazon

 

Brinno TLC200 Pro drivelapse timelapse camera

Time-lapse video is great, unless you’re the one who has to shoot and edit it. For years Eric spent hours every month piecing together then speeding up images taken by a GoPro mounted to the dash of our truck so that we could show readers a month’s worth of driving in just a few minutes. It was such a time-consuming pain the neck that we stopped making the videos altogether and then stopped publishing our end-of-the-month driving posts. Then we heard about Brinno cameras which automatically take time-lapse footage. It was a bit tricky mounting the camera on our dashboard (you can see our workaround, above), but ever since Eric figured that out this camera has made making time-lapse video so easy that we started publishing our end of the month Where We’ve Been driving posts again, complete with Brinno footage.

Buy on Amazon

 

merrill

There’s a cardinal rule about hiking boots. It goes like this: ALWAYS break them in on the trail before you really, really need them. Karen ignored that rule. She had a new pair of boots from a maker she’d worn before. They seemed like good boots. They felt fine on her feet when she tried them on. She settled. Then she wore them on one simple short hike and her feet were in agony. Luckily, there are some fairly well-stocked outdoor gear stores in Cusco, Peru so we were able to find a pair of Merrell Capra Mid Sport Gore-Tex hiking boots at the same price we would have paid in the US. Karen loved them straight out of the box and they proved comfortable and rugged during the multi-day Andean treks we did in 2016.

Buy on Amazon

 

Curaprox 5460 Ultrasoft toothbrush

Even the lightest packers need to bring a toothbrush. In 2016 a dentist in Sao Paulo recommended that we try toothbrushes made by a Swiss company called Curaprox. She raved about how gentle yet efficient they were, so we splurged, paying about US$7 per toothbrush in Brazil. We were immediately hooked. So soft! So easy to use! So effective! So many great colors! We’ve now stocked up just in case we don’t find Curaprox in other countries. Also, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t get good medical care when traveling. These toothbrushes have been around for years but this Brazilian dentist was the first to tell us about them.

Buy on Amazon

 

Rubber boots El Altar Ecuador

Sometimes the most humble piece of equipment ends up being key. This was the case with our ordinary rubber boots which got us through the muddy, muddy trail to El Altar volcano in Ecuador which would have made short work of regular hiking boots.

Buy on Amazon

 

 

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Travel Tripod Review: 3 Legged Thing

Cell phone selfies aside, many people also want to take actual pictures of something other than their chins when they travel. Sometimes travel photography requires using a tripod. The perfect travel tripod should be lightweight, compact, multi-functional and sturdy. We hauled around a heavy and bulky tripod for years before we got our hands on a carbon fiber 3 Legged Thing tripod. After more than nine months of use on the road in South America–over the Andes, to the Galapagos Islands, through the deserts of Peru and into the Amazon–here’s what we think of our 3 Legged Thing.

Three Legged Thing carbon fiber tripod on beach in Peru

Eric and our Evolution 3 Brian tripod from 3 Legged Thing on the beach in Northern Peru.

What is a 3 Legged Thing?

When we started doing our research about carbon fiber travel tripods with a ball head, we looked into the usual suspects. The Gitzo Traveler is awesome, but at US$1,099 it’s way too expensive for many. The Manfrotto BeFree (US$350) was a possibility, but the ball head that comes with this model seemed a little too wimpy to support a DSLR with a heavy telephoto like my amazing Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens (Buy on Amazon) which weighs nearly 4 lbs. The Benro Travel Angel tripods (US$440) aren’t compact enough.

In the end it came down to two models that seemed pretty similar based on their specs: the MeFOTO Globetrotter (US$399) and the 3 Legged Thing Evolution 3 Brian (US$399, Buy on Amazon – note that this is the newer updated model, Albert).

Why did we wind up choosing the 3 Legged Thing? One word: ATTITUDE.

Three Legged Thing, the travel tripods with ‘tude

The British company that makes 3 Legged Thing tripods wanted to “bring more personality to the tripod market.” That started with the company’s name (3LT for short) and it extends to the names of their individual tripod models.

Three Legged Thing 3LT Brian

Unboxing our Brian tripod.

Instead of giving their tripod models a series of mind-numbing numbers for names, they named their original models after famous guitarists. “Who’s going to go into a store and remember a series of numbers?” a 3 Legged Thing spokesperson said to us. Plus, guitarists are cool. We have a Brian, named after Queen lead guitarist (and astrophysicist ??!??!) Brian May. We love Queen!

The company has since introduced new tripod models named after pioneers like Albert Einstein (the Albert replaced our Brian) and Leonardo Di Vinci and they’re about to introduce brand new models in their Punks line of less expensive aluminum tripods.

Just as attitude filled are the names of the replaceable feet for the tripod. Called “footwear,” these feet are sold as accessories for the tripod to be used in a variety of conditions. The standard rubber feet that come with the tripod are called Boots. Pointy metal feet are called Heels and they are perfect for rock and concrete. Longer, javellen-like feet are called Stilettos. And when you need extra grip you’re going to want to put on the Claws.

Three Legged Thing tripod footwear

Cool accessories for our Evolution 3 Brian tripod from 3 Legged Thing. As the company says, “you can’t beat decent footwear.”

Three Legged Thing tripods with attitude

 

Even the packaging has attitude. The 3 Legged Thing boxes are slathered with ramblings, like the cleverness to the right. The main shipping box was also sealed with tape that said “Punks Never mind the Ballheads” in a typeface that, to our minds, riffed on the ransom-note typeface used on the cover of the Sex Pistols album “Never Mind the Bullocks”.

Using the Three Legged Thing Tripos in a canopy Tower in the Amazon

Eric up for daybreak with his Brian on a canopy-top observation tower in the Amazon in Southern Peru.

Why we really love our 3 Legged Thing travel tripod

Okay, cheeky British “taking the piss” attitude may be the first plus about 3 Legged Thing tripods, but a clever name and some cool tape isn’t going to help your travel tripod perform better.  Here are a few more pluses (and a few minuses) about our 3 Legged Thing travel tripod.

  • It’s made of carbon fiber so it’s VERY light – just 4 lbs. 1oz. (1.8 kg).
  • It’s also VERY compact. The legs fold back on themselves and it folds down to a mere 15.75″ (40 cm) which easily fits into luggage or a day pack and it’s also easy to carry attached to a camera bag. 
Three Legged Thing carbon fiber Brian evolution 3 tripod

We have some beef with the carrying case (top image), but we love the compactness of our 3 Legged Thing tripod (bottom image).

  • Its adjustability makes it really versatile. Each leg has five sections. The center column has three sections and it can be removed completely or turned upside-down for a very low camera angle. Each leg can lock in at three different angles (23°, 55° and 80°). What does all this mean? The height of the tripod can vary from a ridiculously low 4.5″ (12 cm)  to a maximum of  72.5″ (1.85 meters).  
  • It has a load capacity of 66 lbs. (30 kg) at the standard 23° leg angle which can securely support my heaviest camera body and lens combination which weighs nearly 6 lbs. (2.7 kg)

Three Legged Thing carbon fiber Brian evolution 3 tripod

  • The Airhed 3 Ball Head is practically a work of art (above). It’s a solid yet lightweight head that is easily adjustable and has an easy to use locking knob and 360° panning capability. It has a small built-in bubble level, but, unfortunately, this can easily be covered by the camera when mounted on the head, but there is a second bubble level built into the center column support. As for the mounting plate, it uses the popular Arca Swiss/Peak Design compatible Release Plates. 
  • Sometimes you don’t need a whole tripod but you want a little extra stability. Then there are times when a tripod is just too awkward to use or even prohibited. In about 20 seconds you can transform the Brian tripod into a monopod. Just screw off one of the legs, unscrew the ballhead from the center column and screw it onto the leg that you just removed. Voila! 

3LT Brian tripod details

  • Because 3 Legged Thing tripods are not made of aluminum, like our last tripod was, we don’t have to worry so much about damage after the tripod gets wet. If an aluminum tripod is exposed to seawater, for example, you have to clean and dry it immediately or the metal gets pitted. Our carbon fiber 3 Legged Thing just needs to be wiped off after you’re done shooting. We’ve also used our Brian tripod in sandy and gritty conditions and the legs and leg locks rinse easily without any lingering crunch. 
img_0732

Eric and our 3 Legged Thing tripod at the annual re-building of the only surviving Incan bridge in Peru.

There are a few minuses…

  • The leg and column locks are secure and easy to use. However, several times we have been surprised that the center column was not locked down causing the camera to turn freely.
  • The tripod is stable and well made, but like any light-weight tripod there is a trade-off to stability which can be evident in windy conditions. However, the center column comes with a ballast hook and carabiner which allows you to easily attach a weight, like the tripod bag filled with a few rock, to increase stability in windy conditions.
  • There are a lot of little parts that can come loose and regularly need tightening. For example, the leg and column locks are topped by a screw-in sleeves that are constantly coming loose. Not a big deal and it doesn’t impact functionality, but…
  • The included carry case could be sturdier and slightly roomier. It’s so form fitted that the tripod doesn’t slide in easily. I also like to carry a few accessories with the tripod like my cable release, so its lack of a usable zippered pocket is frustrating. The beige canvas case is also not nearly as durable as the tripod. It would be nice if it were made from a more durable nylon. And why is the case white??!?!

Bottom Line: the 3LT Brian is a light-weight, versatile and easy to use travel tripod. It’s not groundbreaking, since it incorporates nearly all the same features shared by all of the quality carbon fiber travel tripods, but it is extremely well made with nice design and plenty of attitude. 

Three Legged Thing tripod in Peru

Eric and our 3 Legged Thing tripod in Northern Peru.

 

3 Legged Thing thing gave us a Brian tripod to use and review during our Trans-Americas Journey.

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Top Travel Gear of the Year 2015

This post is part 4 of 4 in the series Best of 2015

We’re still using (and loving) the travel gear we’ve told you about in previous Travel Gear of the Year posts and Product Reviews, including our Hydro Flask insulated stainless steel water bottles, Karen’s Dell laptop and, of course, One Drop. Now it’s time to present our travel gear of the year 2015 including our hardcore coffee savior, Eric’s favorite pants, and our Phantom 3 Pro drone. All road tested. All road approved.

Here’s what earned the right to be called…

Travel Gear of the Year 2015

Top travel clothing of 2015

 prAna Stretch Zion pants

 

Karen has to practically pry Eric out of his prAna Stretch Zion pants. They’re good looking, tough, comfortable and easily transition from trail to town. Eric loves the slight stretch and his only complaint is that the front pockets are a bit small. Also, we have no idea what the crotch vents are all about…
– Buy them on Amazon

 

 

Colombia Sun Goddess II Long Sleeve shirt

After having a melanoma removed in 2015, Karen got even MORE serious about sun protection. A new tool in her no-more-melanoma tool box is a Columbia Sun Goddess II Long Sleeve shirt with SPF 40 protection. It’s cool (in both senses of the word) and easy to put on alone or over a tee for an instant boost in UV protection.
– Buy it on Amazon

 

 

Lowa Tempest Hiking shoesEric has been wearing New Balance sneakers for years. In 2015, lured by a seemingly endless stream of glowing reviews, he got his first pair of Lowa Tempest low hikers. He’s never looked back. These shoes bridge the gap between trail running sneakers and hiking boots, look good enough for city wear and they last way longer than his New Balance sneakers ever did (which makes the heftier price tag worth it).
– Buy them on Amazon

 

Kaikuna Hoodie

Hoodies have become a ubiquitous wardrobe staple and that includes your travel wardrobe. There are hundreds of hoodies on the market but only one that’s made from sustainable fabrics and designed by experienced travelers (we know because we traveled with founders Alan and Julie years ago in Nepal – that’s Karen and Julie, above, reuniting in their hoodies in California recently). That would be Kaikuna. The Kaikuna hoodie for women (sorry guys, you’re gonna have to wait for yours) fits slim but doesn’t ride up on your hips, has cool thumb loops to keep sleeves in place no matter how active you are and plenty of hidden pockets and other features to accommodate cell phones and audio gear right in the jacket. The bamboo/cotton mix fabric is way kinder to the planet than cotton or poly and it’s so soft that you’ll want to use your hoodie as a pillow on long bus rides.

 

Mahabis fireplace

What do you think of when you think of slippers? Forget all that. Our wool Mahabis slippers keep our feet warm without making us feel like we’re shuffling around a nursing home. Plus they can be squished into our luggage without doing any permanent damage. Find out more in our full review of our Mahabis slippers.
– Shop the Mahabis collection and get 10% off if you sign up for their newsletter.

 

We don’t advocate packing jeans on a normal backpacking trip. They’re too heavy and they take too long to dry. But we’re not on a normal backpacking trip and jeans play an important part in our road trip wardrobe. When Eric’s not wearing his prAna Zion pants (see above), he’s probably in his Cool Vantage Wranglers. They fit just like his regular cowboy cut Wranglers (slim and comfy), but these jeans are made with a combination of cotton and polyester that allows them to breathe which keeps Eric cool and dry in warmer climates.
Buy them on Amazon

 

Costa del Mar sunglassesWe’ve worn Costa del Mar sunglasses from day one of our Trans-Americas Journey because they’re well-made and have lenses with 100% polarization that protect our eyes from the full spectrum of UV rays. Also, Eric’s Costas now have prescription lenses (which made our list of top travel gear in 2014). However, we don’t always want to look like we’re about to head out into the jungle so Karen was delighted when Costa del Mar added a line of more fashionable frames for women. Same great construction, same protective and scratch resistant lenses and same great warranty, just a lot cuter.

 

Top travel gear of 2015

 InCase ICON laptop BackpackOur Trans-Americas Journey is a working road trip which means that along with the usual clothing and toiletries we also lug laptops, power cords, external drives and research materials with us into and out of hotel rooms. Finding a computer bag that’s roomy, protective and easy to carry is a challenge. Karen’s new InCase ICON Backpack is all of that plus the construction of the bag means it stays compact and trim, not bulgey and sloppy, even when fully loaded. It also has a fleece pocket for my Dell XPS 13 Touch laptop and lots of doo-dad pockets for pens, files, etc and the straps are very comfortable. Karen also loves the bright red color.
Buy the InCase ICON laptop backpack on Amazon

 

BonJour insulated French Press We felt a little ridiculous packing our Bonjour Insulated French Press coffee maker (right) when we left New York City and embarked on our Trans-Americas Journey back in 2006, but, well, coffee.  It’s turned out to be a prized possession. The non-glass construction is very durable and it’s served us well in campsites and during house sits or rentals where no coffee maker (or a crappy coffee maker) is provided. The model we have is not in production anymore and for some reason, the Bonjour website only shows glass models. However, Bonjour does still make a fancy stainless steel insulated French Press  and you can buy it here.

 

 Renee Rouleau Daily Protection Moisturizer SPF 30 with zincWe’ve been wearing KINeSYS SPF 30 sunscreen products for years and we will continue to do so. But after Karen’s melanoma removal in 2015 we decided to add some heavier hitters to our arsenal to use when we’re at altitude (and, hence, closer to the sun and more prone to damage), on the water or in any other high UV situation. Lucky for us, KINeSYS recently debuted a new SPF 50 spray and it’s fantastic: non-greasy, fast-absorbing, non-stinging, water-resistant and long-lasting. Zinc is one of the best ingredients for ultimate sun protection but it can be goopey to use and can leave a weird white patina on your skin. Not so with our Renee Rouleau Daily Protection Moisturizer SPF 30 with zinc. It’s a bit thick, but it does fully absorb and does not leave a white film behind. Plus, Colombian actress Sofia Vergara swears by it…

 

Top travel tech of 2015

Steiner binoculars at Cotopaxi National Park Ecuador

What’s the point of traveling to wildlife rich areas of the world if you don’t have the gear to see what’s out there? In 2015 we upgraded to Steiner Optics Navigator Pro 7X30 binoculars and, so far, these waterproof, high-powered babies have helped us see all sorts of creatures in places like the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador and the Amazon in Peru. To get smart about getting your own quality binoculars check out our post about how to buy the best binoculars for travel.
Buy them on Amazon

 


2015 was the year that the Trans-Americas Journey got airborne with the addition of a DJI Phantom 3 Pro. So far, Eric’s flown 56 flights totaling more than nine hours of flying time covering a distance of more than 52 miles (84 km). He’s captured aerial footage of gorgeous locations including Guatape in Colombia, the massive San Rafael Waterfall in Ecuador (watch that drone footage, above) and the Ceiba Tops Canopy Walkway. Coming soon: a full post about all the tips and tricks we’ve learned about traveling and filming with a drone.
Buy your Phantom from the DJI store
Buy this from Amazon

Uber logoDuring our recent extended stay in Bogotá, Colombia we finally got hooked on Uber like the rest of the world. We used Uber to get around the city (it’s impossible to park our big truck in big cities like Bogota) and the service was convenient, prompt and often cheaper than regular taxis. The Uber cars were always cleaner than taxis and though crime is down and safety is up across Colombia, it’s still a good idea to avoid flagging down a random taxi and hopping inside. Using Uber was reliable and provided the extra security of a verified driver and a record of our ride at a great price. Rides varied in price from around US$1.50 to a whopping US$3.75 for a 7.5 mile (12km) 30 minute ride that took us clear across the city. If you’re the last person on earth without an Uber account, sign up. You’ll get a bonus and we’ll get a bonus for referring you

 

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Travel Gear Review – Mahabis, Adventure Ready Un-Slippers

People often think that we’re constantly enjoying warm temperatures here in Latin America because we’re near the equator. Not true. Ever heard of the Andes? It gets seriously cold up in those snow and ice-covered mountains at high altitudes, equator be damned. For the past six months we’ve been traveling around Colombia, Ecuador and Peru with two pairs of Mahabis Classic slippers. Designed in London and made in Europe, we like to call them the un-slippers. We wore ours for the first time at our friend’s house in Bogota, a city at 8,400 feet (2,560 meters) where most homes have tile floors and no heating. It was love at first slip.

Mahabis unboxing

What we love about our Mahabis

  • They look great, not granny
  • The wool blend upper and 100% wool lining are durable

Mahabis hammock

  • The fleecy wool inside the slippers and a built-in support system make them super comfy and wool is a great temperature moderator – our feet never get sweaty inside
  • You can easily step into and out of the slippers

Mahabis slippers

  • The neoprene heel flap can be flipped up over your heel for extra warmth in really cold situations, or left down under your heel allowing a bit more ventilation in balmier temps
  • They come with cool removable rubber soles that are available in fun colors, are easy to snap on and off and turn your slippers into grippy, rugged, indoor/outdoor shoes perfectly capable of walking down the drive to get the paper or venturing onto the patio to enjoy a cup of coffee with the sunrise

Mahabis

  • Even without the removable rubber soles, the slippers themselves have a sturdy built in sole that prevents slipping
  • We’ve been told that there’s a story behind the name Mahabis, but it’s “top secret” and we love a good mystery

Mahabis fireplace

Two not so lovable things

  • You can’t really wash Mahabis except by wiping them down with a damp cloth – luckily, even after months of use, the wool blend uppers are naturally dirt resistnat and the wool inners are naturally smell resistant
  • They tend to run a bit small  (Eric’s are too snug to wear comfortably with the neoprene heel flap up), so choose a size slightly above your normal shoe size when ordering, especially if you might want to wear your Mahabis with socks on

Why Mahabis slippers are great for travel

  • Leave the rubber soles at home and they become super light
  • They pack very flat and don’t mind being crushed in luggage or backpacks – they just spring back to life when you slip your feet into them
  • Headed to a hot climate? Mahabis recently introduced Mahabis Summer slippers which are made from cool, breathable mesh and come in lighter colors too

Shop the Mahabis collection and get 10% off if you sign up for their newsletter.

 

Mahabis dog

 

Mahabis gave us two pairs of slippers and soles to use and review.

 

 

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How to Buy the Best Binoculars for Travel

If you’re like us, seeing wildlife is a big part of the thrill of travel and we’ve had plenty of exciting wild animal encounters throughout the Americas including an amazing array of birds in Belize, penguins in Antarctica and these guys in the Galapagos Islands. It helps that Karen inherited eagle eyes from her dad. It also helps to have a good pair of binoculars, like our new Steiner Optics Navigator Pro 7X30 binos (buy on Amazon or B&H), made by the only company in the world that focuses solely on binoculars. Of course, price matters. However, no matter what your bino budget is here are the basics about how to buy the best binoculars for adventure travel.

lizard on Steiner binoculars

Our Steiner binoculars made friends with the locals at Anaconda Lodge in the Amazon in Ecuador.

How to buy binoculars: key terms

All binoculars come with a confounding set of numbers, such as 8X42. Once and for all, here’s what those numbers mean.

The first number refers to the power of magnification. In the case of 8X42, those binoculars have the power to make things look eight times bigger than they would with the naked eye. So, if you’re looking at something that’s 800 feet away it will look like it’s only 100 feet away.

The number that appears after the X refers to the size of the objective lens in millimeters. The larger the number, the larger the objective lens. Why does that matter? Because larger objective lenses let in more light which means you see brighter images. This is especially important in low light situations like dense forests, cloudy days or at dusk or dawn.

Steiner binoculars - Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador

Karen and her Steiners in Cotopaxi National Park in Ecuador.

How to buy binoculars: lens coatings

Like cameras, binoculars are only as good as the lenses and one of the key elements of the lenses is the coating on the outside. This coating controls how you see wave lengths of light which affects how you see color when using the binoculars. Low end binoculars often have lens coatings which drop some wave lengths which can result in color distortion.

Higher end binoculars, like Steiners, apply multiple coatings to ensure all wave lengths reach your eye ensuring that you see all colors true to life. Steiner actually created a new lens coating process for its binoculars.

Steiner binoculars - Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Karen and her Steiners in the Galapagos Islands.

How to buy binoculars: focus

It’s true that different binoculars are suited to different needs because seeing a small close object in low light conditions, like spotting a bird in dense jungle, requires different performance than seeing a large object far away in bright light, like a whale in the ocean at distance. For most people, it’s not practical to buy binoculars for each and every situation. That’s where a little something called Sports Auto Focus, offered on many Steiner binoculars models, comes in.

Our Steiner binoculars have Sport Auto Focus and it’s terrific. Karen set the focus of the binoculars one time and the Sport Auto Focus now maintains her settings between 60 feet (20 meters) and infinity. This means she can be looking at a blue footed boobie on the shore of a nearby island one second, then whip around and look out to sea at a pod of dolphins in the far distance without the need to change the focus at all. It’s honestly our favorite thing about our Steiners.

Steiner-binoculars-searching-for-whales

Karen and her Steiners in the Galapagos Islands.

How to buy binoculars: durability

In recent years it’s become easier to find lighter binoculars that are still high quality, which is good news for travelers. But the truth is that quality lenses and a durable body add weight. Our Steiners, for example, weigh 18.5 ounces, in part because they are housed in tough rubber which guards against damage from drops and bumps and provides a comfy, grippy surface in your hands.

For us, a bit of extra weight was worth it for better lenses and better body protection and carrying our Steiners has never been an issue thanks, in part, to the nifty strap we talk about in the next section.

Besides dropping, the other big travel threat to binoculars is moisture inside the binoculars. We’ve taken our Steiners into many super humid situations with confidence because most Steiner models have a nitrogen pressure system which uses dry nitrogen inside the binoculars to reduce the internal oxygen content (and, therefore, any humidity in the oxygen) to a minimum.

How to buy binoculars: worthy accessories

Since Eric almost always has a camera to his face, Karen is the one most often using the binoculars and she’s been carrying binoculars around her neck for decades but she never went for the cross-chest strap accessory because, well, they just scream “bird geek!”. However, we got a cross-chest strap for our Steiners and it makes a world of difference.

First, the weight of the binoculars is evenly distributed, so neck ache is eliminated. The chest straps also means that Karen can walk quickly, run or even gallop on horseback without having a pair of binocular banging against her chest because the cross strap holds them in place. Yes, she looks like a bird geek, but the benefits are worth it.

Another smart accessory to consider is a small, detachable external floatation device that will keep your binoculars afloat if they fall into the water.

There are many more math-intensive things to consider–like field of vision,  zoom configurations and prisms–when buying binoculars, but these binoculars basics should get you started. This hyper-detailed binoculars buying guide from B&H is a great resource if you feel like studying up even more.

Steiner binoculars - TatacoaDesert, Colombia

Karen and her Steiners in the Tatacoa Desert in Colombia.

Steiner Optics supplied a pair of binoculars for us to use and review out here on the road.

Buy on Amazon or B&H

            

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Travel Gear of the Year 2014

This post is part 4 of 4 in the series Best of 2014

We’re still using (and loving) the travel gear we’ve told you about in previous Travel Gear of the Year posts and Product Reviews, from KINeSYS sunscreen to Chaco flip flops to Seagate external hard drives to Rare Parts tie rods. Now it’s time to present our travel gear of the year 2014 including a taxi app we love (and it’s NOT Uber), a genius (and cheap) way to keep mosquito coils from breaking, a laptop surprise for Karen, two retro gadgets that will keep you warm at night, Eric’s new favorite (small) camera, prescription sunglasses that look badass not bifocal, the perfect smartphone for travelers and more. All road tested. All road approved.

Here’s what earned the right to be called…

Travel Gear of the Year 2014

Travel tech

There are many times during our Trans-Americas Journey when we need to take high quality photos but it’s just not safe or cool to carry around Eric’s big, flashy Canon SLR camera and lenses. In 2010 he added a Canon Powershot S95, about the size of a pack of cards, to his arsenal and it quickly became his go-to camera in dodgy cities, when it was important to take pictures discretely and when he just didn’t want to haul around his heavy camera bag full of tricks. In 2014, after four years of pretty extreme use, the S95 no longer focused properly when it was zoomed in so Eric started researching all of the high quality compact cameras that were high quality, but not quite SLR replacements. The problem is that most of them aren’t exactly pocket-sized or affordable or high quality enough, so his search lead him straight back to Canon. He now uses a Canon Powershot S120 (below) which is the updated version of the S95. Like its predecessor, it can shoot fully manual and RAW images and has a sharp and fast lens covering a solid zoom range. It’s also very ruggedly built but still lightweight and truly pocket-sized all for under $400. Eric loves the new touch screen on the S120 and the camera’s ability to change focus while shooting video. In October Canon came out with a pricey but even better pocket-sized camera option too. It’s called the G7X. Maybe next year…

Canon Powershot S120

 

We see a lot of wild animals. We also see a lot of wild animals that we can’t identify. Enter Project Noah, a deliciously geeky website where people way smarter than us (biologists, ornithologists, entomologists, etc) can help us id what we see. Just post a photo of the critter in question and other site users can weigh in about what they think you’ve seen.

 

We are fans of Dell computers not only because their high-quality products are usually substantially less expensive than an equivalent Mac product but also because of their international warranty service that has allowed us to have computers fixed right in our hotel rooms by authorized Dell technicians in Mexico and Nicaragua. In 2014 Eric got an updated version of his 17 inch Inspiron and Karen changed from the heavy ruggedized Dells she’s had in the past to a Dell XPS 12 2-in-1 Ultrabook (below). It weighs just over three pounds (1.3 kilos) and is a drop smaller than the 13 inch MacBook Air. It’s got a sleek aluminum and carbon fiber shell and the 12.5 inch high-definition touch screen is stellar, the 256 GB flash hard drive is fast and reliable and with eight GB of memory Karen’s computer no longer crawls along when asked to do more than two things at once. It also has a flip screen that allows the laptop to be used like a tablet, that’s where the “2-in-1” comes in. The XPS 12 specs are nearly identical to the MacBook Air except that the Dell has a much better screen and can be used as a tablet. Most crucially, Apple’s “global” warranty (its version of what Dell has offered for years) still has many gaping geographical wastelands where the warranty does not cover you — ie, many of the places you want to go. Also, Apple’s global coverage is only available for two years and Dell’s is available for up to four years.

 Dell XPS 12 2-in-1 Ultrabook

 

In many parts of the world, including many Latin American cities, hailing a taxi on the street is not recommended since taxi crimes (usually involving being driving around town to ATMs against your will until you bank account is empty) can happen. Therefore, it’s a good idea to call for a taxi because then there is a record of the name of the driver who was sent to pick you up. However, this requires a phone, an often lengthy wait on hold and the ability to understand the mumbling dispatcher who finally picks up the line. Easy Taxi, a free app for iOS or Android, solves all of those problems. You request a ride using the app which transmits your exact location. A drivers near your location claims the job and usually arrives at your location within minutes. You are sent the driver’s name, plate number, phone number and a photo so you have multiple ways of verifying that the person in the taxi is, indeed, your driver. You can also track the driver’s journey to you via a map on the app which is updated in real time. It’s wonderfully simple and safe and, unlike some other taxi apps, you pay the driver directly so there are no additional fees. Like most taxi apps, Easy Taxi only works in select cities primarily in South America, Mexico, the Middle East and Asia.

Easy Taxi App

 

The Nexus 5 by Google (below) is the perfect smartphone for travelers. Every Nexus is unlocked so you can travel anywhere in the world with it and have a local telephone just by dropping a local SIM chip in. Plus, the Nexus is a fraction of the price (US$349 with 16GB  of storage) of similar high-end phones from Samsung, LG, Motorola and Apple whose smartphones cost well more than US$600 for an unlocked, contract-free model. Our Nexus also has a large, bright display screen and one of the best processors around so nothing slows it down. **Not to mention we’re fans of Android over iOS as an operating system and the new Android upgrade, 5.0 (Lollipop) has some fantastic new features. Our only complaint is the less than stellar battery life of our Nexus 5 (a complaint many users have). Sadly, the new Nexus 6 costs a more typical US$649. However, frugal travelers like us can still find a more moderately priced new Nexus 5 on Amazon and eBay.

Google Nexus 5 phone

 

Travel accessories

2014 was the year we finally ditched plastic bottles made with increasingly suspect BPAs and moved to insulated stainless steel Hydro Flask bottles (pictured below in our truck). Here’s why we loved our Hydro Flask bottles when we first got them and all of this still holds true many months down the road.

hydro-flask-in-the-truck

 

Prescription sunglasses. Shudder. But it was no longer possible for Eric to deny that he needed a prescription lenses in all of his glasses, not just his reading glasses. Luckily, he didn’t have to ditch the Costa del Mar sunglasses that we’ve worn and loved since the very beginning of our Trans-Americas Journey because a wide range of Costa frame styles are available with prescription lenses. Now Eric can see what’s out there while still looking like a badass, not a grandpa in bifocals (he wears Zane frames, by the way).

Costa prescription sun glasses

 

Mosquito coils are a smart thing to pack for travel to many parts of the world. Not so smart is just tossing a box of coils into your backpack or luggage, unless you enjoy the challenge of making bits and pieces of broken coils stay in the coil holder long enough to burn. It took us a few years to figure it out, but you can keep mosquito coils from breaking by putting them inside a hard, reusable plastic sandwich container (below). Bonus: these tightly sealed container keeps coils from getting damp too and there’s room inside for the little metal stand and some matches.

Mosquito coil protection

 

After years of pretty much being hot all day every day while we traveled through Central America, our Trans-Americas Journey has now entered South America where the presence of things like mountains (hello Andes!) means we can go from sweltering hot at sea level to freezing cold at well over 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) within the same day. That’s why we now travel with an enamel cup and an electric hot water coil. This allows us to crank out gallons of tea right from our room and this has gotten us through many a cold night. We recommend a 24 ounce (700 ml) enamel cup, like this one, because you can make a lot of tea (or instant noodle soup or hot chocolate or whatever) in it but it’s still light and durable. We bought an electric immersion coil at a hardware store but there’s also this cool dual voltage coil (120 and 240) with a pouch that would be perfect for travel. Tip: The metal handle of enamel cups can get hot so you might want to wrap it in handlebar tape.

 

One-DropEric’s brother’s girlfriend, Lisa, gave us our first bottle of One Drop. We’re not sure if it was a hint or what, but we love the stuff because it magically covers up even the most egregious bathroom atrocities which comes in handy if we get traveler’s tummy or find ourselves sharing bathrooms in hostels, etc. In Colombia we found a local version, called Oseaan Goticas Aroma, in the toilet paper aisle for US$4 but the label suggested four drops, not just one, and we didn’t think it worked as well as One Drop.

 

Road trip gear of the year

When the “check engine” light on the dashboard suddenly goes on it’s impossible to know what the problem might be and whether it’s minor or urgent without taking your vehicle into the dealer and paying the mechanics to read the engine error code which set off the “check engine” light in the first place. That’s usually not an option when you’re driving through countries where dealerships are few and far between. Plus, who wants to pay a mechanic when you can check engine error codes yourself. Yep.  OBD  or “on-board diagnostics” is a standardized port that every vehicle has. The trick is reading it. We’ve had an OBD reader with us since Day 1 of our Trans-Americas Journey and in 2014 we upgraded to an OBDLink MX, which has enhanced information for GM and Ford models (the LX model covers all other makes). It not only reads our Silverado’s diagnostic codes but turns our Nexus 5 smartphone into the ultimate performance monitoring tool, providing all sorts of information about our truck like instant mpg, torque, mass air flow and dozens of other things we don’t really understand. And, yes, it will read that engine error code and tell you what the problem is so you know if you need to “check engine” immediately or not.

OBDLink MX

 

 

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