Gear Love: 13 Travel Essentials, part 1

One of my close friends is currently on vacation in Egypt, and before she left she posted a facebook status asking for packing recommendations. It got me thinking about my own list of travel essentials -what would I never leave home without? What do I bring to every destination, regardless of season or what I’ll be doing there? After thinking through my go-to’s, I’ve narrowed it down to 13 items I bring with me everywhere I go.

This list leaves out wardrobe essentials, shoes, travel adapters, toiletries, and luggage, because each of these varies widely depending on my destination and what I’ll be doing there.

Travel Essentials Graphic

We’ll start with #1-6 today, and #7-13 next week.

1. Headlamp

Headlamp Graphic
Top: left, right
Middle: left, right
Bottom: left, right

I never, ever, ever travel without my headlamp, even if I’m just going to a hotel across town for a conference. When I told my Egypt-going friend that this was, without a doubt, my #1 travel essential, she scoffed at me. So I bought her one for her birthday.

A headlamp tops my list because it’s useful in almost any situation.  Obviously, if you’re camping or hiking or generally roughing it, a headlamp substitutes for a flashlight – plus, it’s hands-free, which means you can use it when you’re trying to actually do something (building a fire, pitching a tent, making dinner) without the awkward hold-the-flashlight-in-my-mouth situation. Even if you’re not roughing it, headlamps are invaluable for reading after a hostel’s lights out, or rummaging in your bag without waking the entire room. I have a Black Diamond brand lamp, which I’ve owned for about six years, and it’s still going strong.  I’ve heard great things about Petzl lamps, too. These two brands range in price from about $20 – $80, with higher-end models offering stronger construction, brighter light, and alternate settings (i.e., dim, bright, strobe). You shouldn’t need more than that unless you’re doing night-hiking or spelunking. There are other, cheaper brands (I think Coleman makes one that sells at Wal-Mart), so if you want to try out the idea of a headlamp, you can pick one up for around $12, but I wouldn’t expect it to last too long. A good headlamp is definitely worth the investment.

2. Money Belt

Money Belt GraphicShop!
Top: left, right
Middle: here
Bottom: left, right


Unlike my unabashed love for my headlamp, I have a love-hate relationship with my money belt. Honestly, money belts are uncomfortable, make your clothes fit weird, and in warm weather, make for an awkward sweat-patch on my lower abs. But reality is, nothing makes me feel more secure when carrying my cash, ID, and credit cards. They’re on my body, hidden, and no one can even get close to them without me knowing it. I’ve looked at other “security wallets,” like the kinds that go around your neck or strap onto your thigh, but I think the thigh-kind would chafe like a mother, and I can’t stand the idea of a wallet moving around under my shirt. Plus, wouldn’t that be super obvious? If any of you use another kind of security wallet, please let me know what you think of it!

So, anyway – even though my relationship with my money belt is, er, conflicted, I still bring one with me on every trip. I don’t have a go-to brand, and I’ve gone through several over the years. I just try to make sure that they have two pockets – one for my cash (in case I need to access it while I’m out) and another for my passport, ID, and credit cards. In order to fit a passport, it needs to be fairly wide, and some of them aren’t – so make sure you test yours before you go. I usually buy nude-colored belts, but I’m thinking that my next one might be black, as that’s my go-to neutral.

I wear my money belt whenever I’m on the road (provided I’m not crossing a border). It holds all of my important documents, as well as a decent reserve of cash. That way, if I ever get held up, I can hand over my purse or backpack without too much concern. When I get to my hostel or hotel, I usually put my whole money belt in their safe.  If they don’t have one, I’ll just wear it during the day, and put it in my pillowcase and sleep on it at night.

3. Travel Towel

Travel Towel GraphicShop!
Top: left, center, right
Middle: center
Bottom: left, center, right

If you’ve ever tried to go camping or backpacking and brought your own towels, you know that they’re a pain in the butt.  They’re heavy, bulky, and take forever to dry, ultimately transforming your whole pack into a musty damp mess. Enter the travel towel! This is one of those places where the specialized travel gear hype is worth it. If you’re unfamiliar, a camp towel or travel towel is made from synthetic fibers that are light, compact, and quick drying. You can buy them in multiple sizes – from face cloth sized to one as big as a normal bath towel, so you can actually wrap yourself in one. To speak very generally, they come in two weights – regular, which often has the texture of terry cloth, and ultralight, which is a smooth fabric. In my opinion, the regular ones work better for, you know, drying you off – they feel more like a regular towel, and they work faster.  The ultralight versions  also work, but you have to wait a bit for it to absorb moisture off of you, instead of a normal towel-off.  They function more like a chammy, if that makes sense. The trade-off is in bulk, weight, and speed of drying.

I have an XL ultralight towel from REI (the purple one in the image above), because the feeling of “toweling off”; isn’t as important to me as something that packs really small and drys really quickly.

4. Lightweight Base Layer Top

Baselayer Top Graphic
Top: left, center, right
Middle: left, center, right
Bottom: left, center, right

It may seem counter-intuitive that this doesn’t go with my wardrobe disqualification, but the reality is that I treat my base layer more like an indispensable piece of gear than a wardrobe item. I bring it with me where ever I go, regardless of time of year. There are two reasons for this – one, it packs up so tiny that it’s barely worth a discussion, and two, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself using it when I least expected to. One summer in Russia, I ended up going to a church camp with some friends where we slept in a warehouse with no climate control – and since I didn’t have a sleeping bag, this was what kept me warm through the nighttime chill. It adds so much warmth for its weight that it’s always worth it for me to bring.  Add it to a jacket or sweater, and you can get through almost any unseasonably cool weather. If you’re going on a winter trip, a base layer should be a no-brainer.

I have a cream silk base layer top from L.L. Bean that I’ve owned for about ten years (similar to the Terramar version in the center of the graphic above). I like silk because it’s warm, small, and it’s so thin that I can layer it under almost anything.  I have friends who swear by Merino, which I’ve never tried – but next time I make a base layer purchase, I’ll probably try it out. I like how some of the tops above could be worn on their own – mine is virtually see-through, so that doesn’t really work.

When you buy, think about weight (for this purpose, you want something light and packable – for serious cold, or a winter trip, you’ll be working with a different set of criteria), and neckline (since you’ll want to wear it under other clothing without it looking too weird.  That’s one downside of my top – its neckline is a bit too high, and it makes it more difficult to layer if I’m trying to stay warm and still look presentable.

5. Base Layer Bottom

Baselayer BottomsShop!
Top: one, two, three, four
Bottom: one, two, three

A lot of what I said above can double for this entry – flexible, small, lightweight. The trade-off is totally worth it.  I own the silk REI pair in the center bottom of the image above. They’re awesome, and they’ll go under anything, including a pair of tights. On winter trips, I bring a second pair of thicker leggings, which double as my PJ’s. I buy these in black, because if they do peek out of the top of my pants, I’d rather they didn’t look like underwear.  That said, I really like the blue pair in the bottom right of the graphic.

PS – if you’re in the market for a base layer, buy now – a lot of items I’ve linked to above are on sale!

6. Earplugs

Buy these on Amazon

As a friend said, they’re not always necessary, but when they are, they’re invaluable. I put them in my carry on, so they’re always accessible. They come in particularly handy when you’re trying to sleep on a plane / in an airport / on a bus / in a hostel / anywhere in Temple Bar (Dublin Love). Just make sure you have an alarm that vibrates, so you’ll wake up when you need to. There’s no fancy graphic to go with this entry because I’m hardly an earplug aficionado – I usually just grab five pairs of whatever is cheapest or easiest to find. The pair pictures and linked to above was recommended by a friend who used fancy acronyms to tell me why they’re awesome. If you use earplugs regularly, please let me know what you like best!

That’s it for today! I’ll finish with items #7-13 next week!

What are your travel essentials?  What am I missing?

PS: If you’ve clicked through the links above, you might have noticed that I’m a bit of an REI fangirl. They’re from the west, as am I, and they have an amazing store in my hometown. Plus, I’m a member, everything of theirs I’ve purchased has been high quality, and I’ve never encountered bad service.

Want to read about my must-have gear splurges?

3 responses to “Gear Love: 13 Travel Essentials, part 1

    • Oooh, good call, Erik! I used to bring my Leatherman with me everywhere, but stopped when TSA got strict. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a TSA-approved pocket knife!
      And the secret two-fer is that my folding water bottle comes with an attached carabiner 😉

  1. Pingback: Gear Love: My Newest Splurges | Follow Lauren·

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