Travel Blog

Best Ways to Purify Water While Traveling: Filters, Purifiers, and More

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I spend half my life in Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. So, I’m somewhat of an expert on how to eat and drink in questionable places without getting sick. In particular, I’ve learned the best ways to purify water while traveling.

If you’re heading anywhere with questionable tap water, this is something you need to think about. While I hate scaremongering when it comes to travel, water-related disease and illness (think cholera, dysentery, and hepatitis A) are a very real concern in many parts of the world.

Assuming you’d rather not go the bottled water route (which can get expensive, is extremely wasteful, and is not always available in parts of the world), here are five alternatives to purifying water while traveling.

Best Ways to Purify Water While Traveling

Portable UV Water Purifier

SteriPEN Ultra UV Water Purifier

SteriPEN Ultra UV Water Purifier for Purifying Water While Traveling

UV water purifiers are hands-down my preferred method to purify water while traveling. I travel with the SteriPen Ultra UV Water Purifier and, after several years, have zero complaints. It’s portable, lightweight, sturdy, and — the best part — it destroys more than 99.9% of viruses, bacteria, and protozoa.

If there’s a downside, it’s that UV water purifiers require batteries. Older SteriPen models relied on proprietary batteries that are difficult to find in more remote regions of the world. Thankfully, newer models like the Ultra are rechargeable via a USB cable that can be connected to any standard, powered USB outlet (like a wall, laptop, or spare battery pack).

How: For this water purifier, you simply push the only button on the unit, then swirl the UV bulb around the water until the timer stops. It doesn’t get much simpler. A smiley face pops onto the OLED screen if you’ve done it correctly, so you can feel a sense of accomplishment.

Survival Straws for Purifying Water While Traveling

Woman using LifeStraw to purify water while traveling

LifeStraw: Compact, Portable Water Purification for Travelers

A close second to the SteriPen Ultra … Ultra-lightweight survival straws are among the newest and best ways to purify water while traveling.

Among the many brands now available, LifeStraw is still my favorite — it’s less than $20 USD, filters a minimum of 99.9% of bacteria and protozoan pathogens, and lasts for up to 1,000 liters of contaminated water.

How: They function like a wide drinking straw — stick the business end into almost any water source and sip.

Purify Water with Chemicals

Although chemical purification covers a few different means of purifying water, I’m lumping them all into one method for simplification. Water purification tablets have been used by backcountry hikers for years. They’re cheap, portable, and effective. A 100-pack of Aquatabs, for example, is available via Amazon for around $11 USD and they don’t leave the water tasting like chemicals.

The same can’t be said for bleach. It’s dirt-cheap, readily available, and extremely effective at killing nasty things in just about any water. But, it also leaves the water tasting, well, bleachy. Thankfully, you only need about two drops per gallon for it to effectively purify your water.


GSR Outdoors Halulite Boiler (camp pot)

GSR Outdoors Halulite Boiler for Purifying Water While Traveling

If none of the above are available to you, the age-old method of boiling is one of the simplest and most effective ways of purifying water of any unwanted living organisms. This includes parasites, bacteria, and other pathogens.

You might wonder who the hell travels with pots and pans? GSI Outdoors makes great, lightweight, portable camp pots that are perfect for traveling. I pack their Halulite Boiler on every trip so I can make coffee and breakfast oatmeal no matter where I’m staying. (Incidentally, it also doubles as a place to safely store small, possibly fragile, souvenirs when I’m heading home)

How: Place your water in a heat-safe container (metal, ceramic, or glass will do) and boil over a high-heat source for ten minutes.

Distillation via a Solar Still

Distillation is the most effective means of purifying water when you have access to almost zero materials and you’re struggling to improvise. It’s more of a last-ditch, survival-style means of purifying water (if you’re in a life or death situation that would leave even Bear Grylls scratching his head). It’s time-consuming, difficult, and often yields little drinkable water. On the plus side, it purifies questionable water incredibly well.

How: It requires plenty of time, a tarp, digging a hole, a bunch of leaves, and a cut-off shirt like so:

Crashing at Chattanooga’s One-of-a-kind Dove Men+Care Elements Treehouse

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This job is not without its perks. In the last ten years of running Vagabondish, we’ve been fortunate to crash at some pretty swank hotels around the world. The Saxon in Johannesburg, Gili Lankanfushi in Maldives, and our Nile River cruise on the Best of Egypt tour with Lady Egypt all come to mind.

But, beyond even the most out-of-this-world luxury hotels, there’s something about sleeping in a simple treehouse that we know we’ll always remember. It just elicits a sense of pure, childlike joy and wonderment that Kelsey and I will never outgrow.

Which is why we were stoked to get an invite from Dove (as in, the fancy soap brand people). In order to celebrate the launch of their new Elements line, they decided to … build a treehouse in Tennessee. Seems completely logical, right?

Dove Men+Care Elements Products

Every purchase comes with free wood chips and a lava rock! (Really? No, not really.)

Maybe not at first, but it makes perfect sense when you consider that Dove Men+Care’s new Elements line is distinctly inspired by nature and the sort of scents that campers and outdoor-loving men want to bathe themselves in. Think Charcoal+Clay, Minerals+Sage, and Mineral Powder+Sandalwood. (I imagine they’re the kinds of smells male bears woo lady bears with. Assuming bears go on dates …) The fact that I already use Dove’s products and have for years made our decision a simple one.

So, last month we flew to Chattanooga (technically the treehouse is in Georgia, but … close enough) — one of our favorite small cities for outdoor-loving travelers — to spend three nights at the Dove Men+Care Treehouse. The first reaction from every one of our friends and family was, almost universally: “A treehouse? Cool! Wait … does it have a bathroom?

Entrance to Chattanooga's Dove Men+Care Treehouse

Dove Men+Care Treehouse Outside Chattanooga, Tennessee

We can confirm that, yes … yes, it does have a bathroom. An incredibly nice one. Actually, it has more amenities than our apartment. Which isn’t much of a surprise since Treehouse Master Pete Nelson architected the project. Of the collaboration with Pete, Dove Men+Care notes:

As you ascend to enter the house, Pete’s artistic interpretation of our nature-inspired formulas and transformative freshness come to life through design elements, including Shou Sugi Ban-style charred wood paneling and a living sage wall on the exterior.

Entrance and Original Sketch of the Dove Men+Care Treehouse

Entrance and Original Sketch of the Dove Men+Care Treehouse

If that all sounds borderline frou-frou spiritual, it’s because the man takes his treehouses seriously. Which is why he was able to pack a surprising amount of awesomeness into just 300-ish square feet. The treehouse’s first floor boasts a super comfortable Tuft & Needle bed (incidentally, the same mattress we have at Vagabondish HQ), a wet bar with a gourmet coffee kit, full HVAC system with heat and AC, a small lounge area, Amazon Echo connectivity, and an incredible, oversized spa bathroom with heated pebble flooring, a touchscreen-activated, five-jet rain shower, and a center glass column that wraps around a tree.

Just to refresh: all of this is in a treehouse.

The Loft at the Dove Men+Care Treehouse

The Loft at Chattanooga’s Dove Men+Care Treehouse

Upstairs is a wide sleeping loft with two twin mattresses and dual skylights that make for great stargazing. Outside, there’s even two balconies and a private firepit area (with a complimentary s’mores kit!).

Firepit at the Dove Men+Care Treehouse

Firepit at Chattanooga’s Dove Men+Care Treehouse

From day one, we contemplated just locking the front door and refusing to leave. Our hotel stays are usually just a means to an end: somewhere to store luggage and lay our heads at night. The intention is always to get out and see the surrounding city/town/island as much as possible. But, for the two full days that we were at the Dove Men+Care Treehouse, we just didn’t want to leave. Why would we? And, once we heard that a nearby pizza joint delivered handmade pies and ice cream right to the treehouse front door, we made it a point to not leave as much as possible.

Sorry, Chattanooga. We do love you a lot, but … treehouses with delivery pizza, ice cream, and free s’mores trump pretty much everything.

Alas, after our brief, three-night stay, they physically removed us from the property (there was much kicking and screaming and threats of violence). But, in all seriousness, the treehouse did provide a great base of operations for exploring Chattanooga.

Our stay was part of a clever campaign to promote the new Dove Men+Care Elements product line. So, the treehouse is only open to media at the moment. BUT, Treetop Hideaways — the actual owners of the treehouse — will be opening it for rent to the general public via Airbnb later this year.

The good news? If you just can’t wait to stay in a treehouse of your own, the husband and wife duo who own TH already have a two-story treehouse available for rent on Airbnb. While it lacks the modern polish of its fancier Dove Men+Care brother, it comes complete with a huge window wall, penny flooring, a vintage style gramophone speaker, and a kitchenette with complimentary drinks and snacks. And isn’t that all you really need anyway?

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5 Travel Games for the Road, the Flight, and Beyond

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Bus and train trips, flights, delays in airports and train stations, hostels without TV or much light; the list of situations where a traveler has time to kill is long.

That’s right — travel is not always exciting.

There will be dull downtimes, and you may not always be able to read a good book, play road trip bingo, do crossword puzzles, or doodle in your journal.

That’s when you need a good repertoire of travel games to spontaneously play with your fellow travelers. Some will be popular games that you can find online and long-forgotten games from your childhood, and you might be surprised just how necessary they’ll be — and how much fun you’ll have — when you want to fill some of those inevitably empty hours on the road.

Travel Games

A quick confession: I’m a bit of a game geek anyway, and an English teacher to boot, so I’ve been known to start these games even at parties. But I promise that they have all been road tested on a real road, somewhere in Tunisia, Finland, Canada or Germany or any place where I was bored and without a book.

#1: I Spy

You’ve probably all played I Spy a long time ago, but I recommend dredging it back up from your long-term memory. If you can’t, it starts off like this: “I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with A,” and the other players have to guess what object you can see.

I’ve played this travel game in hostels (especially those hostel living rooms that have trinkets from all over the world gathering dust there), on train rides and in planes. Sadly, it didn’t work too well in the desert. “I spy … sand.”

How to play:

I like to limit each person to three or four guesses. Otherwise, they’ll exhaust every item in the room that starts with “B” and you’ll soon run out of objects to use. I also like the jet lag variation — play it in a dark room at night when you can’t sleep because your body’s on some other clock, and see if you can actually remember what’s in the room around you.

© Mariano Kamp

#2: Donna’s Alphabet Game

This is not the official name, but it’s the way I like to remember it after my old school friend Donna got a car load of us playing this on a stop-start motorway in southwest England. It’s simple, as long as you’re traveling on a road with signs (and even better, advertising) and these signs use our alphabet. Don’t try it in the western provinces of China, for example.

How to play:

Logically, Donna’s Alphabet Game starts with A. Be the first person to spot the letter “A” in a sign and yell out the word: “A is in motorwAy!” Continue with B and get right through to Z. It sounds easy, but there will be a few tricky letters, and if you’re playing in a non-English speaking country then pronouncing the words will be a lot of fun, too. The way we play, there’s no winner — anybody can scream out the next letter when they see it — but natural competitiveness spurs everybody on anyway.

#3: Stadt, Land, Fluss: City, Country, River

This is one of the only travel games I know with a German name because my German friends taught it to me — which is also perhaps why it strikes me as being a bit intellectual, but still a lot of fun. It’s also a highly appropriate game for travelers to play because their geographical knowledge should be a bit better than average.

How to play:

Choose three or four categories like the names of a city, country, river or lake. To be honest, I’m terrible with rivers so I always change the river category to something completely different — often food, because I like to talk about food. Take it in turns to challenge another player to think of a city, country and river all starting with a particular letter. If your friend challenges you with “D”, for example, you can win by getting out Dubai, Denmark and Danube in under sixty seconds — or whatever time limit you and your bored mates decide on.

Question Mark Sculpture
Question Mark Art, Stuttgart Museum of Art © -bast-

#4: Twenty Questions

One of my favorite travel games, Twenty Questions is an oldie but a goodie. You can make it topical by restricting the choice of “What am I?” to be something related to the region in which you’re traveling.

I did have a friend, though, who would choose objects like “pyramid” while traveling through Egypt or “chocolate” in Switzerland, and then we could have made it just two questions rather than twenty.

How to play:

Someone chooses an object, and everyone else asks them questions about it, but the only permitted answers are “Yes” or “No”. (Or in my rules, “irrelevant”, if I think saying yes or no will send the guessers along a completely wrong path … I like to play fair!). If you’re playing with a group, whoever guesses the item correctly can choose the next word.

#5: For RTW Trippers: Kalgoorlie, Balladonia …

I think it was my father who started this travel game when our family took a driving holiday across Australia. We were gone about two months and my sister and I — being about ten and twelve years old — needed a lot of entertainment.

How to play:

This game only works with your traveling companions, and only on long trips. It’s more of a challenge than a game, but it always works for me. Simply start with the name of the town you stayed in first. On our trans-Australia trip, it was the gold mining town of Kalgoorlie. You then try to name every other town you’ve stayed in, in chronological order. My sister and I were experts at this all those years ago, but today I can only remember the first and second stops.

There are tons of other word and guessing games you can play in those bored moments of travel, and you can adapt these games with endless variations, too. And while it might seem like just a way to kill time, playing games like these is something I really love about traveling. It’s almost as if we don’t give ourselves permission to have that kind of fun if we’re at home in our “real lives”.

What Are Your Favorite Travel Games?

Anyway, I’m keen to learn some new travel games, too. So feel free to share your favorites in the comments!

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Cairn Subscription Box: Like a Monthly Surprise Basket of Killer Outdoor Gear

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Subscription box services are all the rage right now. There are boxes for cosmetics, cooking, craft beer, doomsday preppers. I admit that I’ve been intrigued by all of them.

But, the most practical for my purposes — the one that really caught my eye — was Cairn (as this seems to be a point of confusion, “cairn” is pronounced like the name “Karen”, but with a distinct dropping of the “e”).

The company was kind enough to set me up with a six-month trial subscription gratis to see what they had to offer. My first Cairn subscription box just landed and I’m already impressed!

Cairn Subscription Box Review

The Skinny

If you’re unfamiliar with Cairn (or subscription box services in general), it works like so:

  • Subscribe: Choose a monthly (The Original Box) or premium quarterly (The Obsidian Box) delivery of new outdoor products
  • Discover new gear: Receive 3-6 products (up to $50 value) monthly or 5-10 premium products (up to $350 value) quarterly, curated just for you.
  • Go outside and do fun stuff!
  • (Optionally, you can also earn points by reviewing your new gear. The points are redeemable for apparel, free Cairn boxes, and gifting Cairn to friends)
Collection of three Cairn subscription boxes

A Whole Season of Cairn Subscription Boxes

The Traveler’s Take

The list of available gear goodies for each box varies widely. But they can include:

  • Gear: lighting, cookware, and hydration
  • Apparel: socks, gloves, and beanies
  • Food & Energy: trail snacks, drink mixes, and energy bars
  • Skin Care: insect repellant, lip balms, and sun products
  • Medical & Emergency: fire starters, navigation tools, and first-aid kits

Cairn’s subscription boxes are carefully curated to suit your particularly tastes. Shortly after subscribing, customers receive an email asking them to fill out a quick survey so the company can get a better idea of what sort of outdoor-lover you are. Do you go paddleboarding every other day? Are you more into expedition-style mountaineering trips once a month? Or do you prefer smaller outdoor jaunts that fit into your 9-to-5 schedule? However you enjoy the outdoors, Cairn promises to gear (pun intended) its subscription boxes to your tastes.

Cairn subscription box (monthly - Original)

My First Cairn Subscription Box – The Original

My first Cairn subscription box came packed with a sturdy, well-made DrinkTanks insulated hot/cold tumbler (with two lids), a dozen HydraPak Bottle Bright tabets (for cleaning Camelbaks, Nalgenes, and the like), and a packet of fancy, organic Smoked Sea Salt Hot Chocolate from Treehouse Chocolate (it’s like they know me!), and the Cairn Scout monthly newsletter. All good stuff, in my opinion.

I’d say we’re off to a good start and I’m stoked to see what they have in store for the coming months. I’ll update this post in the near future once I’ve received a few more boxes from Cairn.

The Obsidian Box from Cairn

The Obsidian Box from Cairn

Obviously, if you’re a long-term traveler (I’m talking months at a time), this sort of subscription box service might not be a great option for you. Although, imagine how cool it’d be to come home to a stack of little Cairn subscription boxes full of outdoor goodies!


Cairn offers two subscription tiers :

The Original Box (from $27.45 USD monthly)

  • Delivered monthly
  • 3-6 curated outdoor products in each box (up to $50 retail value)
  • Free shipping in the U.S.
  • Earn Cairn Points for future gear
  • All full-sized items (no trial sizes!)

Sign up today and save $15 USD on a 6-month subscription!

The Obsidian Box ($199 USD quarterly)

  • Delivered quarterly
  • 5-10 premium outdoor products in each box (up to $300 value)
  • Free shipping in the U.S.
  • Earn Cairn Points for future gear
  • Only limited quantities available

Cairn – Get the Obsidian Box Delivered Quarterly with Premium Outdoor Products

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Can’t Sleep in Hotel Rooms? Here’s How to Turn Yours Into a Fortress of Solitude

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I overnight in up to 20 different hotel rooms each month. So I’ve become something of an expert in “hotel stay-ology”. (That’s a real degree. University of Phoenix confirmed it.)

According to a prominent study that I just made up for this post, we know travelers (want to) spend up to two-thirds of their vacations sleeping. But many can’t sleep in hotel rooms or, at the very least, have a hard time. With less than 10 minutes of first-day prep, you can save yourself hours of precious sleep.

Can’t Sleep in Hotel Rooms?

Are you constantly stricken with insomnia every time you crash at a hotel? First, start with our 6 Tips for Sleeping Well in a Foreign Place.

If that doesn’t work and you still find yourself wide awake in the wee hours checking for hidden hotel wall art or learning to bake muffins with the hotel iron, try these tips to turn your hotel room into a fortress of solitude.

Ask for an “Isolated” Room

Be sure to secure a room away from noisy things like elevators, ice machines, or heavy foot traffic. The best location is often at the end of a dead-end hallway, near the stairs.

Note that if you book your room through a third-party website (e.g. Expedia, Hotwire, etc.), you’re not likely to get the hotel’s choice rooms or have a say in where your room is on the property. In most cases, you simply get what you get.

Your best bet is to book directly with the hotel’s website and make sure you’re a member of their (often free) loyalty program. Loyal customers always get preferential treatment.

Hang the Do Not Disturb Tag

Once you make it to your hotel room, hang the Do Not Disturb tag immediately. Above all else, this is the first thing I do upon arrival. Housekeeping and others who hate letting people sleep may flat-out ignore that request, but it’s worth a try.

In some corners of the world (and in some, let’s call them “hotels of lesser repute”), hotels may simply not provide DnD tags. Which is why I travel with a generic one of my own that I’ve borrowed from previous stays.

For shorter stays of up to three days, hotel housekeeping will likely leave you alone if you hang the DnD tag. Anything longer and the front desk will call at some point to make sure you’re not dead.

Women sleeping on a couch

(This isn’t me, but she does look comfortable, no?)

Unplug the Hotel’s Alarm Clock

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve awoken at 3 a.m. because the previous guest must’ve worked nights at the cemetery and never turned off their own alarm. And housekeeping didn’t do it either.

Save yourself the hassle by unplugging the alarm clock immediately. It’s 2017 anyway — just use the alarm on your smartphone.

… and Unplug the Damn Phone

These days, I find the front desk increasingly likely to call out of the blue just to say hi and make sure everything’s ok. It’s a nice bit of customer service, but they have a knack for calling 30 minutes after check-in, just as I’m dozing for an afternoon nap. If you aren’t expecting any phone calls, unplug the phone.

Pack Some White Noise in Your Pocket

This one’s all about personal preference. Few things help me sleep like a baby like white noise: the hum of an air conditioner fan, a hard rainstorm, the sultry voice of the Forensic Files narrator.

If you’re the same, download one of the many free “white noise” apps available for Android and iPhone. Or, if you’re the sort of hotshot who can afford to shop at Brookstone, opt for a dedicated white noise machine. The smallest ones (like this one from HoMedics) are affordable and packable.

Draw the Curtains the Right Way

Draw the curtains — both the inner and outer if there’s more than one set. But, for those of you who can’t sleep in hotel rooms, you knew that already.

The not-so-obvious pro tip is to always travel with a few paper binder clips (like these with strawberries and flowers on them). They’re small, lightweight, and practically free. And they keep you organized. But, for sleep purposes, they also close the inevitable gap between the curtains in your hotel room, blocking out all semblance of sleep-depriving sunlight.

Switch the Hotel AC/Heater Fan to “On”

Again, if you’re a light sleeper and/or enjoy white noise, you probably loathe the consant switching on/off of your hotel room’s HVAC system. To me, this is the bane of my hotel existence. It’s nails on a chalkboard.

The solution? Switch the HVAC system fan to “On”. Most systems have two fan settings: “On” or “Auto”. I switch it to “On” to make sure it’s not clicking on/off all night (as is this case in “Auto” mode).

Ear Plugs. All the Ear Plugs.

Right after my passport and a couple nips of bourbon, the next thing that goes into my bag is ear plugs. Seriously, I don’t understand how anyone — particularly those who can’t sleep in hotel rooms — travels without them. They’re cheap, packable, and comfortable (I recommend these).

Spray Your Bed

Some fancier hotels (Crowne Plaza comes to mind) are investing in signature scents. Partly for branding, but also because they have a measurable calming effect on hotel guests.

Find a scent that calms and relaxes you. Peppermint and other mint scents are a good place to start. Pack a small spray travel bottle of it and spritz your bed before lying down each night. It won’t work for everyone, but even a little sleep advantage is better than none.

(Full disclosure: I don’t actually use this tip because I only travel with Axe Body Spray and that doesn’t calm anyone. But, there is some science to back it up, and in the fancier hotel rooms in which I’ve stayed that do this, it seems to help.)

Still Can’t Sleep in Hotels?

If you’ve tried all of these tips, but still can’t sleep in hotel rooms? Sorry, there’s no hope for you. I’d try Ambien and a few glasses of Shiraz.

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Hylete 6-in-1 Backpack Is a Jack-of-all-trades … and Master of Them Too

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I hear the word “disruptive” bandied about these days in reference to new (or supposedly new) gadgets and gear that manufacturers think will somehow revolutionize whatever industry they happen to be in.

A lot of these PR pitches find their way into my inbox … and subsequently into my ever-expanding Gmail Trash folder. (Your performance socks and coffee mugs are “shaking up” the performance sock and coffee mug industries? Really?).

Suffice to say that I was a bit skeptical when Hylete reached out to us with an offer for a 6-in-1 backpack that aims to be all things to all people. Traveler, gym-goer, desk jockey — whatever your flavor, their Icon pack is allegedly for all of you!

Again: I was skeptical …

But, after poring over the features of the Hylete 6-in-1 40L Backpack, this thing is the real deal. It’s hands-down the smartest, most cleverly designed pack I’ve ever personally tested.

Hylete 6-in-1 Backpack 60L

Hylete 6-in-1 Backpack 60L

Hylete 6-in-1 Backpack

The Skinny

The Icon 6-in-1 Backpack is touted by Hylete as the:

… perfect bag, 6 times over. As the name suggests, the icon has 6 distinct conversions: backpack, extended backpack, small duffle, large duffle, removable daypack, and messenger bag.

Travel the world with nothing but a carry-on, commute to work, or detach the daypack with laptop sleeve for a productive sit at your local coffee shop.

The Traveler’s Take

“The pockets are … pockety. And, the shoulder straps, are very … strapful.”

That’s usually the extent of a backpack review. But, the 6-in-1 Backpack is a whole other animal. There’s so much ingenuity going on in just 40L.

At it’s core, the Icon is about versatility. Hylete’s 40L pack was built on the wild success of the larger Icon 6-in-1 60L. As the name suggests, this smaller sibling offers all the same convertibility. It’s at once a backpack, extended backpack, small duffle, large duffle, a messenger bag, and a removable daypack. All in a single carry-on size bag.

Hylete 6 in 1 Backpack (40L) Extended

Hylete 6 in 1 Backpack (40L) Extended

The key to all this Swiss Army-knifery lies in two cleverly designed features. The first is an expandable pouch on the bottom of the bag that drops down to add an additional 15L of space. It tucks away behind the zippered panel and into the guts of the main compartment when you don’t need it, but it expands in seconds when you do. It’s this compartment that allows you to go from “small backpack” to “extended backpack” mode. Or, with the aid of the included shoulder strap, to switch from “small duffel” mode to “extended duffle” mode.

Hylete 6-in-1 40L Backpack (Extended Duffle Mode)

Hylete 6-in-1 40L Backpack (Extended Duffle Mode)

The second most important design feature allows the rear compartment to zip off completely and function as a standalone daypack (perfect for a full-size laptop, smartphone, small digital camera, headphones, and other essentials). Again, with the help of the shoulder strap, you can easily go from “daypack” mode to “messenger bag” mode in seconds.

And there’s a host of secondary features I love. The padded backpack straps are thick, ventilated, and incredibly comfortable, and an adjustable sternum strap ensures the bag fits snugly against your body. A series of fleece lined pockets provide added protection for your electronics, a puppy, or anything that requires “a soft touch.” The 6-in-1’s exterior is also weather and abrasion resistant, so it’s designed to take whatever the road can throw at it. Lastly, two insulated side pockets provide space for chilled water bottles, or if you need a spot to keep your damp gear separate from everything else in your pack. Add in a few packing cubes and you’re good to go!

Pricing & Availability

You’ll find the Hylete 6-in-1 Backpack for sale now in Stealth Black in 16L/40L/60L varieties with prices from $120-250 (USD) with free domestic returns directly from Hylete.

The Bottom Line

I’ve long been a fan of spending a bit more on solid, well-made gear. And, while some may balk at the $200 price tag for the Hylete 6-in-1 Backpack (40L), trust me: it’s worth it. This truly is a pack for anyone. A jack-of-all-trades, and master of them too.

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This Clever Portable Travel Safe Keeps Your Valuables Safe on the Road

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When Kel and I started planning our huge cross-country road trip for 2018, we started pondering the best way to safeguard our valuables in the truck. We’ll be traveling with plenty of gear (especially electronics like laptops, digital cameras, smartphones, our passports, and the like). Obviously, keeping everything in the glovebox isn’t a viable or secure solution.

If only we could find a “portable travel safe” … hmmm

The Best Portable Travel Safe?

So when I stumbled upon Pacsafe’s Travelsafe line of portable travel safes, I was overjoyed. The GII portable safe is sold in 5L or 12L varieties. While the smaller, more portable 5L caught our eye at first, we eventually settled on the 12L and we’re so glad we did.

Pacsafe Travelsafe 12L portable travel safe

Pacsafe Travelsafe 12L Portable Travel Safe

The Skinny

So, what is the Travelsafe 12L? In Pacsafe’s words, they describe this portable travel safe like so:

The soft brushed lining and 360 eXomesh locking system of the Travelsafe 12L portable safe protect your gear around the lock. Lock it closed and secure to fixtures in your hotel room, by the pool, in a car or in-flight.

The Traveler’s Take

The Travelsafe portable safes are made with the same eXomesh design as most of Pacsafe’s goods. It’s essentially a steel webbing woven into the lining of the fabric that ensures no one will be able to “crack” it. The bag itself is virtually impenetrable — it takes much more than a pair of scissors or cutters. No opportunity thief (which is what most thieves are) is going to be packing the necessary equipment to cut into the Travelsafe.

The Travelsafe accepts most standard TSA-approved locks and “deploying” it is simple. Stuff your valuables inside, cinch the top down as tight as possible, secure the included cable around something that would be virtually impossible to steal or break, and lock the cable to itself. The entire process takes less than a minute.

For securing it in our truck, we like to use the U-brackets that are visible once folding the rear seats down flat. These are welded to the truck’s frame, so they’re virtually unbreakable. In a hotel room, any sturdy piece of furniture will do (a strong headboard, armoire, etc.) or my personal preference is to use the pipes under the bathroom sink. No thief in their right mind is going to pull too hard on these to try to steal your gear. It’s just not worth the potential mess.

Pacsafe Travelsafe 12L portable travel safe

Pacsafe’s Portable Travelsafe 12L – Secured

We’ve previously tried and loved Pacsafe’s secure luggage and camera bags. But, the Travelsafe 12L is an ideal insert for an existing bag or backpack. Or, it can serve as a standalone portable safe to keep safeguard goods in your car or hotel room.

Sizewise, it’s capacious enough (20.5 x 13.8 x 0.5 inches to be exact) for a 15-inch Macbook. So, for our purposes, it’s more than large enough to fit our passports, two ultrabook laptops, wallets, and maybe some digital camera equipment to boot. It’s also super lightweight (around 1.5 pounds) and packs down quite flat — shoved into my carry-on, I hardly even notice it’s there.

Other secondary, smartly designed features include carrying handles and an offset/lightly colored, soft brushed Polyester interior to protect and make finding your goods even easier.

Pricing & Availability

Available now in black for around $90 USD directly from Pacsafe or even less from Amazon.

The Bottom Line

Nearly $90 USD may seem pricey for what appears to be “a foam bag with some built-in security wiring.” But, considering Pacsafe’s entire line — including the Travelsafe 12L — is damn near bulletproof, we think it’s well worth it for the peace of mind.

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Curious Travel: 8 Essential Questions to Ask in Every New Place

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Surely one of the reasons we get off the couch and head abroad is because we have questions that must be answered. Or, at the very least the desire to find new things to ask questions about.

If you ask the right questions on your travels, you’ll not only learn much more about the local culture and customs, but maybe even make some good friends along the way.

When I’m traveling somewhere new — although it’s probably because I’m somewhat neurotic and obsessed about exploring new places — I write notes in my diary about what I expect to find and what questions I have. Inevitably, the questions and answers I end up with are far removed from what I contemplated on the train or plane ride in, but I can live with that. I have insatiable curiosity — it’s a “fault” I inherited from my grandmother, apparently — but I really think it’s a benefit when you travel.

Here are my tips on the best eight questions you can ask in every new place.

#1: Where’s a Good Place to Get a Drink Around Here?

And that’s not because we can’t survive a day or two without a beer. Finding a local bar or pub — emphasis on local, not the bar where all the foreigners hang out — is one of the best ways to get in contact with local people, find out more about where you are, and see how the locals wind down.

Food stall in Java, Indonesia

Night Food Sellers in Java, Indonesia ©
Riza Nugraha

#2: What’s the Weirdest Food I Can Eat Here?

This is a question I love to ask, but I’m not so good at following through on actually eating what people suggest. I basically just love to hear people describe the unusual objects that have become part of a normal diet in their country.

It doesn’t even have to be exotic – for example, as an Australian, I still have a really hard time dealing with the American habit of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. A Korean who’s already dealt with a few foreigners might give you some measured reasoning about the Korean liking for dog meat, and an Italian will get into mind-boggling detail about the cutest names for some niche pasta sorts.

#3: What’s That Big Building Over There?

Get an insider’s info on major landmarks and work out what’s worth visiting. But beware: the insider’s info is often historically inaccurate and filled with urban myths. Just think about what you really know about significant buildings or monuments in your own town. It’s usually distressingly little, because they’re just places you see every day without thinking about them. Nevertheless, the stories you’ll be told about them are a great starting point, and often more interesting than the truth, anyhow.

Snowy field in winter at sunset

Snowy Field in Winter

#4: What’s Your Favorite Time of Year Here?

This is a great question for finding out the seasonal ups and downs of your destination. Someone will answer according to the weather, another will tell you about their favorite festival, and somebody else might describe the time when most people are on holidays. The only problem with this question is you might discover that the time you’d most enjoy being in the country has just passed. That’s okay — there’s always next year.

#5: How Does the School System Work Here?

It sounds like a dull textbook question, but honestly, the answers can be pretty enlightening. From the north-east Asian systems where students might spend ten or more hours a day studying, through the kinds of schools that I consider “normal”, that is with school from around nine until three each day, and then to other countries like in South America or some parts of Europe where students are finished by lunchtime, the variety is endless. It’s a topic that everyone knows something about, having gone to school themselves, and some great debates can arise.

#6: So, What Did You Have for Breakfast Today?

Seriously, you’ll be amazed. I learned in Japan, for example, not to believe what the guide books say about the Japanese all eating rice and fish for breakfast. A bunch of my Japanese friends have already made the (regrettably unhealthy switch) to white bread and sugared cereal. Ironically, I was the one who ate rice for breakfast for the entire two years I lived in Japan. Breakfast traditions are weird habits, and worth knowing about.

Kids playing football on the beach in Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Football on Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil © bossa07 (Flickr)

#7: What Sports Do Kids Play Here?

Sports cross all kinds of cultural boundaries. They’re a great topic for discussion, and also to learn about how the local people spend their free time. The reason I like to ask about kids and sport is that it takes all the controversy out of it.

For example, if you ask a bunch of Australian men in a pub which is the best sport, you’ll be throwing yourself into the lion’s den. You’ll watch as each man tries to defend his own code of football, depending on where he grew up, and then an argument about the game of cricket will probably ensue. Which means you’d never hear that practically all Australian girls, and a lot of women too, play netball. And the list goes on. Play it safe and talk about the kids.

#8: Why Do You Live Here?

This might be a question for late night pondering, and best saved for philosophical locals, but I’ve had some interesting answers. Many people won’t have thought about it, really, until you ask. But, when they do, their reasons for being there can provide a lot of clues about why you might enjoy being there, too.

I believe there’s no point in traveling if you don’t ask questions. At the very least, be open to questions arising as you travel. If you have the courage to get chatting with some locals — perhaps with a bit of a language barrier — and find the answers to some of your questions, it’s a guarantee that this will enrich your enjoyment and understanding of the culture you’re visiting.

What questions do you ask the locals when you travel? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Pixter’s Clip-on Pro Lenses Are Designed to Go Anywhere, on Any Smartphone

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Most modern smartphones take great photos. If your phone was manufactured in the last two years, chances are that you can forget having to pack a separate point-and-shoot digital camera for your next trip.

Pixter logo

Pixter Lens Review

But having more shooting options is never a bad thing, which is where add-on smartphone lenses come in handy. We’ve tested a few such lenses in the past (namely the ExoLens PRO kit and even this curious 3-Lens iPhone Lens Dial). All have their strengths and weaknesses, but none have ever proved worthwhile enough for me to add to my “always pack” list of camera bag essentials.

Recently, Pixter — a burgeoning French company with an attractive catalog of aftermarket smartphone camera goodies — reached out to see if I’d be interested in a product test. Specifically, they wanted me to have a look at their Pixter Wide Angle Pro and Pixter Super Fisheye lenses.

The clip-on form factor of both lenses was unique enough to pique my interest. After a few weeks of shooting with both in the field, here are my thoughts …

Pixter Wide Angle Clip-on Smartphone Lens Kit

Pixter Wide Angle Clip-on Smartphone Lens Kit

The Skinny

Pixter describes these two lenses like so:

Super Fisheye Lens:

… offers new generation optics with anti-reflective coatings. With a 235° capture angle, the 6 multilayer lenses allow photos being taken without a black circle, but with the distinctive distortion of a Fish-Eye effect.

This Fisheye effect is close to what renown professional photographers can offer and combines an exceptional image quality to an ultra wide angle field.

Wide Angle Pro:

… is equipped with a steel case that contains 5 maximum clarity lenses. The polarized lenses are anti-reflective and guarantee an excellent transmission of light.

The Pixter Wide Angle Pro was designed to take landscapes or restricted indoor shots without any distortion.

The Traveler’s Take

Straight out of the box, the first thing to notice is that Pixter’s lenses feel solid and well-designed. Many me-too camera kits for smartphones (the kind that pack 3-4 lenses into a $50 kit) are clearly cheap. Not so with Pixter. The glass has a nice solid, weighty feel without proving too heavy. The smartly designed packaging also makes it clear that you’re opening a professional, well-thought-out product.

Pixter Wide Angle Lens

Pixter Wide Angle Lens

As I mentioned, what drew me to Pixter’s lenses was the form factor. The “clip-on” design is something I hadn’t seen before and was intrigued by. Most other lenses mount too snugly (as with the previously mentioned ExoLens PRO) or too loosely (we previously tested a lens that was essentially secured via a thin bungee cord). The Wide Angle Pro and Super Fisheye literally clip over the front or rear-facing lens on your iPhone or Android phone. So, they’re designed to fit just about any camera (sans case).

A few thoughts about this … I like the proposed versatility of this design. I was able to easily get either lens mounted over the front or back lenses of my iPhone 6. However, I was never quite able to get it lined up 100% on my Nexus 6P (partly because of the beveled bump-out of the phone’s exterior shell). In theory, it’s simple to clip on and swipe off as needed which allows for easy swapping. And it is very quick and easy to mount and remove.

Compare With/Without the Pixter Fisheye Lens

Compare With/Without the Pixter Super Fisheye Lens

But, putting it back on my phone required a few extra seconds to line up properly each time. It’s by no means a deal breaker. However, it’s worth noting because neither lens snaps or clicks into place to audibly let you know that everything’s lined up right. The mounting process requires a more subjective “eyeballing” with a bit of guesswork. The inherent problem is that, if you don’t line it up properly, your smartphone camera won’t be able to focus. Or, perhaps worse, that it will mostly focus, but your photos will be ever-so-slightly blurry (which is frustrating).

One added benefit of the clip-on form factor is that the lenses are easy to clip to just about anywhere on the inside or outside of a camera bag. In this way, they’re easy to grab when you need them, and there’s little risk of them getting lost or damaged from rolling around your camera bag full of cables, cards, and other junk.

Chattanooga Tree House (taken with Pixter Wide Angle Pro lens)

Chattanooga Tree House (taken with Pixter Wide Angle Pro lens)

Pricing and Availability

The Pixter Wide Angle Pro and Pixter Super Fisheye lenses are available directly from Pixter for around $55 (USD) each.

The Bottom Line

Clipping the Pixter lenses to my smartphones required a brief but exacting re-alignment process each time. But, after a few tries, it became relatively quick and painless. Even with that in mind, I’d say the clever clip-on design and photo quality of Pixter’s lenses that I tested are well worth the $55 price tag for novice travel photographers looking to lighten their camera bag or professionals who want a compact, reasonably solid backup to their clunky DSLR cameras.

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How to Master the Fine Art of Haggling

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Considered an integral part of the transaction process in many parts of the world, haggling often throws those of us from lands of fixed prices off-kilter. We walk away from market stands with sweat on our brow, festering feelings of frustration, and vows of restricting our shopping to air-conditioned venues with price tags.

Haggling, however, is an everyday survival skill for the long-term traveler, used beyond acquiring souvenirs to negotiate transport and tickets or to purchase food.

While it may never become as easy as reading a sticker price, after mastering a few time-tested bartering tactics haggling can become a much more enjoyable and natural experience. One you may even miss when you return home and can no longer implement a half-off clothing sale on a whim.

The situation: After traveling all day on a rickety bus, you’ve arrived at the center of commerce for the majority of the local world, no, not the mall, but the local marketplace. You stand transfixed, overwhelmed by the chaotic hubbub and glittering baubles for sale. It takes a minute for you to adjust, but after a moment your consumer instincts kick in and you are ready to make a purchase. You select the stall of your preference; choose your item — now all you have to do is pay. If it were only that easy …

Market, Cairo
Market, Cairo © T U R K A I R O

Never Accept the First Price

In most cultures accepting, the first quoted price is unheard of and a blatant declaration of your foreigner status and subsequent naiveté A first price is used by vendors to test the waters, to gauge what you’ll accept as reasonable. I’ve had a 24-rupee rickshaw ride in India quoted to me for 400.

I’ve had a 24 rupee rickshaw ride in India quoted to me for 400.

If you have an idea of an appropriate price, use it to your advantage to evaluate the one being quoted to you. Exhibiting even a little knowledge goes a long way in lowering prices as merchants will realize that you are willing to barter and not simply buy. If you have no idea what a price should be, take the time to shop nearby stalls and soon a median price will begin to emerge. Another tip is to ask local shoppers or consult a guidebook as a reference. I’ve found that mentioning an outside authority, be it another customer or a guidebook, helps quickly slash prices in half.

Quote Lower Than You’re Actually Willing to Pay

Once you have determined an appropriate price range, counter the initial quote with a price lower than you would actually be willing to pay. This suggestion will probably be met with exclamations of incredulity by the vendor, but know that it is all part of the negotiation dance that takes place hundreds of times a day. The vendor will then demand a higher price. In response, slowly increase your original bid to the price you had in mind. The goal is to have it end up as the final sale price.

Buy in Bulk

Another easy way to make prices come down quickly or add value to your purchase is to buy in bulk. Buying multiple quantities is an easy way to get a “two-for-one deal” or other similar bargains. Once you suggest that you are willing to purchase multiple items, the deals often begin to flow freely and with little effort on your part.

Berries for Sale, Santa Monica
Berries for Sale, Santa Monica © jchatoff

Sometimes this is all it takes and you can walk away satisfied with your purchase wondering why travelers constantly gripe about the headaches of haggling. But other times you find yourself in a situation where the vendor won’t budge and is persistently demanding an exorbitant sum. In such situations, having the following two tactics in your arsenal is crucial for successfully negotiating a deal.

Do the Fake: Act Like You’re Going to Walk Away

If the vendor refuses to negotiate but you’ve found the perfect gift for mom and nothing else will do, throw up your hands in frustration and start to walk away. Draw on those high school drama classes and make it believable.

Usually, the threat of completely losing a transaction will have the vendor calling after you with a lowered price, allowing discussions to start anew.

Exploit The Threat of Competition

Another option is to employ the competitor threat. In the midst of negotiation, simply mention that you are willing to go elsewhere for your purchase.

Working in a similar manner to walking away, vendors are more willing to negotiate after they realize they might lose business to one of their neighbors. Use this to your advantage to achieve your desired price.

A Word of Caution

While it’s great to get a good deal, it’s also important to keep exchange rates and perspective in mind when in the heat of the haggle. I’ve stopped myself before realizing that I’ve been resisting making a purchase over the equivalent of 50 cents. My budget can survive the 50-cent foreigner markup without making too much of a dent; however, the local equivalent can have a significant impact on the vendor’s daily earnings. The price you settle on is up to you, of course. But, it’s important to realize when you’re negotiating for real value or just needlessly fighting over nickels and dimes.

Now, it’s finally time to make your purchase. The money is exchanged and the item received. Congratulations: you have successfully completed your first market transaction!

After a few more purchases, you’ll be bartering like a pro and creating your own ingenious tactics. Just expect some resistance when you return home and try to get your morning latte down to $2.50 from $3.

What are your tips for haggling like a pro? Share them with us in the comments below!

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