TomTom Spark 3: A Next-level Fitness Tracker for Adventurous Travelers

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TomTom has long been known for their ridiculously simple (and awesome) GPS devices. Once I finally ditched my printed Mapquest driving directions back in the dark days of the 1990s [shudder], my first foray into “high-tech” mapping was a TomTom GPS. So, I’ve always been fond of them.

It’s no surprise really that they’ve evolved with forward-thinking products that feature (wait for it …) GPS tracking. The new TomTom Spark 3 is one such device. In particular, the company was cool enough to send us a sample of their TomTom Spark 3 Cardio + Music (Headphone Bundle).

Here’s what we found …

TomTom Spark 3 Fitness Tracker

TomTom Spark 3 Fitness Tracker (aqua)

TomTom Spark 3 Fitness Tracker

The Skinny

In TomTom’s own words, the Spark 3 Cardio + Music is a next-level fitness tracker with a whole host of bells and whistles to help you “train with up to 500 songs and your heart rate on your wrist.”

The Traveler’s Take

The TomTom Spark 3 isn’t your mama’s Fitbit. This is a device designed for athletes and adventure travelers looking to track every facet of their training and outdoor experiences.

The Spark 3’s central 24/7 activity tracking functionality offers multisport modes for the most common athletic endeavors, including biking, running, swimming, treadmill running, gym workouts, cycling, and more. Its full-featured tracking measures distance, speed, time, pace, calories burned, and heart rate — all live and on the go. The built-in heart rate monitor means you can skip the typical chest strap to free you up to actually move. It allows you to easily keep tabs on your heart rate throughout the day.

Girl working out with TomTom Spark 3 fitness tracker

TomTom Spark 3 Fitness Tracker

The Headphone Bundle version of the Spark 3 adds a bunch of music-centric features designed to supplement (or replace) your smartphone during your workouts. The included Bluetooth headphones are weather- and sweatproof, feature comfortably contoured ear hooks, and pair with the TomTom Spark 3 (or your phone) simultaneously. The 3GB of onboard storage is also good for up to 500 songs meaning you can literally leave your smartphone at home if you like.

Battery life is solid: up to 3 weeks when activity tracking and around 5 hours when it’s running full-bore with the GPS tracking, heart rate monitoring, and music all activated.

We dig the minimal user interface which feels a bit “retro futurist.” The purposefully simplistic display is reminiscent of first generation digital alarm clocks (in a good way).

Pricing and Availability

Available now in Black or Aqua (with small or large straps) for around $249.99 USD from Amazon.

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Baby, Baby, Baby, Light My Way: Car Camping With the Luminoodle Color

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Everyone knows we’re huge car camping fans. But, sometimes packing and planning a car camping trip can become too much about the logistics and essentials. So much that it’s easy to forget about the fun stuff.

The entry-level Luminoodle Light Rope is intended to be functional because, well, light is important when you’re camping in the dark. But, the Luminoodle Color ups the ante by adding a bit of splash and (wait for it …) color to the campsite.

The good Luminoodle-ers (also known as Power Practical) were kind enough to send us a sample. Here’s our Luminoodle Color review …

Luminoodle Color Review

Luminoodle Color : Lightweight, versatile string lights

Luminoodle Color: Lightweight, versatile string lights

The Skinny

First off, what is the Luminoodle Color? In Practical Power’s own words:

The Luminoodle Color is 5 feet of waterproof, flexible, ultra-bright light that you can use in nearly any situation. From camping to your home or even the next music festival, the Luminoodle Color will take your nighttime activities to the next level.

The Traveler’s Take (a Luminoodle Color Review)

String lights are nothing new. But Power Practical has added a few clever features to the tried-and-true string light design that actually make them both functional and fun.

Luminoodle Color String Lights (truck mounted)

Luminoodle Color String Lights

They’re designed to be hung pretty much anywhere. Built-in slider magnets are incorporated into the cable so they’re easy to mount inside your tent, to the side of your car, or along the hatch of your wagon or SUV. We love the latter as it provides for actual useful lighting when we’re tailgating and hanging out in the back of the 4Runner. If you don’t happen to have a metal spot to mount them (unlikely), noodle ties and quick straps are also included.

All of these options allow you to mount the Luminoodle string lights pretty much anywhere. They can also be gathered up into the included stuff sack to create a soft-sided “Noodle Lantern” (our words, not theirs). The entire kit is also waterproof so if you accidentally leave it outside in an overnight deluge, no worries.

Luminoodle Color String Lights

Luminoodle Color String Lights – Great Tent Light!

The basic Luminoodle is cool and all, but we much prefer the Luminoodle Color version. It offers 500 lighting scenarios, including 15 color options, 3 white modes, 10 dimmer settings, and 3 fade/strobe fade modes. So your campsite mood lighting can be everything from “romantic” to “functional” to “super-crazy-disco-party-hour.” It’s your call. And, it’s easily controlled by an inline switch built into the Luminoodle’s cable or via a wireless RF remote.

Lastly: the power. The Luminoodle is universally powered by any 5V, 1A USB port. This could be from a wall outlet, a car cigarette lighter, or a portable battery back. The latter is a $10 option.

Pricing and Availability

The Luminoodle Color light rope is available now for $29.99 USD via Amazon. Or make it a complete kit (with a lithium 4400 battery good for 30+ hours of power for the Luminoodle) for $10 more.

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Best of Egypt: How to Explore 5,000 Years of Egyptian History in Just 7 Days

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All of Egypt in just one week?

It seemed like an ambitious plan — maybe too ambitious. But, that’s essentially what Lady Egypt Tours promised us on our recent luxury tour of Egypt.

While our idea of vagabonding doesn’t usually involve organized tours, we knew that Egypt could prove difficult to explore on our own. The desert is vast, Cairo is notoriously chaotic, and frankly, with more than 5,000 years of history to explore, there’s just a lot of ground to cover. We read a lot of Egypt tour reviews — in particular regarding escorted tours in Egypt — and found that Lady Egypt came highly recommended as one of the best Egypt tours companies.

Best Egypt Tours

In total, our entire Egypt trip spanned 16 days. Because we were flying to Africa from Boston, it was important that we had two days on either end to settle in and a couple days of downtime where we would not be traveling, touring, or — doing much of anything really. We spent these last two days by the pool at the aptly named Le Méridien Pyramids Hotel & Spa sipping fruity cocktails and staring at the Pyramids of Giza directly across the street (yes, this job is tough work if you can get it …).

Assuming you have the time, I highly recommend you do the same. Our tour started in Cairo for a whirlwind trip around the city before flying to Aswan (a 90-minute flight south) and working our way back to Cairo for our flight home. Assuming you only have two weeks — including flying and travel days — here’s how you can explore 5,000 years of Egyptian history in just one week.

Day 1: Explore Downtown Cairo

Skyline of Cairo, Egypt (seen from The Citadel)

Skyline of Cairo, Egypt (seen from The Citadel)

Cairo is manic. The streets are chaotic, the traffic at any time of day is at a near standstill, and the air is heavy from the weight of its nearly 9.5 million people. But, it’s arguably Africa’s most vibrant and impressive city (rivaled only by Cape Town).

The Alabaster Mosque (Mosque of Muhammad Ali) in Cairo, Egypt

The Alabaster Mosque (Mosque of Muhammad Ali) in Cairo, Egypt

By day, hit the Egyptian Museum (a.k.a. Museum of Cairo) which boasts the largest and oldest collection of artifacts in the world. It’s an ideal place to get your bearings regarding the overwhelmingly long timeline of Egyptian history.

From there, head to the Citadel of Cairo and the stunning Alabaster Mosque (a.k.a. The Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha), in particular. It’s arguably the most historically and culturally significant mosque in all of Egypt.

Khan El-Khalili Bazaar in Cairo, Egypt

Khan El-Khalili Bazaar in Cairo, Egypt

After dark, check out the Khan El-Khalili bazaar — the largest and oldest souk on the continent. Bring plenty of cash and be prepared to haggle like a boss.

Day 2: Onward to Aswan and Abu Simbel

Aside from The Great Pyramids of Giza, Abu Simbel is arguably the most iconic landmark in Egypt. The temples are located some 300 kilometers (roughly 200 miles) outside of Aswan. So, a day trip there involves rising very, very early and a six-hour roundtrip drive into the desert. But, it is plenty worth it.

The temples were constructed in commemoration of Ramesses II tactical victory at the Battle of Kadesh that took place in 1274 BC. Interestingly, the ancient Egyptian architects built the Great Temple in such a way that twice a year (on October 22 and February 22), the sunbeams reach the inner sanctuary and lighten up three out of the four sculptures. The statue of the God of the Underworld Ptah always remains in darkness.

Kelsey standing outside Abu Simbel Temples

Kelsey standing outside Abu Simbel

The Small Temple dedicated to Goddess Hathor and Nefertari is also unique. It was the first time in Egyptian architecture the statues of the Pharaoh and his wife were equal in size. In the evening, you can take another optional tour and enjoy the spectacular Sound and Light Show at the Philae Temple.

Interestingly, the impending destruction of the original temples (before they were moved, piece-by-piece to their current location) due to substantial erosion from Lake Nasser is what sparked the launch and ultimate rise of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites program.

Day 3-4: Nile River Cruise

Sail the Nile River to Edfu and Esna Temples

Few experiences in Egypt are more iconic than cruising the Nile River. We boarded a three-day cruise with Lady Egypt that allowed us to explore the river leisurely. But, many of its best sites can be seen in a quick 2-day/1-night “trip.”

Be sure to stop at the dual Temples of Kom Ombo, constructed during Egypt’s Ptolemaic Dynasty and dedicated to the gods Horus and Sobek. Continue on afterward to Edfu and Esna — two remarkably well-preserved temples.

Kelsey exploring the inside of Edfu Temple

Kelsey exploring the inside of Edfu Temple

At day’s end, you can head to the ancient city of Luxor with its ancient monuments that span more than 4,000 years of Egyptian history. Take the time to visit the massive, 200-acre Karnak Temple Complex (making it the largest religious building ever constructed). Once darkness begins to fall, head to Luxor Temple which offers stunning views particularly once it’s illuminated at night.

Explore the West Bank (Valley of the Kings & Valley of the Workers), plus Karnak and Luxor Temples

Cruising the Nile River in Egypt

Cruising the Nile River in Egypt © Ad Meskens

Exploring the West Bank of the Nile is best done by arising early on your first day to avoid the oppressive midday heat. Early morning is also the best time to take a once-in-a-lifetime hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings.

Sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings

Sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings

Upon landing, head to the Valley of the Kings to explore 15 of the 63 tombs that are currently open to the public. These include Tutankhamun, Thutmose III, Ramesses I and Seti II. All are extremely well preserved and each was uniquely designed and architected for its respective pharaoh.

Valley of the Kings Near Luxor, Egypt

Valley of the Kings Near Luxor, Egypt © Francisco Anzola

Day 5: Hurghada by the Sea

Much of Egypt is “rough around the edges”. It’s rugged, vast, and impossibly old — all of the things that make it one of the most bucket list-worthy destinations in the world. By contrast, the sea side town of Hurghada is a demonstration of the best luxury that Egypt has to offer.

The Westin Soma Bay (near Hurghada, Egypt)

The Westin Soma Bay (near Hurghada, Egypt)

In short, it’s the resort town that well-heeled vacationing and honeymooning Egyptians head to when it’s time to relax. It’s modern, beautiful, and touristy — home, in fact to the country’s most exclusive resort, The Westin Soma Bay.

Desert hills near Hurghada, Egypt

Desert Hills Near Hurghada, Egypt

It also happens to be one of the best places in Egypt to experience Bedouin life. Lady Egypt can coordinate a desert tour — including ATV rides in the desert, hiking amid Egypt’s highest peaks, and a visit to a traditional Bedouin village including a traditional (and practically required) camel ride.

Happy Bedouin camel in the desert near Hurghada, Egypt

Happy Bedouin camel in the desert near Hurghada, Egypt

Day 6: Fayum and the Valley of the Whales

After visiting ancient temples, cruising the Nile River, escaping to Egypt’s most beautiful seaside resort town, what’s left? Two things actually.

Fishermen in Fayum, Egypt

Fishermen in Fayum, Egypt © Hussain92 (Wikimedia)

First, not far outside of Cairo lies the tiny fishing village of Fayum. For tourists, it’s an ideal opportunity to see how many non-urbanite Egyptians currently live. It’s rough around the edges, but it’s impossible to say you’ve really visited the country without seeing how much of its population actually lives.

Second is the Valley of the Whales (known locally as Wadi Al-Hitan). This relatively new historical park is one of Egypt’s best-kept secrets — we were surprised to learn many of the country’s well-informed tour guides have never even heard of it.

Egypt's Valley of the Whales (Wadi Al-Hitan)

Egypt’s Valley of the Whales (Wadi Al-Hitan)

Located amid a vast swath of open desert, the park is the site of a recent, but incredibly significant archeological find — fully intact whale skeletons. It’s proof that the Egyptian Desert was once an ocean. To find indisputable evidence of marine life embedded in the harsh, bone dry desert landscape is surreal to say the least.

Day 7: Return to Cairo to See the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx

You didn’t honestly expect to visit Egypt without seeing the Great Pyramids, did you? Think of it as “saving the best for last.”

Intricate stonework of Egypt's Great Pyramid of Giza (low angle)

The intricate stonework of Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza

This goes without saying, but The Great Pyramid of Giza is the largest and oldest of those in the Giza pyramid complex. It is officially the oldest of the World’s Seven Wonders and the most intact. (Hot tip: save your money and skip the interior tour. It’s claustrophobic, impossibly hot, and it’s essentially just an empty room)

The Giza Complex — Sphinx and the Pyramids

The Giza Complex — Sphinx and the Pyramids

You can experience everything above in roughly seven full days, plus a few days of travel in the middle. We went with Lady Egypt Tours — voted among the best Egypt tours particularly for luxury providers. From landing in Egypt to ground and intra-country flights to the moment we returned to Cairo to fly home, they provided us with every last thing we needed. While they offer a wide variety of amazing packaged tours, they’re 100% flexible and, in fact, encourage travelers to customized their trips to experience exactly what they want to experience.

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I’m Going Traveling, Dammit! (When to Ignore the Bad Advice of Others)

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Over ten years ago, I quit a great job to live and travel abroad. People told me I was crazy, and a few tried to persuade me not to do it.

Given that a decade has since passed and my life is going pretty well, I think I’m qualified to say that those people who told me not to travel were dead wrong!

So in case you’re contemplating the same thing, here’s why you should ignore the advice of those who tell you that you shouldn’t go traveling now.

“But, You’ve Got a Good Job Here!”

Yes, I had a great job. That was part of the problem — I’d had the luck of “right place, right time” to work my way up to a dream job much faster than I’d imagined. There didn’t seem to be much of a “what’s next?”, other than doing the same or similar job for the next twenty or so years. But that wasn’t enough for me and guess what — ten years later, with a whole lot of amazing experiences under my belt that makes me do any job better, I’ve got another good job! Better, in fact!

Having a good job doesn’t mean you are satisfied with what’s going on in your life, although it certainly helps. But if you’ve been able to get a good job once, then chances are you’ll find another good job again.

And flipped around, just having a good job doesn’t mean it will continue to be a job you love or even that the job will continue to exist. Especially in the current changing economy, you can’t guarantee what’s going to happen.

187 - My head's in heaven.
Daydreaming © Meg Wills

“It’s a Bad Career Move.”

Some suggested that leaving my good career and doing “odd jobs” would look extremely bad on my resume. “What about your career?” they asked. Well, there are lots of answers to this concern.

First, there are employers who welcome international experience on your resume even if it’s not in your original field. And do you really want to work for companies who are anti-travel?

Second, your experiences overseas may well change your career path. They certainly changed mine, in a way I couldn’t have done if I’d stayed home. I got into the world of travel blogging, which led me to launch my own blogging and social media business once I returned home and had a family. If I’d stayed here and never traveled there’s no way I would have found this path, and I love it.

Departure
Waiting to Depart © Billy Rowlinson

“You’ll Lose Your Savings.”

Some people told me I’d be crazy to spend my savings on travel. On top of that, to be away from home and not contributing to my pension fund and all that stuff. True. But not the end of the world.

As it turns out, I managed to save a lot of money while I worked in Japan (despite traveling very regularly while I was there) and sent it home as savings. When I worked in Slovakia and Germany, I made sure to live within my means. This, of course, involved a lot of budget traveling. But, hey, it’s more fun that way!

Of course, I’m not recommending you go traveling and bill all of it to your credit card when you’ve no immediate way to repay it. You have to be at least a little sensible. If you don’t have enough savings to use then look into combining travel with working abroad. For me, working in other countries still felt like traveling because I had so many new experiences every day.

“You Won’t Like Japan.”

Several people told me that living abroad and traveling wasn’t such a bad idea, but they were sure I wouldn’t like Japan. This wasn’t because they’d been there or anything. I guess they’d heard of someone who’d had a bad experience. And I don’t think it would have mattered if I’d been moving to England or Brazil or wherever, they would have said the same thing. Guess what — I adored it!

In retrospect, if these people said the same thing to me today, I’d quickly tell them that I can enjoy virtually any place in the world. And, if I decide I don’t like it, I can just move on to somewhere else.

It took me a while to learn that, once you hit the road, the next move is up to you and you’re free to do whatever you want. Don’t let these nay-sayers make you nervous about not enjoying where you’re headed. It’s up to you to decide to enjoy it.

Dusk on Lake Palace, Udaipur, Rajasthan, India
Dusk on Lake Palace, Rajasthan, India © Manoj Vasanth

“You Can’t Speak the Language.”

Before I moved abroad, I admit that not being able to speak the local language worried me a bit. And, I also made as good an attempt as possible to learn the local languages while I lived there because I think that’s the respectful thing to do (plus it’s a lot of fun).

But I soon learned that there are ways to communicate without speaking another language fluently, and plenty of people to help out when you need it. Language barriers should never stop you from traveling.

The Bottom Line

There are always reasons not to do something. Absconding from your “normal” life to travel is no exception.

But I’m glad that I ignored everyone who suggested I stay home. Without my six years of living abroad, I’d have an entirely different life and I firmly believe it would be a poorer one. If you get the chance, ignore the advice-givers and the nay-sayers, and just go traveling, dammit!

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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.

Boiling

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!

Pricing

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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