[Note: These reviews are my own observations after having tried each of these items on several trips over a period of anywhere up to 8 months.]
Versatility is a virtue, and that’s as true for travelers as it is for the gear we carry. It’s especially true if you want to travel light and/or have room for souvenirs in your carry-on. To that end, allow me to introduce to you a bevy of versatile items for your travel arsenal. Whether you’re traveling for work or pleasure, these travel-tested champions will lighten your load and leave plenty of room for whatever you like to bring home from your journeys abroad.
We begin with shoes…
I hate traveling with more than the shoes on my feet. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but I’ve found that even for business travel, the right pair will do in most situations. These three pass the test. They work in all but the most formal of settings, and they won’t slow you down once your meetings (finally) end.
ECCO O2 GTX ($190, ecco.com)
ECCO’s O2 GTX marries form and function like no shoe I’ve ever worn. Like other ECCO models, this one is comfortable right out of the box. The Gore-Tex membrane throughout was handy for me strolling through downtown Atlanta during thunderstorms on a recent trip. These don’t just breathe through their smooth, yak leather upper. The midsole has a network of little tunnels connected to the GTX membrane beneath the shoe’s insole, pulling moisture away from the bottom of your foot too. The O2 is the only shoe I know of that breathes through the midsole yet retains waterproofness.
A few people may find the O2 a little aesthetically jarring because of its contrasting design: Is it a dress shoe or a sneaker? Just embrace the fact that it’s both. The O2 comes with two colors of laces. I opted for the brown, which tones down the look a bit. I’m not a compliment-seeker, but these shoes have been the subject of many.
Oliberté Adibo ($140, oliberte.com)
The Oliberté brand has an incredibly interesting backstory. There’s no room for it here. But allow me to mention that Oliberté makes every one of its shoes in an Ethiopian factory that is the first and only Fair Trade Certified shoe producer in the world. The supple goat leather upper is roomy without feeling sloppy. This is my first chukka boot, and at first I worried that the ankle-high cuff would be uncomfortable. Happily, it hasn’t been a problem at all. The Adibo is very comfortable. The goat leather upper is rugged, but supple, and breathes better than you might imagine.
People who require extremely supportive or cushioned shoes should consider a custom orthotic with this model. It’s basic insole and low heel-toe rise gives this shoe an almost barefoot feel, which I especially enjoy for air travel. Aesthetically, the Adibo is one part hipster, two parts traveler, and has great crossover appeal. I wore the Adibo both while giving a presentation at a professional conference and attending a casual dinner reception later that evening. Appropriate for both.
Hi Tec V-Lite Walk-Lite Witton ($100, us.hi-tec.com)
Before even opening the shoebox, I was impressed with the Witton’s lightness. I asked my wife, “Is there even anything in here?” Up to a full .25 lbs lighter than other shoes in this review, the Witton almost disappears on your foot. The midsole and sole are a single piece, which accounts for their distinct lack of weight. Bits of Vibram rubber on the toe and heel provide extra durability and traction where it’s needed. (A short break-in period is needed to soften the soles. 2-3 wears.)
I wore these for a week on a trip to Korea and was amazed by how they performed. They were roomy enough so that even after 12 hours on a plane, my feet felt just fine. On the ground they stayed consistently comfortable, even after multiple 10-mile plus days of urban strolling on paved and un-paved surfaces. The Witton–at least mine with the lt. grey soles–are a tad less dressy than their counterparts in this review. They’re great for settings up to business-casual, but the sole/midsole is a little too conspicuous with a suit. Perhaps a darker EVA would correct that. Bottom line: Hi-Tec’s Witton is a high-value product. They’re extremely comfortable and versatile enough for just about any closet.
Lorpen T3 Light Hiker sock ($18, lorpennorthamerica.com)
A certain brand of disappointment steals the warmer feelings of one’s heart when the careful opening of a beautifully wrapped gift reveals a pack of socks. You know the feeling. Now rewrite the memory by imagining a pair of Lorpen T3 lt. hikers emerging from the crumpled paper. You slip them on. The soft Tencel-blend fibers caress your skin like melted butter dripping off overwarm toast. Much better.
Aside from its buttery feel, Lorpen’s T3 Light Hiker sock is also perhaps the most versatile sock I’ve worn. It performs with equal aplomb in trail-runners and oxfords. The “T3” in the name refers to a three-layer system whereby different kinds of fibers wick moisture away from your feet. A bit of Lycra keeps the T3 comfortably snug all day. Where looks are concerned, the T3 is pretty conservative, which makes it ideal for business travel. The black color works seamlessly with a suit, but without a dressy pattern that would make it look weird with a pair of shorts.
Makers & Riders 4-Season Washable Wool Pant ($120, makersandriders.com)
Makers & Riders is as real as it gets. You’ll be hearing more about them in the future. For now, let’s focus on the 4-Season Washable Wool Pant, just maybe the world’s perfect pair of travel slacks. They pack smaller than a t-shirt, are lighter than the khakis you wore three times this week (It’s only Wednesday!), don’t show wrinkles, and don’t have to be dry-cleaned. Oh, and they’re 46% wool. (Remainder: 51% recycled polyester, 3% spandex.)
Its like the people at Makers & Riders sat down one day and said: How can we make a pair of pants that performs as awesome as it looks. They nailed it in both departments. The pants, available in a cool “coal heather” color, have a semi-low rise and a slim fit, tapering mildly to the ankle. The gusseted crotch makes them feel less like business slacks and might enable you to bust out into the splits during a staff meeting. My favorite feature is a grippy rubber waistband that keeps your shirt tucked. One qualm, albeit a tiny one: the front pockets could be just a tinge deeper. (Update: these now appear to be sold as the AeroDri Origin Wool Pant, $129.)
Craghoppers Nosilife Berko long-sleeve shirt ($95, us.craghoppers.com)
I almost hesitate to include this shirt because the review is going to appear to threaten my impartiality as a gear reviewer. So I’ll say this in the most impartial way possible: I freaking love this shirt. It is my favorite item in this review. If I were a figure skating judge…you get the point.
Craghoppers is new to me, but they’ve made an impression with this piece. The Craghoppers Nosilife Berko is a perfect shirt. I’ll explain. It’s comfortable and looks cool, it’s lightweight and wrinkle-free, and it wicks moisture and repels insects. That’s really only the beginning. Part of Craghoppers’ partnership with National Geographic, the Berko is so loaded with features it would be cumbersome if they weren’t practically invisible:
In high wind or extreme sun, an extension folded beneath the collar can be popped up and snapped in front. Inside the collar is a comfy strip of soft mesh that pulls away sweat and doesn’t chafe. A patch of microfiber cloth sewn smartly at the bottom of the snap-style button strip makes a handy lens cleaner. Drying loops with snaps inside the shirt make it easy to hand wash and hang dry this shirt while traveling. Button tabs hidden in each sleeve make short-sleeve conversion a snap. A zippered chest pocket keeps small items secure and within reach. And a nearly unnoticeable little band of fabric sewn across the button strip at chest height is the perfect place to stash your sunglasses when you step inside.
At $95, the Berko is a bargain. You will treasure it. You will tell your friends about it. You will wear it too often. And you will be happy about it.
Craghoppers Pro Lite Half-zip Pullover fleece ($50, us.craghoppers.com)
Even with a warm-weather forecast, you should still travel with a lightweight fleece. It doesn’t take up much space, doubles as a pillow, and if the mercury suddenly drops, you’ll be glad you packed it. A surprise rainstorm can cool temps quickly. If this happens, it’s much cheaper to pick up a disposable umbrella than it is to buy a jacket. Craghoppers’ Pro Lite Half-zip Pullover fleece has been in my bags for several trips this year, and I’ve been grateful every time. Its two-way stretch polyester fleece fabric is soft, warm, and lightweight. Perfect on its own or under a waterproof shell, the Pro Lite even slides over a dress shirt without difficulty. Subtle elastic cuffs and a lightly stretchy material at the bottom improve the fit and maximize warmth. The fleece comes with its own stuff sack that stows neatly in the zippered chest pocket and makes a perfect impromptu pillowcase or sundries bag to keep your luggage uncluttered.
Chums Latitude accessory cases ($16-20, chums.com)
Keeping your stuff organized reduces stress while traveling. Having a place for everything–and knowing where that place is–improves time and packing efficiency. The Latitude series, by Chums (based in Salt Lake City) is an extremely useful set of accessory cases that are perfect for just that. I use one as my toiletry kit, and a smaller one to stash a flashlight/battery pack combo, cables, and minor first aid supplies. Made from colorful, heavy-duty ballistic nylon, Latitude series cases are durable and fit nicely within a backpack or carry-on. Aside from a main compartment, each case has two additional zippered pockets, including a water-resistant, see-through pocket on one side of the pouch. The cases also feature attachment loops and high-quality water-resistant zippers.
I’ve included a couple of photos for size comparison. The orange case is the Latitude7, blue is Latitude5. A Latitude9 is also available. The pictures also illustrate how much you can cram into one of these things. Everything in the second image is from the orange case. If only I were smart enough to buy smaller deodorant…
InCase EO Travel Backpack ($180, incase.com)
InCase is known for making tech-protective accessories, but they also make some pretty sweet travel gear. One of their newest pieces is the EO Travel Backpack. Aesthetically, this pack is svelte. With only a single hidden zipper on the outside panel of the pack, the look is straightforward and sophisticated without being pretentious. The other zippers all run around the pack’s rectangular profile. As a travel piece, the EO’s front pocket has plenty of compartments to keep your stuff organized. The laptop compartment, situated against your back, is TSA-compatible. Just open it as you place the pack on the conveyor belt, and there’s no need to put your laptop in one of those grey bins. Near the top handle, a small, cushioned pocket with a microfiber interior makes a perfect place to stash your sunglasses during a flight.
Depending on the length of your trip, this pack could be the only piece of luggage you need. An expandable middle-section nearly doubles the pack’s capacity. Even with a laptop, tablet and other sundries, the EO Travel Backpack can easily accommodate a couple of days worth of clothing for a short business trip–travel in your suit–or weekend getaway. On my trip to Korea, the expansion area was the perfect place to store souvenirs for my kids on the way home. My only complaint about this bag is that it does not have a good, accessible place for a water bottle. Smaller bottles fit nicely inside, but there’s no grab-n-go stash for quick hydration. Still, this stylish travel pack is very well-suited to its purpose: 2-3 day overnight trips on its own or as a second piece of luggage for longer itineraries.
Ticket to the Moon Mini Backpack ($20, tickettothemoon.com)
Based in Indonesia, Ticket to the Moon is the originator of the parachute hammock. That fact is probably not as well known as it should be, likely because they don’t have many retail outlets in the US. But since introducing its flagship product in the late 1990s, TTTM has grown it’s line to a surprising collection of useful products. One of my favorites is the Mini Backpack. TTTM’s Mini Backpack is the ultimate lightweight daypack. Even with a capacity of about 15 liters, this little wonder weighs only three ounces and packs down to the size of a dinner roll.
This is a no-frills little pack that gets the job done. Aside from a couple of zippers and a little bit of webbing, the entire pack is made from durable, washable, packable parachute nylon. In spite of the lack of padding in the straps, they distribute weight fairly evenly and are surprisingly comfortable. Keep in mind, this bag is not made for carrying around loads of reference books, rocks, hatchets, etc. So don’t complain if that box of Moroccan tile you just picked up is bruising your ribs. What it will carry is just about everything else. A secret zippered pocket makes a great cash or card stash. The built-in stuff sack ends up on the inside of the pack, so it’s a perfect place for keys or other small items you need but don’t want in your pockets.
One of the coolest things about TTTM products is that they are all made to order; you choose the colors you want your bag/hammock/whatever to be. $20 is a steal for a customized bag this versatile. Pro Tip: To help you save on shipping, combine your order with friends and split the cost. Extra Pro Tip: Check out TTTM’s Mammock-size hammock (10′ x 20′).
Brunton Revolt 4000 and Power Knife ($25-50, brunton.com)
I’ll be brief. Brunton knows how to power travel. The Brunton Revolt 4000 is a reliable power companion. It’s shockproof, weather resistant, grippy, bright, and small enough for lightweight trips. At full capacity, it will recharge nearly three smartphones (one at a time) before needing to be juiced up again. It comes with a handy multi-device cable compatible with Apple (new and old) and Android devices. I haven’t checked to see if it can simultaneously charge two unlike devices. Perhaps you can do that and let me know how it goes. And while the included cable is definitely adequate for most charging situations, I like the elegance of the Power Knife. The Power Knife is the “Swiss Army Knife” of chargers, literally. Plugs pop out like blades and are compatible with both Apple and Android. I keep a Power Knife in my work bag, and it travels with me for business and pleasure. No cables to get tangled. For a person who hates wires, the Power Knife a godsend.
Sunday Afternoons Sun Guide Hat ($36, sundayafternoons.com)
I’m a hat guy, and I think that anyone who travels, at least for pleasure, should take one along. A good hat will do in a pinch during a brief rains, protects you from the sun, is useful for swatting flies or as a fan, and keeps you looking halfway presentable if you haven’t showered in a couple of days. My current hat of choice for just about everything is the Sun Guide, by Sunday Afternoons. It also appears in several photos in this review.
When it comes to versatility, the Sun Guide is tops. At SPF 50+, you can almost–I said almost–eliminate the need for sunblock on the places it covers. And it covers a lot. Because it can be worn six different ways, it’s perfect for hiking, kayaking, running, SUPing, napping, etc… It’s also great for everyday wear. Just customize it to the activity and conditions. For travel, I’ve found the Sun Guide to be extremely handy for all of the reasons described above and more. It’s comfortable, washable, and packable. The bill actually folds in half, enabling you to even store it in a pocket or in your backpack without worrying about it getting ruined. I usually only wear the flap while hiking, but I travel with it anyway. The flap weighs next to nothing, and it’s obviously useful when I’m able to hit a sunny trail.