Packing Part 5: travel gadgets

21st century backpacking, no matter how light you profess to pack, usually entails bringing along a few gadgets, if only your digital camera. Add to that a laptop computer, MP3 player, mobile phone and all their related cables, chargers, adapters, batteries and you can easily end up with several kilos of expensive gear.

Whether or not these gadgets are necessary or even useful to you, only time on the road will tell. It’s a good idea to seriously think through how you will safely use, carry, store, recharge and backup whatever devices you bring along on your adventure. Do you really need a laptop, or can you make do with the services in internet cafes ? If you have to bring a mobile phone, can it double as an MP3 player?

Research what kind of plug adapters or current converter you will need before leaving home. You don’t want to land in a foreign country and not be able to charge your iPod or Laptop. At the end of this article, you’ll find a link a great site which explains electrical standards around the world.

Budget accommodation may not always have secure storage for your valuable electronics. This means carrying a day bag full of gadgets every time you step out. A real pain in the royal backpack if you ask me. So, if you have any doubts, leave the gadget(s) at home.

Most travel insurance policies don’t cover expensive gear like laptops and cameras. Check your policy before you leave and ask about purchasing extra coverage for your more valuable electronics.

Need some extra padding for your camera or other gadgets? Consider using a padded lunch bag. You know the kind, with the shiny insulated interior and shoulder strap. Cheaper than a specialty camera bag and inconspicuous as well. The smaller ones fit well on the bottom on most smaller backpacks. Doubles as a picnic bag too!

One of my favorite travel hacks is making use of those plastic food containers littering your kitchen cupboards. They’re perfect for keeping all those cables, batteries, adapters and other little pieces nice and tidy. Makes a perfect first aid box as well. I like the kind with a snap lid which stays shut even when rattling around in your day bag. Pick a size that fits in your backpack without bulging out.

Digital camera: regardless of the kind of battery your camera runs on, rechargeable battery pack or AA’s, make sure you have spare batteries on hand. Extra memory cards are as important as the spare batteries. Have a couple of spare cards so you’re not stuck lowering the resolution of your photos just to save space.

There are several options for backing up your photos, including bringing a laptop computer. Most internet cafes, even in the developing world, will let you (for a price) download photos from your camera and back them up on cd/dvd, USB key or even a portable hard drive. Make sure to pack your camera-to-pc cable, though many places will have memory card readers available. Pack some blank cd’s or dvd’s. Buying these locally, especially just one at a time can cost a fortune. Backing up your photos online is not a viable option unless you have access to a fast and reliable internet connection. Photo sharing sites, at least the ones with free membership, normally have restrictive upload limits. Fine for posting a few photos but not very useful for photo backup purposes.

MP3 players have become ubiquitous on the backpackers’ circuit these past few years. It seems like even the most frugal, penny pinching backpackers carry iPods. It can be nice to phase out for a while and disconnect by just slipping on some earphones. Listening to music, your favorite podcast or audio book can also help you through a bout of travel blues. Some MP3 players like the iPod Touch can also connect to wifi networks to surf the web, check email and even make calls using VoIP. Even most cheaper MP3 players have the capacity to store a few hundred tunes which is more than enough for a few hours of entertainment.

Laptop computers are also becoming a fixture on the budget travelers’ scene. Whatever your reason for bringing a laptop, do consider the weight of all the extra adapters and cables that you’ll have to pack as well. Wifi access, increasingly more common, even in developing countries, is by no means universal and not always free. In some places you may end up having to drag your laptop to an internet cafe and pay to use their internet connection to get online. Secure storage for your laptop might not always be available or as secure as you’d like, so keep in mind that you may have to carry your laptop with you even when stepping out for a short time.

If you only need to browse the web, check email, and maybe doing some light word processing, you could look into getting a UMPC (ultra mobile pc). Most weight less than 1 kilogram and only have a 7 inch screen, so they’ll easy fit discretely in a day bag. Downside is that their tiny screen and mini keyboard can be uncomfortable. ASUS, Acer and Dell are three brands that carry UMPC’s.

Important! Before you leave, make a proper back up of all the data on your laptop and leave this copy with someone you trust. If your laptop is stolen, you’ll at least have your backed up files safely tucked away at home. Put another copy on your external back up drive, if you’re bringing one with you and carry this drive in a separate bag from your laptop. Sensitive data files like financial or bank statements should stay home, unless you really need them while you’re away. You can also look into encryption software for your files. Apple’s OS X has on-the- fly encryption which, form personal experience, is easy to set up.

Mobile phones can quickly become more of a hindrance than a convenience when traveling overseas. If you absolutely needs to carry a mobile phone, look into buying a cheap handset locally and buy airtime as you go. If you want to bring your own handset and keep costs down, buy a local SIM card in each country you visit or an international SIM card before you leave. Don’t forget your charger and appropriate adapter for whatever country your visiting. Note: CDMA mobile phones (the kind without a SIM card), common in North America, will not work in most other countries.

A compact headlamp is my #1 choice for most useful battery operated gadget. The hands free headlamp is far more useful than a regular flashlight and more convenient when searching through your pack or walking down a dark path. Doubles as a reading light as well. Power outages are common in developing countries, so keep your headlamp in an easy to find place like your day bag. Don’t forget spare batteries and bulbs.

Should you pack a watch? A digital watch doubles as a travel alarm clock and wrist watch when necessary. Get a cheap one. A flashy watch is way too tempting for thieves. Two other small and useful gadgets that can come in handy are a basic mini calculator and a keychain flashlight.

There are tons of other electronic travel gadgets out there. Things like portable GPS systems, electronic language translators or pocket currency converters might all seem like good ideas, but, honestly, I feel these types of gadgets take away from your travel experience more than adding to it.

Do you have a special travel gadget you never leave home without or any tips to keep your electronics running smoothly during your travels? Share your gadget secrets in the comments box below.

What about all those other travel accessories? Check out Part 6 of our Packing Series.

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