TUAW Tips: Packing your gadgetry for travel to faraway lands

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TUAW Tips: Packing your gadgetry for travel to faraway lands
In case you've missed me, I've been in Africa for the last couple of weeks. On top of all the business traveling I do, I also love traveling to exotic or fun locations with my wife several times a year.

One question I often hear from friends, clients, and TUAW readers is "How do you pack all of your techie gear for traveling?" The Africa trip gave me the perfect opportunity to answer that question, since I not only had to take a computer with me, but two digital cameras, two iPhones, a backup drive, a snakes nest of cables, power cables and plug converters, a handful of memory cards, an Amazon Kindle, and an HD camcorder as well. The picture at the top of this post shows you just about everything I needed to pack.

Click the Read More link below for tips on how to travel with all of your stuff... without going crazy in the process.
The cardinal rules of packing tech gear for a lengthy international trip are simple:
  • Put everything into one bag
  • A place for everything, and everything in its place
  • Plan for power
Let me go into detail about this, using the Africa trip as an example.

Put everything into one bag

You saw the list of gadgets, gizmos, cables, and cards that I was planning on taking on the trip. In order to manage all of those goodies, which included my wife's digital camera, I knew that I was going to have to fit everything in one bag, which limited the amount of excess stuff I carried with me. This meant that in some cases, a cable would have to serve two or more purposes. For example, the same USB to mini-USB cable that worked on both of our Canon cameras would also serve well for the camcorder and could work with the portable USB hard disk in a pinch. Instead of carrying three cables, I was now down to one.

In ancient times (pre-iPhone) I would have packed an iPod, a PDA, and a cell phone, but now the iPhone acts as my source of games, musical and video entertainment, as well as being my mobile device. That saves a surprising amount of room, since it's just one device instead of three, with correspondingly fewer rechargers and sync cables.

I have always had a bit of a bag jones. Right now I have three different notebook bags, a backpack, and some smaller bags I use to carry assorted equipment. I didn't really have anything that would carry all of the gear on this trip, so I ended up researching a number of bags to find one that would really do the job. The one that accompanied me was a Tom Bihn Western Flyer (below, fully packed and ready to go) tricked out with a number of the goodies that make his bags so great. I also like the fact that Tom's bags are all 100% American-made, built hell for stout, and obviously have a lot of love and thoughtful design put into them.

The Western Flyer doesn't seem to be all that big; the capacity is 1600 cubic inches (26 liters), but the outside dimensions are small enough (18" x 12" x 7") that it can fit into just about any overhead bin or under any airplane seat. It also comes with built-in backpack straps so you can have both hands free while trundling other luggage through international airports, or you can get an optional padded carrying strap if you prefer to lug it over one shoulder.

At this point I had the empty bag, and now it was time to get everything organized and stowed.

A place for everything, and everything in its place

My old way of packing was something like this -- grab a bag, and dump everything into it. That meant that for the rest of the trip, I was cursing myself, the bag, and everyone in my vicinity since I could never find anything. My new way of packing is to separate items by type and put them all in their own little bags, then put those bags into the one bag described above.

This is where Tom Bihn's design savvy comes in handy. He has a number of small zippered organizer bags in various sizes and shapes that all have a clip on one end. In one of the larger organizer bags, I tossed in all of my cables, rechargers, and power adapters. All of my SDHC cards and two card readers went into another small bag, and the final bag contained my business cards and iPhone headset (see photo below) These three bags were then clipped together so they were always in the same vicinity, and then I slid them into one of the compartments on one half of the bag. There's a zippered "wall" that can be removed to form one big compartment, but I decided to keep the two smaller compartments. Since there was still a lot of room in the compartment, I decided that I'd put one of our Zip-Lock bags with our liquids on top where they'd be accessible for security.

Another bag contained nothing but my video gear. This included the Canon Visia HF-100 HD camcorder, an extra battery pack, and the recharger for the camcorder. That went into the other compartment. Since there was still a lot of room in the compartment, I took the two Canon cameras and placed them on top of the camcorder.

Now it was time to pack the computer. Since I had decided long ago to not take my MacBook Air with me (I was concerned about losing it to accident or theft), I packed my Dell Mini 9 (which may or may not have been running Leopard) and a Western Digital 250GB portable USB hard drive. Tom Bihn makes a series of padded laptop inserts called the Brain Cell (see photo below) that clip into the other bags. I eventually want to use my Bihn bag with the MacBook Air, so I got one of the size 6X Brain Cells. It had more than enough room to cradle both the Mini 9 and the hard drive. On one side of the Brain Cell inside the Western Flyer bag there was a nice little spot to put in my wireless mouse, which was a nice touch.

The remaining items to pack at this point were the Amazon Kindle and a Kensington Portable Power Outlet. On the front of the bag are two small zippered pockets. The smallest one was large enough for the power outlet, while the larger one swallowed the Kindle easily.

Plan for power

Fortunately, most gadgets now use universal power adapters that do not require a voltage converter. Unfortunately, most countries use different plugs. I needed a standard US plug for my time in Washington, DC at the beginning of the trip, a special adapter for South Africa (where we spent most of our vacation), and a standard European 3-prong adapter for the time we stayed in Zambia. On the South African Airways A340-600 aircraft on which we would be flying on to and from Johannesburg, I knew my Business Class seat would have power, but I didn't know if it required a special adapter. Sure enough, it did -- it needed a European 2-prong plug, so I packed a "universal adapter" in my kit. With those three adapters, I was able to plug in just about everywhere we went without a problem, and I could have taken side trips to a lot more countries without an issue.

You should always check your power adapters and chargers to make sure that they handle all voltages properly. If not, you're going to need to get a voltage converter as well. If you're in most of the world, you'll need a 120 to 240 converter, while North Americans go the other way from 240 Volts down to 120.

I made only one faux pas on this trip; I wanted to make sure that I had enough plugs to charge the camcorder, the laptop, and two iPhones at once. Without thinking, I packed my Kensington Portable Power Outlet so I'd have a short extension cord, three AC plugs, and two USB 2.0 plugs. That was a major screwup, since the device only handles 120V power! At our posh room in the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town during the first two days of the trip, I plugged this into an outlet using one of the plug adapters, turned on the plug, and promptly shut off the power to everything in the room! A call to the front desk saved the day, as they sent one of the building engineers to reset the circuit breaker for the room.

You should also plan for no power. South Africa is currently having rolling blackouts (euphemistically referred to as load shedding) thanks to Eskom, the state-owned power company. The only place that we ran into this issue was during our stay at the Shishengeni Lodge in the Kruger National Park. The power went out for close to 12 hours. That was fine, since our cameras take AAA batteries, I had a spare (and charged) battery for the camcorder, I had two charged RichardSolo batteries for the iPhones, and wasn't using the laptop since the Internet service at the lodge was slow and expensive.

Did it work?

So the big question of the hour is "Did it work?" Absolutely! For the first time that I can remember in years, I was able to take a long trip and never lost anything since I knew exactly where everything was in the bag. Unfortunately, I can't say this about our clothes packing so I guess I'll need to apply the first two rules to my clothing in the future.

The Western Flyer received a lot of abuse during the trip. We took a total of ten airline flights, spent time in buses, and bounced around in safari vehicles, and everything stayed protected and in its proper location. I appreciated the waterproof design of this bag when it was with me on an open safari vehicle at Kruger National Park one day and I neglected to cover it up during a rainstorm. The zippers are gasketed and waterproof, so nothing touched the electronic gear, even though I was drenched.

The Western Flyer bag worked so well that I'll be using Tom Bihn's new Checkpoint Flyer (it is one of the cases that is TSA-approved so that you don't need to remove your laptop to go through security) for my business trips from now on.

Please feel free to share your stories about your favorite ways to pack for international or business trips with a huge pile of electronic gear. You can leave your comments below.
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