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We've all seen this screaming headline in magazines and catalogs, and most times the "hot stuff" turns out to be a collection of very expensive or very specialized items. A clip-on watch that will record your snowboarding "hang time?" A $200 fleece with an iPod pocket and a hydration pack? These days Patagonia, Columbia, North Face and other outdoor merchandisers are churning out new seasonal products and clothing lines as fast as Armani and Louis Vuitton. Each item is the hot new thing ... until the next season, when it's suddenly not.
There's a parallel and conflicting trend that's more relevant to the traveler: stricter baggage limits. The days of hauling around half your closet are over. In North America you can still generally get away with 50 pounds per bag on most airlines, though Spirit Airlines now charges for a second bag. On other continents you may be limited to 25 or 33 pounds and be charged extra for every kilo over the limit. You need travel gear that is light, practical and can pull its weight.
One way to have what you need and still pack light is to look for gear that does double duty. If an item can perform more than one function, you can take more and still stay within weight limits. Some of these items are old standbys that savvy travelers have relied on for years: moisturizer with sunscreen, a man's bathing suit that doubles as gym shorts, or a simple fleece jacket that can be combined with layers of other clothing to cover a wide range of temperature conditions. Then there's the old reliable Swiss Army knife: With its screwdriver, corkscrew, scissors and awl, it's the original traveler's multi-tasker. (Sadly, unless you are checking your bags, this item no longer makes the cut; in many countries, including the United States, it will be confiscated by security agents.)
Here are a few tried-and-true items that really earn their slot on the packing list. They don't just do one thing well; they're all double-duty performers.
For many people, shoes are the biggest impediment to traveling light. Instead of packing seven pairs for seven occasions, take shoes that will perform double duty. Comfortable walking shoes that are dressy enough for dinner, for instance, or flats that can work for the beach and with a dress. Instead of bulky hiking boots, bring cross-trainers that will work for walking, the gym and light hikes. (If you must bring heavy shoes, at least wear them in transit—but be prepared to remove them for security lines.)
If you're heading somewhere that requires both short and long pants, opt for a garment that can do both: convertible pants with zippers that transform pants into shorts. These won't work for a fancy restaurant or club, of course, but for ordinary sightseeing and adventure activities, they're indispensable. The good ones are light, rugged and equipped with lots of handy pockets. ($25 to $60)
Music player/storage device
When you pack your personal listening device, remember that any music player with a USB port can also store audiobooks, documents and photos. You can put all your important info in a backup file on the music player in case you lose your passport or credit cards; just be sure to use a code or password-protect it in case the player itself gets stolen. You can also save your Web bookmarks from your home computer as a file on your music player; that way you can log onto your favorite sites in an Internet café without having to search for them. ($30 to $350)
Secret-stash money belt
Several companies make a belt that looks like an ordinary belt from the outside, but has a zipper on the back that opens to a place to store folded bank notes. You can put a few hundred dollars or euros in one of these belts as a safe second storage location. Should you ever get robbed, the thief is unlikely to check both the stash inside your clothing and a regular belt as well. Meanwhile, it holds up your pants or shorts as well as any other belt. ($15 to $35)
Water bottle with a built-in filter
In many parts of the world, you can't drink the water coming out of the tap, but constantly buying bottled water can get expensive, and the plastic waste is an environmental disaster. One alternative is a water bottle with a built-in filter. You simply fill up the bottle with regular tap water, and as you suck it through the straw it gets filtered. No tubes, no pumps and you always have hydration at hand. Buy a good brand like Katadyn, because the knock-offs can be flimsy. ($18 to $30)
Once you start looking for gear that can do double duty, you'll start seeing it everywhere: laptop bags that work as a regular day pack, alarm clocks that also work as a flashlight, or travel toothbrushes whose handles are loaded with toothpaste. Get in the habit of packing these items instead of what you use at home. You'll spare your back and you'll lessen you chances of getting slapped with an overweight luggage charge.
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