To make the list, each item had to meet at least four of the following criteria: (1) lightweight; (2) compact; (3) affordable (preferably $100 or under); (4) durable; (5) easy to use; and (6) require a minimum of add-on accessories to be usable.
10. A loaded laptop
Several of Matador’s frequent contributors only recently began carrying laptops on the road, but most report that their laptops are the essential piece of gear. It’s not only the laptop itself that’s important, though; it’s the software loaded onto it that’s also essential. One must-have program is Wavepad, which is audio editing software for Windows. It’s available online for free and is fairly straightforward to understand and use once it’s downloaded.
9. Skype and a headset
Most of Matador’s writers stay connected to their editors, colleagues, and one another via e-mail, and others, like Tim Patterson and myself, keep running tallies of how much money they’ve lost in pay phones around the world. As Jacob Bielanski noted, “cell phones are inconsistent, unreliable, and easily broken or stolen.” Phone cards can be cryptic and frustrating. For travel writers who still want phone contact but don’t want to use a cell phone or pay phone, Skype or another voice over internet service provider is a viable and affordable option. Software can be downloaded for free and a $20 headset available at any electronics store can get you talking to anyone in the world in a matter of minutes. Calls are free to other users of the same service, and rates for calls to landlines are competitive.
8. A small digital camera
While a larger and more expensive camera may capture the best images, it can be a burden to carry and the size can be intrusive, especially for capturing candid shots. As freelance travel photographer and writer Lola Akinmade shared, “Even though I carry around a larger SLR for better travel photography, it is the small one that always lays the foundation for the stories.” Lola uses her smaller digital camera as a way to take what she calls “visual notes.” These photos help “capture your story sequentially (and visually) so you can piece it together later in writing if you can’t type on location or scribble something down fast enough.” Lola recommends the Panasonic Lumix for a camera that fits our criteria: small, reliable, and affordable (around $179).
7. A handheld digital audio recorder
Just as Lola uses a camera for “visual notes,” a digital audio recorder can capture “auditory notes.” At a recent bull fight in Mexico, I recorded the sounds of the event that I would not have been able to put down quite the same way in writing: the set the orchestra played before the show, the vendors selling soup, coffee, and Corona, and the crowd’s collective gasp when a torero was toppled and trampled by a bull, followed by their sigh and cheer when he gallantly rose to his feet and dusted himself off as blood coursed down his face.
I’ll definitely use these “audio notes” to write an article, but I may also transfer the files to my laptop and create an audio clip to accompany the written piece. I use an Olympus handheld digital audio recorder that can capture up to 120 hours and which transfers files with a standard USB cable to a Mac or PC. It’s smaller than a cell phone and costs between $40 and $60.
6. An MP3 player
Travel writers often trade new music when they’re on the road, which serves as inspiration for writing and reconnecting to one’s memories of a place. A low cost option is the Creative MuVo2TX. For about $50 you can store up to 1 GB of documents in addition to audio files. It comes with a standard USB cable, allowing for near universal connection. But if you’re really serious about having music and even video to power you through long bus rides, there’s the 80 GB iPod Gen 6, a piece so useful it earns a rank of “Ultimate Travel Companion.”
5. A standard USB cable
Once you’ve assembled your gear, see if it’s possible to winnow down the collection of cables you’ve amassed to a single standard cable that will fit all of your gear. If not, REI sells a universal cable for $12.00
4. Solio solar charger
With all this digital gear, you’re bound to need a recharge at some point. This tiny but powerful solar charger may be one of the pricier items on our list at just under $100, but it saves money over the long run. Plus, it’s more sustainable.
3. Flip camcorder
The Flip meets every single one of the criteria on our list. In addition to being light and compact, the Flip comes with its own soft carrying bag to protect the screen and lens. It’s affordable, ranging from $100 to $160, depending on the model (there are currently 30 and 60 minute models). The Flip requires no add-on accessories; it plugs right into your USB port for smooth transfer of files. Finally, it’s so easy to use that you probably don’t even really need to read the directions.
2. A good pen and notebook
While some of Matador’s contributors are self-confessed gearheads, others do a lot of writing with minimal tech support. Eva Holland writes, “My only essentials are a little notebook and a pen. I never ever go anywhere without them.” I agree with Eva. If your personal preferences or your budget simply don’t allow for gear, just be sure to never leave home without a notebook and a pen.
1. A good gear bag
All of the gear on our list (minus the laptop) can fit in a small bag that’s just 10″ by 8.5″. But if you really want to go all out, the National Geographic Earth Explorer backpack is a bag that could store not just your writing gear, but everything you need to pack. The pack, which comes in two sizes, has a spacious padded compartment for lenses and other loose equipment, and it’s got plenty of pockets for organized storage of other gear, too. It’s simple and rugged, and though it falls pretty far outside the affordability criterion on our list, it’s a must-have…at least on our wish list.
For more on gear, electronics, and all the best stuff for travel, check out Matador Goods, our new blog highlighting the good stuff for every traveler.