16 September 2009

Traveling Light(er), Part I

It's pretty obvious that with the 21st century concerns of security constraints, weight limits, and the high incidence of lost/delayed luggage, traveling light(er) generally means traveling easier. Easy (a relative term) however, comes at a cost: making decisions about clothes (no biggie for most of us) and photo equipment (muy biggie for photographers who use anything more than a point-n-shoot or their iPhone) are two considerations that must be weighed (no pun intended).

Gone are the "glorious" days of slow travel via ship and coach with teams of porters or horses (or both) carting steamer trunks full of clothing (one
must simply have a dinner jacket, shooting coat, smoking jacket, shoes and boots for every eventuality, and various caps and hats to complement every outfit!) and other sundry "necessities."

Assuming, in the 21st century, that on your travels you don’t need formal wear nor are bringing your great-grandfather’s favorite meerschaum pipe, super light-weight, synthetic quick-dry clothes can easily replace the cotton and wool wear of yore. For a two week trip, we have gone from 14 pair of underwear, 14 pairs of socks, 5 pair of pants and an equal number of shirts to essentially 3 of every category of clothing. Yes, we have to do laundry every other day or so and some hotels actually still frown on using your bathroom as a drying rack, but even more provide clotheslines and if you stay in an apartment, you’ll often find a clothes rack. Do we get tired of seeing each other wearing the same outfits? We make jokes about it but it beats schlepping those heavy bags up the stairs of medieval-era hotels.

What about guide books? Leave the pretty, glossy, picture-surfeit versions, such as
Insight and Eyewitness, home. Those are fine for your initial trip research, but are heavy (glossy stock) and short on needed details. I like fact-rich guides with copiously detailed, well-drawn maps. Cadogan, Rough Guide, Blue Guide and Brandt (no order implied) are good examples of these. Generally, despite their reputation, I find the Lonely Planet Guides info-light. Both Michelin Green Guides' and Baedeker's alphabetical organization is not conducive to exploring by region and the Fodors/Frommers books are for the organized group tour crowd. There was a time not to long ago when I brought multiple guides in my burgeoning suitcase: I was more worried about the gaps than the overlaps. Now, I just perform a careful review and even though I will likely use multiple guides for my research, I bring only one book. One basic tour book that is. Since we hike a lot on our trips I often also bring specialty books with titles such as Trekking in Corsica and Walking in Sicily. There are several really good publishers of international hiking/trekking/walking guides and I count Cicerone Press, Trailblazer Guides and Rother Walking Guides among my favorites. An interesting series for those that are interested in pre-planned car touring itineraries is Thomas Cook's Signpost Guides. Finally, Sunflower Landscapes produces a hybrid series that features walks and car tours.

I also believe in having a minimal grounding in the local language, so I will always have a pocket phrase book and sometimes even a pocket dictionary. Finally, If you are driving (highly recommended for European trips, at the least), you will need a detailed road map. Rental car agency maps are terrible. The larger the scale (meaning you see more detail on the map) the more chance you will have finding that gem of a ruined castle off some isolated country road. Scale -- like many things -- is relative. For most mid-sized European countries, 1:250000 or 1:300000 should suffice. Avoid small scale maps (1:1000000) such as multi-country maps. Not only will roads be missing, but that perfect 12th century Romanesque chapel will also be mysteriously gone. As far as more detailed maps for trekking or hiking, plan on buying those super detailed maps in country.

If you are not a photographer, you are finished packing! For the rest of use, the real challenge now begins.

In Part II of this blog, I will detail what camera gear I bring and why.

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