Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Vagabonding at Home Challenge Update 1

It has been a few weeks since I posted about the Vagabonding at Home Challenge. In spite of a big road bump in the challenge (see True Tests of Your Character), I have made some progress with the challenge. First, I'll discuss how my clothing experiments have gone, and then I'll discuss some of the new gear I have tried out.

I love my Vibram Five Fingers KSO's. They are by far the best workout and running shoes I have ever used. My calves get an unbelievable workout when running in them, and they are super comfortable for wearing in the gym. Also, coupled with my size Large MSR Packtowl (which is still very small), I no longer have to bring a giant gym bag to pack my tennis shoes and normal sized towel. I now just bring a small backpack and all my workout gear packs in about 1/4 of the backpack. Like I said, I love these things.

However, I only wore them as my regular and only pair of shoes for a week or so. First of all, they make your feet sweat. And the thin layer of moisture surrounding my feet made them very cold while sitting in my air-conditioned office. My feet are actually much warmer barefoot or in sandals. Also, any slight puddle will make them wet and this is uncomfortable. Kept dry, they are a very comfortable shoe, and the sensation of feeling the texture of the ground below me is really quite amazing. However, this feeling is not enough to make me want to wear them everywhere I go. They are cold, and they probably will start to stink, although mine are not too bad yet. I have yet to try them with toe socks. They would certainly help with the coldness, but would kind of kill the barefoot aspect of the shoes. Also, they would look pretty dorky with socks. Nonetheless, a pair of sandals and a good pair of waterproof trail-runners are probably the best way to go for footwear. For now, I have my pair of Rainbow leather sandals and a pair of Vasque Blur SL Gore-Tex trail runners. These are pretty heavy and big compared to the running shoes I am used to, but should be good for a variety of conditions.

A single pair of convertible pants is probably doable, but most likely not preferable. They will start to smell a bit after 3 or 4 days without being washed, even without any serious physical activity. This can easily be remedied by hand washing them in a sink with some Dr. Bronner's liquid soap. However, if you get them seriously dirty, like I did on a 2 day, 1 night backpacking trip, hand washing is not going to do it. Well, maybe it would, but it would take a long time and some more powerful cleansing soap. I think probably it is best to have 2 pairs of convertible pants, washing them by hand every couple of days or so, and then every other week or so paying to get them cleaned with either a washing machine or a dedicated hand washer, which are very cheap and easy to find in most countries.

The 2 pairs of Ex Officio underwear have really been great. Every night I wash one of them and hang it to dry with my Rick Steve's Clothesline. I have only used my two pairs and have only hand washed them. They are as fresh as can be, and I do not see a reason to get any more at the moment.

I have not made much progress on getting the right shirts. I ordered a medium, large, and x-large Icebraker Bodyfit 200 Contour Crews from These were not really my preferred shirts but would help me to understand how Icebreaker Bodyfit shirts fit. Well, they all fit pretty awkwardly. I usually wear medium t-shirts but it was a toss-up between the large and x-large versions. I didn't like the fit of either really. I also tried out some other Icebreaker t-shirts, but again I did not like the fit. Unfortunately, REI did not have medium versions of the Tech T-Lite 150 shirt, and this is the one that I think my research so far will probably be the best for me. I will probably order some of these soon, although at $60 each, it is hard to convince myself to do it. There are several other Merino wool brands such as Smartwool and Minus 33. The Minus 33 products seem to be about 2/3 the cost of the others and reviews for them are pretty favorable for comfort and durability. The might be good ones to try. For now, I have just been wearing a couple of Hanes medium black crew t-shirts. I have not had any issues with smell, and they even look reasonably nice but I am pretty sure if I was in a hot area where I was sweating, these would get gross fast. The good side: they are only about $3 each. I also currently have several cheap synthetic, dry fast shirts on order to see how these perform and look.

I am starting to get a good idea of what my clothing will be for moderate to hot temperatures, but what about rainy and cold days? To get high quality rain and cold gear, one could easily spend $1000 or more. I want to find a good balance between cost and value. The most efficient way to prepare for a variety of cold, rainy, or combination of the two conditions is to use a good layering system. That means a good base layer (whatever t-shirts I get will do), a good insulation layer, and a quality waterproof shell top layer. I will start with the shell.

I ordered several shells including the Mountain Hardwear Typhoon, Marmot Oracle, GoLite Tumalo, and the least expensive option of the four, a Marmot Precip jacket. In the end, I decided to keep the Marmot Precip as it seems to be a good balance of weather protection, price, and weight. It also has a nice style which seems at home in the city as well as on the trails. I additionally picked up a pair of Marmot Precip Full-zip rain pants, although these may end up not really being necessary for me. My convertible pants are pretty water resistant, and I never really cared too much about my legs getting a bit wet anyway.

For the insulation layer, I have tried out several products including the Marmot Zeus Down Jacket, GoLite Cady 2477 Jacket, Arc'teryx Apache AR Zip Fleece Pullover, and the Patagonia R3 High-Loft Fleece Jacket. The Marmot and GoLite are down and synthetic stuffing respectively but their "shiny" outer fabric looks a bit too ridiculous to wear in the city. At least for now, I decided against these "shiny" fabric styles, although the Marmot Zeus, in particular, was very warm, light, and comfortable. The Arc'teryx was pretty warm, but not warm enough given the bulk and lack of compressibility. I ordered a large Patagonia R3 but this was a bit too large for me, so I am currently waiting on an exchange for a medium. This jacket is incredibly warm and highly compressible, although also, quite expensive. I also have a couple of other cheaper insulation layers from White Sierra just to see the difference in weight and warmth with the premium priced R3.

My gear quest is still very much a work in progress. It has been going somewhat slow as I wait on somewhat slow shipping, and the fact that I have been so busy with other things. I hope to have all of my stuff ready to go within the next couple of months. The backpack will be a very important part of this, and it is very tough deciding the best way to carry all my stuff in addition to a laptop and DSLR camera. Without the DSLR, I am sure I could pack VERY light, maybe even at the level of Tynan. Wanting to bring my DSLR though makes things a bit more complicated. Stay tuned for more updates on my gear and let me know if you have any suggestions!


cspice said...

Interesting stuff! I've been thinking about travel gear too. I just made a post on clothes and laundry here. I definitely think clothes are important to optimize since they take up so much space. In terms of packing, have you thought about a rolling carry-on? I think rolling luggage is more comfortable than a backpack as long as you aren't going to be carrying all your stuff off-road. I imagine you would probably drop your stuff in a hostel or train-station locker before going hiking. Going up and down subway steps is tough, but if it's light you can carry it like a suitcase. There are also hybrids that come with backpack straps, but I don't think its necessary. Of course, a small backpack inside the luggage would be necessary. I was thinking of trying to fit my stuff in a 38L rolling carry-on. Also, if you get a hardshell one, you can lock it securely at hostels. It seems many hostels don't have secure storage in dorm rooms. Some of the lockers I used could easily be broken with your bare hands.

mspice said...

Interesting suggestion about a hardshell and/or rolling suitcase. As far as a rolling suitcase goes, I think this would potentially be more trouble than it is worth. First of all, most smaller rolling suitcases are kind of awkward to roll around and also, especially in developing countries, it is rare to find a nice, smooth surface to roll on. I have hiked dozens of miles uphill and downhill in the mountains with 30-40 lbs on my back with no problem. I personally think that a backpack will be best for my needs.

As far as security goes, this is something that is an extremely important consideration for me. When I went to Vietnam, I brought a Pacsafe Exomesh, but end up not using it as I was always with my valuable stuff or at least felt I was in a safe situation to leave it partially unattended to (i.e. under my bed while sleeping on a train). Pacsafe also makes bags that have anti-theft technology but the extra weight and stories of ineffectiveness that I have heard about make me reluctant to go this route.

I still have not decided if I always want to keep my valuables (laptop, camera) on me at all times. It really depends on my camera decision, although cameras like the Sony NEX-5 are making me really consider the mirrorless, much smaller cameras which have comparable image quality (although much fewer choices of lenses) than my DSLR.

cspice said...

Yeah, the rolling luggage depends on how far you are going from civilization. In my experience so far (mostly not-so-poor countries), rolling luggage would be easy. You can also look at the spinner models which are less awkward to roll.

As for the camera, you might want to have it easily accessible outside your bag anyways, in case something interesting comes up while moving. I use this case which just barely fits the camera with the default lens. It's pretty safe and comfortable to carry that way. It feels like a messenger bag. Then at a hostel, you can take out your cold weather gear and stuff it into a zipper pillowcase to make a leg pillow and put the camera in the open space. Then you don't have to worry about getting a new camera.