Monday, December 01, 2014

Bag, Wallet and Laptop - 3 Ecuadorian Travel Tweaks

Shira and I are zipping our way from Miami to DC, and I've got a few minutes to kill so I thought I'd do a quick gear post related to our trip. From a gear perspective, not a whole lot changed this trip, which is probably a good thing. But, in the spirit of experimentation, I did mix a few things up.

First off, I used a different travel / camera / touring bag. During the last few trips I'd been using whatever basic backpack I had lying around. But for this trip, I purchased an army surplus Finnish Gas Mask bag. That may sound like an odd choice, but this particular bag has a following on the web. The bag itself is fairly small but just managed to hold exactly what I needed it to. Here's a few snapshots:

(Look at all that legroom next to the bag. That's one of the reasons this bag rocks for traveling.)

Here's what's inside:

Unexpectedly, the bag contained some pockets that perfectly fit the Lenspen, Altoids Tin, Buff, Anker battery pack and other tiny items. The result was that it was actually a joy to pack this bag and getting access to items on the fly was easy.

The construction of the bag, as you would imagine, is quite utilitarian. It contains two sets of straps: a shoulder strap and a waist strap. Using the shoulder strap alone got old after a while, as it's pretty narrow. As goofy as it sounds (and probably looks), the waist strap actually worked quite well to carry heavy loads, and I used it during a day hike and a few long walks. The bag closes by using two heavy duty snaps, which I found reliable though they didn't immediately look that way. While the straps tarps and closure are not the perfect design, they both held up well and were quite functional.

My hope was that bag's olive drab color, and army surplus canvas would make it a less appealing target to thieves. When compared to a high end camera bag, I've got to think this bag doesn't exactly scream "Steal Me." On the other hand, I so look like a tourist that I doubt any bag could help tone that image down. And I'm sure I'm not the first traveler who's tried to camouflage his gear to look less pricey. My guess is that an experience thief could see right through this little charade.

With that said, the bag is basically the size of a large purse, so it can be kept track of easier than a backpack. So maybe it is a good choice for security purposes.

I picked up the bag for a whopping $6.95 from KeepShooting.com. Given all the above, you'd think it's a no brainier to buy. The only catch is that when it arrived it smelled awful (which is apparently normal for army surplus goods, but man, what a pain). I then doused the bag in Febreze, and so for a good week it stunk of Febreze smell (which was better than mildew, but not by a whole lot). Now it has a pretty neutral odor, so in the end it worked out. But be aware that the stink is something you'll need to fight with. There's no definitive solution on how to get rid of it, and if you do go the Febreze route, do so sparingly.

As a sort of travel / camera bag, I'd have to say the bag is a winner. Especially when you factor in price. You really can't go wrong here. (Assuming, of course, that your gear is compact enough to fit in the bag.)

The next gear change was also security related. A couple weeks before I left for Ecuador, I took my credit cards, driver's license, metro card, medical insurance card, backup access codes, one solitary paper check and some cash, and clipped the items together with a binder clip. I then stripped all identifying items from my wallet, leaving only a bunch of cash, some utility items (mainly a Fresnel lens, floss card, plastic produce bag and an Ikea paper tape measure) and a couple of important looking, but useless plastic cards (like my Kinkos card). Here's the result:

The idea, of course, is that if I needed to hand over my wallet to a mugger, I'd be giving up cash and nothing of real value (though, I do love that Ikea paper tape measure!). While in DC, I was surprised how much I liked the new setup. I could grab just the binder clipped essentials and drop them into a front pocket, and when I had the space I could grab my wallet which contained some useful extras. This worked especially well for sweatpants where pocket space is at a premium.

I'm hardly the first person to use a binder clip as an improvised minimalist wallet, I'm just glad to report that it does indeed work.

In fact, it worked all throughout Ecuador. Though once I was in the country for 24 hours I added one more item to the wallet: a pretty descent size length of toilet paper. Given the country's occasionally odd toilet paper habits (make sure you grab it before you enter the stall; don't flush it, throw it in a special trash bag), this bonus supply was well worth carrying.

In the end, I never needed a throw-away wallet, nor was I ever in a situation that truly called for carrying one. But having the clipped together goodies always in my front pocket definitely made for extra piece of mind. I think I'll continue to keep this arrangement up, even when I'm back in DC.

Finally, the last bit of gear experimentation was software, not hardware related.

Before every trip Shira and I take we have a spirited discussion about bringing a laptop. Regardless of the destination, there's always the possibility of it getting lost or stolen (heck, it could be left in the Taxi on the way to the airport). And with that loss is potential disclosure of private info. I could leave the laptop at home, but I get so much use out of it, that's almost always a non-starter (though, for overnight, day trips and keeping me entertained on flights I've been getting by with my Perixx Keyboard and cell phone. Heck, I'm typing this blog post up using this setup).

OK, so I decide I'm bringing a laptop. The next question is, how should I secure it? There are all sorts of possibilities, ranging from leaving the hard drive at home and just booting off a USB thumb drive, to re-installing Windows and bringing a fresh image on the computer. Alternatively, I could lock things down using a heavy dose of encryption. (I already use two-factor authentication my Google Accounts, so that's at least taken care of).

The problem with all these solutions is that they take time to setup and test. And of course, we had this discussion about laptops the night before we were leaving.

The solution we came up with then was super simple. We took an old laptop of ours and created a new admin user. We then logged in as that admin user and deleted all the other accounts, including the files, of the existing users. The result was a essentially a clean slate, though we didn't have to re-install Windows or the programs that we typically use (like Picasa or Firefox).

This arrangement ended up working quite well. The laptop was totally usable, but didn't contain checked out source code, web browsing history, or any saved passwords. A determined hacker could still recover the data, but I'm far less concerned about that doomsday scenario.

So there you have it, a few tweaks to my travelers bag of tricks. Do have any suggestions I should try on my next trip?

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