When packing for an international adventure, it’s easy to get carried away and dump half of your gear closet into a duffel bag. However, seasoned travelers know that there’s watertight truth to the clichéd maxim “less is more.” This becomes especially crystal clear when, hypothetically speaking, you're lugging a 120-liter behemoth through a crowded Central American bus station only to watch the bus zoom off without you, or you’re forced to empty the contents of your suitcase on the questionably clean linoleum floor of a Southeast Asian airport to meet stringent weight requirements. Moments like these are rites of passage—almost obligatory stepping stones to becoming a savvy traveler.
Photo Credit: photobyphotoboy, Shutterstock
As your passport fills up with stamps, you’ll learn to pack your bag carefully and eliminate all but the most important of travel essentials. Things you can do without? Get rid of ‘em. Things you might need but aren’t quite sure? You should probably get rid of those, too. Wondering what we deem as absolutely critical pieces of gear, essentials worth taking up precious volume in your pack and putting extra weight on your back? Then read on: after exploring over 25 countries, our traveling gear tester names the three palm-sized travel gadgets critical to every trip.
GoPro Hero5 Black
After using the GoPro Hero5 Black in snow and surf from Colorado to Bali, we agree with most action cam aficionados and affirm that this newest model is the industry-leading company’s best version yet. Why? Though 4K video is nothing to write home about at this point, the Hero5’s increased customizability settings, 2-inch touch display for reviewing/setting up shots, voice activation for hands-free action, and waterproof body (no need for a plastic case) earn the newest model top accolades.
An additional update that advanced GoPro users will make the most of (and our new favorite feature): the Hero5 now shoots RAW WDR photos—giving you even more editing options in post. Also, when you’re taking photos, you can actually adjust the exposure settings from the touch screen. Plus, the audio is better than previous models—the newer GoPro has dual microphones to record both right and left stereo channels.
Not having to fiddle around with the case is a huge bonus, too. Yet another new feature that our tester dug is the “Touch and Go” startup setting, which allows you to press the power button and start recording instantly—definitely a bonus in situations where getting the shot comes down to a matter of milliseconds.
Tester Comment: “I tragically lost my Hero4 jumping off a cliff into a Moroccan waterfall. It was a blessing in disguise, though, as I subsequently upgraded to the Hero5 and I couldn’t be more stoked on it. Compared to the previous model, the update is easier to use, has more customization than I need, and gets crisper shots.”
Bottom Line: GoPro is the best in the biz for a multitude of reasons, and the updated features of their newest model make the fifth generation Hero a smart choice for travelers of all creeds.
Best for: Taking a DSLR? Let the GoPro be your video machine. Or, leave the heavy rig behind and shoot photo and video solely with the lightweight action cam. Accessorize with mounts and customize a rig based on your adventures and activities of choice.
While the SPOT Gen3 is far from perfect, it’s a solid insurance policy for international travelers. Essentially, this compact satellite messaging device allows you to communicate with friends and family, as well as to send S.O.S. calls to alert SPOT’s emergency response center, who will in turn implement a search & rescue based on your location.
The Gen3 takes a bit of figuring out to set up, as you've got to add a service plan in order for the tracker to work, and then you must log in to findmespot.com and customize your messaging settings.
The Gen 3 has five buttons, and each serves a key purpose:
- S.O.S.: This is the big one, numero uno, and pretty much the sole reason we travel with the SPOT. If all else fails and you are in a life-or-death situation, you can hit the S.O.S. button and be confident that help is on the way. SPOT’s emergency response center will dispatch the necessary forces to orchestrate your rescue—no matter where you are in the world.
- Help: A customizable “helping hands” button is meant to be used for non-threatening situations in which you need assistance but do not need the full force of, say, a helicopter evacuation. You can plug in relevant emergency contacts to receive these messages by logging in to SPOT’s website.
- Check-In: Simple enough. Hit check-in to let those following your journey know that you’re doing okay.
- Custom Message: Type in whatever you want for this one. A few options?
- “Hey babe, I’m sleeping here tonight. Miss you.”
- “Please don’t forget to feed the dog. And record Game of Thrones. Also, I’m fine.”
- “You were right, there are bears, coming home now.”
- Basic Tracking: Using preset time increments, the SPOT will track your waypoints when you hit the tracking button. This can be helpful if you want to review your route later, and it also allows family and friends to keep an eye on your progress.
Unfortunately, this device doesn’t allow customizable messages from the field, it’s not fully waterproof, and though it’s fairly rugged, the rubber attachment points have been reported to snap off. Also, it isn’t guaranteed to get coverage if you’re in a canyon, heavily wooded area, or the like, and coverage in some far-off locales can be less than perfect.
Tester Comment: “I’ve never relied on this in a life or death situation. But after setting up my device, fiddling with the features, and speaking with other testers who use the SPOT religiously, I find myself happy to have it. It makes me more confident on solo trips around the globe.”
Bottom Line: A relatively inexpensive GPS tracker that allows you to communicate with loved ones and alert emergency response teams in S.O.S. situations.
Best for: Backpacking, international travel to remote locations, potentially risky activities
Goodbye, iodine. And thanks SteriPEN for allowing us to bid adieu to that tea-colored, chemical-tasting purifying pill—it’s just not our cup of tea. SteriPEN’s become one of our favorite water purifiers, especially on international trips where a) charging up isn’t a hassle and b) multiple uses are requisite.
While SteriPEN has a few different options, our top pick for international travel is the SteriPEN Ultra, which has been a keystone of their lineup for a few years now, and can be used 8000 times before the lamp is considered ineffective.
Though it seems almost like a magical wand—you press a button, swirl it around in a glass or bottle of water, and then presto, potentially poisonous water is made potable—the SteriPEN works based on simple science. According to the company’s website, ultraviolet rays emitted from a cylindrical lamp at the tip of the SteriPEN zap away 99.99% of protozoa, bacteria, and viruses. What does that protect you from? Cholera, Typhoid, and Giardia, among other pesky waterborne maladies known to plague international travelers.
The slender UV element fits into even store-bought plastic bottles, which is handy when traveling. Not only that, but the Ultra’s digital display lets you know when the battery is low and for how long to keep stirring: 60 seconds with 16-ounce bottles, 90 seconds for 32-ounce bottles. When compared to waiting 30 minutes for the iodine to kick in, and noting that SteriPEN doesn’t alter flavor at all, you can see why it’s become a preferable method for us on international trips.
Note: SteriPEN doesn’t actually filter out any impurities, so it’s not recommended to be used with silty or sediment-ridden water (though you can opt to purchase a Fits All filter to eliminate this problem). If you’re backpacking, rafting, or simply traveling in areas that silty rivers are your go-to water source, we recommend going with an actual pump filter.
Tester Comment: “You save money on buying water bottles, you help the environment by minimizing consumption of plastic, and you save your body from the terrors of traveler’s diarrhea. That’s a win-win-win for the SteriPEN in my book.”
Bottom Line: The rechargeable SteriPEN takes UV technology and puts it in your pocket, making it a preferable purifier for on-the-go international travelers.
Best For: International travel, purifying any clear water source, from lakes and rivers to tap water in undeveloped locales