Touring, complete: what gear survived four months of hard-wearing book-tour?
I had the last official stop of my book tour for my novel Walkaway on Saturday, when I gave a talk and signing at Defcon in Las Vegas. It was the conclusion of four months of near-continuous touring, starting with three weeks of pre-release events; then six weeks of one-city-per-day travel through the US, Canada and the UK, then two months of weekly or twice-weekly events at book fairs, festivals and conferences around the USA.
Now I'm touring complete. There's one more event on Aug 10 -- a kind of victory lap presentation at my local library here in Burbank -- and then a trickle of events over the next six months, but that's more like my normal baseline of public appearances, a very different experience to the kind of thing I did from April until last weekend.
It's been nine years since my first book tour -- the Little Brother tour -- and as always, there were new facts on the ground to adapt to, as well as hard-won wisdom that saw me through.
Here's some new stuff: indie bookstores are doing better than they have in years, and they're expanding into lots of live events, which are better-planned and better organized than ever. In many cities, there is one thriving indie and three or four suburban Barnes & Nobles, and these have changed, too: seeing as they are the only game in town, these B&Ns attract some stellar booksellers who intimately understand marketing and also really, really care about books. Also: all the indie bookstores have devoted substantial floorspace to embroidered socks. I'm calling it: we are at peak funny-sock.
Here's some stuff that's still the same: "Never pass up a chance to take water or make water." That is hard-won, important touring advice, passed from serious traveler to serious traveler as gospel. Airports are worse than they've ever been...and it's easier to buy your way out of the hardship, between TSA Precheck and Clear, which require that you give up a ton of personal information (which I'd already given up when I applied for my Green Card, so I went ahead, and it was so, so worth it -- so much so that I presume that anyone who has the wherewithal will buy their way into these programs and cease to do anything to mitigate the traveling woes of the general public -- watch for travel to get waaaay worse for normals who only fly a couple times per year).
I've been changing out my travel gear for years, trying to find the optimal combination of flexibility and comfort. I check a bag, and my suitcase was not lost once on this tour (it's happened before, though, and had to catch up with me a city or two down the road). The suitcase was severely damaged, and more than once (more on that below).
Here's the gear that survived this trip, stuff that will stay with me on upcoming trips.
This goes first. Life it too short for shitty coffee.
I use an Aeropress (but you knew that). I've stopped carrying around a hand-grinder. I have only so many duty-cycles left in my wrist tendons and then I will cease to be a writer. I'm not wasting them on a hand-grinder. Now I grind my coffee before I leave and put the coffee in a Ziploc Easy Open Tab quart-sized freezer bag (I keep a stash of these in my suitcase and resupply at coffee shops when I run out, having them grind for me; this means I can't buy Blue Bottle coffee since they, alone among coffee shops, will not grind their retail beans, boo) (I also bring along a handful of gallon-sized bags for various purposes). I've tried a lot of sealing bags, and Ziploc's easy opens are the only ones I can reliably seal well.
I heat water in the remarkably great Useful UH-TP147 Electric Collapsible Travel Kettle, a silicone collapsing kettle that has a thermostat that keeps water at near-boil so long as it's plugged in and on. It's multi-voltage and worked great in the UK, and it collapses down really small. The only downside: it looks weird enough on an X-ray that it is a very reliable predictor of having your bags searched by the TSA after you check them.
I am utterly dependent on the Orikaso folding cup to use with my Aeropress on the road. The majority of hotels supply paper cups, or glasses that are too narrow for the Aeropress. Carrying a rigid cup that decomposes into a thin sheet of plastic the size of a sheet of printer-paper spares me the awkwardness of holding the body of the Aeropress with one hand while pushing down on the plunger with the other to keep from squashing the paper cup.
For emergencies, I carried a stash of GO CUBES Energy Chews, a "neutraceutical" whose manufacturer makes a lot of extravagant claims for them. I think those claims are silly, but these are basically gummy-chews made from cold brew coffee (and stuff) and they work very fast and well, but did give me jitters (which were preferable to caffeine withdrawal).
I carried my favorite shampoo, conditioner, soap and a supply of generic woolite in a set of four Innerneed silicone tubes (which I kept in a ziploc). I've used a lot of different silicone tubes and these are my current favorites -- they have a locking mechanism that keeps the hard plastic lid more firmly in place on the silicone body of the tube, even when it's lubricated with slippery soaps, preventing the kinds of catastrophic breaches you get when the whole lid assembly just pops off the tube and everything comes pouring out.
I swapped out my old generic pharmacy rotary electric toothbrush for the Violife Slim Sonic Toothbrush, which is a AAA-battery-powered equivalent to one of those unwieldy, induction-charged Braun ultrasonic toothbrushes that my dentist wants me to use. It performs just as well as the Braun on my sink at home.
I suffer from really terrible, untreatable chronic pain and can't sleep or sit for any length of time without serious pain. I am absolutely reliant on my hot water bottle, with a knit sleeve. For my money, these are the best comfort items you can travel with -- I get them filled with boiling water by the flight attendants before take off and refill them hourly. At bedtime, I fill them from my collapsible kettle. The only downside: it's really easy to leave these behind in the bedclothes when you depart at 4AM.
I carried all my toiletries in Eagle Creek's Pack-It Wallaby Toiletry Organizer. It came highly recommended and after hard use, I see why: it has the best zippers I've ever had on a toilet bag, stores an incredible amount of stuff and still rolls up tight, and did a great job of containing one tube-of-goo breach that could have wrecked everything else.
Before the tour, I did a bunch of reading on the best travel underwear and decided to try Uniqlo's Airism Low Rise Boxer Briefs -- they were so comfortable and so easy to wash out in the sink (and so quick drying!) that I threw away all my other underwear when I got home and ordered a half-dozen more pairs. I traveled with three pairs of these, which crumpled small enough that I could fit them all in a pants pocket (should I have a need to do so?) and I rinsed the day's underwear in the sink every night and hung them to dry, chucking them in the bag in the morning, dry and clean.
You might already know that I love the look of Volante's jackets and coats, so it won't surprise you to learn that I lived in an Augment hoodie for the first half of the tour (when the weather was cool), switching to a lighter-weight Peregrine for the second half, when things warmed up.
I started the tour with three different pairs of pants in my suitcase, but left two behind on a resupply stop at home, because I was only ever wearing my Betabrand Off-the-Grid pants, which have enough stretchiness in them to do some basic yoga in, have huge pockets that somehow don't bulge much even when overfilled, and a neat little discreet mid-thigh side pocket good for keeping boarding passes in. My complaint: these were not colorfast at all: they were basically gray by the time I got home, even though I only ever hand-washed them in hotel sinks with generic woolite.
I always travel with pajamas: when you're on long flights, you can change into them for comfort; they give you a way to interact with hotel staff from your room early in the morning or late at night without having to get dressed or put a towel around your waist. I've been buying deadstock vintage men's pajamas from Etsy all year, because they look awesome and are more comfortable than anything you'll get in stores today.
I've been using REI's Sea to Summit compression sacks as laundry bags for ages: there's no problem with wrinkling your dirty laundry, right? Compression sacks are sorcerous reminders of just how much space there is between molecules.
I lived in Native Jeffersons: basically a kid's croc shoe, but molded to look like a low-rise Converse All-Star. Super comfortable, and I could rinse them in the hotel sink every night and leave them upside-down against the wall and slip into them in the morning.
I traveled with a Stanley Adventure Flask that I filled with Jefferson's Reserve Pritchard Hill Cabernet Cask Finished, 15-year-old bourbon that's finished with a couple years of rest in old cabernet casks. Yum.
I always keep a couple dozen catering-sized sachets of Tabasco in my suitcase and handful in my carry-on. They don't seem to show up as liquids on TSA X-rays so you can keep them in your bag, and I've never had one burst in a bag. They make everything super-delicious (or at least bearable) and they are way more space-efficient than those cute, tiny, single-use Tabasco bottles.
Swimming is the only way I can stay sane on tour. It keeps my chronic pain under control and burns some of the empty airplane-peanut and minibar calories.
I swim with an underwater MP3 player. After trying a lot of models, I settled on the Exeze players, which are only available for sale in the UK. However, I've since discovered that virtually the same players are sold under other brand names in the USA: one model I've tried and liked is the Aerb.
The reason I swim with an MP3 player is so that I can listen to audiobooks. I get through a couple novels per month this way. Audible's proprietary DRM format isn't compatible with MP3 players, so forget about getting your swimming audiobooks that way. Instead, try Downpour and Libro.fm, both of whom sell thousands of DRM-free audiobooks. Audiobooks and swimming are a magic combination. I couldn't make it through the tour without them.
I got my Calyx hotspot just over a year ago. It offers anonymous, unfiltered, unshaped, unlimited 4G/LTE wifi through Sprint's network, and supports the nonprofit good works of Calyx, who provide anonymity and privacy services to whistleblowers, journalists and many others. They are the good guys and this is a great product at a stellar price: $100 for the hotspot and $400/year for unlimited mobile broadband.
I continue to use X-series Thinkpads. I'm currently on the X270 and it runs Ubuntu very well. I didn't need any service on this tour, but I have on other tours, and I'm serene in the knowledge that the extended on-site next-day hardware replacement warranty (about $75/year!) guarantees that no matter what, I won't be without my computer for more than a day. My X270 took a lot of hard knocks on this tour and survived unscathed. My sole complaint: they screwed up the keyboards with the X230 (or so) and still haven't made a new chiclet keyboard that's half as good as the original Thinkpad keyboard. Please, Lenovo, bring my beloved keyboard back!
I use a Google Pixel phone and it's...not terrible. Everything about it works fine, but it has unbelievably shitty battery life. That is a killer on tour. The Alclap case solved that problem...for two weeks, and then it stopped working. I ordered two more, both of which were duds out of the box. The Scosche Magic Mount was more awkward to use, but also longer-lasting (it died last weekend, thanks to fraying in the wire that connected it to the phone).
You know all those suitcases that come with ten-year warranties? They're all designed to have a ten-year duty-cycle...assuming that you travel once or twice a year. In decades of hard travel, I've yet to buy a suitcase that can live up to the punishment of daily flying.
So now I buy suitcases based on how easy they are to get warranty service on. I had heard great things about Rimowa, and I loved the look of their cases, so I bit the bullet and sprang for one (they're extremely pricey). I quickly discovered that their much-vaunted service was terrible -- in London, anyway. My options were mailing the case to Germany, or taking it to a service center on Euston Road where they were rude, deceptive, and all-around awful. I was ready to swap the case for another manufacturer when I moved from London to LA two years ago.
But in LA, the whole story is different. Rimowa's service here is handled by a place out in Beverley Hills called Coco's Leather and they're pretty good at fixing stuff (there's sometimes a week turnaround, but I've found that if I call them after messengering the busted case out to them, they can often turn it around in a day).
I needed it. My Rimowa case was seriously damaged three times on tour: twice it had wheels ripped off (the whole wheel assembly, including the riveted-on bracket, torn right out of the aluminum!) by Southwest's baggage handlers in San Diego. Another time, AA baggage handlers destroyed the latches.
I'm sticking with Riwoma for now. Every luggage expert I've spoken to says that there's just not anything that will survive the kind of punishment I put my bags through, so I'm buying based on warranties, and between Coco's Leather and Rimowa's long-lasting warranties, I can live with this situation.
I've gone through a lot of luggage tags over the years and have yet to have one last more than a few flights before it's torn off in the hold, caught in some grinding system. Now I use the TUFFTAAG Travel ID Bag Tag, made of hard-wearing aluminum with braided steel cables. Dozens of flights later, the tags are bent and battered, but still intact and still attached to my case -- that's a first.
(Images: Paul Fremantle, @Zebrared, @msauers, @joem2go, @ashadornfest)
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