Top 5 dumb mistakes the travel gear industry makes

As many of my esteemed and fiendishly loyal readers may know, I have an unhealthy obsession with ultralight, super-efficient travel gear, and am constantly on the lookup for better techniques, items, materials, and other potential strategies to get the pack as tiny as it can possibly get.

My and my 20 liter best friend.
Pictured: Glory.

It’s an endless game of ounce-shaving achievements the likes of which none but a select few backpackers actually care about. But this is the way I managed to travel for 9 months through winter and summer with nothing but a 20 liter carryon daypack that weighed 15 pounds and fit into the overhead compartment on the plane. It was glorious. For a poorly-muscled specimen of questionable masculinity such as myself, it was indescribably helpful.

But despite having managed that minimal of a setup, searching for new gear is just as time-consuming an ordeal as always, with every trip to the store becoming an exercise in disappointment.

Why is travel clothing so ugly?

It’s not that it has to be this way; making travel gear is not particularly difficult. All you have to do is take ordinary clothing, which everyone on the planet wears all the time, and make it out of the right material. Sadly, 99% of the items available at any store will have some unfortunate blemish that ruins its functionality. And yes, I said functionality.

Here’s the secret to traveling long-term with nothing but a carryon: Bring enough clothing for a week, and do laundry once a week. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it is. In fact it’s so extraordinarily easy I wonder why so few other people do it.

They have objections, of course. But the one and only legitimate objection is:

“I want to look nice.”

It’s a good objection, and, sadly, one which the travel clothing industry resoundingly ignores.

Form is function

Let me rant for a moment as to why fashionable clothing is actually a necessity, not a luxury, for the ultralight long-term backpacker. You want to look nice. So, people will typically bring some nice-looking clothing along with the outdoorsy clothing they intend to wear on hikes or casual days.

Columbia Silver Ridge Plaid Long Sleeve Shirt
The not-ugly travel shirt: Currently a critically endangered species.

But what if it looked good and performed well? It’s not particularly difficult. In fact, it’s rather effortless. And if all your clothing is ultralight, quick-drying, moisture-managing, temperature-regulating performance apparel, and looks classy, then you don’t need to carry spare clothes for “nice” occasions in addition to your “serious” clothing, which means you could cut out half the outfits, thus reducing pack weight and size significantly. When it comes to travel clothing, form literally becomes function.

Wouldn’t it be great? If all your clothing looked classy and sophisticated, but was stealthily constructed of high-performance fabrics that would keep you comfortable all day, wash in the sink, and hang dry by morning? All anyone would have to do is take ordinary clothing patterns and switch out the fabric. Easy!

Sadly, the travel clothing industry fucks it up every time. It drives me insane. They take fantastic performance fabrics and make them into some of the ugliest monstrosities the human race has ever experienced. And they refuse to stop. Newcomers are changing the game, though.

So I’ve compiled a list of what I consider the stupidest mistakes to be found, in a most-likely doomed-to-fail effort at getting someone to do it right for once. Here we go:

1) “Look at me, I’m a backpacker” clothing

This is perhaps the most egregious mistake the outdoor industry makes, and I could go on and on endlessly about how dumb they are when they make clothing that looks ridiculous, like the dreaded “safari” shirt.

It’s not just that it’s ugly; it’s that its ugliness requires extra gear to be packed, and its ugliness identifies you as a backpacker. This is just plain stupid.

Among the dumbest mistakes that stand out are:

  • Extraneous zippered pockets: Can’t figure out who’s a backpacker and who isn’t? Look for a zipper. Particularly on a collared shirt. Sigh. You know what works just as well as a blindingly obvious and hideous zipper, but looks perfectly normal at the same time? A button!
  • Visible velcro pockets: See #1.
  • Visible mesh vents: Seriously, do these exist on any other article of casual clothing? No? Well, maybe there’s a reason why.
  • Obtrusive logos: This one just drives me insane. Is there any reason I should be a walking billboard for your brand after having shelled out stupid amounts of money for your high-tech garments? Sigh. There’s no quicker way to ruin a perfectly good t-shirt than to slap a giant mountaineering brand logo all over the place.
  • Fluorescent colors: I don’t know what the deal is here. Maybe people like bright colors. Maybe they like using them as flags for signaling from afar. But you know who doesn’t? Everyone else.

2) No such thing as travel jeans

This, my friends and loved ones, is a crime against humanity.

That's right, I didn't even bother taking a picture of my own pants.
Denim: Man’s greatest invention. Photo by Dreamyshade.

The vast majority of backpackers I’ve encountered bring jeans along with them all over the world. It makes sense. They’re comfy. They’re classy. They’re suitable for all social occasions, whether it’s hanging out with friends or attempting to impress the ladies in upscale nightclubs before going home alone to wallow in your loneliness until sunrise.

But they’re heavy. They’re hot. They take forever to dry, which is quite a problem if you have to hand-wash them, or if you get stuck in a downpour. Girls have it a little easier now that jeggings are a thing. But isn’t there a better way?!?

Yup. Several, in fact. All you have to do is make the fabric out of something vastly superior and it’ll feel exactly the same, but regulate temperature a whole lot better, and dry faster. Fabrics like hemp and Tencel promise to do just that, and when blended with quick-drying polyester, they make pretty great travel pants, while still looking indistinguishable from ordinary jeans.

Can you have one? No, probably not. So few companies use these materials that all you can do is read about how much better they are and get annoyed you can’t have one. They exist in about as much frequency as moon missions.

3) Easily pick-pocketed pockets

Once again, jeans win.
Prepare to lose your change. And your mind.

This one is just plain stupid. So stupid that I abjectly refuse to buy pants of any kind unless they have jeans-style pocketing. You know those vertical “on-seam” pockets found on most khakis? The ones that just let change and keys and cameras and phones and other small items just fall right out? Yes, they can even get pick-pocketed by gravity.

Jeans-style pockets will not fail. You really have to recline, usually to a somewhat upside-down slope, to get coins to fall out of jean pockets. And pickpockets have a much harder time getting in those than anything else. They’re just objectively superior. And rare. Stupidly rare.

4) Oversized money belts

Seriously, how hard is it to just make a money belt the same size as a passport?
This isn’t even one of the big ones.

Okay, we’re getting into nitpick territory here, now that I’ve covered some of the more egregious errors, but this one has always annoyed me. Money belts are often as long as a forearm, and they’re filled with paper bills or passports half that size. Why are they so big?

Plane tickets. They’ll fit an entire plane ticket without having to fold it.

But you know what would be a better solution? Folding it. You only have to carry it around for brief periods of time in the airport and folding it will be just fine.

I think this is a holdover from way back in the day when computers barely existed, and you had to buy your plane tickets and make sure to bring them with you, and carry them around for the whole trip so you’d have them ready for the flight home.

This is a little bit like designing cars with attachments for horses to pull them.

5) Oversized guidebooks

Alright, so this is something of a challenging problem to solve, rather than a stupid decision with an obvious solution. Soon enough, we’ll have always-on, global wireless connectivity and we’ll have smartphone apps that tell us everything we need to know about wherever we are, at home or abroad. Guidebooks will cease to exist.

Guidebook cut to pieces.
A guidebook, cut apart with edges taped. Lasts forever, fits in a back pocket, and makes a great gift to random people when you leave a country!

But in the meantime, no one wants to carry those damn things around wherever they go, and more and more backpackers are skipping the guidebooks altogether in favor of winging it with word-of-mouth tips, online resources, and home printers.

My solution is to take the oversized regional guidebook and cut it into pieces for each country. The pamphlet-sized chapters fit perfectly into a back pocket, and if you do it correctly (saw directly into the spine to preserve the glue, and add packing tape along the edges on the front and back page), it will last longer than your trip.

So why don’t they just issue $5 country-specific pamphlets? They’ve got the material anyway, and they’d probably make more money selling low-cost, portable, country-specific documents one at a time rather than selling Southeast Asia as a single volume that is so big and expensive it scares people away.


I shall persevere

Sadly, I could go on. I tried to pick the biggest nuisances, and ugly clothing is far and away the worst offender, which causes me no end of annoyance. But I remain hopeful that as overseas backpacking becomes increasingly common, the options available to the demographic will improve, and the backpackers themselves will become more discerning in their needs, rather than simply making do with ugly hiking clothing or bringing “regular” clothing since alternatives are expensive and hideous.

Maybe someday, kids. Maybe someday.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook or Twitter.

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14 Comments on “Top 5 dumb mistakes the travel gear industry makes”

  1. Ethan, you and I have a lot in common. I too cut up my guide books and have been searching for 20 plus years for the right money belt. I hope someone from sportswear industry reads this post and takes your advice. If not, you should start your own line of travel gear…

    1. My ulterior motive is to build a platform from which I can complain incessantly about all the things I find wrong. I’ve been shopping for new gear lately and just find so many incomprehensible decisions. I could do a whole new entry on backpacks and another on water bottles. Someday, perhaps I shall.

  2. I couldn’t agree more to all of these, which is the reason why I simply don’t use any of it when I travel. One thing that has really started to annoy me lately is why all the wheels on roller bags are so freaking tiny?!

    I recently swapped my old roller bag for a new bigger one, which broke after less than a month! I can’t get a refund because I bought in abroad, but while searching for a new one I realize that all bags seems to have the same problem.

    1. I know exactly what you mean. I recently went shopping for a new backpack and wrote a whole blog post about how annoying it was. Sigh. I really wonder if it’s that they’re not smart enough to do it the right way, or if their customers are too dumb to complain about it.

      As for avoiding the use of all high-tech gear, when I first went backpacking, laundry was an exercise in human misery. The Italian laundromats doubled as internet cafes, which was great since you can run 2 errands in 1, but they sold internet time in 60 minute blocks and it took 70 minutes to wash your clothes, so you had to sit there for 10 minutes like an idiot. Nowadays laundry is more common so it’s less important to be able to do laundry in a sink, so I may cut some corners for the next trip.

  3. I brought jeans with me throughout my year-long RTW and they were my most precious item of clothing! You don’t want to look like a khaki-clad safari goer in cosmopolitan cities like Bangkok or Buenos Aires. They are definitely worth the extra weight :)

    1. It pains me to admit that you may be correct. I hope to see real travel jeans someday, but in the meantime, they’re the most versatile thing you can take.

  4. I just found your blog today and am loving the content (and use of sarcasm). And, I completely agree with everything you just said in this post, especially the part about zippered pockets. I have a couple travel shirts that are soooo close to being good enough to wear to Michelin-starred restaurants, if only they didn’t have ridiculous zippers on the chest pockets. Who uses shirt pockets anyway?

    1. I fully intend to use this blog as a platform to complain incessantly about the many inexcusable failures I see each and every time I set foot in a camping gear store. Maybe I’ll do it like a fashion blog, and review so-and-so’s fall collection and so on, and just make fun of how dumb they are. Hopefully someone will listen.

  5. your posts just crack me up and what i love the best is that your pointers are all well and truely valid and true!!!!!

    i love to take a pair of jeans along on any trip…. i tend to use regular clothing that i have lots of. I have stopped buying tech fabrics….. said that.. i do have merino wall thermals…. my favourite bomb proof tops are from Helly Hansen.. the blue with white strips on the arms….

    also…. so many products have let me down….

    Katadyn water filter…. the screwed on bit where the filter is…. cracked!!!
    Lifeventure clock…. back light was as dim as never seen before….
    Life venture clock…. new model , half the weight…. light failed to work, and the whole unit stopped working after about a week…… wrote to them…. got a shitty reply
    The North face paclite gortex jacket….. gortex properties??? was like wearing a bin bag
    shall i go on??? ok i will.

    sea to summit water proof bag… in monsoon rain ur back pack fills with water, cos they dont put drain holes in many models, and water proof bag will be imersed in water for a while and lets water in….. should be called… Shower proof bags…… bin bags are oh so much better/cheaper

    BUT great bits of kit: salomon ultra pro 3D running shoes, superfeet inner soles, Inov8 mudsocs, ortlieb water proof bags….

    need to read more of ur stuff…..

  6. Have you tired Rail Riders well designed and very durable pants? Arborwear makes some very comfortable tech pants.

  7. I agree that most of the clothing and outdoor shops is ugly. And for men it is also non-fitting potato bags (if you understand that expression in English). For women it’s better – they fit nicely on body and are in better colors in general.

    But I’ve found that there are some brands that make good looking outdoor clothing. Yes, they are more expensive. I will name some: Bergans, Haglöfs, Millet. Certainly not all of their clothing and perhaps for your taste it’s still ugly. Take a look.

    1. It’s true, there seem to be more and more showing up here and there. Rohan is another good one, which you might be able to find over on your side of the Atlantic.

  8. Oh man, I so know what are you talking about. I am trying to solve this for so long time, but it looks the industry works on that ! Arcteryx and Icebreaker, I believe Patagonia also made merino polo shirts and the actual shirts! isn’t that great ? Now just figure out shoes and pants and… :)

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