It’s that wonderful time of the year when you start freaking out about what worthy item you can possibly gift for others, or, taking advantage of various sales, gift for yourself. Have no fear, the 2023 Annual Bucket List Gift Guide is Here! As with previous years, I present a range of truly eclectic products that have stood out for their usefulness, cool-factor, deliciousness, and utility both on and off the road.
The Innovative Travel Pillow
It was only a matter of time before some genius applied science to a singular issue for anyone flying long-haul economy: What do I do with my neck when I doze off? Travel pillows come in various shapes and sizes, but typically follow the C-shape format. And while some are inflatable (and about as reliable as a politician’s promise) and some are memory foam (and as convenient to carry as a guilty conscious), at last we have a different approach. The TRTL Pillow wraps around your neck like a scarf, a scarf with an internal support system for “optimal” neck and head support. Unfortunately, nothing is optimal when you fly long-haul economy. While the TRTL Pillow is pricey and takes some getting used to, catching much-needed zzzzs is worth every penny.
The TRTL Neck Pillow
Buy on Amazon
The Sweat Pant Jeans
During the hey-day of the pandemic – peak masked-up and locked down 2020 – I remember thinking: if someone invents jeans that look like sweat pants, they’ll make a fortune. Well, the Japanese did, and I’ve been wearing UNIQLO EZY Extra Stretch Jeans ever since. Available in four colours, with an elastic waist and a draw string, they look like real denims except they stealthily have the soft feel of sweats. Smart and casual enough to wear out, frumpy enough to wear while you binge watch Foundation (my underrated series of the year) on the couch, jean sweats are perfect for your everyday slacker ninja.
UNIQLO EZY Extra Stretch Jeans
The Boozy Chocolates
Maybe it’s the nostalgia of tasting liqueur in chocolates as a kid (it was the 1970s, and there’s not that much liqueur) but this beautifully packaged display of bottle chocs has become our personal dinner party favourite. High quality dark chocolate just works with when matched with whiskey, vodka, cognac, rum and other treats, and it’s not the plonk either. Danish-based Anthon Berg works with brands like Remy Martin, Contreau, Drambui, Mount Gay, Canadian Club, Famous Grouse and Sobieski. Pick your bottle carefully from the stylish choco-bar, unwrap, hold the neck and bite into the goodness. We found a great deal at Costco but they’re also well-priced on Amazon too. As for kids slurping back chocolate bottles filled with rum, I turned out alright. Sometimes.
Anthon Berg Chocolate Liqueurs
Buy on Amazon
The Drink-From-Anything Water Bottle
Last year I featured the Life Straw as a lifesaving little gadget that allows you to safely drink from any river, lake or stream. This is especially handy if you’re on a hike and need water, or if the zombies attack and the taps stop flowing. The Life Straw does however require some serious suction, which is why the Life Straw Go Series is a gamechanger, making the entire water-cleansing process a lot easier. Simply full up your BPA-free bottle with water, and the membrane filter will remove 99.9% of all bacteria, parasites, microplastics, dirt and sand. It also reduces chlorine and odours, improving the taste. Each filter can get through 4000 litres of water (about 5 years of daily use). It’s a no-brainer for anyone going to any country or destination where you can’t trust the water.
Life Straw Go Series
Buy on Amazon
The Night Lights That Actually Work
They say you get what you pay for, except for nightlights, which don’t seem to work no matter how much you pay. Too bright, not bright enough, to white, too orange, too motion sensitive, not motion sensitive enough. I’m too sensitive myself, having gone through a half dozen of these damn things in my attempt to avoid walking into a wall when my kid starts screaming in the middle of the night because of his latest Huggie Wuggie nightmare. Here at last are some nightlights that are fully customizable for brightness and sensitivity. They also have fireproof casing, a feature I truly hope I never have to appreciate.
UVON Plug in Night Light
Buy on Amazon
The Backpack Beach Chair
When did it become mandatory to require a wagon in order carry all the crap you need for the beach? The chairs and blankets, the shade tent, the beach toys, the food, the kids? The Tommy Bahama Backpack Chair is how I’m doing it from now on. Just a chair. On my back. A chair that has pockets for my phone and my ice-cold pilsner. A chair with a neck rest. A chair that is not a wagon. I’m done with wagons. The kids can carry their own lightweight chair too.
Tommy Bahama Backpack Chair
Buy on Amazon
The Scrubba Wash Bag
Since we’re all doing our best to travel lightly with only carry-on luggage, consider this washboard in a bag. A cleverly adapted lightweight bag essentially becomes a washing machine, allowing you to easily and conveniently and effectively handwash your clothing in under a minute. The 13-liter Scrubba can clean two shirts, underwear and socks in a wash: just add water, some liquid detergent, massage your clothes, remove, wring and hang up to dry. Particularly handy if you’re hiking, camping, backpacking, or trying to go far with little.
The Scrubba Wash Bag
Buy on Amazon
The Toilet Ottoman The Disco Toilet Light
I truly give a crap about your toilet experience. So much so that I give bidets as wedding presents. A bidet will seriously change your life. Trust me, it just will. That was my choice recommendation two years ago. I was going to suggest a toilet ottoman in this year’s Bucket List Gift Guide (which straightens your colon and aligns your pooper to conduct a healthier, more efficient business), but then I came across a Disco Toilet Light. Exposing your posterior to a regular blast of disco lights has been proven by absolutely nobody to be beneficial to your health. But it is fun. First get a bidet, then a toilet ottoman, then a disco motion sensor toilet light. Throw your bowels a party, and thank me later.
Toilet Disco Lights
The Muscle Massage Gun
Percussion guns (which is a great name for a band) became all the rage a couple years ago, and I’ve been testing them for 12 months to assess whether they are in fact a) a fad b) a poorly disguised sex toy c) a deeply beneficial therapeutic tool or d) a weapon of mass destruction. With a little imagination, it’s all of those things, but these muscle massage guns work, and they work well. Pop on a head (I usually use the ball, the bullet is for massaging Superman) and awkwardly point the gun on my offending muscle tissue. Better yet, find a partner or kid to work while you lie down skating the line between pain and bliss. These guns pack juice, and the long-lasting battery has a decent charge. Having tried several massage guns on the market, I recommend the Renpho Percussion Massager. Amazon is always having big sales with these things so look out for discounts.
RENPHO Active Muscle Massage Gun
Buy on Amazon
The Weighted Blanket
When I slept over at grandmas, she had green blankets that were as heavy as a sack of potatoes. It made me feel warm and safe, and I used to sleep like a sack of potatoes too. Too many decades later, weighted blankets help millions of kids and adults sleep better by reducing stress and anxiety. Weighted with glass beads, ball bearings or plastic, sleep scientists say the equal distribution of weight relaxes the parasympathetic nervous system in preparation for sleep. I don’t know what that means, I just know you’ll sleep better, on the bed or on the couch. While there are a wide range of brands out there (spanning a wider range of quality and price), Toronto-based Simple Sleep offer quality weighted blankets with fantastic value.
When it comes to staying safe on the road, everyone always talks about common sense, as if it's a force field that will protect you and keep the zombies at bay. What exactly are they talking about? Well, since you're asking:
Don’t Flash Your Wealth
In nature, predators hunt the easiest targets, the lowest hanging fruit. Those who target tourists do the same. If they see you walking around with expensive jewelry and cameras, or thumbing through rolls of cash, you become the easy mark. This is especially true in developing countries, where signs of wealth are displayed less flagrantly. Leave your $10,000 wedding rings at home or in the hotel safe. Keep your camera in its bag unless you feel safe in the environment. Draw as little attention to yourself, and try to blend in. It’s the simplest and easiest way to avoid the unwelcome attention of predators.
Don’t Go Where You Shouldn’t
It sounds so simple, and yet it’s amazing how often this is the cause of unfortunate incidents. Every city has places you should avoid. If you don’t know what they are, just ask a local who will gladly tell you. Meanwhile, if it’s avalanche season and you’re advised not to go venturing into the backcountry, heed the warnings. Official government alerts are often over the top, but do some research before you dismiss them outright, and unknowingly find yourself in a conflict zone. If you are visiting a hot spot, make sure you’re in regular contact with friends, and let a government office know. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way when it comes to ensuring you’re not in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Trust your gut
Our intuition has always been there, we’ve just forgotten how to hear it clearly. When you’re travelling though, it can yell a little louder than normal. You’ll hear it telling you: Don’t eat that chicken, it looks undercooked! Don’t walk down that street, it looks too dark? This taxi is taking too long, I’m being ripped off! Common sense means knowing when to trust that little voice in your head, and dismissing it when it’s being too paranoid. It takes practice, but many of the unfortunate stories we hear in the news could have been avoided if people just listened to their gut. Your intuition is a crucial tool for staying safe.
Know where you’re staying
Carry a card with the name, phone number and address of the place you are staying, especially in countries where you don’t speak or understand the local language. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way, wandering about for hours before I could remember the unpronounceable name of the hotel I was staying at, located on an unpronounceable street in an unpronounceable district. Most hotels have business cards at reception, so make sure you grab one. If you’re staying with friends, ask them to write down their address to show a taxi driver. The rules of common sense are common for a reason: because they are so simple.
Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help
Having traveled to over 100 countries, I firmly believe people would rather help you than hurt you. If you’re in a situation, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re in public and feel threatened, raise your voice, scream, make a commotion so that people know they should come to your aid. If you’re feeling sick, tell someone so they can get you to a doctor or pharmacy. If you can’t speak the language, use gestures. You’ll be surprised just how hospitable locals can be, and how much pride they take in making sure guests in their country are safe and happy. So much so that you’ll want to ask for directions repeatedly, since some locals would rather give you the wrong directions than tell you they don’t know the answer.
When it comes to your safety, you get what you pay for
In La Paz Bolivia, a very popular activity is to bike downhill a 67km road from the mountains into the jungle. A New Zealander who put safety first created it, but once it became a must-do activity for tourists, competitors popped by the dozen with other priorities in mind. They offer a cheaper price, but on cheaper bikes, without maintenance records. Subsequently over 15 tourists have died. The original company has had zero fatalities. Saving a few bucks is simply not worth your life when it comes to choosing between competing services. This is especially true for adventure outfitters, but also for transportation companies. Is the company reputable? Do they look and feel professional? Accidents still may happen, but cutting corners too often might lead to you flying off an edge.
Keep Online Backups of Your Passport, Details and Documents
If you lose everything, and I mean everything, make sure you have backups online. Send your webmail a protected Word doc containing your passport, insurance, banking information and passwords, addresses and contacts. Email yourself scanned copies of your passport and drivers license. Once you have all that information, you can begin the painful, yet necessary task of alerting all the relevant authorities about the theft or loss. But at least you’ll know who to call for help, and what information they’ll need to help you. Make sure, most importantly, you don’t forget your password to access this information online. It’s also a good idea not to keep all your valuables together. Just in case, when I travel I keep a back-up credit card stored in a different location.
Watch our for Common Scams
Read up on some of the most common scams so you’ll know what they are and how to avoid them. Fortunately, I’ve compiled a handy list for you right here. Crowded tourist attractions or markets are popular with pick pockets, so make sure your wallet is safely zipped up, and be vigilant about checking it’s still there. Carry your bags securely and be aware of your surroundings. Never, ever leave your luggage or bags unattended, especially in train or bus stations. Be friendly but weary of random people who approach you on the street.
Act Like You Belong
Scammers and thieves look for tourists displaying obvious signs of wealth, and also those who look nervous and uncomfortable. They might just say hello, but how you answer the question will determine whether you’re an easy mark. The key is to look relaxed and in control, no matter how freaked out and nervous you actually feel. Smile, make eye contact, be assertive but not aggressive. The goal is make it look like you’re too much work to bother with. I once found myself on the wrong bus and had to walk my way out of a South American slum. Inside I was panicking, but I kept my cool by strolling in the streets, smiling, looking like an out of place gringo who nevertheless knew where he was going. Locals are always more willing to help someone who’s behaving rationally than someone in a panic.
Always Carry Insurance, and Avoid Confrontation
Travel insurance is absolutely essential. A few dollars save your butt, and the peace of mind is priceless. Shop around, and read the policy to know what you’re covered for, and what’s excluded in the fine print. Insurance is there for a reason. Never, EVER confront someone threatening violence. It might be brave, but no watch, wallet or cash is worth getting hurt or killed. Remember that the vast majority of people travelling never experience any problems, but sometimes shit happens. Keep a clear head. Call the police to get a case number. Cancel your cards and find out about getting new ones. Contact your insurance company as soon as possible to file a claim. Resist the temptation to tarnish an entire country because of one unfortunate situation. You’ll be amazed at how people will come to your aid when you really need them. But with a little common sense, the chances are astronomically in your favour that you’ll be just fine.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.