Welcome to my annual Bucket List Gift Guide, in which I recommend an eclectic range of products that have made a positive impact on my travels, my mind, my meals and my life. Some of them are very simple, most of them are inexpensive, and some of them could even save your life. In no particular order, let’s light it up:
The 5-Second Fire Starter
You only have to battle once to start a campfire in the rain to appreciate a better mousetrap. Here’s a very simple, yet very effective fire starter. Put wood over it, pull the string, and voila, you have a fire. You don’t need matches, you don’t need kindling, you don’t need your crazy brother in-law squirting lighter fluid. Pull Start Fire is rainproof, windproof, safe to cook over, and burns for about 30 minutes. The wood should be well on its way by then, if not, building a fire is definitely not for you.
$20 for a 3 pack, available here or in Canada at Canadian Tire.
Belt it Out
I enjoy telling airport security that my elastic, clip-belt contains no metal whatsoever, so just let me play my part in this charade and get on with it already! I also enjoy wearing a belt that fits perfectly every time (although is easily adjustable after losing weight in Asia or putting it on after a cruise). And I’ve saved like, hours of my life with the quick clip as opposed to fumbling with the belt hole, loop and tuck manoeuvre. The Arcade belt looks good in my jeans, hiking and ski pants, is super light, and can be thrown in the wash with the pants.
From $37.95 at https://arcadebelts.ca/
One Charger to Rule them All
There are many different types of chargers, and ports are increasingly hard to come by on the latest laptops (I still use a 2013 Macbook Pro because I’m terrified of losing things like SD Cards, USB ports, and a device that hasn’t failed me yet. Please touch wood on my behalf). Along comes the EZ Quest, which is jammed with all the ports you need to charge your phone, tablet, earphones, camera, e-reader, massage gun and whatever else the modern traveller feels compelled to travel with. It’s got over-current, over-voltage, over-temperature, and short-circuit protection, and charges devices three times quicker than standard wall chargers. It will also charge your laptop, although regrettably not my own, because I’m still using an old school Mac charger that is literally held together with duct tape.
Various prices depending on the charger configuration. Available on Amazon
A Solid Pair of Winter Boots
Here comes the rain, snow and slush, and here is a fine Canadian-made boot to meet it. Kodiak has been making serious work and lifestyle boots since 1910. The Magog Waterproof Boot is sturdy, stylish, warm and padded with a memory-foam in-sole, comfortable to wear all day. It also doubles as my 'fancy' shoes for live presentations, because travel writers need to be uniquely equipped to go from keynote stage to muddy forest in a moment's notice. When Americans hear Canadians saying 'aboot' all the time, this is what they're talking about.
From $190 in Fossil, Brown or Black. Available Online
Hotel-Feeling Linen at Home
My bed has a 3-inch memory foam topper that should get its own item on this list, primarily because it single-handedly solved my lower back pain every morning. Even with extra-large fitted sheets, my erratic sleeping habits (I sleep with the peace and stillness of an exploding volcano) constantly bunched the bedsheet, pulling them off the corners, forcing constant tugging and pulling to get that clean, smooth-sheet feel you find in a great hotel bed. Then I discovered the BedBand, which is so simple and so brilliant someone had to think of it. Easy to apply when you change your linen, the bands grip the corners snugly, holds the sheet in place. Now every night is a great hotel bed night.
From $20 in various colours (not that anyone will ever see them). I use the BenBandXL which is 50% longer and perfect for a king-size Bed. Available on Amazon
As much as I love life and want it to flourish, mosquitoes should just die die die. At the very least, stay out of my home during summer, and stop eating my kid. The same kid, I should add, who busted up our sliding screen door by walking and running into it repeatedly. Introducing another product that will have you saying: “where have you been all my life?” TheFitLife Fibreglass Magnetic Screen Door is a heavy duty mesh curtain with magnets that snap shut automatically. Essentially, it’s a screen door kids and pets can run through over and over again without it breaking, and without the bugs getting inside. It is easy to put up with no tools needed (although do your measurements) and while it might need an occasional poke for the magnets to click, it’s infinitely better than bug bites and kids slamming into doors on their way to the garden.
From $29. Available on Amazon
Drink from the River
“Back in the old days son, we’d go on long hikes in big forests, and if we ran out of water, we’d fill up our bottles in the streams or rivers, but we’d have to use these disgusting iodine tablets to kill the bacteria and microbes that might make us sick.”
“Wow Dad, you mean you couldn’t just take a straw and drink directly from the river or lake?”“No son, that only came about much later with the LifeStraw Personal Water Filter, which could filter parasites, bacteria and micro-plastics from up to 4000 litres of contaminated water with no iodine, chlorine, or moving parts. It was super light and easy to carry and the water tasted great too. For hikers or anyone needing fresh drinking water, we called that ‘A Gamechanger.’”
From $30 Available on Amazon
For the Person Who Has Everything: The Ember Smart Mug
You make yourself the perfect cup of coffee and you’re ready to start your day. Then you get a flurry of emails, and by the time you take your first sip, your perfect cup is bitter and cold. How about a mug that keeps your drink at the perfect temperature, as programmed by an app on your phone? The mug keeps your drink toasty for up to 80 minutes in the cup or all day in the special charger coaster. The mug is so smart it turns itself off if you forget about it to save battery life, and it has an LED light to let you know when your beverage is ready to go. Always hand wash, and I suggest going with the black to avoid coffee stains on this expensive, but rather clever coffee mug.
From $179. Available on Amazon
The Stealth Reading Lamp
Believe me when I say I tried a half-dozen reading lamps before finding the one that worked. I need to read before I go to sleep. It’s my melatonin. My wife needs darkness, and she’s not into eye-masks. I toyed with various lamps clipped on and off the book, but it’s not the light or brightness that bothers her, it’s the colour of the light itself. This small, flexible, USB-charged light clip has three brightness settings and a handy 90-degree swivel, while a compact frame and zero cables make it a perfect travel companion. Still, it’s the orange Sleep Aid Light option that is the real winner, washing a small light footprint in a warm, non-obtrusive glow that helps me read as long as I want, and my wife to finally get a good night’s sleep. At least, until I start snoring.
From $14. Available on Amazon
This Year’s Condiment: Trader Joe’s Crunchy Chili Onion
I’m doing a Trader Joe’s run across the border because for some inexplicable reason, we don’t have Trader Joe’s in Canada and this is simply devastating for those of us into top quality condiments. I’m buying one of everything: their excellent Peri-Peri Sauce, the Incredisauce, the Magnifisauce, the creamy Jalapeno Sauce, the Truffle Hot Sauce. Then I see a fellow Canadian condiment load up her cart with two dozen 6-ounce jars of Crunchy Chili Onion. All natural ingredients: olive oil, dried onion, dried garlic, salt, paprika, crushed chili and red pepper. “I take it that one’s a winner?” I ask.
“Oh, you’ll see, “ she replies.
I buy three of the small jars, and now I regret not filling up my cart too. Well played Trader Joes. Well played…yet again.
Currently trading at $4.29. Available at Trader Joes.
It’s been too many years since my last gift guide, which gathered an eclectic collection of travel-ish products I thought were interesting, helpful, appreciated, unique, or fun. What do you give to someone who has everything? For starters, you can remind them how lucky they are. You might consider an experience (memories tend to stick around much longer than products). If that doesn’t work, maybe something on the list below will work. A list that includes fire, feet, fun, and something for your butt, because that's how my Gift Guides roll...
Note: In some cases below, it made sense to link to Amazon, which includes an affiliation link to support my on-going and stubborn travel habit that I just can’t seem to kick.
Solo Stove Backyard Fire Pit (Ranger + Stand)
Here’s a fact: You can’t roast marshmallows over a propane fire pit. Well, you can, they just taste like propane, which isn’t very nice at all. Propane fire-pits might be convenient, but it also lacks the crackle and pop of wood, those five senses of a real fire. It’s also a pain to carry around. All of which makes the stainless-steel Solo Stove so appealing. It takes seconds to set up, holds (and with clever air-flow design) sustains a lovely fire, and its base ensures no damage or scorch marks to grass, wood or any outdoor surface beneath it. Sitting about knee high, the Solo Stove has a metal net option to trap any unwanted embers, and burns way less smoke than your typical fire put. Once you’re done and the ranger has cooled down, simply tip the pit over and feed your plants with fine ash. All of which makes for an instant, easy-to-use fine looking fire pit, and s’mores that don’t taste like a gas tank.
Brutrek BaseCamp Travel Press
Coffee was a contentious issue camping this summer. We obviously needed a good cup to get us going in the morning, but it takes time to do coffee properly, and instant coffee is well, instant coffee. Introducing a clever travelling press that lets you enjoy your favourite beans, without worrying about smashing glass, or the black gold losing its steam. The sturdy, double-walled, insulated stainless steel body is topped by a spill-proof, leak-proof lid with a press that keeps the ground beans firmly at the bottom and avoids overcooking the brew. Available in two sizes, it’s an easy clean-up, and a trusty companion on long hikes too.
From $100 including shipping
Keen Tempo Flex Waterproof
I live in a coastal rainforest masquerading as a city. Vancouver is wet, and waterproof shoes are a must. Trainers and runners are fine for rare sunny days, but soaking my cold wet feet in cold wet socks is an experience I’d rather avoid. Keen’s light Tempo Flex waterproof running/hiking/walking hybrids have a speed-lace, slip-on fit, high traction rubber sole, and importantly, don’t look like a baboon’s butt on your feet. They aren’t as wide as Keen’s usual hikers though, but will definitely cut it for urban wear, day hikes or trail running. Most importantly, they keep feet dry. I just checked the weather: solid rain for the next 7 days. Guess there’s only one pair of shoes I’ll be wearing then. Available for Men and Women.
Sigvaris Travel Compression Socks
Here’s a couple travel tips that will forever change your experience on long haul flights. Firstly: stay away from tomato juice. It’s loaded with sodium, and in the compressed cabin at altitude, it will have your feet swelling up like helium balloons. I only used to drink tomato juice on planes figuring it must be good for you, but a well-versed flight attendant informed it’s the opposite. Stay off the salt! Secondly: slip on a pair of compression socks, which dramatically improves blood circulation to your legs and feet. The result are feet and limbs that feel fresh, rested, and ready to go just as soon as you arrive. Sigvaris Compression socks come in a variety of pattern, styles and fabrics, and will become your new essential travel companion.
Fix n Zip
You have a perfectly fine daypack, backpack, sleeping bag or tent. More than perfectly fine. You’ve broken the mustang in, made it home, figured out every compartment, worked out the nooks and crannies. Then the zipper slider breaks, because that’s what zippers eventually do. You might repair it with a zip tie, and now you have a really ugly piece of equipment. You might call a tailor shop who will charge you more to repair the thing than it’s worth. Or you can take this handy little gadget that slots over the slider, thumbscrews in, and voila, instant repair. No thread, no needle, no tools, no fuss. Fix n Zip is made out of durable nickel and works on plastic and metal zippers. You can unscrew it and use it on multiple zips, and it might just save your dress or clothing too. Simple, effective, and adding a few more years to my old trusty backpack.
When it comes to backpacking, packing remains one of the biggest pains in the, well, back. We tend to take too much, use too little, and spend way too much time squeezing and shoving in our stuff when it’s time to pack up. Top-down packs are particularly difficult to get organized. PackStack is a simple system of stackable water or weatherproof compartments where everything can finally have its place. There’s a top handle to pull everything out, and its crescent shape naturally take care of dead space in your backpack. Compartments can separate toiletries from electronics, food from clothing, and it naturally stacks within itself once you’re done.
Here’s one you can’t take this one with you (unless you install it in an RV or caravan). Trust me, once you bidet, it’s hard to go back. There’s something intrinsically refreshing about having a washed derriere (as many Eastern cultures know only too well). There’s quite a few of these gadgets on the market. I found Luxe Bidet to be affordable, easy to install, and great to deal with too. At just $50, it’s easily my most gifted item of 2021, although everyone I gifted it too didn’t think they needed such a thing – seriously Esrock, what the hell?! Then they installed it, tried it, and now they thank me. What gave me the idea for a bidet? Well, my bestselling Bucket List books have always made great toilet reads.
How to Invent Everything by Ryan North
I used to think I was the only one worried what might happen if a solar storm wiped out electricity, or the internet went down forever, or humanity suddenly reverted back to the Stone Age. How do things actually work? How does the average person save thousands of years of invention without having to figure everything out… again? Using the construct of a stranded time traveller, Ryan North takes on, well… everything we’ve ever invented, and explains how to recreate it using only the basic elements available to someone stranded thousands of years ago. Short, punchy chapters with illustrations teach us how to build kerns and ploughs, art and engineering. The breadth and research of this book makes it, literally, the only manual that needs to survive Armageddon to give humanity some hope of returning to civilization. In the process, you’ll learn tons about history, philosophy, the environment, engineering, the stars, and just about everything North focused his unflinching and impressive curiosity on.
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.