Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Travelling Birder

When I started birding 25 years ago, I thought it was a cheap hobby – after all, you just needed a pair of binoculars and a field guide.  Over the years, my gear has expanded and I have learned that there is no such thing as a cheap hobby.  Travelling with all this gear can be a challenge, particularly if one will be travelling on small planes.  Doing the big year last year gave me plenty of practice in packing my gear and I learned a few things along the way that I’d like to share.  First, some basics:  If it is valuable or breakable, carry it with you; if it can’t be easily replaced at the destination, carry it with you.

Carrying all your gear can mean that your carry-on weighs more than your checked luggage – don’t let the airlines weigh your carry-on!  Although most North American airlines allow two pieces of carry-on, that may not be the case for your destination country.  As a result, I try to fit everything in a mid-sized backpack (30 litres).  For my current trip, my pack has binoculars, DSLR camera and two lenses, laptop computer and power supply, a small bag with chargers for camera batteries and tablet, medical supplies, sunglasses, bird book and checklist, flashlight (I was once on an overnight flight where the light for my seat didn’t work), a small toiletry kit and a spare set of clothes (in case my luggage is delayed).
For the most part, the pack stays in the overhead bin for the flight but it is small enough to fit under the seat.  I also wear a small hip belt which contains a compact camera, spare camera batteries and flash cards, noise cancelling headphones (they work great on planes), and a 7” tablet.  On a tip from my daughter, I have attached a small carabiner to all of the zippers to make it more difficult for a pickpocket to get into the hip belt or the backpack.

Last year I travelled with an E-reader and enjoyed the convenience of having multiple books without the bulk.  I also travel with a smartphone and enjoy the connectivity and birding apps but was wishing for a bigger screen.  When I saw the Google Nexus 7, I figured it was just what I was looking for and bought one a few weeks ago.  I have loaded most of the same apps as on my phone and the big screen is wonderful.  I have also loaded copies of all my travel documents so that they are readily accessible.  The Nexus also functions as an e-reader (I can access all of my wife’s Kobo books) and gives me access to the internet.  I considered getting one with cellular data access but chose not to as the phone companies charge (at least Telus does) $15/month extra on your phone plan without giving you any more data.  The smartphone can act as a wi-fi source so the data option is not really needed.  The other tablet I considered was the Kobo Arc which has many of the same features at a slightly lower price.  I chose the Nexus because it also has Bluetooth and GPS (always nice to know where you are in a strange country!).  My phone also has GPS but I found out in China that the phone GPS did not work without cellular data.
As is common in Canada, my smartphone was locked so that I could only use it with Telus.  I like having a cell phone in a foreign country and often buy a cheap phone with 20-30 minutes of talk time.  I was exploring options to unlock the phone and was surprised to learn that Telus (for a fee) will unlock it.  Supposedly my phone is now unlocked and I will be able to purchase a SIM card in anywhere in the world.

My computer is a big, heavy model with a 15.6” screen – why do I choose to lug it around?  I like to edit my photos on the road and I found that a small, low resolution screen wasn’t satisfactory.  My laptop has a 1920 x 1080 HD screen and works great for photo editing (on the road and at home).  HD screens are now available on much lighter laptops but a new one isn’t in my budget.
Pack some back-up gear.  If you are doing a trip of a lifetime, you wouldn’t want it ruined by a malfunctioning camera or lost binoculars.  In Ethiopia a few years ago, my lens stopped working but fortunately I had a back-up.  Last year on one of our big year trips, one of the team left his binoculars in a restaurant and my spare pair was put to good use.  Back-ups also extends to credit and ATM cards ... travel plans can be disrupted if your card gets eaten by a machine!

If you have a travel tip that you'd like to share, leave a comment at the end of this posting.

Happy travels!



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