Travel gear is useful by design. But in talking with other travel professionals, I realized many of us have been reaching for something more when we grab our gear. For us, travel is not simply a hobby; it’s a vocation, and in some cases one that we’ve lost. These pieces of practicality provide a connection to our pre-pandemic lives and identity.
Here are a few of the ways travel pros have been using their gear to make lockdown life a little more manageable.
Entertaining the kids
“Success! There are quiet children in each of these tents,” my friend Lindsay Weber, an avid outdoorswoman and former rafting guide, wrote as the caption on a photo she posted on social media of a pair of tents in her living room. She lives in New York state with her husband and five of their seven children, and only a couple of weeks into quarantine, she had already discovered a new indoor purpose for her outdoor gear.
Jonathan Kingston, a National Geographic Image Collection photographer, also dusted off some travel gear to entertain his 2-year-old daughter, Keona. Kingston typically spends about 100 to 120 days a year on the road. But with expeditions canceled or postponed, his work has slowed while the expertise of his wife, Sarah, is even more in demand. “My wife is a rock star,” he says. “She works full-time as an epidemiologist and data scientist.”
Kingston’s time at home has given him an unexpected opportunity to create indoor adventures with Keona. “I was rooting around, trying to find something new that Keona hadn’t seen,” he says. He spotted his portaledge stashed with his travel gear.
A portaledge is a tent system that rock climbers attach to a rock face to allow them to sleep on multiday climbs. Kingston hung his portaledge from a ceiling anchor in the living room. “It was a hit,” he says, sharing a video of Keona squealing in delight while bouncing on the contraption.
Kingston also set up a bouldering crash pad — a foam mat used to soften a fall — at the base of the stairs so Keona can safely zip down a little indoor slide he added to the staircase.
It seems I’m not the only one trekking to the grocery store with a travel pack. Kellee Edwards, a licensed pilot and adventure travel TV host, says since the pandemic started, her waterproof Yeti backpack went from tropical adventure bag to urban grocery tote.
The sturdy design has protected her camera gear, computer and drone on numerous scuba diving and boating trips. These days, the valuables she carries inside are perishable goods. “It has a waterproof seal, and it keeps things cool for some time, so I’m not worried about things spoiling or spilling in that bag,” she says.
Torben Lonne, scuba diving expert and editor in chief of online scuba magazine DiveIn.com, grabbed his dive gear when the novel coronavirus started to spread in Denmark. “At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone was panicking, and we didn’t have masks,” he writes via email. “So, we wore our scuba diving gear, including air tanks, to a couple of grocery trips.” The motivation to suit up was born of both concern and the need for some laughs, he says. “It made for a fun little spectacle, and Danes tend to have a great sense of humor about these things.”
Professional big-wave surfer Koa Rothman, who frequently travels from his home in Hawaii to surf events around the world, always has a pareo, or sarong, in his travel bag. “I use it as a blanket, or tie it around my head to sleep on the plane,” he says. When Hawaii implemented face mask requirements for shared indoor places, Rothman says the masks weren’t widely available on-island. Fortunately, he had a collection of pareos from trips to Bali, Fiji and Tahiti to wrap around his face for protection.
Wayne Hubbard, TV host and producer of Urban American Outdoors, is accustomed to traveling multiple times per week to film his show and speak at events. But with more than 40 trips and events canceled, Hubbard has turned his attention to exploring hyper-locally instead. “I’m rediscovering my backyard and learning how to staycation,” he says.
He’s approaching each day like an adventure, dressing in outdoorsy apparel and carrying his camera bag — retrofitted with coronavirus necessities such as hand sanitizer — everywhere. “Now I’m like this urban garden guy,” he says, laughing. “I’m out there, wearing my drywick clothes that I would never normally wear at home, laying on the ground photographing plants in my new garden and rabbits in the grass.” By continually taking photos, he says, “I’m still discovering.”
Nikki Vargas, editor in chief of travel media company Unearth Women, has also been exploring her backyard through her camera lens. “At the start of the quarantine, I wanted to capture this surreal and historical moment in which New York had become a virtual ghost town,” she writes via email. “I brought my camera to photograph empty store shelves, lines outside grocery stores, pandemic signage posted around Astoria, even walking across the Queensboro bridge to photograph an empty Manhattan and virtually deserted Central Park.”
Seeking comfort, connection
At a time when hugs are off-limits and stress is high, we might be inclined to pull comforting items closer.
Despite living in Hawaii, I gravitated toward gear meant for warmth during the start of the pandemic — wearing my cozy wool mountaineering socks around the apartment and hiding out under an oversize shawl I had brought from Jordan. Edwards says she’s been snuggling up on the couch with her camping blanket — an item that she had previously used only in her travels. And Bruce Poon Tip, the founder of G Adventures, is finding comfort in jogger-style pants. “Pre-lockdown, they were strictly for flights, and they would be squirreled away as soon as I landed,” he writes via email. “But, they are all I have worn since March.”
Lola Akinmade Akerström, a travel writer and National Geographic photographer, says her children have also been wearing an item typically used only in-flight: the airline eye masks. “Here in Sweden as we’re heading into the summer, we sometimes get 16 to 20 hours of sunlight so my kids have started using the airplane’s eye covers,” she writes via email. Before the pandemic, blackout curtains would suffice, but now that her children are unable to travel, Akerström explains, they’ve started using the eye masks to re-create the feeling of sleeping on an airplane.
“There are certain things you use that are ingrained in who you are,” Edwards says. Even if she’s not using her travel items in the same way as she would on the road, “I can pick up any of them and connect a time, a story and a place to them,” she says. “So it’s natural to want to use them. It makes me feel connected to what I love to do.”
Fitzgerald is a writer and travel specialist based in Honolulu. Her website is thisissunny.com.