Here is a packing list for a five-day trip to France. A lot of this has stayed the same for years but there are a few developments that I wanted to talk about (below).
Boots (Timberland White Ledge)
Boxers (4) (2 Ibex and 2 Patagonia)
Poncho (Swiss Gear)
Shirt (T.M. Lewin)
Socks (4) (Patagonia, Smartwool, 2 generic)
Sweater (Uniqlo merino)
Tee shirts (3) (2 Icebreaker and Kaipara)
Pills (in CVS bottle)
Soap (Dove in Matador flatpak)
Monoscope in case (Muji)
Needle and thread
Swiss Army knife
Tent pegs (2)
Water filter (Sawyer)
Book (travel reference manual)
Pen (Fisher space pen)
Phones (2) (Apple) (one pictured)
Reservations and vaccinations
Sleeping bag (Brave Era)
Wallet with cash and cards
Backpack (Osprey stuff sack)
Day bag (Decathlon)
Toiletries bag (Matador)
Packing cube and little strap (Eagle Creek)
Zip pouch (Audeo)
I like this firesteel because you don’t have to look after it. If it gets wet or lies in your drawer for two years, it will still work fine when you need to get a fire going. I probably won’t need it for this trip but it’s lightweight and might come in handy.
It came with a little metal striker but I don’t use that anymore. I just use one of the extra blades on my Swiss Army knife.
Needle and thread
I’m doing a lot of sewing these days, which is very calming. I even sew up my socks, rather than throwing them away and buying new ones like I used to.
Packing cube as city bag
I’ll be taking trains and wandering around cities on this trip, in addition to hiking outdoors. In cities and trains, I like to have a separate bag for my tickets, phone, wallet, and earbuds, so that I don’t have to be constantly taking my backpack off. I have a shoulder bag that I could use but it’s kind of bulky – it’s a pain to jam into my backpack for the hiking portions.
So, instead, I have attached a little strap to an Eagle Creek packing cube and I’ll use this as my city bag. If this looks familiar to you, I’m pretty sure that this was a Gucci submission to the Milan fashion show a couple years ago.
The only place to fasten the strap was to the zipper pull. I think the chances of my phone falling out and smashing on the train tracks are about 30:70 but at least it looks good.
This list includes my first ever purchases from Patagonia: a pair of socks and a couple pairs of boxers. When I was reviewing packing lists more intensively last year, I came to the conclusion that Patagonia is some way ahead of everybody on environmentalism, which I guess is not really news to people who follow this. A lot of the start-up companies have good intentions but it takes a lot of skill and experience and money to produce clothes ecologically.
For instance, the start-ups might have some insight into some conscientious method – let’s say they figure out a way to produce shoes from plastic waste retrieved from the ocean. You might think that they will be better able to produce environmentally because they don’t already have commitments and existing contracts and revenue targets. They can start fresh and the entire project can be built from the ground up with an environmental focus. They’ll use best practices every step of the way.
But to be successful – to actually produce the shoe even before making any profit – you need to have a lot of money. You need to hire someone to physically make the shoes for one thing. It will probably be a factory and the factory will probably be in China which has great supply chains.
And so then you have to organize how to get the plastic out of the ocean and transform it into a shoe in China. And my impression is that it’s really hard to do that part of the process ecologically – there will be lots of chemical and physical waste, plus all the transportation. Every time you re-iterate the process, it will become more complicated and more harmful: the soles need to be made from petroleum after all, the factory is a big polluter in some unexpected way, the plastic retrieval method itself is surprisingly wasteful. It all adds up and pretty soon the project doesn’t look all that green after all. But at this point, you are already committed and can’t really back out or re-start – contracts, promises, employees.
Patagonia seems pretty good at this stuff after many years of boring skill-accumulation and relationship-building. Here are a couplestories from their blog, The Cleanest Line, for instance. I realize that a blog produced by a corporation is not the most reliable source but none of the other companies talk so candidly and technically about their impact.
Of course, buying used is better than Patagonia and buying nothing is best of all.
Poncho, paracord and tent pegs
My Swiss Gear poncho has grommets on the corners, so between the poncho, paracord and tent pegs, you’ve got yourself a pretty good emergency tent going. Also (and more frequently) a sun or rain protector or a picnic blanket.
Sawyer water filter
I bought this water filter because of this post on r/onebag.
I don’t use it that much – for me it’s mostly for the armchair glamour of imagining some disaster scenario where I end up needing to drink out of the toilet. Still, it’s very comforting to carry around and has been genuinely useful a couple times. It doesn’t take much space and could be a life-saver.
There are a couple other pieces of equipment that come in the box with this. One is a bag that you fill up with water and attach to the filter. That’s useful because – with this filter – water won’t flow through independently. You have to either squeeze it through with the bag or else suck it through the filter. I don’t bring the bag because I use the filter so infrequently. If I need it, I just screw it onto an ordinary water bottle or, if I’m really desperate, I can use it like a straw and suck water up from a container.
I’m discovering that the tops of bottles are pretty standardized: this filter screws onto most plastic and glass bottles that you buy in stores (at least in Europe).
The other thing they give you is a syringe to clean out (or “backwash”) the filter. Again, this is not worth the extra weight for this trip. I can clean the filter out when I get home. Or, if it gets really gunked up, I’ve found that I can clean it pretty effectively without the syringe by forcing water through it some other way – for instance, squeezing water through in the wrong direction.
Travel reference manual
I’m bringing a copy of the book I’ve been working on for this blog. I ordered some copies in what I hope will be the final form but they haven’t arrived yet, so this is an earlier wire-o version in A5. I was hoping to be all done in time for Christmas but the printing is taking longer than I expected, so we’ll see.
Washing and rewearing
What is the right amount to wash your clothes? On the one hand, washing your clothes has a big impact on the environment – maybe even more than the manufacture of the clothes in the first place. Moreover, doing laundry is a hassle, especially when you’re traveling. Not to mention that re-wearing things will help you in terms of packing and carrying. Finally, hundreds of generations before us survived okay without washing machines. Surely we wash clothes more than we really need to from a strict health perspective.
On the other hand, no one wants to be a slob. A colleague of mine who dresses really well says he does it out of thoughtfulness for the people who have to look at him all day long. I thought that was a nice way to look at it and I’ve definitely been victim and perpetrator from time to time.
The consensus on the internet seems to be that you should wash your underclothing every day at a minimum. In fact, that seems to have been the rule for a couple hundred years, at least for those who could afford to.
For other clothing, it seems like the advice is to just be reasonable – buy good fabrics, spot clean when you can, and keep an eye out. Then chuck it in the washing machine when it’s dirty.
For this five-day trip, I’m only packing three days’ worth of clothes. I’ll do a sink wash in the middle.
I set out to find the single best shoe for men to wear when traveling. I searched the internet immensely for the answer – I looked for best travel shoe, best overall shoe, best shoe, what’s hot now, what are the all time classic shoes. I looked at the Reddit forums, professional shoe sites, other packing blogs, professional review sites that occasionally cover shoes, ordinary customer reviews. I reduced everything to a score and put it all into a spreadsheet to see how it stacked up.
I ended up with a list of 178 individual men’s shoes made by 93 different shoe companies. There were sneakers, boots, sandals and Oxfords; space age Nikes and traditional shoes unchanged in hundreds of years; steel-reinforced clompers and shoes weighing a mere 290 grams.
From this list, with the help of my rankings, I made a long list of twenty shoes:
Adidas NMD R1
Allbirds wool runners
Birkenstock Arizona Sandal
Clark’s Desert Boot
Cole Haan Zerogrand
Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars
Danner Mountain 600
Lems 9 to 5
Moto plain toe Oxford
New Balance Minimus Trail 10
Red Wing Iron Ranger
Timberland White Ledge
Vivobarefoot Ra II
I looked in depth at these twenty shoes. I looked at the individual reviews for each of these shoes to learn if people like the shoe on a basic level and what were the specific complaints. I looked at whether the shoes were ethically made and what they are made from. I looked at the history of the shoe, its durability, its price. I looked at the features of the shoe and assessed how versatile it would be – if you could wear it for any situation. In my spreadsheet, I included all this extra data and ended up with a short list of six shoes:
Adidas NMD R1
Allbirds wool runners
Cole Haan Zerogrand
Red Wing Iron Ranger
Vivobarefoot Ra II
Of these, the Vivobarefoot Ra II seems to me to be the best travel shoe and scored highest in my rankings. That is the shoe I chose for my packing list.
Conflicts. None of the links in this post are paid links. However, certain of the links in my packing lists – including the link to the Vivobarefoot Ras – are Amazon affiliate links. I will receive a commission if you click these links and/or buy the shoes through that link.
If you’re here, you’re probably looking to buy a new pair of shoes. However, let me briefly advocate for that favorite pair of shoes currently in your closet. That pair fits you perfectly and doesn’t hide some defect that will surface when you’re a thousand miles from home. That pair is free and much better for the environment than even the most sustainably-produced new shoes: making that shoe requires no processing or chemical waste, no animals are harmed, the carbon released in delivering them to you is zero, and keeping that pair on your feet means two fewer shoes in the landfill.
With that said, at some point everybody does need new shoes and, if that’s where you are right now, it makes sense to choose a really great pair that you will love and wear until they are full of holes. As I say, I’ve tried to go through everything on the internet to try to find the best pair of all-around men’s shoes if you only buy one pair.
From my r/onebag spreadsheets, I know that there are four broad types of shoes that onebaggers pack: (a) sneakers, (b) office shoes, (c) hiking boots, and (d) sandals.
Sandals are generally brought as the second shoe in a packing list – that is, a lot of guys will wear, say, a boot most of the time but pack a pair of sandals for the shower or the beach. It’s a large minority of men that do this – I think 22 of 77 men’s packing lists that I’ve reviewed through June – but a minority nevertheless. For this post, I won’t be looking at that option – I’ll be assuming that you bring one and only one pair of footwear with you. So, in addition to spare-sandal-packers, this also excludes all those men who bring two pairs of shoes, like a pair of sneakers for working out and a pair of nice shoes for dinner and sightseeing. An even smaller percentage in my lists bring two or more pairs of non-sandal shoes – probably less than 10%.
Sandals are not always brought as the second pair and there are a few high performance sandals like the Xero Z trail that people will use as their one and only shoe. Indeed, there are some destinations where you will stand out if you’re not wearing sandals. As a result, a couple pairs of sandals made my long list. It’s an outside position though and, by the time my short list was ready, all the sandals had been eliminated.
That leaves sneakers, work shoes and hiking boots as the main categories. The merits of these three camps is a frequent topic of discussion on r/onebag and people are fairly religious. You can’t really convince a Nike Free devotee to switch over to Lems 9 to 5s.
Speaking for myself, when I was younger I wore sneakers – Adidas Sambas – exclusively. At that time, finding pickup soccer games was of outsize importance to me and, besides, I didn’t go anywhere where Sambas would raise any eyebrows. Now that I’m older, however, I want a pair of shoes that’s appropriate for work and nicer restaurants. I’m not too concerned about pick-up soccer these days, although I still need to walk long distances.
Ideally, there would be a shoe that combines all these categories: a shoe that performs like a mountain boot but looks like an elegant work shoe and that you can also play pick-up soccer in.
There are some shoes that aim to do this or almost do this. In particular, this seems to be the transparent ambition of the Cole Haan Zerogrand. It has the sole of a sneaker but a leather upper. If you get it in all-black and sort of squint at it, then people might think that you are wearing swish office Oxfords. Zerogrand is on the short list but ultimately I concluded that it’s a sneaker and a little outlandish for work.
Maybe there is no single shoe that does everything – a shoe that’s elegant and good-for-walking but also good for high impact sports. A few people I have talked to have dismissed the idea that you might travel with one pair of shoes and look even minimally appropriate. This was true in my initial google searches too. I wanted lists of the best all-around shoe but google kept pointing me towards lists of the best running shoe for short distances, best hiking boot, etc. It was really hard to find someone saying that one shoe in particular was better than all the other shoes.
I think we’re all being pushed in the direction of more and more shoes. Presumably, humanity went hundreds of thousands of years with zero shoes and then invented the shoe around 8000 or 7000 BC and then for a few thousand years everyone had one pair of shoes each. Surely the shoes of our ancestors were good enough for whatever it was that came up: a few scuffles, a ton of walking, wine-and-cheese evenings, etc.
It’s someone’s job to grow the shoe market and part of that job is to convince us that we will look like a fool if we show up to a formal business meeting in a business casual shoe. It’s like Thorstein Veblen is always saying “[o]ur dress, therefore, in order to serve its purpose effectually, should not only be expensive, but it should also make plain to all observers that the wearer is not engaged in any kind of productive labor.”
So I think, contrary to marketing, it’s fine to expect your shoe to be appropriate for the full gamut of human activities and that it’s actually a pretty new idea to think we must wear different shoes for hiking and going to church.
For me, the simple, minimal Ra is that single shoe that accomplishes all your main human activities tolerably well. If you’re not office shoe inclined, I think any of the shoes in the shortlist would be fine as your one and only pair of shoes.
The Ra II is simple and elegant. It was mentioned favorably in A Brother Abroad’s shoe write-up and also in a dedicated shoe discussion r/onebag run by u/spivliv.
Based on those recommendations, I’ve read and watched substantially all the reviews of this shoe out there on the internet. The consensus is overwhelmingly positive. The most frequent comment is that the Ra is a good all-around shoe, that it’s versatile. People agree that the shoes are comfortable and well-designed and most people think that they look good in all casual and business-casual settings. Several of the reviewers wore the shoes all day for months at a time with not much soreness or discomfort.
Reddit. None of the 77 men’s packing lists I looked at included the Ras, although a similar Vivobarefoot shoe, the Gobi II desert boot, was brought by three men. No other individual shoe had more than this, although the Adidas NMD also had three.
The Vivobarefoot Gobis also have very positive reviews and the Gobis were close to being my top choice. The Gobis and Ras seem very similar: they are made from the same materials (including “”wild hide” Ethiopian leather) in the same place and they look pretty much the same. The main difference is that the Ra is a low cut blucher and the laces look a little different. I eventually opted for the Ra instead of the Gobi because I think the low cut is more versatile – I think it looks better with shorts and suits. It also looks like it would be a little more secure when tied.
Complaints. Although the consensus was positive, there were complaints too. The negatives in order of frequency were:
Looks. The Ra looks very casual when placed next to a beautifully crafted shoe like an Oxford from Moto. Also, the Ra has a very wide toe box, which is good for your feet but looks clownish. Some people wore the Ras to weddings, while others said they wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that.
Durability. The Ras look quite tattered after a few months and pick up dust easily.
Ethics. My impression is that Vivobarefoot is a highly ethical company but I’m not that confident in my research in this area.
I used the same research process on each of the twenty companies that made my long list, which included the following things: I read the company’s own sustainability page, I did a general google search of their ethics, I looked if and how they were rated on the two un-paywalled ethics rating sites I have found – Good on You and the Australian Shop Ethical – and I looked to see if they were members of two ethical manufacturing clubs – the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the Leather Working Group. If there was any information on the particular shoe itself, I factored that in, including materials that I recognized as particularly sustainable or unsustainable. At the end of all this, I assigned that company’s shoe a score out of twenty based on my impressions.
But, as Immanuel Kant said in Metaphysics of Morals, ethics are always mega mega complicated and even more so where shoes are concerned. For most of these companies, the manufacturing process has become highly complex across many countries. Several shoe companies have shoes that are made from recycled materials, like plastic bottles for instance – but remember that a lot of processing is required to turn a plastic bottle into a shoe – a lot of chemicals, a lot of energy. Bamboo, for instance, used to be hailed as a highly sustainable material but recently people are questioning if the manufacturing process is sustainable even if the bamboo itself is a nice, plentiful, natural resource.
There are attempts, like the Higg Sustainability Index, to decide which materials are ethical and which unethical. Again, it’s complicated because these shoes are mostly made out of many materials, which I mostly can’t place on the index. If you’re interested in the materials, according to this article, hemp and linen are better than most materials. The Vivobarefoot Gobi has a hemp edition, which looks interesting.
There are endless complications. The environmental impact of shoes includes release of pollutants, deforestation, overuse of water, use of fossil fuels, use of pesticides, etc. It’s not just the environment that is a concern but also treatment of animals and labour. We should really consider the environmental impact as the shoes are manufactured but also what happens when we throw them away.
All the big companies, like Nike and Adidas, seem to put a good amount of resources towards improving their operations but my impression, mostly confirmed by Good On You and Shop Ethical, is that the big companies are not usually the best. There is inevitably a large amount of pollution when you’re producing millions of shoes inexpensively.
The sustainability darling of the companies I reviewed seems to be Allbirds, for whom sustainability is central and ingrained. Allbirds shows up in everyone’s list of ecological shoe companies. Other shoes that get mentioned a lot in a favorable way (as much as Allbirds and more than Vivobarefoot) are Rothy’s and Everlane.
Vivobarefoot seems pretty ethical. The founder, Galahad Clark, is a member of the Clark Shoes family dynasty and he tells a pretty good story about starting Vivobarefoot along principled ecological lines.
As for the Ras specifically, they are made of leather, which is itself another a complicated ethical issue. The Ras are made of leather from Ethiopian cows, which they claim is ethically raised for meat, making the leather for the shoes a mere byproduct.
Barefoot. These are barefoot shoes: there’s no cushioning, just a thin strip of tough rubber. The claim is that these types of shoes are better for your feet than heavily structured and cushioned shoes – that they actually reduce the amount of foot and leg injuries.
I’ve switched over to barefoot shoes for running and I believe all the hype. I run a little more gingerly than I did in my Asics. I slowed down when I was switching over but now I don’t have to cut my runs short or run slower because my feet hurt. I think that barefoot is a better, healthier, more natural way to run.
Moreover, I think barefoot shoes are aligned with this packing list project too – simple, no-frills and minimalistic.
Not everyone will like the Ras and the following five shoes have the highest ratings on my spreadsheet after the Ras.
Adidas was the most popular brand in the Reddit packing lists: 10 of 77 Redditors packed some kind of Adidas. And, of those 10, the NMD was the most popular individual Adidas shoe with 3 Redditors.
The “NMD” stands for “nomad” which I think aligns pretty well with the onebag aesthetic. This shoe is supposed to marry new technology with a slightly retro or classic look. The reviewers like this shoe and they think it is very comfortable. Some of the pure running shoe sites criticize its performance as a running shoe but I expect that it is more athletic than most of the shoes on my list. If you’re a professional marathon runner, you probably won’t buy this shoe for training.
The Allbirds were second place in my rankings behind Vivobarefoot. They were mentioned by four packing / travel blogs. Three of 77 people in r/onebag included some kind of Allbirds in their packing lists, one for Wool Runners, one for Tree Skippers and one person didn’t specify.
Reviews for Allbirds range from positive to ecstatic. The Wool Runners are very light and very comfortable, they can be washed in the washing machine, they can be worn without socks, they’re produced very conscientiously, and they look pretty good – all around they are a great shoe choice for onebaggers and for everybody.
They are second in my rankings because they’re a little less versatile than the Ras. They are a clear sneaker and you couldn’t really wear them to a button-down office or with a suit. Like the Ras, there is a durability issue – they look quite tired after a couple months’ steady use. Here is a recent r/onebag discussion of Allbirds against Vivobarefoot in which the Gobis / Ras come out pretty well.
I myself have a pair of these and I like them. My complaints are that they now they have a bit of a stench no matter how many times I wash them and they’re not great for walking long distances.
As I say above, Allbirds are leading the pack for sustainability among the shoes discussed here. They scored a stand-out “B” rating at Shop Ethical, their sustainability page is excellent and even the packaging is minimal and eco-friendly.
As discussed above, the Zerogrand wingtip oxford approaches our sneaker / work shoe problem directly: it’s a fancy Oxford upper grafted on to a obvious sneaker sole. It was identified by three separate blogs as a good option, although no one on r/onebag brought this shoe.
The reviews generally agree that the Zerogrand is comfortable and works well as a running shoe. It had a good popular reception with 2.8 million pairs sold in the first year. However, like me, some reviewers thought that the Zerogrand is on the outer limits of good taste and might well fade quickly. Cole Haan seems about average in terms of sustainability.
The Merrell Moab was mentioned by six of the websites I read but none of the 77 Redditors brought this.
The individual reviews I read were generally favorable and, if you favor boots over sneakers or work shoes, then I think this will be a good option. The consensus is that it’s a tough, comfortable shoe. Price is not heavily weighted in my rankings but, for what it’s worth, this is the least expensive of the six shortlist shoes at around €106. There’s a huge range of Moabs, including a brown leather version (pictured) that I think is pretty presentable. Some of the other options look like they’d be out of place unless you’re on a hiking trail.
The downside of the Moab is that it’s a big boot. It’s not great for just chilling in city cafes or the office or going to the beach. Specific complaints from the reviews are that it’s not breathable enough and it’s not great for running. Also, Merrell is not good at shipping outside of the US.
Merrell seems good in terms of sustainability – I would say that it’s in the top 20% of the companies I looked at.
There is a subreddit called r/goodyearwelt that is devoted to boots and shoes (“goodyear welting” is a way to fasten the upper to the sole invented in 1869). The r/goodyearwelt Redditors are interested in classic shoes using techniques honed over many years. They have a beginners guide listing out the shoes they recommend, with the cheapest being a couple hundred dollars all the way up to Vibergs for more than $700.
I included a few brands recommended by r/goodyearwelt on my long list – Danner, Moto, Red Wing and White’s – which looked good to me. None of these goodyearwelt shoes made it on to my list using my original search methods. That is, they’re not too popular among the ultralight travelers in Reddit or the listicles I read or the blogs. The one exception was Danner which was mentioned by a couple sources.
I wanted to include a goodyearwelt shoe on this list because I think it might be a good option for some people. They’re beautifully made, classic shoes that last for years and years. All the companies have compelling histories – Red Wing supplied shoes to American troops in the world wars. If you’re only going to own one pair of shoes, you could do worse than the ones on the r/goodyearwelt list.
Of the four goodyearwelt brands I looked at carefully, Red Wing seemed like a good choice and I think the Iron Ranger boot is Red Wing’s signature shoe. It seems to be the favorite of the subreddit with many glowing personal reviews.
The drawback to the Iron Ranger – and all these goodyearwelt shoes – is that they are big and heavy, clunky: a great big chonk of shoe. They mostly don’t go with shorts or the beach and I expect they’re quite uncomfortable in hot weather. Some of them do have rubber soles like Vibram but I think you’d be hard-pressed to play sports in these. They are also expensive – €278 for these and it’s easy to spend more than that on the other brands.
But they’re great for hiking and outdoors work and look great – better every year. I think there is a good sustainability case to be made for proper shoes too. They are made by artisans, using traditional methods and natural materials. I think there is some evidence that these shoes are sustainable simply because people have been making them in this way for hundreds of years. The idea is not that you wear them for a year and throw them away but that you repair them and this alone is a huge improvement in terms of sustainability.
Thank you for reading. Please get in touch with any questions or comments.
I’ve made this methodology to try to select the best items to bring when traveling around with one bag. The first step is reading a bunch of critical rankings on the internet, basically trying to decide what is the best item according to professional critics. Then I look at which items were selected by the most people on the subreddits r/onebag and r/heronebag, which I’ve been following since the year began. Finally, I look at a few other things like how easy that item is to pack. I give each item a score out of a hundred and whatever scores highest goes into my packing lists.
I’ve now used this methodology on headphones / earphones with the result that I’ve added the Bose 700 headphones for women and the AirPods Pro earbuds for men. I considered just making one choice for men and women but I’ve been reading recently about how everything tends to be designed for men and not women: seat belts, apartments, etc. It seems to me that men and women might well have different preferences in terms of headphones too: differently-shaped ears and heads, maybe different hearing range.
To try to reflect these potential gender preferences, my men’s and women’s choices have different inputs. My Reddit spreadsheets are separate for men and women and so I kept them separate here: the men lean towards the Airpods and the women lean towards Bose and that is reflected in my headphone selection. I also looked at a few internet lists of the best headphones / earphones “for women” and included those choices alongside the other internet lists. There are no equivalent internet lists of the best headphones “for men”, so the analysis for men just relies on the generic lists that are aimed at everybody.
So the result was the Bose headphones for the women and the Airpods earbuds for the men. At first I was skeptical about the Bose headphones because they’re pretty bulky and the whole idea here is to pack light. But the sound quality and comfort of the Bose are much better than any earbuds and it’s clear from Reddit that a lot of onebaggers – both men and women – are bringing real headphones, rather than earbuds in spite of how bulky they are.
Anecdotally, this aligns with my wife and me. I want to pack really light, so I just want a pair of earbuds that works reliably. It’s too annoying to wear the earbuds for the whole of a long flight, so I’ll just switch over to doing something else after a while. My wife, on the other hand, uses headphones at home and for work, so she wants a good, comfortable experience. She doesn’t mind the extra size and weight; she just wears them around her neck on travel days.
To explain the methodology in more detail, I’ve identified seven factors that are important to me when choosing items for my bag and I’ve assigned each of these seven factors a share of 100 – an item that is perfect in every way and also free would get a score of 100. The seven factors (with the points assigned) are:
Professional reviews (30 points)
Reddit preferences (20)
A. Professional reviews (30 points total) (15 points for individual item and 15 points for brand)
I read a number of professional (or at least heavily committed) earphone recommendations on the internet, like Wirecutter, CNET, and The Guardian. There are a lot of these out there and a lot of them are very specific, like the “Best Wired Earbuds for Audiophiles”. For my purposes, I really wanted just one central list, staying agnostic about headphones or earbuds, good for jogging or targeting audiophiles. I just wanted the best overall headphones. At first, I tried excluding the lists like Best Wired Earbuds for Audiophiles in favor of simple best-overall lists. But there weren’t really enough best-overall lists, so I went in the opposite direction and just included everything.
I ended up reading ten lists that seemed pretty well-researched and reliable and the ten lists made a total of 93 recommendations. I didn’t set out with that number in mind but that was the point where the lists seemed to degrade pretty significantly. Below that the writing is poor, there is no discussion of methodology, you sense a bunch of undisclosed interests, etc. I’m sure I missed plenty of legitimate lists too (including anything behind a paywall) but I decided to call it a day after ten lists.
I gave each list the same weight except that Wirecutter does have a best-overall category and then a bunch of earbuds-for-audiophiles, etc. entrants and plus I like Wirecutter a lot. So two Wirecutter reviews went in.
I gave every positive recommendation one point each, regardless if it was the number one choice on that list or number three or the best wired earbuds for audiophiles , etc.
As noted above, I also looked up a couple reviews that were specially dedicated to women (again they seemed to drop off in quality after that). So, in this category, the men’s list is based on ten sites while the women’s is based on twelve.
The top performers in the women’s list were:
Bose 700 (the critical choice 6 times out of a total of 112)
Sony WH1000xm3 (5)
AirPods Pro (4) (tied)
Powerbeats Pro (4) (tied)
Jabra Elite 75t (4) (tied)
In the men’s list (relying on only ten reviews), Bose and Powerbeats both lost one vote.
I ultimately want this to show a score out of 15 because I’ve allocated 15 points out of a hundred to this factor. I’m not sure if this is the right way to do it but I scaled the score out of 112 to a 15 point scale … so the Bose with 6 votes out of 112 was is now worth 0.8036. However, that number is too low because this is the key factor and I want it to be worth some significant number out of 15. So I just multiplied 0.8036 by 15. Now the Bose scores about 12 out of 15, the Sony about 10, etc. I’m not sure what the rigorous way to do this would be – I just multiplied by 15 because that gave me about the weighting I wanted.
The individual performance tells only part of the story however. I also want to factor in the total score for the brand. For Jabra, for instance, in addition to the Elite 75t, there were votes for the Elite 65t, the 85h and three other models. So I think it makes sense to capture a score for the brand, especially where votes are diluted across near-substitutes like they were for Jabra. Therefore, from the 30 points allotted to professional reviews, 15 are for the individual model and 15 are for the brand.
The brand scores for the women’s headphones were:
Beats (12) (tied)
Jabra (12) (tied)
And the men’s brand scores were:
Those weightings are about what I want out of 15, so I didn’t do any scaling or multiplying for these numbers – I just entered them like this.
B. Reddit score
Since January, I’ve been looking at every packing list posted on the Reddit subs r/onebag and r/heronebag. Through April, 21 of 41 women included headphones or earphones in their packing lists and 14 of these women named the brand that they brought. The top five choices were:
Beats (1) (tied)
Several other brands (1) (tied)
On the men’s side, through April, 46 of 68 men said they packed headphones and 38 named a brand. The top brands were:
Apple (10 of 38)
Beats (4) (tied)
Bose (4) (tied)
Not many people specified the exact model of earphones in their packing list, and so I’ll just stay on the brand level for this. I’m also going to ditch all the other brands at this point. I want the final choice to be a popular choice with critics and with Reddit and there seems to be a good amount of consensus now. Even if Taotronics hits it out of the park on the remaining categories, I’d still worry that they are not good enough in terms of pure quality.
I’ve allocated 20 points to the Reddit score. I did the same complicated scaling to 20 and then multiplied that score by 3.
As I develop my packing list, it seems like a good opportunity to learn about how these items are produced and what best practices are in terms of sustainability. I suspect some people won’t be so interested in this metric (especially with respect to electronics) and this might ruin the rankings a little bit. But I’d like to end this whole process with a packing list that’s relatively conscientious towards the environment, animals and workers – or at least be a little better informed about that stuff – and so I’ve included it here for the time being.
There is quite a lot of thought given about sustainability in clothing but much less so for the electronics industry. I bet that all of the headphones in my list are pretty bad for the environment from digging up the minerals to assembling the product to chucking them into the landfill when they break or go obsolete. I think my final scores should be pretty low out of 20 but I could be wrong.
I found an old Greenpeace report that grades electronics companies from A to F and a current website called Shop Ethical!that does something similar. So I scaled these grades out of 20 and added their average score. I then added that amount to the scores of the headphones in my list.
The two sources I found don’t cover all the companies in my list. The companies that weren’t covered nevertheless get a score of 0. This means that a company that gets a grade “D” for environmental practices scores better (2 points) than a smaller company for which I have no information. I’m okay with this because I think being included on these lists is a good step in itself and we can’t really improve anything until we have this kind of information.
On this metric, Apple gets an additional 5.5 points for having B- / C grades on these websites and Sony gets 1 point (Sony got 2 points at Greenpeace and 0 points for grade “F” at Shop Ethical!). No one else gets any points as they aren’t listed.
I also looked on the website of each brand for some kind of corporate statement saying that they are doing good things for sustainability. Some of the pages were really excellent with analysis, data and demonstrations, some were polite blather, some were not even that. For the companies that had plausible sustainability information (which were all five of my contenders), I gave an extra point. Again, a very imperfect system but I feel okay about it.
So, in conclusion, Apple alone picks up serious points (6.5) in terms of sustainability. Maybe this doesn’t jibe with everything we’ve heard about Foxconn, etc. but I suspect the other electronics companies are as bad as or worse than Apple. Apple’s sustainability page is the slickest of all, for what it’s worth.
If you’re interested in sustainable electronics, Fairphone came up a few times but the most ethical option is still just not buying headphones.
I’ve assigned 10 points to “fit” by which I mean both:
Is this product light and small and easy to pack; and
Does it fit in with the other products here?
Part (2) is mostly an issue for clothes; I’m not too worried about my headphones clashing with my pants.
Part (1) is a big differentiator however. As I say, I was pretty skeptical that ultralight travelers would put up with headphones like the Bose or Sony but that’s what kept coming through on the Reddit packing lists.
Still, I doubt there’s another product where the contenders are at these extremes of packability. So I’ve given both the over-ear headphones (Bose and Sony) 1 point and all the earbuds (Apple, Beats and Jabra) 9 points.
By versatility, I mean that the items are useful for different situations: shoes that are okay for hiking and for dinner, scarves that double as towels.
For headphones, I thought that this would turn on whether they have a microphone (so you can take calls on them) or not but it turns out that all of these earphones and headphones have microphones included, so I guess that must be standard now for high-end headphones.
The Bose and Sony also have high quality noise cancellation according to the reviews, which I counted as an extra feature. I scored the Bose and Sony at 7 (out of 10) and the Apple, Beats and Jabra at 5.
Availability means that it’s easy to purchase and receive throughout the world. I’ve tried to buy a lot of travel gear that doesn’t deliver where I am or only with lots of taxes and customs, which is pretty frustrating. Like sustainability, I don’t think of this metric as much of a crowd-pleaser and I’ve only assigned it five points here. But I’d really like my packing lists to be useful wherever you are looking at my website from and so I’m going to factor it in.
I had complicated ideas about setting up VPNs and going through a few purchasing steps pretending to be in different countries but then I got lazy and just looked at their delivery pages. They are all big multinational companies and it looks like they can deliver most places. Jabra alone seemed a little more limited. I gave Jabra 4 points and the others the maximum 5.
Finally, I gave the items extra points for being inexpensive. Cost should also be reflected in the Reddit score and in the professional reviews. Moreover, cost isn’t the biggest factor for me, not because I’m so very rich, but more that I feel that part of the onebagging philosophy is buying good-quality items that might be expensive. I only allocated a total of five points to cost.
With that said, headphones are more expensive than I remember! To assign a score, I used $50 increments, so anything $50 and under is 5 points, under $100 is 4 points, etc.
Apple $249 (1)
Beats $249.95 (1)
Bose $399.95 (0)
Jabra $179.99 (2)
Sony $349.99 (0)
Here are the final scores:
Bose 700 – 54.2 / 100
Apple AirPods Pro – 53.4
Powerbeats Pro – 45.3
Sony wh1000xm3 – 42.6
Jabra Elite 75t – 41.0
Apple Airpods Pro – 57.0 / 100
Sony wh1000xm3 – 47.1
Beats Powerbeats Pro – 43.6
Jabra Elite 75t – 43.3
Bose 700 – 40.4
The main difference between men and women is Reddit, where the men leaned heavily toward the Airpods and the women toward the Bose.
I don’t have any vested interest in these headphones – I don’t get paid if you click on the links or buy the products, no advertising or relationship with the companies. I do have a few paid affiliate links in the main packing lists (all the Amazon links), so I guess I’m trying to cross-sell you. However, I’ve made less than $10 total on this so far, so at least I have the decency to be unsuccessful with it.
Edit: I posted this on Reddit and got some interesting replies. In particular, some people said that they packed the predecessor to the Bose 700, the Bose QuietComfort, because they fold up and the 700s don’t. I would have tried to address that in this post if I’d realized that. I think that the public reviews are still pretty settled on the 700, so they are probably better sound quality. I’m not going to change my pick for now but just so you know.