I guess you want to know who Erica Ho is.

Erica Ho is a former reporter for TIME in Hong Kong and former geek at Gizmodo and Lifehacker. Her work has also appeared in CNN, Yahoo!, MSN, Mashable, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler and Quartz to name a few places. She has traveled over half a million miles and been on every continent except Antarctica.

Erica Ho

Review: The Patagonia Stormfront Is One Badass Bitch Backpack

  Erica Ho   3 minute read

Do you know that moment when you are thinking, god, my backpack is completely covered in mud and there is THOUSANDS of dollars of gear inside but we are going to hose it off with a blast of water like nobody’s business?

I do not. I am not that brave. But one of our reviewers, professional photographer Cam Camarena, was certainly brave enough to put enough trust in the Patagonia Stormfront to do exactly that. He also didn’t kill me for ruining all of his gear, so let’s take the fact we’re getting around to reviewing this as a good sign.

The Patagonia Stormfront 30L’s purpose doesn’t revolve around dominating the boardroom; it’s about dominating Mother Nature. Patagonia’s Stormfront pack is unique in the fact that it claims to be 100% waterproof, with the highest level of protection possible. At $299, there are definitely cheaper bags on the market, but for heavy-grade adventure stuff, most people will be thankful for the protection at the end of the day.

This bag definitely serves a very, very specific market, so if you’re just cavorting around Europe, there are better options available,. For travelers who prefer less extreme activities, there are many other bags that fit the bill and get the job done just fine. 

But if you’re gonna go off-roading for nine days on a motorbike through northern Vietnam—which we did, and what we put this bag through quite possibly legitimately qualifies as abuse—this bag is a much better fit. That or climbing Mount Everest.

Abuse, reuse.

Sizing up the bag and bag construction

The Patagonia Stormfront 30L is a good-sized bag for a decently substantial trip. In this case, we took for a decent two weeks around Southeast Asia including a nine-day motorcycle ride around the countryside 

For the most part, we are fans of the 30L sizeTK. It measures 20 inches x 12 inches x 9 inches (50.8 cm x 30.4 cm x 22.8 cm).

It is also super light, weighing 1 pound, 13 ounces (822 grams), and strikes a great compromise between durability and portability. Anything that weighs under 2 pounds is amazing in my book. Because we all know every time another pound is added to a bag or a suitcase, a kitten dies. That’s a truth, not an alternative fact.

Its base materials consist of 800-denier nylon with a single-side thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) coating to prevent prevent oil, grease and normal, abrasive wear and tear. It is also finished with a durable water repellent finish. Its got a great feel and inspires a lot of confidence that it can hold up to a lot of abuse—and indeed, it can.

These zippers do not kid around.

Part of its great waterproofness lies in its high-grade gas-, pressure- and watertight Tizip zippers, which are not just used in rugged, functional backpacks, but diving suits, chemical protection and gas protection suits, among other things. Lubricant is also provided for the zippers (it is suggested they get a good rub every couple of months); this is serious stuff. 

(Zippers are the one thing we tend to pay attention to a lot when it comes to bags—and most people rarely check—because they literally make or break a bag if they’re not up to snuff and snag.)

Organization, structure, and how it plays out

It is when it it comes to the organization and structure of the Patagonia Stormfront, there’s not a ton of things to write home about. In general, there is one small front pocket and the rest of the bag opens up to one giant, main compartment. The main compartment has a smaller pocket alongside the back to store and secure more important belongings. 

On the exterior of the bag, there are loops on either side to secure items that may need to be accessed more often (one loop on the left side, two perforated loops used for rods on the right side). These can be used for a multitude of items. 

(Camarena noted that he used the left loop to attach keys, the right loops for a water bottle and beach mat. Another reviewer has noted he was able to add “a few kilos” through that. In metric speak, a kilo is about 2.2 pounds, so that’s a couple of decent extra pounds.) 

 Often weight tends to have an inverse relationship with a bag’s structure: Organization come at a price. Partially, in fault, because the bag is so light, weighing in under 2 pounds, there is not a ton of structure beyond the padded shoulder harness, back straps and removable waist belt. 

The padding and mesh are all materials conducive to breathing well, and there wasn’t a ton of (if any) back sweat to report back on.

Hip and shoulder straps.

In fact, its main weakness does lie in its lack of organization (some people could see this flexibility as a pro), and it is further compounded by the fact that there are no adjustable compression straps on the side, which would pull the pack in and help hold the contents in place if it’s not especially full. 

In general, Camarena noted that he wished the bag had a little bit more interior organization, noting he eventually removed his laptop from the Stormfront to prevent it from sliding around. Things do get kinda crazy in there.

Hauling it around on the back of a motorcycle

Zipping around northern Vietnam.

Though it was taken for quite a ride throughout Southeast Asia, the main test of the Patagonia Stormfront came during a eight-day motorcycle ride.

Here’s what we shoved comfortably in the bag:

  • Four day’s worth of clothes
  • Toiletry/DOPP bag
  • Sony RX 100
  • 15-inch laptop
  • GoPro and accessories
  • Water bottle 
  • Beach mat
  • Flip flops
  • Passport, wallet, keys

Basically, it suffered through approximately 11,121 miles (17,899 km)1 over almost a full month period from Dec. 29 to Jan. 30. this past winter. And it got the full treatment through rivers, lakes, and muddy rice paddies.

Said if he’d take the bag again? Camarena answers it this way: “It sure is a hell of a lot cheaper to buy a $300 bag than replace $1500 of new gear, that’s for sure.” 

These Postal Services Will Check Your (Snail) Mail While You’re Gone

  Erica Ho   3 minute read

Become reeeeeally good friends with your roommate. Or work those blood-related connections (and change all those addresses to their home). But paying for a service is also an option.

It turns out there are quite a few mail services out there that will check snail mail, scan it online and then will handle any logistics once you’re not physically present to deal with any issues. As an added bonus, some of these places will even forward mail internationally, deposit checks (that’s extra, of course) and hold physical mail for a time.

Prices range: There are free options and go all the way up to $100 per month, so do expect to pay for a decent service. On average, the price for a plan hovered around $38.53 per month.

One thing to keep in mind is the difference between envelope scans, open and scan requests and page scan requests. Envelope scans refer to scanning the front envelope, open and scan requests can include its full contents and numerous pages (though do read the fine print) while page scan requests are limited at that exact number of pages. The only one that goes by page scans is Traveling Mailbox.

For the record, opening up someone else’s mail without their permission is a federal offense punishable up to five years in prison, according to 18 U.S. Code § 1702. I mean, at least until Trump revokes that law too, but whatever.

Comparison of all services.

Plan Name Monthly Cost Mail & Packages Received Open & Scan Requests Physical Mail Storage
USPS Informed Delivery $0.00 10 0 None
PostScan Mail Starter $14.95 30 10 30 days
PostScan Mail Standard $24.95 100 40 30 days
PostScan Mail Premium $49.95 200 100 30 days
Scan Mailboxes Basic $15.00 30 5 60 days for envelopes, 14 days for packages
Scan Mailboxes Standard $25.001 100 30 60 days for envelopes, 14 days for packages
Scan Mailboxes Premium $50.002 200 75 60 days for envelopes, 14 days for packages
Scan Mailboxes Diamond $100.003 300 175 60 days for envelopes, 14 days for packages
Traveling Mailbox Basic $15.00 40 35 4 60 days
Traveling Mailbox Extended $25.00 100 80 5 60 days
Traveling Mailbox Small Business $55.00 200 180 6 60 days
Earth Class Mail Residential $49.00 10 10 30 days

USPS Informed Delivery

The USPS is not dead. It’s not dead because it’s been trying to implement a new scanned mail service called Informed Delivery for the last couple of years. This completely free option will allow users to see the front of their mail in anticipation of a physical delivery, meaning, they are not actually going to open up the letter and scan the contents for you.

It’s not a great solution for staying on top of mail at home but might be a decent alert system for contacting your mail checker for something that might be really important coming through. (I personally do not like someone to be reading all of my mail. That gives me the privacy heebie jeebies.)

It’s being upgraded to the 21st century. (Epicantus / Flickr)

It’s been piloted for quite a while—since 2005—but there are rumors it could be a nationwide thing this year. (This is the government we are talking about, so perhaps don’t hold your breath.)

PostScan Mail

PostScan Mail is a more traditional mail scanning service that ranges from $14.95 to $49.95 per month, with a variety of different options. (The most popular option is $24.95 per month.) On the bright side, they will hold physical mail for 30 days and will forward mail and packages internationally. It will require customers to change their address to a PostScan Mail facility in order to use the service.

One thing to note: There are extra service fees, and it can get pretty pricey if you go over a selected plan’s allotted open and scan requests at $1.25 per piece.

Scan Mailboxes

Scan Mailboxes is also another reasonable option that falls around the same price points as PostScan Mail and Traveling Mailbox. The main difference in pricing between these companies is that Scan Mailboxes provides two free months on everything but its most basic plan if you sign up for a year. It’s not the cheapest on a monthly basis, but even with a $20 setup fee can work out to be the cheapest option if buying annually.

Traveling Mailbox

For the most part, all of these services tend to have similar pricing tiers. The main difference with Traveling Mailbox is that instead of using open and scan requests, plans are based around the number of pages scanned. These can add up to be quite a bit (I’m thinking credit card statements here, but those are easily set up for paperless statements), so have a good think on the type of mail you’d want scanned.

Earth Class Mail

Starting at $49 per month, Earth Class Mail is by far the most expensive option, though its website does look the best. I mean, branding.

However, unlike the other services, it does offer 256-bit encryption, integration with Bill.com and Dropbox, and PDFs with full-text search. Its clients include Reddit, Lyft, so its customer base does primarily tend to be corporate, which explains the high prices. Do you go for the fancy organic almond butter or the JIF? Cause this is the fancy organic almond butter. Same thing.

Google Finally Integrates Custom Maps Into the Mobile App

  Erica Ho   1 minute read

Do you know how you can make your own Google custom map? After what feels like forever, Google has finally integrated it into their own mobile apps.

I’m actually not sure when it happened but for the sake of looking like an expert, let’s pretend it just happened. There’s no special secret trick to integrating an already built map into the app: If you’ve already plugged in everything online under a Google account, it should be saved under My Places, under the Maps section on a mobile device.

The only downside to the mobile apps is that though the legend transfers over, there is some issue figuring out what an exact marker is when a user is scrolling on the actual map (the label gets lost). For example, if five restaurants use the same marker, it’s going to be difficult because the names will show up as ‘Untitled.’ The only way to deal with it is assigning different visual markers to different locations and using the legend to figure it out.

This Mexico City map shows the issue:

Custom maps essentially let travelers mark places that are most interesting to them—such as museums, restaurants, special locations—so they can see it all at a glance. (Though, to some extent Google Trips is eliminating the need for some of this.)

Here’s a sample Toronto web map showcased a while back:

The downside is the maps do use data, and if that’s not part of the current deal, there are a wide variety of offline alternatives including the option to download an entire region or to use a completely different app.

Thanks to reader Chris for sending this one in!