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Travelers and Hats Gear Tip

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The Hat, The Most Underrated Travel Gear —

A Vagabond Journey travel tip

This may sound simple, this may sound base — old fashioned, perhaps — but a good hat is almost as essential a piece of travel gear as a study pair of trousers, a water resistant jacket, or underwear. It is my impression that traveling out of doors without a hat on your head is absurd, and traveling the world means being outside (or so I hope).

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Wade from www.VagabondJourney.com
Alton, Illinois, USA, North America
Friday, December 11, 2009
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My grandfather was a traveling man who always wore a hat. He would wear fany Stetsons with colorful feathers sticking out of them. Sometimes he would attach brass buttons to the outside, and there was always a $50 bill folded up and hidden behind the inside band. Wearing a hat was a normal thing for him to do, as it was for almost anyone from his generation.

Australia hat

Australia hat

When I was real young my uncle sat me down and told me about the necessity of wearing a hat. Never go outside without one, you can cook your head, it keeps the sun out of your eyes. Basically, my instruction was along the same lines as most pan-generational transmitted knowledge: do this just because we have always done this.

I though he was nuts — I always played outside without a hat and I never cooked my head before. I took in his lesson, even though I walked away laughing, attributing the instruction to the fact that my uncle was a baldo whose head would get mighty burned if it ever went outside uncovered. But my uncle slapped a hat down upon my head, and his words stuck: from that day on I always wore a hat. I did not really know why I was wearing one, I always just did it.

I now know why I wear a hat, and, like my uncle did to me, I share the benefits of a good hat with travelers who have seemingly skipped out on the lessons of their uncles.

Chaya with good traveling hat made of straw

Chaya with good traveling hat made of straw

I cannot say how often I observe travelers on the long haul around the world without any semblance of functional head gear.

No hat.

No bandanna.

No turban.

Just a bare head sticking out in the sun, wind, rain, and cold.

It is my impression that 100 years ago hardly any person would venture outside without a hat placed upon their head. By “hat” I mean a device that covers the head and protects it, the face, and the neck from sun, rain, wind, cold, heat, over exposure.

It is my impression that the hat serves two main functions:

1. To protect the head area from the elements.

2. To look cool. (The head area is often the first place you look when meeting someone — or at least it should be — to put a big fancy thing on your head for everyone to see blends in well with the wanton vanity of the human beast. Many extravagant hats have been devised throughout the human venture into screwing around with the base units of their dress — but this is not what I am concerned with here. But I do think that extravagant hats are pretty darn cool.)

Mexican cowboy hat -- ok for travel through a little fragile

Mexican cowboy hat -- ok for travel through a little fragile

It is still possible to cook your head — or so I am told. The old time travelers were not speaking lightly when they wrote of the perils of finding themselves on the road without a hat. In a Vagabond Journey Around the world, Harry Franck would complain more about not having a hat than wearing out his shoes. I remember one scene in which he took the shirt off his back and tied it around his head to risk sunburn rather than allowing his brains (and judgment) to swelter under a hot topical sun.

Many cultures throughout history and prehistory have come up with various ways of protecting their heads against heat and cold. Cotton, felt, wool, cotton, cardboard, tweed, plastic, feathers, leather, metal, leaves, rawhide, bark, straw, fur have all been used to create pieces of head gear of various styles. The finished products have names like ball cap, dulband, Stetson, laffeh, ushanka, akubra, balaclava, bearskin, bicorne, chullo, chupalla, and balmoral bonnet, but the purpose was always the same: to defend the head region from environmental elements, both hot and cold (and to look cool).

On every stretch of the planet in all times where the technology was present, people have made and worn hats. The Nemadi of West Africa would even grow and oil out big afros — and essentially turn their hair into hats — to keep the heat of Africa at bay.

Types of hats

Types of hats

Traveling people traditionally almost always wear hats. This is almost a given.

So why does the modern traveler seem to shun the hat? As I watch a line of hat-less travelers streaming in and out of hostels I must wonder why they choose to pack jackets and hiking boots and all sorts of “adventure” gear while leaving a good hat behind or stuffed down in the bottom of their backpack.

Maybe they think that hats are unnecessary or sort of corny — maybe they are — or maybe they just do not want to smush up the keenly combed hair that they put so much energy into grooming? Or perhaps they just never had an uncle sit them down when they were young, plop a cap down upon their head, and share the ancestral knowledge about the benefits of wearing a hat.

Or maybe the perceived usefulness of the hat has grown dated. Maybe humans have become an indoors species of animals? Maybe we are devolving back into blind ground rodents who have no need to shield their heads from the sun? Perhaps humans have become removed from their environments to the extent that our cultures rarely pass down information which teaches us how to live outside. Perhaps the sanitized kitchen, the frebreezed living rooms, the climate controlled automobile, and the comfy office cubicle is the new environment of the modern human. Perhaps modern humans are comfortably lazy creatures who no longer feel themselves on the sharp edges of survival.

Wade with a top hat -- fancy but not too good for travel

Wade with a top hat -- fancy but not too good for travel

But to travel is to break out of this doldrums of inside living, to travel is to get out into the world — bare naked and raw. Traveling almost invariably means going from environ to different and diversified environ in rapid bursts and starts. To travel is to stand out in the world, to be outside — under the sun, in the heat, and into the cold.

To travel is to need a hat.

Wade with an army ranger hat -- good for travel

Wade with an army ranger hat -- good for travel

I take interest in the gear that people travel with. I am always on the look out for good ideas to emulate and share as well as poor gear strategies to point out and recognize. Most travelers and “tourists with backpacks” that I have observed go about their wanderings hat-less. Perhaps we should all take a lesson from those large groups of Japanese tourists with the matching khaki flying saucer “bucket” hats on. It is my impression that traveling without a hat is a very silly endeavor indeed.

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Archaeology and hats

“I had this one girl on my crew who refused to wear a hat,” spoke an archaeologist friend of mine who is running crews in the Southwest. “We were out there in 110 degree heat all day and she wore nothing on her head,” she continued. “I mentioned it too her a couple of times and she just said that she was alright, so I let it go. Finally, on a really hot day I told her to come to work with a hat or find another job. Working in the desert without a hat is a stupid thing to do.”

I agree.

It is the responsibility of an archaeology crew chief to ensure the safety of their crew. A dummy working out in the middle of the desert without a hat is a health risk.

Archaeologist with good hat

Archaeologist with good hat

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On finding My Hat

“Why don’t you wear a hat?” I asked my wife last night. Chaya does not wear a hat. For four years she traveled the world virtually hatless. As far as I know she has been lucky: she has not yet cooked her brains. But I asked her last night why she does not often wear a hat.

She replied:

“I just have not found My Hat yet.”

The journey into finding My Hat is often very long and arduous.

“Everybody has a hat,” spoke an old black hat vendor in Buffalo, “you just need to find your hat.”

I was in his shop trying to do just that. I searched for My Hat for many years (many, many, many years). I tried all kinds of hats: cowboy hats, baseball hats, bandanas, clothes, turbans, top hats, and various other fancy varieties of felt hat. For a while I settled on black Army Ranger hats, which look sort of like baseball caps with the noted difference that the brim is shorter — which allows for tilting it down over the eyes on bright days without obstructing vision — and they are shaped like cakes — are flat on top — rather than half way spherical. These are the hats that I have been most photographed wearing durning the Vagabond Journey.com days.

This style hat was good — it did the job — but it was not My Hat.

I envisioned my hat as being leather and water resistant, as being wide brim but not high topped like a cowboy hat. I envisioned my hat as looking something like an Australia outback hat, but not so Australian. I envisioned my hat as being something one of a kind as being something that I have never seen before.

Last month in Jerome, Arizona I found My Hat.

My friend, Annie, who I worked with in the Tonto Forest had a good hat. It was a good hand made brown Australian outback hat. It had three Buffalo nickles attached to its band. I looked it over a few times, it was a good hat.

I wanted one too.

She told me that she got it at a leather shop in Jerome called Altai, or something like that. The only problem was that its price tag was beyond that of a vagabond’s purse. But I went to the shop anyway . . . just to look.

I looked with my wife.

There, on the top rack of a large wall of hats, I saw it: My Hat. But I did not say anything, I knew that the price was out of my range — good quality gear is expensive in the USA. So I just looked at it, giving it a few warm glances before leaving the store. I said nothing to my wife about the discovery.

A week went by, and I found myself staying with friends in Jerome again. I had thought about the hat all week long and mentioned to my wife that I wanted to go look at it again.

“There was a hat in the shop that I sort of like,” I told my wife.

She knew exactly which one it was. It was My Hat, it was clear. Out of a display wall of hundreds of hats my wife knew which one I wanted. But she did not say anything about it all week either — she was going to buy it for me as a Christmas present without me knowing it.

“I know what hat you want,” she said, “I was going to get it for you as a Christmas present, but as you are going to buy it anyway, I will just get it for you.”

She did. She bought me My Hat. The search has now come to a close, one very long road has come to an end.

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My Hat is a half outback/half top hat made by the El Dorado hat company in Freedom, California. It is all leather, weather proof, has three buffalo nickles in its band, and is a one of a kind sort of hat — or at least I have never before seen such a hat design before.

It is My Hat.

Wade with traveling hat and Petra in New Mexico

Wade with traveling hat and Petra in New Mexico

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Filed under: Travel Gear, Travel Tips

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Cincinnati, Ohio, USAMap