A practical holiday gift guide for the travel family
Let’s start with some real talk: Unique travel gifts can be a mixed bag. Some gifts can inspire. But it’s a rare gift that actually helps parents travel with their kids as a family.
So, for our inaugural Learners and Makers family holiday gift guide, we wanted to share what our travel family uses on the road and at home to help us make our travel dreams into realities.
Why you should trust our family travel gift ideas
Family travel can seem like an elusive goal. Money can be tight. Time can be tighter. Being willing to travel also means embracing some serendipity and uncertainty. Our family isn’t rich. We have plenty of the stresses and busyness that any other family has.
We decided long ago that traveling with our kids was a big priority for us, and we have found ways to make travel real. That’s why we’ve done everything from take a toddler to Japan, to popup camp during a month-long summer road trip around the US West. The unique travel gifts we’re recommending can help you do the same.
These unique travel gifts help us camp, travel, and explore with our kids
Our unique travel gifts are going to be a mix of cool, practical, and “I can’t believe I never thought of that before.” But they all have one thing in common: Each one is something we use. Each has been road-tested, kid-pounded, and parent-approved.
More importantly, these budget friendly travel gift ideas can help any family figure out how to travel in the way that works for them.
And that’s the best gift of all.
Quick note: Your clicks support our work! We independently select all unique travel gifts and services we feature, and we only suggest what we have confidence in. When you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission at no additional cost to you.
1. Action camera: GoPro HERO9 Black
Trying to catch all the travel action for your family memories isn’t easy. We’re heading up our suggestions with the camera that has helped us capture more memories than ever.
Our GoPro HERO9 Black has become a mainstay of all our photos and videos. Anthony uses the GoPros the most. It’s easy to swap between snapping photos and shooting videos. He finds it much easier to hold than a phone, and he catches far more on his GoPro than he ever did with his phone.
Waterproof, compact, easy to fire up, and simple to use, the HERO9 is also durable enough for the kids to take in the ocean, up a volcanic trail made of obsidian, or in our kayaks. Paired with GoPro’s Shorty mini tripod, Anthony is ready for any situation, from holding the camera and getting all the action, to setting it up somewhere and recording all of us at our various on-the-road antics.
The GoPro HERO10 is the latest release, and at some point we might upgrade. Either way, the 9 and 10 GoPro models can help you get more family memories than ever. Anthony also loves that he can pair the GoPro to his phone to control the camera as well as review and prune the day’s photos and videos (which Jodie really appreciates when it’s time to go into editing mode).
In fact, Anthony has become such a GoPro geek, he actually has two HERO9 cameras. One stays set on video mode, one on photo mode. Now if he can just convince Jodie to sew him up some six-shooter-style camera hip holsters…
Get our GoPro: GoPro HERO9Black
Newest: GoPro HERO10 Black
2. Lightweight, compact digital camera: Canon Mirrorless EOS M50
A couple of years ago, Jodie did a ton of research around us getting a digital camera. We are not super camera tech nerds though. We weren’t looking for the latest, and we don’t have a need to upgrade constantly. Above all, we wanted a solid, compact camera that was easy for us to take pretty much anywhere.
And then, Jodie found the Canon Mirrorless EOS M50. Smaller than typical DSLR cameras but with way better features and controls than a digital point-and-shoot, the M50 has struck that perfect balance we were looking for in a camera.
At the most basic, the auto setting help in fast moments where you need to get whatever shot you can—or you don’t want to fiddle with settings.
It’s easy to have more control, though. The M50 has all the settings you would expect, from aperture or shutter-driven control, to full manual. It can also shoot video at the touch of a button. We often pair it with this remote so we can get snaps and footage of the whole family.
When you watch our family travel videos on YouTube, the portions where we’re chatting to the camera are shot on our M50 (with this awesome mic attached). The M50 also can do solid night photography, not to mention great blur-free action shots of our romping children.
After the Pacific Ocean brought our original M50 to an unfortunate demise, we replaced it in the summer of 2021 with the upgraded M50 Mark II. Along with the standard 15mm–45mm lens, we opted for the package that also included a 55mm–200mm zoom. The kit lenses are also very good quality, and have us able to cover a diverse range of scenarios.
Get our digital camera: Canon Mirrorless EOS M50 Mark II with 2 lenses
3. Portable power and charging: Jackery 300
When we camp, we still need electricity. We work on the road, so we need to charge computers and phones. We shoot lots of images and videos, so we need to charge camera batteries.
And, most importantly, Jodie needs to charge her prosthetic leg.
A big conundrum for us with our popup camper was how we could make sure we had a consistent power supply when weren’t at a place with electrical hookups. We looked at various options, such as installing solar panels on the camper roof, but then Jodie found a much simpler, and quite effective, solution.
Jackery’s portable power stations give you power when and where you need it. The compact cases are easy to carry around. Plus, it’s easy to keep the Jackery itself powered up, either via an in-vehicle charger, so you can charge while you drive, or via add-on portable solar panels.
For us, our Jackery has made it so we never have to worry about power when we travel. The Jackery’s portability has meant we can take it into the camper, keep it in the car, or set it out on a picnic table. It’s quickly become one of our most important pieces of camping kit.
Get our Jackery: Jackery Explorer 300 Portable Power Station
4. The stocking stuffer we’re most excited about: DEET-free Ranger Ready insect repellents
Think the holidays are a weird time to get insect repellent? We respestfully disagree. With travels at home and abroad for 2022, we need a packable, kid-safe repellent we can rely on.
Besides, you might not know this, but mosquitoes absolutely crave Connor. While at one summer camping spot in Eastern Oregon, our current DEET spray didn’t even phase mozzies, and they absolutely swarmed our son.
After that, we took a fresh look at our insect repellent game. We want something that’s potent, but that we can feel better about putting on not only our skin, but our children’s. And you know how it can be with some repellents: Sometimes they can wreak havoc on your clothes and gear. That’s a cruddy tradeoff that we think we don’t have to accept.
That’s why, as we hit the holiday season, we’re excited about not just any insect repellent, but Ranger Ready’s line of DEET-free repellents.
After contracting lyme disease from a tick bite, Ranger Ready’s founder wanted to make DEET-free pest repellents that outdoor recreation enthusiasts and family travelers could rely on. Five years later, Ranger Ready has become popular with hunters and fishers of all ages. Their line-up uses picaridin instead of DEET (and a new clothing-friendly line uses permethrin). Picaridin isn’t a new spray on the block either. It’s been in use since the 1980s, and became available in the US in 2005.
For our 2022 adventures, we are loading up on Ranger Ready’s family friendly insect repellents. Their trigger sprays can be applied from any angle—great when we’re spraying down wiggly kids. Travel sizes are small enough to pass TSA when flying—and they’re a perfect stocking stuffer for the traveler and outdoors lover in your life.
New for the holidays is a TSA-compliant, zero-scent combo 4-pack that includes 2 pest repellents and 2 hand sanitizers. It’s perfect, since in a time of COVID mozzies or ticks aren’t the only “pests” parents need to protect our kids and ourselves against.
Get our bug spray: Ranger Ready 2-Pack Trigger Spray
GREAT STOCKING STUFFER! 3.4 oz/100ml Travel Sized Variety Scented Insect Repellent 4-Pack
5. Backpacks, Part 1: Eagle Creek’s excellent fit and organization
We are a family of backpack nerds.
Anthony started it, with the giant black North Face pack he used for many of his earlier travels. Now, as we continue refining our packing and as we plan some extensive, packing-light international travel, we are taking a fresh look at what backpacks could make unique travel gifts.
Anthony’s current Eagle Creek Wayfarer backpack has excelled as a mobile office, field gear bag, and picnic basket. It’s modular enough to pack out for a short trip too, with sufficient compartments to separately pack clothes and tech gear. His specific model isn’t available anymore, but Eagle Creek’s Wayfinder series offers similar, amazing backpacks in different fits and sizes:
6. Backpacks, Part 2: Jodie’s Osprey woman’s backpack fits her body and gives great support
Jodie’s Osprey 24/seven Nova laptop backpack fits her really well. Osprey designed this pack to fit comfortably with her waist and bust, and it’s been the most comfortable pack she’s used to date. This particular model isn’t available anymore, but the Nova series continues to offer stellar packs:
7. Backpacks, Part 3: Mobile office and family gear hauling with Tortuga Backpacks
While we like our current backpacks, odds are our backpack lineup is going to shift as we plan our bigger travels. We are aiming to travel only with backpacks, so we are taking a fresh look at our current packs and how we plan to pack for longer-term, backpack-only, carry-on-only global travel.
Jodie currently plans to keep her current pack. She loves the fit, and its support straps don’t interfere with the top of her prosthetic leg.
Anthony’s current pack, though, is going to get passed down to Connor.
And Anthony is planning to kit out with a big upgrade: new packs from Tortuga Backpacks. Here are the models we’re considering, and based on all our research, absolutely drooling over (well, Anthony is, anyway):
Tortuga Outbreaker Laptop Backpack. With a TSA-compliant laptop compartment and a luggage-style clothing compartment, this is what Anthony’s planning to use for his personal daypack and under-the-airplane-seat gear stash. The luggage-style main compartment is a big selling point here. Instead of having to dig down into a bag, this is backpack opens like a rollalong suitcase.
Tortuga 35L Outbreaker Backpack. Anthony also does the main luggage carrying for our family. So while everyone will have packs with their own main stuff, the rest of our gear will go in a backpack that can be a carry-on. The Outbreaker pulls in the same overall design as the Outbreaker Laptop pack (such as the luggage-style main compartment and TSA-compliant tech compartment), but in a fuller size that can be a traveler’s one bag.
Tortuga 21L Outbreaker Daypack. Since Anthony will likely be packing his clothes and kit and such in our 35L Outbreaker, he’ll need his own personal item and daypack as well. The companion Outbreaker Daypack can hold his on-plane, on-the-day essentials, such as his GoPros, Kindle Paperwhite, and MacBook Pro.
Get your Tortuga backpacks now:
8. Backpacks, Part 4: A kid backpack that’s not ready for school, but for traveling the world
While Connor will get Anthony’s current pack, we are looking into a more durable backpack for Aster. Her snazzy school-style backpack does all right for packing clothes and cozy friends when we camp or take a short trip. For full-time wandering though, a roomier, more durable pack is one of many perfect unique travel gifts for our globetrotting girl.
It’s not easy to find a reliable kids travel backpack
Have you tried looking into non-schoolbag backpacks for kids? It’s not easy. There are so many school-focused bags to sift through, or packs from brands where the intent is to market something for kids, but honestly, a lot of those products haven’t impressed us. Here are the important factors and features we’re looking for:
- No top flap. Top flaps make sense on the trail, but for our travels, we find they make it harder to get to our stuff.
- Tablet sleeve. Aster uses her tablet for everything from schoolwork to entertainment, so it’s crucial her new pack has a dedicated tablet sleeve.
- One compartment or two? We often lean toward packs with at least 2 compartments, but we are also looking at a one-compartment pack where we pack Aster’s clothes and such in packing cubes.
- Water-resistant. Even the most basic children’s school-style backpack has decent abrasion resistance, but water resistance can vary more from pack to pack and brand to brand.
- Lightweight. We’re aiming to keep Aster’s packing load to about 10–15% of her body weight. The lighter the pack, the better we can focus her load on her stuff, not the thing holding her stuff.
As of this writing we’re still evaluating, but these packs are on our short list:
9. Snazzy, efficient, lightweight, workhorse camp stove: Eureka 2-Burner Ignite Plus
Earlier in 2021 we replaced our camp stove (and reviewed it more extensively here). While we’d gotten to try it out a few times, our summer road trip gave us a month-long test. From boiling water to cooking rice, grilling sausages to keeping a good flame amidst windy conditions, our Eureka! Plus camp stove has more than earned its keep.
We’ve also found that our camp stove isn’t a gas hog either. Even though we used it extensively during our road trip, there was still plenty of propane left in our dedicated 11-pound propane tank.
And you know what? The snazzy blue makes this stove all the more fun to use.
Shop all camp stoves:
10. Footwear, Part 1: Our feet love KEENs
Whether sandals or shoes, KEENs have been the reliable footwear that hold up even with our active kids. We adults love them too, and our summer adventures and global travels pretty much always include a pair of workhorse KEEN sandals for our everyday footwear.
Connor and Aster have worn KEENs since they were toddlers. From climbing trees to hiking rocky deserts, these two kids can really tear up some sandals. KEENS, though, consistently are up to whatever adventure we’re taking the kids on. That helps us get the most out of our purchase—and since we don’t have to constantly replace worn-out kid shoes, we also get more out of our time.
11. Footwear, Part 2: Anthony’s Timberland boots changed his hiking game
If Anthony’s old, heavy hiking boots had been any clunkier, they could have been sledgehammers.
A durable yet lightweight hiking boot is an essential part of Anthony’s hiking kit. And, since we live in the Pacific NorthWET, top water resistance is crucial. So, when his old hiking boots had finally worn out, these new Timberland boots hit a sweet spot of light weight, waterproofness, and price.
More importantly, after a year of hard wear amidst rainforests, beaches, and deserts, these boots have held up great. Their looks and comfort also make them something Anthony can wear around town, not just on the trail.
Get Anthony’s hiking boots from REI: Timberland Mt. Maddsen Mid Waterproof Hiking Boots
12. Portable kayaks for the whole family: Sea Eagle 370 inflatable kayaks
The best 2020 holiday gift we got ourselves? Inflatable tandem kayaks. After months of research, the Sea Eagle 370 stood out to us as a perfect sweet spot of packability, portability, durability, and cost.
To be clear, we’re not river or whitewater kayakers. Flatwater paddling on lakes, ponds, and canals is our jam. Throughout 2021, we’ve taken our Sea Eagles on local canals and lakes throughout the US West. From forests to deserts, lowlands to mountaintops, our Sea Eagles have performed brilliantly.
Fully deflated and packed, each kayak takes up about as much space as a good-sized gym duffel bag. We can throw kayak bags, paddles, and PFDs into the back of the Outback, and be on the water in less than 30 minutes. When driving and towing during our summer popup camping road trip, we stored the kayaks and accessories in the aisle of the popup camper—and still had plenty of room for the rest of our gear.
Long track record of inflatable watercraft
From their headquarters on Long Island, New York, Sea Eagle has been making inflatable kayaks, canoes, catamarans, and more for decades. We’ve been really impressed with the design and ease of use for our family IKs.
Even better? These little water beasts really sail through the water well, and keep a solid straight line. Our two inflatable kayaks have made it possible for our family of four to have so many more adventures. If you want to add kayaking to your family recreation repertoire, we can’t recommend Sea Eagle highly enough.
Get our kayaks: Sea Eagle 370 Tandem Inflatable Kayaks
Pro tip: Opt for the upgraded seats in the Pro Kayak Package package. It’s worth it.
13. How to pay for all these unique travel gifts? Use the rewards credit card that can best help you travel for free: Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa
There are so, so many amazing rewards credit cards out there nowadays. There are lots of guides and suggestions and details, details, details.
But let’s keep it simple, shall we?
After doing our own extensive research, we have become big, big fans of the Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa. The card does carry a $95 annual fee, but from what we’ve seen in our, ahem, extensive field testing, the rewards more than outweigh the cost. For example:
- Generous signup bonus reward points help you quickly get up and running with points you can cash for anything from air tickets and hotel stays, to “paying yourself back” for select purchases.
- Running points specials earn more points for featured categories.
- Referral bonuses award you points when others get their own card.
- We can cash in our points for many airlines, not just one.
Best present of all: These unique travel gifts help families turn dreams into reality
We use the holidays as a way to set us up for making next year’s dreams come true. The unique travel gifts above are all part of our essential family travel kit, and we hope they come in just as handy for you and your family as you get on the road through 2022 and beyond. Happy Holidays!