Play it close to the vest.

That's the motto of travelers who like to wear their valuables on the inside of a travel vest, today's equivalent of sewing jewels into the seam of your skirt.

"When I went to Peru, I used it instead of using a purse, and I could walk around without feeling like I had to worry about someone grabbing at my purse or backpack," says Melissa McTaggart, 41, an attorney who frequently travels the world and swears by her Scottevest travel vest. The garment has 22 hidden pockets and can even hold an iPad: "The reason I adore it so much is because no one would think to take this vest or even consider it has hidden pockets."

Everyone has seen the guy stuffing 100 pounds of camera equipment into the bulky pockets of a travel vest, then lurching around like Herman Munster. Other vests are so sporty they look like a trout should be leaping from the breast pocket.

Some travelers don't like the look. Or they don't like the feel of their passport pressed against their beating heart.

"The only time I have seen someone wear one is on a safari when they have binoculars, camera and lenses to carry along with them. In a way, they can defeat the purpose, because we tell our members to blend in when they travel. If you are wearing one of these vests, you look like a tourist," says Mary Bergeron, travel sales consultant at AAA in Dearborn, Mich., who prefers carrying a small messenger-style bag instead.


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Two years ago, Kansas writer Rolf Potts did a 34,000-mile, 42-day trip around the world with no luggage. He brought only what he could fit into the interior and exterior pockets of his dark blue travel vest. He packed only a spare T-shirt, two extra pairs of socks and one spare pair of underwear, plus passport, toiletries, detergent to wash his clothes and a few assorted safety pins and earplugs. Partway through the journey, he even ditched his camera to lighten the load.

His possessions weighed less than 4 pounds total. That was OK with him.

"Bring a day pack, and you're tempted to throw in items you may never use," he says. "Wear a vest, and you're more likely to bring only what you will absolutely use on the journey."

Originally, travel vests were versions of ones used by fishermen and war photographers -- beige, baggy and full of pockets across the chest and hips. Those still exist, but vests have evolved in the last decade to take into account how and where travelers actually use them and the curvier shape of women.

The landmark Scottevest, with a smooth-looking exterior concealing nearly two dozen interior storage pockets, has been widely copied in style; these vests are suitable for cooler weather. For hot destinations, travel vests continue to get lighter and lighter, such as the Magellan's travel vest, which weighs 6 ounces and has eight pockets.

"The first Magellan's travel vest was developed more than 10 years ago. It incorporated almost everything we wanted -- lightweight, breathable, packs down to nothing in your suitcase, useful pockets, and designed so that it doesn't scream safari or fishing trip," says Lynn Staneff, marketing director. "Since then it has been updated twice -- once to add more security pockets and once to modify the zipper from a double to a single."

A good travel vest is washable and dries easily, travelers say.

It can easily be removed and put through airport security. It also is a way to skirt weight restrictions.

"We have heard many customers pack the pockets to go through (airport) security, using it as a second carry-on bag," Staneff says.

A travel vest works great -- as long as you don't accidentally take it off, leave it hanging on the back of a chair and walk away.

It also comes in handy in an emergency.

"There was one time when an airline insisted that I check my camera bag, although it meets all the international size requirements for carry-on. I get nervous when I have to lose sight of $25,000 in camera gear. As a result, I do carry my vest in my camera bag now," says photographer William Cowger, 66, who has led 20 photo safaris to Africa. If he has to, he can pull out the vest, put it on and stow his gear on his body.

Does Cowger wear a travel vest on every trip? No. Even photographers have their limits.

"I do use a vest out in the bush, but not when traveling," he says. "Almost all of the travel vests are way too long and hot for me. My preference is a short fly-fishing vest by White River that I bought at Bass Pro Shops. It has large inside pockets, so when I am hiking, my 100-400 Canon lens fits easily."

Chip Berschback, a Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., attorney, wore a Scottevest jacket on a recent trip to Egypt. It had sleeves, but they unzipped to make a vest for warmer days.

He liked the security of having his valuables safely inside his vest.

But there was one more guy-type benefit, he says: "I prefer it to a man bag."

A FEW TRAVEL VESTS

Most Bay Area travel, luggage and sporting goods stores carry a wide selection of vests.
Scottevest travel vest: 17 pockets for women, 24 for men. Sizes S to XXXL in several colors. $125. (Local retailers; www.scottevest.com.)
Magellan's travel vest: Lightweight and with eight pockets, it's fast drying. Unisex, sizes XS-2XL. $55 (www.magellans.com, 800-962-4943).
White River Fly Shop Vest: Not strictly a travel vest, but recommended by frequent safari photographer William Cowger; has 12 pockets. Sizes S to 6X. $79 (www.basspro.com, 800-227-7776).
ExOfficio Boracade Vest: 6 pockets with a version for men and another for women. Sizes XS-XXL, $99.95 (www.rockcreek.com, 888-707-6708).
Filson travel vest: 17 pockets for men, 15 for women. Sizes XS-XXL. $185 women, $215 men (www.filson.com, 866-860-8906).

-- Ellen Creager