EVEN the most peripatetic traveler usually tries to make it home for Christmas. But to come home to an empty stocking on Christmas Day! That's enough to make anyone with wanderlust start packing for Tierra del Fuego. There are generally two types of travelers - frequent fliers, and first-timers - those who never seem to stay still long enough to read anything but in-flight magazines, and those who are finally going off on Le Grand Tour. And of course, a few who fit in between.
First-timers are the easiest to buy for. They usually need everything from a decent piece of carry-on luggage to a ``What I Did on My Vacation'' diary. Fortunately, many once-bulky items have been trimmed to compact size. I usually walk around Europe dressed like a charm bracelet, with a miniature thermometer, folding pen, bottle opener, collapsible toothbrush, and map light dangling from every zippered pocket on my jacket.
Lightweight travel alarm clocks and tiny-but-bright flashlights are compulsory and pretty cheap stocking-stuffers. Pocket-size dictionaries - English/Serbo-Croatian or what have you - are handy for those who don't speak the relevant language but want to take a stab at it anyway. Money belts serve a dual role. They're practical, fun, and keep your pants up where they belong. Travel Smart in New York offers a one-size-fits-all money belt of ``poly-cotton, designed to stay dry'' for $7.50. Call toll-free, 800-327-3633.
Orvis, the sporting goods store, advertises a watertight flashlight that you can ``drop on cement, throw in the pool, and step on.'' Perfect for the clumsy traveler. It costs $9.50. Call 800-541-3541. Other stores may have similar ones.
For the outdoors lovers on your list, check out Army and Navy stores for practical, inexpensive items. An inflatable air pillow goes for $3.25. There's an emergency ``space blanket'' guaranteed to reflect up to 80 percent of body heat in severe cold - a lifesaver at $3.50. A ``large deluxe'' version will save two people for only $10.75.
Army and Navy stores have thermometers on key chains, mosquito netting, jungle hammocks, union suits, unbreakable mirrors, and - in case someone takes the wrong fork in the road and ends up in Nicaragua - a two-tone tube of camouflage face paint. A bargain at $3. Or keep it yourself and go out as Rambo next Halloween.
For older folks or those who spend a lot of time on the highway, why not an emergency kit that contains a large V-reflector and flares? Or talking books on cassettes? A flashlight that plugs into a dashboard cigarette lighter? A good thermos bottle? Or a wrap-around-the-neck pillow? The latter are perfect for airplanes as well.
For the future Sir Edmund Hillary in your life, L.L. Bean offers a Casio Sportsman's Watch with digital and analog readouts, liquid-filled compass, alarm and hour signal, and more for $62. Call 800-221-4221, toll-free. There are many inexpensive digital watches with built-in calculators on the market. These may not be your style, but they're especially handy for quick foreign-currency conversion. Then there are the watches with two dials for keeping track of home and away time.
For maps, globes, and books on faraway places, where better to shop than the National Geographic Society's Christmas catalog? It's filled with interesting, educational suggestions. The society has its own trivial pursuit game called National Geographic Global Pursuit. It comes with a bonus world political map and costs $19.95. Write to National Geographic at PO Box 2118, Washington, DC 20013.
The Nature Company has a host of items for those travelers who would rather look at nature than Naples. There's a wonderful walking stick topped with a miniature compass and sundial for $24.95 and an absolutely splashing umbrella covered with a school of colorful fish. The Nature Company also offers exotic safari trips. Call 800-227-1114 for its imaginative catalog filled with affordable gift ideas and information on its Safari Program (not so affordable).
The list could stretch on from here to the North Pole. Finding Christmas gifts for any traveler you may know should be no problem this season. Most of the companies mentioned have free catalogs. Send for them if you have time, or get on their list for next year.