the annual bag debate

ok, it is that time again – what bag will I be taking on this upcoming five week trip to Central America? What style, what capacity? Do I use one I have already or should I hunt up something different?

Are you really going to drag a wheelie bag down this street? Kratie, Cambodia

Typical steps to access dock, steps continue up to level of highest buildings - Nong Khiaw, Laos

Two years of using a convertible pack – one with both wheels and stowable straps and suspension – has taught me a few things about my particular needs.

First, using my top loading backpack designed for trails is a no-go. With such a pack the only way to access your gear is to completely empty it every night, or to just settle for using whatever is at the top. Neither of these options makes me happy. Having a front panel which unzips is essential so the bag can be left mostly packed. The budget rooms (or beds) I choose typically have little space for a complete unpacking, and besides it’s an annoying waste of both brain cells and time to have to constantly repack.

Second, I have found that I use the wheels only very rarely – in airports or train stations, and for very short transits to and from taxis and vans, into hotels. Though convenient and easy on the body in these instances, in every other situation I use my bag as a backpack. For example – up and down the inevitable long flights of steps from boat docks, along rough dirty streets between bus drop offs and accommodations, when the streets are unpaved, up the also inevitable multiple flights of stairs in urban hotels (which never have elevators), and whenever I choose a short or long walk over a tuk tuk either because of availability, flexibility or stubborn preference.

It is just so much faster. For one thing, there are never any usable sidewalks. Sidewalks in southeast Asia are where people live. When the so-called foot path is not taken up by a vendor or a little restaurant or someone cutting hair or cooking or washing dishes, there will be a motorbike parking lot. I hate the clatter and drag of a bag rolling along behind me and even in the rare case where the street has fairly smooth paving and is not thick with litter and waste, it is just faster to carry.

Can you find the footpath? Hanoi, Vietnam

Third, the wheel apparatus adds five lbs to the bag weight and takes up interior packing space that can be used in much better ways. The wheel apparatus adds unwelcome rigidity and bulk. That five lbs of excess weight is significant, whether on my back or when trying to stay within the 15 kg (33 lb) limit often imposed on local flights. I’d rather allocate that five lbs to reference books, thanks.

And fourth, my wheels + backpack suspension bag just looks too spiffy. In third world countries, unless you are an upscale traveler who surrounds yourself with the layered protections of privilege, spiffy is not good. Spiffy marks you as a target, as a profit center. Far better to look neat and respectful but not to radiate any particular air of affluence beyond the base assumption that all travelers will have things that robbers want.

It is this last consideration which has sent me looking for a new bag for Central America.

Nearly all the front panel loading travel backpacks available in the US come with a day pack which zips onto the front panel. Prior experience has taught me the utter silliness of this approach as my convertible wheel or carry bag also has this feature. In four months of usage, I learned that I virtually never use this capability. It is only useful when dragging, never when carrying because it puts all the carrying weight on the back and shifts the weight too far away from the body. The daypack is always carried on the front of the body for balance. Dedicated day packs will also have a means of clipping the front carried daypack to the main pack straps so that the daypack hangs neatly. Again, though I had this feature, I never used it, instead just slipping my arms through the daypack straps.

And so I await the delivery by post next week of the new travel pack. Let the test packing and fitting sessions begin!

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One Response to the annual bag debate

  1. Kim says:

    Ach, I have one I could have given you–I used it in Europe many years ago. Detachable day pack, the whole deal. But today’s versions are probably far lighter, though I used mine on a two-day hike in Norway.

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