September 4th, 2014


There are a bunch of variations on misattributed quotes out there about how people are liberal at one age and conservative at another and so on and so forth. (I personally like Robert Frost's version, according to Bartlett's, "I never dared to be a radical when young For fear it would make me a conservative when old." Precaution, 1936. But never mind that now.) In any event, I carried backpacks when young, and my efforts to return to that are not succeeding. I don't have back problems -- I just can't stand the turn-around-and-knock-someone-over problems any more, and I am unable to pack as light as I once did.

So I have been moved slowly, and with great reluctance, to rolling bags. Around the time T. was born, I bought a Victorinox roller that could also be used as a backpack and had an attachable day back (I had long ago sent the Eagle Creek version of same along to live a long and happy life with a friend). Turns out I _hate_ monopoles. I bought a silver rolling Delsey that I really liked, but then I loaned it to my mother-in-law and urged her to keep it when she really loved it. I bought a second rolling Delsey (purple!) and have been using it since. That's the bigger of the two bags in the photos below. I've had it for a while and don't intend to replace it any time soon. It is a bag to check, never to carry on, but there is zero risk that it will ever be treated as an oversize bag because it is well within the limits.

When my friend K. came to visit a few years back, she had a Zuca. Mmmm. Of course I had to have one. You can sit on it (really -- like 300 pound weight limit. You can even have a small child in your lap!)! I almost managed to roll the purple bag _on top_ of the Zuca, but that didn't quite work. The Zuca always fits in the overhead, but never, ever, ever under the seat. It came with packing cubes. I love it. I don't _always_ travel with it, but I really like it when I do. On the carry on only short trip, the Zuca supported my black Pathfinder bag (which, if you don't overpack it, fits under some seats) and A.'s pink Hello Kitty case.

The Pathfinder bag dates from when I was scuba diving. It sat on top of the monster, hard sided case that held the suit and fins and all the rest of my vacation clothing. The Pathfinder was big enough for whatever I'd need on the plane, a change of clothes, my regulator, prescription face mask, etc. I got rid of the hard sided case long ago (it was always at risk of an oversize charge), but the Pathfinder has survived due to its ability to (a) play nice with the handles of rolling bags and (b) willingness to scrunch down and fit under airline seats.

But the Pathfinder is too wide. It's 18" inches, so while the Zuca scoots down the aisle on the plane with politeness and grace, the Pathfinder feels compelled to touch both sides and grab at people's coats and so forth. Not nice! Pathfinder is awesome luggage; what I have seems to be a 15 years earlier version of this:, only they've figured out to smooth out the side pockets and they advertise it as overhead only. There is little evidence of the decade and a half of (ab)use this thing has seen.

I went in search of another option, and came up with this, which honestly seems kinda silly.

It will hold electronics up to a laptop in a padded sleeve. It is big enough for a change of clothes and snacks. It has a good sized water bottle thingie on the side. It rolls, but plays nicely with rolling bags. It is willing to pretend to be an oversized handbag.

It is almost but not quite as _tall_ as the Pathfinder is wide. But it is not wide. A little wider than the Zuca, but plenty narrow for sliding down the aisle. And people swear it goes under airline seats and I believe them.

I'm not sure, in practice, what I'm going to do with this thing. Will it really ride on the Delsey to the checked counter, and then roll alone? Will I stack it full of other crap (but then where will the other crap go while I approach the counter, since when it is stacked on the Delsey, there isn't any handle space leftover?)?

In any event, I feel great optimism. I bought a silly looking sherpani backpack once, and used it hiking for a few years; it was amazing. I wasn't as much of a fan of their string wallets, but you win some, you lose some. Here are pictures of the Delsey and the Sherpani. I left the Sherpani open so you could get a sense of the volume and also see the interior lining:





And the Zuca and Sherpani:



Luggage Link Fu

I thought I'd check in on the status of the great backpack v suitcase debate, round 2014. It has evolved in two obvious ways. First, there are a lot of permanent/professional travelers who have converted to wheels, and there a lot of people who were/are extremely committed to being backpackers who can no longer actually wear a backpack. This has complicated the debate in interesting ways.

Just remember: this is just the travel version of vi vs. emacs. We all get excited about it; some of us remember to retain a little perspective as well.

First, a summary:

The comments are important! A duffel bagger is represented. They aspire to things like Red Oxx' Air Boss, or maybe a Tom Bihn bag.

"As a die-hard duffel bagger, I take serious offense to those statements. I mean, what’s not to love? They’re lightweight (no extra weight from silly wheels), they’re flexible (easily conforming to airplane overhead bins), and they have only ONE strap (two straps are SO complicated)."

Terrain really does matter, and this debate mostly captures it. Flat, level, with waits that reward being able to provide your own seat = rolling suitcase. Non-road surfaces (mud, beach, lack of paving or cobbles, extensive stairs) = backpack. Mixed generally favors rolling, unless there will be a _lot_ of non-road surfaces. Packing lighter makes everything work better. Weirdly, people will pack too much in either configuration.

Rick Steves, of PBS Europe Through the Back Door (believe me, all the jokes have already been made), was a long time backpack proponent, but his customers were older and weren't trying to save money. They just wanted an interesting outing that wasn't programmed down to the minute and completely mobbed by everyone else. They weren't going to be carrying backpacks, and indeed, the Rick Steves operation is mostly converted by this point.

He isn't a convert, but can see the writing on the calendar on the wall.

Parents trying to figure out whether their college kid should have a backpack or rolling bag on through trip through Europe are arguing in favor of backpacks largely based on the cool factor.

That's novel.

It includes one parent/offspring pair in which it was the offspring whose back gave out first. They switched to rolling because they stored better in all the places that backpackers say suitcases don't work at all.

What's really interesting is how the results change on google depending on how the question is framed. backpack vs suitcase gets disproportionately backpack-friendly results. Backpack vs roll* (rolling luggage, rolling suitcase, etc.) quite the contrary!

There is a conversion process of backpacker to rolling suitcase user. You can watch it happen, since the web has been around for a few years.

You can even see it broken down into stages here:

and here:

In essence, what happens is this. 20 something young'uns travel with backpacks. As they get older and have more money, and their tastes change, they care more about fitting in at hotels vs. at hostels (this is the cool factor that drives backpacks post college and rolling bags after 30). Some of them also develop some kind of pain associated with travel. But the only thing that keeps people out on the road over and over and over again is if they figure out a way to reduce the weight of the overall kit, whether it is in a duffel, in a backpack or on wheels. Once you get the kit weight down, it sort of doesn't matter what you pick, which is why the Red Oxx aficionados claim they can use the hand straps on the Air Boss as backpack straps. They probably can, altho of course no one would ever want to! And those folks are probably all operating in some sort of "This is my go-bag we're wheels up in 20" mode, even if they are just a bunch of geek boys and girls headed out for a conference, and they may at no point on the entire trip experience natural lighting, never mind off road travel.

I love the existence of the web. It means that in my perpetual dissatisfaction that leads to constant turnover of product in an effort to solve a fundamentally not readily solvable problem (look, I _had_ a solution, up until I had kids. This will all eventually take care of itself. They just have to get about 10 years older), I can feel like part of a herd. Yay me.

Some more links.

Even when pain is the primary driver, age and taste factors in as well.

Watch a n00b get varying treatment from the hardcore backpackers on thorntree:

Here's my favorite part of the comments: "Most of the itineraries I see posted here are extremely city-centric. In those cases, either a backpack or a suitcase would suffice. But I think a certain percentage of travelers buy a backpack simply to assure themselves that they are backpackers and that what they are doing is indeed backpacking.

I will say this: the people I see with unmanageably huge rolling suitcases tend to be middle aged or older. The people I see with huge overstuffed backpacks tend to be much younger.

If you travel light and if you're not planning on taking a dump in the woods, I really don't see a difference."


I feel like I should include a whole series of links about duffels, because there's this incredible, highly masculine, minimalist aesthetic that really cracks me up (shades of Jan Michael Vincent in the made for TV adaptation of Wouk's The Winds of War, tossing that incredible leather duffel in the back seat -- ah, the 1980s! Very little leather over on Gear Patrol's 2013 roundup of cool bags Too many people looking for vegan friendly bags, maybe?). I'll include at least a few.

Best American Duffel, in Seattle (!!!) makes BadBags. Mmmm. We love those acronyms. Maybe not that color scheme, tho.

Maybe Montana, instead?

They want to make absolutely sure that you're on board with this whole we-carry-bags-on-our-shoulders-because-we-are-strong thing. Their gift card graphic is an old-skool pinup style:

I question whether those arms could lift that bag, never mind just one arm. OTOH, maybe it only has the packing material in it?

Tom Bihn bags are a little tough to categorize, which may explain why their product descriptions have paragraph after paragraph -- honestly, they make me sound concise.

But they are prepared to call that a duffel, at least in part. I think the theory there was to produce something that exactly matched the specs for carry-on.

Also in Seattle. I believe my friend K. first brought these folks to my attention, around the time the first iPad came out and I was looking for a good bag for it (I loved the Timbuk2 -- also Seattle -- CandyBar, but retired it when I switched to the mini, which I'm on my second one of and I lllluuuuurve it because I can pretty much carry anything I want now without having to buy something special for the electronics. Win!).

These guys have created a table:

Their criteria appear to be as follows: D opening? Backpack straps? Not too heavy? Secondary criteria involve how hard is it to hook to a sled. I don't think these guys worry about whether it counts as oversize for checked or fits in the overhead.

And I'm going to stop now, because duffels are a whole "thing" where there are all these technical uses that are designed to, and then people just bring them to the gym or whatever. I don't get it at all, so other than pointing and going, wha? I have little to offer (in their favor, even highly technical duffels are quite inexpensive as luggage goes, and reusability does count for something, too).