What To Pack It In
Choosing A Bag
To begin, recognize that getting a better bag won't make you a "one bag" traveller: there's little that the bag can do to reduce the amount of stuff you bring with you. Once you have acquired more efficient travel skills, though (and abandoned the notion that you need to pull a small trailer behind you), you will find that an optimally-designed bag can make a huge difference in your travel comfort and convenience. Finding one, however, means learning to see through a great deal of very deceptive marketing hype.
Critical aspects to consider include:
- Quality — because even non-checked luggage takes a beating, and quality delivers greater economy and less stress in the long run
- Carrying Capacity — because the purpose of luggage is to hold your belongings, and not that many bags do a particularly good job of this
- Airline Carry-On Limits — because most people who learn to travel light find that everything they need to pack will fit easily into one carry-on-sized bag (which is fortunate, as in the real world there are two kinds of luggage: carry-on and lost)
In addition to these basic concerns, there are many additional — and important — design criteria, including (in no particular order):
- overall bag weight
- overall shape and balance
- type and configuration of zippers
- availability of internal tie-down and external compression straps
- quantity, volume, shape, and arrangement of storage compartments
- accessibility of those compartments in different stowage situations
- transportability (how the bag will be conveyed through environments that don't look at all like manicured airport corridors, and over greater distances than you may have anticipated)
- collapsibility (for storage when not in use)
Truly wonderful bags are few and far between: luggage design — like the design of anything else — is an exercise in the complex art of compromise. Each feature offered, and every benefit espoused, brings attending trade-offs. And unfortunately, most of what you will find in luggage shops has been influenced far more by marketing departments than by the actual needs of travellers.
Naturally, the principal use of the bag also bears consideration. This ultimately leads to an understanding that there are really two different solutions, depending on whether your primary goal is business travel in urban locations, or leisure travel, exploring Europe (or wherever) on vacation (or whatever). I do plenty of both kinds, so use two types of bags; individual aspects of the two categories are addressed on the associated pages of this site, along with recommendations for both specific and multipurpose luggage solutions.
In both cases, however, you want a lightweight (not more than 1–2kg, 2–4 pounds) bag that's no larger than carry-on size (for most commercial aircraft, the rule-of-thumb is length + width + height = no more than 45 inches, about 114cm) with a non-rigid structure (which conforms better to both the bag's contents and the places you might stow it) and sturdy construction.
A helpful insight into luggage design can be had by considering the simple adaptation of a classic computer design adage shown at right [in the original, the second word is "fast"]. In other words, you can produce a bag that maximizes functionality/efficacy, or reliability, or low cost; in fact, you can perform well in any two of these categories, but not all three.
Fortunately (and unlike the case with computers), luggage can be a lifetime investment; a good bag doesn't become obsolete in five years. Consequently, the most intelligent designs will be those that focus on the first two elements, being both highly functional for their intended use, and able to last a lifetime. Such bags will not be the least expensive ones on the market, but they needn't be inordinately costly either, especially if purchased directly from the manufacturer instead of via a cost-multiplying network of distributors and local dealers. Should cost be the critical factor, however, the wise lightweight traveller (who rarely needs to check a bag) will choose good (i.e., functional/efficient) over durable as the second most important factor.
Vanishing Volume: The Curse of Curves
Consider this: the most important attribute of a wristwatch — whether you prefer one that is slim and elegant, one that is easily read, or one that looks like a pressure gauge from a WWII submarine — is how well it keeps time. Yet when was the last time you saw an accuracy measurement in any watch advertisement? Luggage is much the same. It is all too easy to divert attention — with questionable "features", high-tech fabric designations, and styling details — from the actual usable carrying capacity of the bag.
To maximize carrying capacity, look for a rectilinear design (i.e., like a simple box, with straight, flat sides and 90° corners). For any given length + width + height, a rectilinear configuration yields the greatest internal volume†; the moment you introduce curved sides or edges, you begin to lose storage space. (This is typically done to make a bag appear more aerodynamic, though it will have a negligible effect on your last-minute dash to catch a flight!)
Similarly, adding external pouches increases a bag's dimensions without adding appropriate corresponding storage volume.
The effects of both issues are clearly illustrated in the diagram at left. Although these two bags have identical external dimensions (as measured by the airlines), the rectilinear bag offers an astonishing 29% more storage space! This is not a negligible consideration.
The photo at right highlights — in red — this lost space for an actual (and fairly typical) leisure bag, albeit only from a single (and two-dimensional) viewing perspective: in the three dimensions of the real world, considerably more storage capacity is wasted than is apparent here.
This view also exposes three additional problems of non-rectilinearity. Extending a bag at its front (to the right in this photo) moves its centre of gravity further from one's body than it need be, making it less comfortable to carry. It also renders the bag more awkward to manoeuvre in crowded situations (as commonly experienced when using public transportation). Finally, those curved sides make it more difficult to pack effectively!
Here's yet another example: the traditional, cylindrical duffel bag is an iconic shape, wedded forever to our romantic notions of the sea. But such duffels were popular because they minimize seam length, making them cheap to manufacture. When it comes to storage volume and packing efficiency, however, they are a nightmare: difficult to pack well, and not very voluminous. A rectilinear duffel is much more commodious, more than 27% larger than its rounded counterpart with the identical length, width, & height!
Alternatively, consider this issue from the opposite perspective: for a desired amount of storage capacity, a plain, rectilinear bag is the smallest (L+W+H) one capable of providing it. There's a good reason why boxes are boxy!
† The maximum internal volume, of course, would be obtained with a perfectly cubic bag. Such a shape, however, would be awkward to carry, and run afoul of many airlines' carry-on rules.
Just What is a Carry-On Bag?
This site is about learning to travel lightly, not about refusing to check bags. The carry-on emphasis stems from the observation that most people can live indefinitely out of a single bag of this size or smaller. That said, I always advise that, wherever possible, you resist the temptation to hand your belongings over to others, and enjoy the increased security, economy, navigability, and serenity that this will bring. But remember, the goal isn't to see how much stuff you can carry aboard — it's learning to travel lightly, and happily. Fortunately, this can usually be accomplished with no more than will fit in a single bag of modest size.
So just what is — and what is not — permitted as aircraft carry-on baggage? And what is charged for and what isn't? To begin (and despite a lot of marketing blather that implies otherwise), there is no such thing as a "legal" carry-on limit: it's simply not an area of concern to legislative bodies. Each airline sets its own (often complex, and constantly changing) rules. The limits are sometimes based on weight, rather than (or in addition to) size, and can be more constraining than you might guess: at this writing, for example, TAM, Singapore Airlines, and Alitalia have cabin baggage weight limits of only 5, 7, & 8kg (about 11, 15, & 18 pounds), respectively! Quite a few airlines restrict carry-ons to 10kg (22 lbs). Further, enforcement of these rules is generally at the whims of gate personnel, and dependent on their moods of the moment. Sites such as Luggage Limits and Netflights attempt to collect official regulations about sizes, weights, & fees, but it's a continuously moving target, so checking directly with the airline Web sites to confirm their ever-changing rules is always the wisest strategy. And heed my tips on Weight Watching when packing.
That said, I always encourage people to avoid travelling with airlines that use unreasonable carry-on limits — anything less than 10kg (22 lbs), in my view — in an attempt to force passengers to check baggage. Check the current rules before buying that ticket!
I try to carry on, so I always take as little as I possibly can …
The "45-inch rule" described above will satisfy most dimension-based regulations; this is the very largest bag size you should ever consider carrying, and smaller is much better. Soft-sided bags, especially those with external compression straps, are preferable, as you can cinch them down to minimal size once they've been packed. Appearances count: someone with a modest bag dangling from one shoulder is much less likely to be weighed and measured than someone with a wheeled suitcase, hanging bag, and giant purse! In all cases, however, you should be prepared for the occasional demand that you check your bag, particularly on smaller aircraft with limited cabin storage (I discuss this further on the "Checking Bags" page). Once again, though, travelling light is not about figuring out how big a bag you can take, or even what kind of bag provides the most storage; rather it's about determining the minimum amount of stuff you truly need to cart around with you, and then finding the smallest, best-designed bag that will comfortably hold it.
Quality Luggage Components
Soft-sided luggage (constructed from modern, high-tech fabrics) is much to be preferred over the hard-shelled variety (fiberglass, metal, etc.). Hard bags are heavier and do not cope with the rigours of extended travel nearly as well as their more yielding counterparts; further, they do not conform to available storage spaces (where the abililty of a bag to "give" by even a fraction of an inch can often mean the difference between fitting in or otherwise).
High-denier industrial nylon fabrics are the way to go: in top quality luggage, the main choices are ballistic and Cordura® nylon, differences between the two being largely cosmetic in nature. Ballistic is a filament yarn, thus smooth and slick, with a very synthetic appearance, which some consider a "high tech" look (and which doesn't dye easily, so is often sold only in black). It is also two-ply, which gives it a slightly "nubby" texture. And it is the heavier (by 5%) of the two fabrics: 1050 vs. 1000 denier (be aware that denier is a measurement of weight, not strength or durability).
Some bags use an Asian-made 1680 denier ballistic cloth that is of very mediocre quality (which is why it's half the price of the standard 1050 denier ballistic). It seems to be made of a very heavy single yarn, one consequence of which is that it wears quite badly, and looks pretty ratty after even limited usage. It's also 60% heavier than the good stuff. I would avoid luggage made from this material: it suggests that the manufacturer either favours low cost over quality, or has a poor understanding of fabrics.
Cordura is a texturized yarn, very slightly fuzzy (actually discontinuous in structure) like a natural fiber, with the feel of cotton canvas. It takes dye easily, thus can be reliably manufactured in various colours. Cordura is more abrasion resistant, while ballistic offers higher tear strength. In both fabrics, though, these capabilities are considerably greater than actually needed, so one is unlikely to experience a notable difference (but given the choice, I prefer abrasion resistance over tear strength in luggage). Cordura is also less susceptible than ballistic to fraying at cut edges, though modern coated fabrics make this less of a concern (also, the better manufacturers finish exposed internal edges).
The most failure-prone components of a bag are its zippers (replacing broken zippers is by far the most common task at luggage repair facilities); consequently, they provide a good place to begin inspecting luggage for quality. There are two basic types: chain and coil (compare photos at left). Modern chain-type zipper teeth are made from injection molded resins (such as polyacetal and polyethylene), fused directly onto the zipper tape; they are incredibly strong (thus much more durable), more resistant to dirt & sand, and more secure (see "Luggage and Security", below). Coil zippers (the coil is made from extruded polyester and sewn onto the zipper tape) are less expensive and more flexible (thus easier/cheaper to install, which explains their preponderance on modern luggage).
Three Magic Letters: Zippers may be ubiquitous, but they're far from simple, comprised of a surprising number (and complexity) of individual parts. Without question, the best ones (both chain and coil styles) are manufactured by the privately-held YKK Group (consisting of 80 companies, which collectively make every single component of the zipper); they have been doing so since 1934. The initials — which are also the brand, and usually found on the zipper pull — come from the original company name, Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha (roughly "Yoshida Company Limited").
If you have a zipper that is difficult to open or close, or that opens of its own accord, or comes off track easily, it's a good bet that it's not a YKK. In fact, the presence of YKK zippers is a quick way to identify better-made products of all kinds: you can be pretty certain that, when a manufacturer switches from YKK zippers to its own in-house brand, it is on a mission to cut costs, at the expense of quality.
And at the risk of stating the obvious, never use a zipper to force an overly-stuffed bag closed. Hold it closed yourself before pulling on the zipper. Or remove some of the contents.
Leather looks, feels, and even smells nice. It is, however, much heavier than contemporary luggage materials such as high-denier nylon. Also, when wet, it is quite susceptible to mold and mildew, and best avoided when travelling in the more humid parts of the world.
One final observation in this regard: The people who best know the quality of any particular piece of luggage are those who built it. So seek out — and patronize — those companies that offer the best warranty policies (i.e., put their money where their marketing is). Make sure that you read the fine print and understand the policy details, though: a "lifetime warranty" rarely means what you might think it does!
Luggage and Security
Luggage is inherently insecure. The hard-shelled variety is somewhat more tamper-resistant than the soft-sided versions, though most of the integrated locks that you'll find are easily compromised. And although zipper sliders can be locked together (with a hasp-style slider such as pictured at right, or simply by passing a padlock through holes in the slider tabs), this presents little deterrent to the knowledgeable miscreant; it will discourage casual pilferage only. (Not that this is a bad idea: even running a length of paracord through the zipper pulls on your daypack is a worthwhile step that can save you from an unpleasant travel experience.)
Such a locking mechanism, as it turns out, can easily be "spilled" — even with a hasp-style slider — as shown below: simply (1) grasp the fabric firmly on both sides of the locked zipper sliders, and (2) pull in opposing directions, perpendicular to the zipper track. It's then an easy matter to (3) reach into the bag and remove all but very large items. Positioning the sliders at a corner of the bag facilitates the initial separation step, and also permits a larger opening.
With a coil zipper (the most common type), bag entry is simpler still: push the slider(s) all the way to one end of the zipper track, then press the point of a ballpoint pen firmly into the centre of the closed track. This will separate the intertwining coils (without damaging them), making it trivial to open the bag fully by simply pulling the zipper track apart in both directions. Coil zippers are designed to self-heal easily, so can be restored to their original condition merely by pulling a slider backward (occasionally with a bit of help from you, holding the coils together), thus rejoining the halves. Both of these techniques, of course, are handy to know should you ever be stuck with a locked bag to which you have lost the key or combination, or that has become jammed or otherwise inoperable.
Shown at left is yet another zipper pull option; in this approach, the more common metal tab is eliminated entirely, and replaced with a loop of cord.
to extend a regular zipper pull, making it easier to grasp
(seen at right, with a loop in the process of being attached).
Eliminating the metal tab also eliminates any noise it might make rattling against the slider (which is why this style is often seen on military gear). It comes with a corresponding trade-off, unfortunately, as it pretty much rules out any simple method of locking/securing the zipper.
The truly determined thief, of course, may well not bother with any of this, but simply cut (or otherwise force) the bag open. Fortunately, the one-bag traveller has less to worry about in this regard, security being one of the reasons for not turning over your belongings to the custody of others. But you won't always have your bag right at your side, so be aware of the possibilities, and act accordingly.
Why Not Make Additional Bag Recommendations?
Elsewhere on these pages, I discuss requirements for different types of travel, and recommend several specific bags. As a rule, I try to identify one or two "ideal" bags for each scenario, rather than a lengthy list of alternatives. Naturally, this leads to folks asking me about other bags that look intriguing, or their particular favourites, or just more bags in general.
Alas, being just one guy running a non-commercial site — not selling products, having no subscription fees, etc. — I lack the resources to obtain and investigate the many varied bags on the market, thus am limited in what I can report. Unless a manufacturer sends me one for review (and many don't want their products subjected to a critical, impartial analysis), I can only do what anyone can: check specifications on the Web, and apply my understanding of what makes a good design. To further complicate things, many of the larger manufacturers (particularly "big name" ones, with wide distribution) change their designs frequently and without notice, which makes them very difficult to recommend (as a "Model XYZ" can be a substantially different bag from one day to the next).
Instead, I attempt on OneBag.com to explain as much as possible about what constitutes good bag design (and address some design ideas that I consider midguided), so that people will be in a better position to evaluate bags on their own. Be assured that there are no free lunches (except for rare instances when a good bag goes out of production, and you can find it at a clearance price somewhere). Many bags are built using poorer quality materials and construction than those I recommend; this is what makes them less expensive. Quite a few current bags, for example, are made of the 1680 denier Asian fabric that I mention above (the only reason to use such an inferior fabric is because it is cheaper than good ones). Some bags are not very rectilinear, or (for leisure models) lack hip belts / suspension systems. As noted above, often a quick check of the warranty policy will tell you all you need to know.
Frankly, the vast majority of bags on the market are designed much more to make a profit than to improve your travel experiences.
Appreciate also that the focus of this site is on a very specific kind of travel: "travelling light, going pretty much anywhere, for an indefinite length of time, with no more than a single carry-on-sized bag." Consequently, I don't address bags for other travel styles; it's not that I disapprove of them, but rather that I can impart little of value concerning things with which I have limited experience.
All that said, once you get beyond the basics, the bag doesn't have that much of an effect on the ability to travel lightly. As long as you like its design, and it's not too heavy (more than 1–2kg, 2–4 pounds), it will likely suffice for your current travel needs. It may not last as long, or carry as comfortably, or hold as much, or be as organized, or have all the features of the bags I recommend, but by the time you come to fully appreciate that, you will have plenty of interesting travels under your belt, and be unlikely to feel that you wasted your money.
Actual travelling is much more interesting than fretting over optimal bag design!
Finally, USD$150–250 may seem to some like a lot to pay for a bag, but averaged over a lifetime of travel, it comes to less than a couple of cups of "designer" coffee per year! With just a little extra time spent exploring flight options, most people can save more than the cost of a decent bag on a single overseas airfare.