What To Pack It In
Expandable Bags (And Such)
This Web site is mostly about techniques, products, and ideas that I recommend. But on this and the previous page, you'll find a few things that I — perhaps surprisingly to some — don't.
Another question I often receive relates to so-called "expandable" bags. Such bags are typically equipped with a wrap-around expansion zipper, as pictured at right, that hides a panel of (generally less robust) fabric; when the zipper is opened, the panel of material is thus "added" to the bag, making it a bit larger in one dimension (usually the depth). As with wheels, this is a great marketing idea: pull the zipper and — voilà! — your bag gets bigger. But also as with wheels, features don't come for free: they have consequences, and I don't consider those associated with this option to be worth the implied "benefit" (a means of enlarging the bag to accommodate acquisitions made along the way).
As you might expect, the expansion panel and associated hardware increase the weight, complexity, & manufacturing cost of the bag, while decreasing its water resistance, durability, and (unexpanded) storage capacity. In addition, the vast majority of such bags expand to a non-carry-on size, which rather defeats the whole purpose of the exercise!
- not accumulating a lot of stuff as I travel
- initially leaving plenty of unused space in the bag to accommodate a reasonable amount of "collecting"
- making use of postal services on extended trips, to send stuff home rather than continue to lug it around with me
- carrying an "emergency" bag that I can use to bring extra items home should I really need to (though I prefer not to do so, as this may require checking a bag).
In truth, I find this whole concept just a bit amusing, as I believe the goal to be that of shrinking one's bag, not expanding it! This is, however, but one of many examples of what I term "creeping bloat" …
In its rush to build bags that look exactly like everyone else's, the luggage industry has, over the years, allowed some truly wonderful bags to sink into oblivion. Hardly a year goes by without some notable bag being made a little bit larger, adding an expanding section, or incorporating some other feature of dubious value, thus removing the bag from consideration here.
I used to recommend the Patagonia "MLC®" (for Maximum Legal Carry-on), as pictured at right. At the time, it measured 22×14×8", a legitimate carry-on. In 2004, however, the bag increased in size to 21×14.5×10", exceeding most airline limits, though later in the year it mysteriously decreased again, this time to 22×13×9.5" (simultaneously losing its hip belt). More recently, it has changed size at least twice more than I know of, added some more external zippers, lost some of its rectilinearity, and switched to a lower-quality fabric. When I last checked, it wasn't even a "maximum-sized" bag, though the name hasn't changed! So I no longer recommend it, unless you can find one of the pre-2004 versions. This said, the MLC is still a better bag than many on the market, and would certainly suit someone who does not intend to carry it for extended periods of time (and doesn't mind the inferior fabric). Better bags can be had for less money, however.
While mentioning Patagonia, I would be remiss in not commenting on their long-since-discontinued "LBC" (Little Brother Carry-on). With two internal compartments (the larger of which had a 3-sided zipper), hidden shoulder straps, internal tie-downs, top-quality construction & hardware, and external dimensions (19×14×8.5" / 48×36×22cm) that few gate attendants would challenge, it was a superb bag for the true minimalist traveller. I mention it here in case you are lucky enough to come across a used one somewhere.
Rick Steves' "Back Door Bag" is another in this category. At one time I liked and recommended this bag, which was very well made for the price. Though it lacked the high-end suspension system of the MEI bag, it was still a reasonable budget choice. But the original bag was unfortunately discontinued, and replaced with a new "expandable" version (now called the "Convertible Carry-On", and not shown here), which I dislike for the reasons listed above. Curiously, the fact that it's now expandable makes it even more important that it have a comfortable suspension, which it doesn't. It also has too many external pockets. So I can't recommend this convertible model, though I have no doubt that it sells well.
In mid-2007, Steves brought back the (non-expanding) Back Door Bag, in a redesigned version (pictured at left). I have not had an opportunity to examine this new design to see how its construction quality compares with the bags I recommend, but at USD$79.99 it certainly rests at the bargain end of the price range. Again, though, a maxi-sized bag lacking a proper suspension system.
A notably popular choice for touristing and adventure travel was the pre-1999 Eagle Creek "Continental Journey" pack, shown at left. This was a two-piece modular pack: a main pack of maximum permitted carry-on size, plus a zip-on daypack. It weighed 4.25 pounds (1.9 kg), and came in black, blue, and evergreen (pictured here). Its suspension stowage system was particularly convenient and flexible. All in all, it was a one of the better examples of bags of this type. (Eagle Creek discontinued this particular design in 1999; its various subsequent identically-named replacements have been oversized, less efficiently designed, and/or more "backpacking"-oriented.)
Bags like the Continental Journey rose to popularity in the era when two carry-ons were generally permitted by airlines (North American ones, anyway), the idea being that you separate the bags, carry them both on board, and zip them back together at your destination. Such a design works better in theory than in practice, as the addition of the (zipped-on) daypack compromises the bag's rectilinearity, and moves its centre of gravity further from your body, making it both more clumsy and considerably less comfortable to carry for extended periods. And you won't find many airlines these days that will let you bring two luggage pieces aboard.
Such considerations aside, however, this amount of storage capacity is simply more than one needs for extended travelling. Further, your daypack should be a lightweight convenience for you to use about town, not a bulky contrivance to carry more than a single carry-on-sized bag will allow (the type of daypack incorporated in these two-piece bags is much heavier than necessary, and the associated zippers and fastenings occupy additional space and add weight, neither of which contributes to a positive travel experience). Our efforts are better directed at reducing the size of our bags, not adding to same.
Incidentally, note that it is often possible to simply unzip the daypack and carry it inside the main pack, resulting in an overall package of proper carry-on dimensions. As already noted, daypacks of this type are too heavy and bulky to be ideal, but this is a great compromise solution for the traveller who bought such a combination, has developed improved travel skills, and is looking to downsize!
Finally, if you are using one of these bags, and are finding it uncomfortable to carry on long walking stretches, consider detaching the daypack portion and wearing that in front of you. Yes, it looks a bit weird, but it will yield a much more comfortable walk (by better balancing the load) and perhaps convince you that this type of bag is not really the best-conceived design.