I’ve done a fair bit of traveling in my life. Not quite as much as I’d like, certainly, but enough to have learned a thing or two about having a good experience on the road. I’ve always approached it from the perspective of someone who loves optimization. This post is going to give some of my insight into the most important choice anyone who travels make: just what bag do you use?

In my experience, the pressure of making a good choice in the bag department is proportional to how long a trip is: for a 2 day vacation trip, you could get away with a disposable plastic bag. For a three week jaunt through Europe, you probably want something on at least the level of a schoolyard bag. For a 6 month sojourn through South America, well, one bad call at this point could ruin your entire trip, or worse.

Options


The usual options apply here: duffel bags, carry on bags, backpacks. Rolling wheels or carried, or even an incredibly gauche electric motor and seat. Modern luggage is a jungle of terrible kickstarters, outdated modes of thinking, and a race to hit the next ‘me bag’ to post on Kickstarter with a highly saturated, YouTube-esque announcement video of three people who are desperate for you to understand they really care.

The first thing is to keep in mind space. Not “Do I have enough?”, but “Do I have too much?”. One of the oldest truisms in travel is that empty space never stays empty for very long: inevitably, you’ll fill up whatever space you have, even as your mind strains against knowing that you just don’t really need what you’re putting in that extra pocket.

Be realistic with yourself. Some folks can travel with a very, very small bag, others need more. Neither’s better or worse as far as your trip goes, but having too much or too little is a great way to kill any fun you were going to have on your trip.

The second is to understand durability and materials. A full discussion is beyond the scope of this post, but I can help you by defining some ground terms:

  • Denier: a measure of the thickness of a fabric. 1 denier is equal to 1 gram per 9 kilometers of yarn. Usually higher end, more well made bags will have fabrics with deniers on the order of 400 or 500, or more up into the thousands. A higher denier doesn't necessarily mean more durable, but it does share an indirectly positive relationship.
  • Cordura: a proprietary synthetic fabric, cordura resists abrasion and has a smooth feel to the hand. It's one of the two main synthetic backpack fabrics, with the other being ballistic nylon.
  • There are various natural fabrics that could also be used for carry, but they're generally not quite as useful for travel as the two above. Leather, for example, is gorgeous and durable in some instances, but doesn't like water, humidity, and needs quite a lot of care. Waxed canvas is also gorgeous, and durable, but is heavy and doesn't pack down easily.

This is just the first post in a larger series that will be about the basics of building a travel kit. Check back over the next five or six weeks and, by the end, I'll have shown you how to build a functional, purpose-driven travel loadout.