Friday, September 12, 2008

Question: How are you packing?

I’ve been experimenting a bit with packing methods as an element of streamlining my travel without looking (in my buddy CA’s immortal phrase) “like a bag of donuts” when I arrive at my destination.

Bundle packing

Many experienced travelers have become fans of “bundle packing”. It offers the twin benefits of avoiding wrinkles while reducing luggage volume. Two useful explanations of bundle packing:
Basically, you wrap all your clothing around a single central core item and place the resulting bundle in your bag. Without folds, the clothing stays unwrinkled. The bundle is also compact and malleable so it reduces the size of your bag.

Bottom line up front:
Bundle packing works great when you are traveling to a single destination or staying for lengthy periods at each of multiple destinations. If you are changing location each day, however, bundling is less than useful.

The strengths of bundle packing (avoiding wrinkles and reducing total volume) rely on having all your clothing in a single mass. If you are living out of your bag, however, that single mass of clothing quickly becomes cumbersome. You are left with two poor choices for actually using your clothing over multiple stops.

  1. You can extract the entire bundle from your bag each day, unwrap it, take out the clothing you need, and repack the bundle. Repeatedly unpacking and repacking the entire bundle just to extract a single day’s clothing is a pain in the butt.
  2. You can slip the individual clothing items out of the larger bundle as needed each day. Pulling individual items out of the larger bundle without unpacking it ensures upsetting the integrity that is the key to wrinkle avoidance. By day two of a trip you’re going to have a mass of jumbled clothes.

Neither one of these approaches works in practice. The bundle is a tool for moving a mass of clothing from one point to another efficiently. It’s poorly suited to organizing, extracting, and reinserting subsets of the mass.

Enter the Cubes
I’ve been doing a lot of trips recently that involve living out of a bag while making multiple short stops. For these trips, I’ve found Eagle Creek’s packing cubes ( to be a real help. They allow me to compress my stuff and maintain organization, all while keeping wrinkles at bay.

As an example, here’s the clothing I took on our recent 3 week west coast road trip,

along with what I wore on the flight.

I wanted to fit the clothing in my Outdoor Products’ Essential Carry-on along with some gear (camera, maps, GPS, etc.). Since we’d be moving around a lot in a car, I wanted to avoid the weight of a wheeled bag.

Tops and bottoms each went in their respective packing cubes. Two smaller cubes held socks/underwear and odds&ends.

Everything fit in the Essential Carry-on with room to spare
Clothing plus the gear brought the bag to 22 pounds according to my nifty new luggage scale (thanks GL!!). Add to this main bag a 12 pound daypack with laptop, liquids, and some personal items and I was carry-on friendly for the flights out to California.

While Pleen and I were on the road, we stayed in two houses and ten hotels. I found that it was always easy to extract one piece of clothing from the bag without unpacking everything. Clothes stayed wrinkle-free and organized throughout the trip.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Good Gear: Outdoor Products’ Essential Carryon

I’ve become more and more interested in carry-on-only travel in the past couple years for all the obvious reasons. The “one-bag” approach has garnered increasing attention recently, and there are more bags than ever on the market designed for this sort of travel. These are bags designed to: fit the airlines’ size restrictions for carry-on luggage; provide a logical and useful packing arrangement; be ergonomic to haul and lighter than roll-aboard cases; and be robust enough to stand up to the abuse of modern travel.

While I continue to maintain that my Eagle Industries A-III pack is the greatest single bag ever produced by human hands (see “Good Gear: Ode to the A-III” below), it is not necessarily ideal for all one-bag carry-on-only packing scenarios. The lack of a main compartment that opens totally flat is an impediment to efficient packing and, moreover, to living out of the bag over multiple stops. Also, the very features that contribute to the robustness that I love (i.e., the abrasion resistant Cordura nylon, the bomb-proof stitching using bonded nylon thread, etc.) translate into weight. The bag weighs almost 37 ounces empty (2.3 pounds). While that’s pretty light compared to 8-10 pound rolling bags, I wanted to experiment with a bag designed around carry-on travel.

Among the best regarded and impressive are the offerings from Tom Bihn (Aeronaut) and Red Oxx (Sky Train & Air Boss). They feature great designs, construction of Cordura or ballistic nylon, YKK zippers, and they all fit in that looming overhead bin.

These bags are not cheap however. And while I’m sure the quality of construction and design are worth it, their $220+ price tags make experimentation prohibitive. Also, they’re not exactly super-light compared to my old A-III; coming in at between 43 and 64 ounces.

Thus, I was greatly pleased to stumbled across the Essential Carryon from Outdoor Products.

The Essential Carryon is a one-bag friendly design that comes in under carry-on size limits, has hidden back-pack straps for longer distance hauling, weighs 1/3 less than my A-III pack (28 ounces/1.75 pounds), and costs . . . wait for it . . . $29.99!!! At that price, experimenting with it is a no-brainer.

I’ve already used it on a couple multi-week road trips, a weekend get-away flight, and it’ll be my primary bag for our upcoming west coast trip. So far, I’m very impressed. It works well and is quite comfortable to carry. In basic black, it doesn’t get a second look from gate agents who seem to mistake it for a laptop bag. Admittedly, the construction is nothing like what I have experienced with my Eagle Industries bags or what I understand about Red Oxx products. However, if it blows out after a year of travel, I can replace it every year for almost a decade and still be under the cost of a Red Oxx Sky Train.




  • Campmor has the Essential Carryon for cheap!:

  • Doug Dyment’s site ( is a great source for the “doctrine” of lighter travel even if his specific suggestions don’t apply to your situation. Having said that, there’s a treasure trove of specific ideas, recommendations, & resources.

  • James Isbell’s blog ( and associated forums, also have a good deal of stuff on similar subjects. There’s a bit more graphical content on packing methods and gear.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Road Trip: West Coast Wandering

Pleen and I are heading out to the west coast for a couple weeks of wandering and touching base with some old friends. We fly into San Francisco on 11 SEP, and out of Seattle on 29 SEP.

Friends in San Francisco & Seattle are putting us up. Pretty bare bones itinerary in between. We’ve got hotel reservations on 15 SEP in Vallejo (south of Napa) and 21-24 SEP in Portland. We’ve got a rental car from 15-27 SEP. Reservations at Ad Hoc in Yountville on 15 SEP. Other than that . . . we’re hoping to follow our noses (and . . . let’s be honest . . . our stomachs).

More from along the way.

Good Gear: Patagonia Rain Shadow

As the remnants of Hana rolled through the DC area yesterday, Pleen and I decided to meet up with our buddy JC for a tour of the National Gallery and lunch. Despite the monsoon rains pummeling the District, we strolled for several hours among various locations. If you’re looking for the logic in these choices, there ain’t any.

My cotton cargo shorts were a soaked mess. My Gore-Tex lined sneakers were dry for about 2 minutes before my smartwool socks sucked the water right it (wicking layers work both ways!). From the waist down, I was sloshing. But my torso, clad in a cotton t-shirt, was dry as a bone under my 13 ounce Patagonia Rain Shadow jacket.

At just 13 ounces, the Rain Shadow has become a go-to travel layer for me. It’s done weekend get-aways to Chicago, road trips through the northeast, Canada, and the American west, and several weeks on safari in Kenya. Balled up in the bottom of a daypack or carry-on, it’s unnoticeable.

When the wind starts to blow or the sky opens up, however, the waterproof breathable nylon ripstop shell is a godsend. It’s breathable enough that it keeps the rain off in warm weather without dousing me in sweat, but married to a fleece it’s a great wind and wet barrier in cooler weather as well. Sure, there are high-end layers that are a third the weight, but they are typically water-resistant. I.e. they’ll keep some sprinkles off you, but they’re gonna wet through in a hurry. Not so with the Rain Shadow.

For me, this thing has been worth twice the price!!

Speaking of . . . while I may like the performance of “technical” outdoor gear, I don’t exactly live a life that involves climbing mountains. Thus, I find it hard to justify spending full price for this sort of performance apparel. The Rain Shadow was something I picked up on super-clearance from a vendor who was getting out of the Patagonia M.A.R.S. line. Mine was about half what the Patagonia web site asks. When Patagonia does their season clearance sales, their stuff can often be had at a similar discount. In fact, the “Web Specials” section of the Patagonia web site even has it on pretty good sale as I write this.

Patagonia Rain Shadow jacket: