Pack It Up: Part 1 in a Series

Departing from the topic of babies and liberal environmental guilt, I’d like to get back to the original purpose of this blog. To wit, tracking travels and travel-related topics. By my very quick estimate, Tom and I have been to 25 different countries between us. We have been accumulating travel experience since our first trips out-of-country in 2000 and 2001, respectively. Next month he gets to add a continent and island chain to his count with his conference trip Down Under. We both fly several times a year, and between us we have a few degrees in international relations and cross-cultural communications. All this is by way of saying that we may be no closer to multicultural understanding, but we certainly know how to pack. My one claim to fame is that all I took to Europe for three and a half months was a carry-on suitcase and a school backpack with a rolled-up duffel inside for the return trip.

Tom is a man of devotion and dedication, so the pack he uses has been with him to several continents. As for me, it took a bit of trial and a bit of error to determine the right piece of luggage that I could take on any trip. I still have my set of purple and teal L.L. Bean duffel bags (particularly the extra-large teal blue outlet-store castoff that inexplicably has “Moe” embroidered on the side–the Rolling Moe has gained such notoriety in my family that I think they would howl at me were I to dispose of it), but they serve a different purpose. Those are for trips to the gym (small), quick local overnights (medium), to be put in my main luggage for a spare souvenir bag (large), and when the baby is born we’ll start using the largest of the bags (Moe) to consolidate all the crap that comes with porting a baby from spot to spot. Aside from using Moe when I lived out of my bags for three months in Portland, I haven’t used the others for a plane trip in a long time. I like them fine, but I have a weak back and shoulders and these simply aren’t practical for hauling over long distances. That’s a major consideration for me–because we are cheap and will avoid airport shuttle fees whenever possible, will it cause me pain if I have to take it through three subway transfers and a walk of several city blocks? Will Tom need to relieve me of my burden so my back won’t scream in agony and he will be spared the worst of my whining? If the answers are yes, I won’t use it. A good traveler is not a burden to their buddy.

The Samsonite is a good piece that I borrowed from my sister and the hard sides were handy for more fragile items brought back from Europe, but I am generally opposed to rolling luggage. Unless it’s a well-oiled piece and fantastic motor control, most people cannot pilot a rolling suitcase to save their lives. If I had a nickel for every barked shin or squashed toe I’ve gotten at the hands of a rolling suitcase, I wouldn’t need a frequent flier account.

Anyway, I am a light souvenir-purchaser (and am more likely to mail home anything bulky, like the kick-ass sushi set we got in Japantown in San Francisco that I can’t bleeping use because I can’t eat sushi until I deliver), who travels with as little bulk as possible, and typically takes trips between 3-5 days, sometimes longer, to urban areas where we rely on public transport or to places where renting a small car is no hassle. So what did I buy?

The piece of luggage that has had my heart and my back on nearly 10 trips since 2007 is The North Face Women’s Terra 40. The current model is below, although mine is bright teal and gray. Not super-attractive but I always know it’s my bag. This is a great weekender bag if you pack heavy. I can use it for longer trips and it held everything I needed for 10 days of hosteling and camping in northern California.* This is an adjustible internal-frame pack, which doesn’t require a professional fitting (although Tom is capable of executing such a task, thanks to his past job experience at an sporting goods shop). It also meets carry-on size requirements so I don’t have to check it. When I do check it, I put it in a protective outer bag so it doesn’t get nasty and no straps get caught in any baggage-handling machinery. Most importantly, the hip straps are super-thick so all the weight settles there, and handles comfortably.

*Tom, by mutual agreement because his pack is larger, carried both sleeping bags and the tent, although I could have easily clipped my bag to the lower straps. We had three bags for our 10 days in San Francisco/Napa/Sonoma–my pack, a smaller backpack for Tom, and his uber-pack for all our camping gear, and my purse, which easily held my Canon Rebel with 24-70L lens attachment. Worked out splendidly.

Now, would I buy the pack again? As much as I adore how it fits and how it works for my travel needs, probably not. The only reason for this is because of the recognizability of The North Face brand. Seriously, if you want your picture taken at some famous foreign spot and are afraid to draw someone who doesn’t speak English, ask a college-age kid wearing a North Face jacket. They are invariably American. I tested this theory extensively in Europe just for kicks, and I was never wrong. The North Face is super-recognizable shorthand for moderately affluent American, and that is not what you want if you’re going to be a tourist. It is virtually impossible to de-brand this pack. I’m not going to replace a perfectly good bag for that reason, but it is definitely something I will remember if it rips or tears, and I will remember when we travel that aside from being a somewhat nasal blonde with a big camera, I also have a bag that screams well-off Westerner (kidnappers will be displeased to hear that I have saved extensively for my higher-end items or lucked into them by chance and don’t actually have that much disposable cash). Three strikes for me!

Tom does not have the exact pack below, but his uber-bag is something similar. The Blackhawk 3-Day Assault Pack was recommended by a contributor to Brave New Traveler about a year ago and I think I would buy something like it if some harm befell my current pack.

I don’t like that there aren’t as many access points as the W(omen’s) Terra 40–I can get into that thing from any angle–but I like the removable modular daypack and this could easily be suited to my needs.

In summary, this is the perfect bag for me but possibly not for someone else. When buying a good piece of luggage, consider:

How often do you travel? Do you take a plane, train, automobile? Do you live in fear of lost luggage?
How long do your trips generally last?
How do you get around when you reach your destination?
What is your itinerary? Do you usually visit places that require specific attire (a fancy cocktail dress with heels, perhaps, or layers for hiking)?
Are you a light or heavy packer?
What travel accessories do you already have to streamline the process? Will you need to buy more if you buy a certain piece? (More on that in later entries.)
Do you tend to buy a lot of souvenirs? Is shipping those home an option you’re willing to consider?

The pack I bought fits every answer to the questions I posed. Good luck finding your bag!