Eagle Creek Traverse Pro Roller Bag

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve made the full jump to the roller bag. It’s what I pack now, unless I’m traveling super light, and then I just take a little day pack. The perfect bag remains just out of reach, though I’ve noticed some real improvements since I got my Costco standard sized carry on a few years back. Luggage is lighter and more versatile these days, and generally more thoughtfully designed.

The Traverse Pro is a combination bag — a day pack and suitcase in one. There’s a TSA friendly zip-off backpack and a standard roller bag. The bag is overhead bin sized even with the day pack on it, though if you’ve really stuffed it tight and you’re on a smaller plane, you may find you can’t stow the whole thing in the bin. To test the bag, I packed for a short weekend away, I flew to my destination –that’s how I know about the overhead bin issue.

I wasn’t thrilled with packing the Traverse, though it’s easier to manage with the auxiliary backpack zipped off. The bag zips most of the way open with a large flap; I wanted it it to open all the way and to lay flat and it doesn’t quite do that. It’s not a dealbreaker, it’s just a minor detail that could be improved.

The bag has your standard “keep your stuff in place” straps and the inside of the lid is a full zippered pocket for your lose items. There are two outside pockets on the front, one big sleeve, one smaller. You have to keep in mind that they’re not easy to get to if you’ve got the day pack zipped on, so don’t put your boarding pass in there.

The bag was easy to wheel around — I liked the locking handle and the maneuverability of the wheels — those things can be clunky sometimes, the handle sticks or the wheels just aren’t smooth. This bag has nice base hardware and is easy to move around. Plus, it’s light compared to anything else I’ve tested in this category. The zipper pulls are nice — they have those round, finger tip shaped things that make the bag easy to open and close, but the zippers themselves were a little resistant when going around the corners on the bag.The day pack is handy, and it’s a nice one, it’s got padded straps and a sleeve for your laptop. It’s got some nice organizer pockets sized right to hold your phone or your pocket camera. There’s a key hook which is great if you’re me and you’re always digging in the depths or your bag to find your house key while you’re on the front porch in the rain. It doesn’t have external water bottle pockets, something I always want on a pack and something that seems to be often left off a luggage system. (See also, this review of the Airporter pack.)

Top and side grips make the bag easy to deal with when you’re hefting it in and out of the rental car trunk, or again, up into that overhead bin. There’s a nice little luggage tag sleeve on the side that tucks out of the way — a small detail that I’m seeing on newer bags and really appreciating. I’ve had airlines lose my bags repeatedly and knowing that there’s ID on them helps. (Sidebar: I have also always had my bags find me. Up to five days later, but still, they find me.)

Eagle Creek pairs this bag with a recommended, optional packing system which I also tried out. It includes a couple of packing cubes and a folder. I’m coming around to the idea of packing cubes for things like socks and underwear, the smaller bits that go wandering around the inside of your bag. Eagle Creek makes their own, but candidly, I’m not brand loyal and hey, I used to just use plastic shopping bags. I still do for dirty laundry.

Eagle Creek suggests you include their Pack-It Folder. It’s the exact size of the base of the bag — you fold your stuff up inside it, cinch it down, and it stays nice and flat. There’s even a folding guide for the folding challenged. Thing is, I can fold like no one’s business. While it’s tempting to stuff my clothes into a great wrinkly wad, I don’t. I don’t need a folding system. You might. If you’re packing challenged and just can’t make yourself fold your shirts properly, this is going to help you out a lot. And if you’re traveling for business or need to look pulled together, a folding system is worth checking out as a crutch. My shirts did stay nice and neat, I didn’t have to iron.

Get the bag and the packing system directly from Eagle Creek — the bag retails for just over 300USD. Bits and pieces in the packing system go from 15-40 USD.

Lessons from a Year of Travel Gear

Truth: Writing gear reviews is fun. I get to play around with a lot of different toys, try on clothes that are polar opposites of what passes for my personal style, and most of the people I meet in the outdoor gear industry are great fun. They’re just like you and me; they like to travel and camp and be kitted out nicely while they’re doing it.

The tough part about being a gear head is that you actually have to try the stuff out to say anything meaningful about it. This means finding the right situation for that one thing in your review pile, putting on some shoes, and heading out into the world to get dirty. I’ve ruined some stuff this way and while it’s all in the purpose of research, it makes me feel kind of bad when something doesn’t hold up. I want to like everything, but I just don’t, and sometimes, maybe I like it but it’s just not good travel gear.

Through testing and laundering and using and carrying and schlepping every single thing I review, I’ve come to a few broad conclusions about what works and what doesn’t. As this year closes and next year’s new stuff starts to appear in my review pile, I’ll share with you my lessons of this year in travel gear.

It’s got to be able to survive the washing machine. Yeah, I know it says dry clean or hand wash only. It doesn’t matter, everything I test goes into the laundry. I ruined a really nice cashmere blend sweater from Horny Toad because I washed it. I’m bummed, but if it can’t survive the laundry, it can’t survive my travels. Cashmere, you are staying home.It’s got to be wearable for the duration of a long haul flight. I don’t care how hot those boots make you look or that you can’t wear that top without that one bra. You have to be able to survive the indignities of coach in it for 10 hours without suffocating or screaming “Get it off me! Just get it off me!” Whatever it is, it can’t bind, be itchy, be too tight, cause your extremities to swell… you get the drill.

It’s got to fit in the overhead bin. If it can’t be carry on, it’s not going. Oh, I’ve checked a bag (then prayed for its safe arrival) but I want to know that if I have to carry it on, I can. I avoid any luggage that’s too big to take on the plane. Aside: I’ve got to be able to heft it up there myself, too. Sure, I can often find help, and people take pity on me because I’m short. But I need to be able to haul my own gear.

I’ve got to want to take it along. I’m looking at you, TSA approved luggage locks, weird camera mounting system, and a few other odds and ends kicking around the office in the “to be reviewed” pile. If I’m not excited about it from the get go, I’m probably never going to be.

You have to try it on in the store, then order online… mostly. Sizing is all over the place. I think I’m a pretty standard medium. Columbia Sportswear thinks I’m a large. (They’ve never ridden the bus I take downtown, clearly.) Sometimes you get lucky, other times, you hope you’ve chosen a company with a generous returns policy for their online shopping.

If I’ve totally ruined it in the test, I did my job. Turns out bug repellent totally eats the plastic those packing cubes are made of, go figure. If I broke a zipper, it means that the hardware isn’t up to snuff. Busted seams, torn fabrics, dirt stained fabrics… that’s the stuff. If I manage to really drag something through the wringer and am still packing it, I know I’ve got top notch gear in my hands.

You absolutely have to try the stuff out to know if it’s any good. I got my hands on a couple of things that I really loved this year. The Keen McKenzie hybrid sandals, a terrific roller bag from Gregory (you can carry it as a backpack and it’s tough, too), SmartWool base layers, to name a few. But I know I like this stuff because I’ve used it over and over and over again, three four trips out.

You can’t have too many pairs of really good socks. You can, however, have too much polar fleece.

I’m looking forward to see what stays in my bag for whatever adventures 2012 throws my way. And I’m curious — what’s your favorite piece of gear from 2011? Anything you think I should check out?

Photo: By Smath. via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Guerrilla’s Airporter Pack: A Backpacker All-in-One Bag

Man, do I see a lot of luggage. Roll-aboards. Day packs. Laptop/iPad/digital whatever storage solutions. And honestly, most of them don’t quite make the cut. Part of the reason I have so many of these things is that I continue to quest for The Perfect Bag. Light, versatile, the right pocket for that one thing that always gets loose and floats around inside my luggage.

I’m impressed when a bag designer really thinks about how a bag will get used. Attention to detail, that makes all the difference. (See also, this bag by Tom Bihn.) The folks behind the Airporter by Guerrilla Packs have given a great deal of thought to putting their bag together. They’ve made a well designed backpacker/round-the-world bag and if you’re in the market for such a thing, you should check it out.

The Airporter is one of those system packs with a clip on day pack. Gravity isn’t always your friend with these things, your balance gets out of whack because where the weight sits is just wrong. The day pack on the Airporter is small, so that helps. Pack smart and keep most of your gear in the big bag, just use the day pack for stuff you need to access frequently and you’ll be fine. Then, when you’re day tripping, use the bag for whatever you need — stowing your swimsuit for that snorkel boat day, shopping, whatever.

There’s a sleeve for your laptop in the back, a pull through for your headphones, some internal pockets and key loop. Plus, hey, that’s nice… picked up too much stuff while out shopping? The day pack expands, just open the wrap around zipper. Clever. What’s missing? A water bottle pocket. Sure you could stow your water bottle inside the pack, but that’s beside the point, no?

The main pack has a couple of external pockets — two smaller zip pockets on the top and water bottle/dirty hikers pockets on the side. There are lashing straps for your sleeping bag or raincoat or whatever, and a bunch of tie on loops along the top. In the bottom, there’s a rain cover that’s sewn on; you won’t lose it unless you cut it off.

Inside the body of the pack, there are two attached padded pockets — ideal for your pocket camera, and a clip in place padded laptop sleeve that you can use as a shoulder bag. The sleeve just fits in the day pack if you’ve got the day pack expanded. Another useful feature? The entire front panel of the pack zips away for loading. Those top-loader packs make me crazy, the thing you want is always at the bottom.

A removable lightweight plastic frame helps the pack hold its shape. A zippered back panel hides padding for your back and the padded shoulder and waist straps. That panel stows in the same place where the rain cover is hiding. It’s nice to be able to stow those straps when you’re checking your bag for a flight, or tossing it into an overhead bin on a plane or train. Grips on the top and side mean that you can handle this just like any other duffel — though there’s no additional shoulder strap. Oh, and yes, it’s the right size for a carry-on, because really, who wants to check a bag these days?

Besides the lack of a water bottle pocket on the day pack, I found little to criticize on the Airporter. Tougher hardware would be nice, but that would add more weight. There’s only one of those “keep your stuff in place” straps inside, but packing cubes would fix that. Truth be told, I look at this thing and kind of wish I was graduating from college all over again, with a Eurail pass and a boundless sense of optimism.

The Airporter retails for $129.00. It’s super versatile, has a lot of genuinely useful features, and designed for the urban backpacker who travels light. Check it out here.

Tom Bihn’s Aeronaut: A Great Long Weekend Bag

I have what’s fast becoming a stupid amount of luggage. It seems a little ridiculous that I haven’t discovered the one bag to rule them, what with the tide of carry-on sized backpacks, roll-aboards, and duffels that come through the house. The problem is that each bag has its own idea use scenario, they’ve all got a different mash of features, and some are better for certain types of trips than others.

I had dearly wanted to pack the newest bag in my house — the Tom Bihn Aeronaut ($240 from Tom Bihn) — for my safari trip, but I was vanquished by a sleeping bag. I was able to stuff a shocking amount of gear into what looks like not that much space. With my clothes crammed into packing cubes, I could just get everything I needed to pack into the bag, but the sleeping bag, nope, no dice. I ended up taking my Gregory rolling duffel instead.

The Bihn Bag I saved for a long weekend in bad weather to the Columbia River Gorge, and it was really nothing short of perfect for that. I packed three days of foul weather gear — a down sweater, a rain shell, long underwear, a hat and gloves, a little black dress (because really, you never know) and a pair of chunky knee high boots. I also had two magazines, a book, and the usual socks/underwear/toiletries. Oh, and flannel pajamas. I could easily have traveled for a week on the stuff I had in there, longer, if need be.

Here’s what I like about this bag. It’s got stow away backpack straps and a removable waist belt, so if you’re needing to carry it through town or while you run for the bus, you’re set. It’s got two side pockets that are the perfect size for stowing a pair of low rise hikers. It’s got a net pocket in the zippered top; you could use that instead of a toiletries bag, and it’s perfect for stowing the little things that get loose in your bag — a flashlight, the moisturizer you poached from the hotel… you know. There’s a grip handle on the top and the side and a removable shoulder strap so you can configure and carry the bag in whatever way works best for you. It’s regulation carry on size, so you’ll have no trouble fitting it in the overhead bin on your flight.I’ll admit that I’m partial to Tom Bihn products because they’re made right here in my home town — it’s almost impossible to find American made gear these days. I’ve visited the Tom Bihn factory twice. Both times I noticed how detail obsessed Tom Bihn himself is. You see it in his bags. The hardware is quality stuff, tough and designed to last. The shoulder straps are backed with neoprene so they don’t slide. There are lots of little add-ons and accessories that are designed to work together beautifully. I’ve got a little clip on red light that helps you see what’s in your bag in the dark without waking up your roomie — you can get a white light, instead. I’ve also got a packing cube type bag that doubles as a day pack; this is a hugely useful item for stowing in any bag — it’s great for the beach or for campground showers. Bihn bags are really well considered, you can see it in all the attention to detail.

The Aeronaut is Tom Bihn’s recommended round the world bag and there are lots of testimonials on their site backing this up. I have a caveat on that. I wasn’t packing heavy for my Africa trip, not by a long shot. (See also, strapping lad on my tour hefts my bag and pauses. “Wow, you’re traveling really light!”) I just needed a little more room, just a tiny bit, the size of, oh, a sleeping bag in a compression sack, to make the bag work.

If you’re not carrying a sleeping bag — and really, I had everything else — you’d do well to go with the Aeronaut. It’s not the lightest bag on the market, but I’d wager that it’s one of the best designed and it’s built to take a beating.

Knocked up abroad: planning travel with a baby

travel with babyLet’s get this out of the way: you can travel with a baby. Many new parents feel that once they have a child, their travel days are over, but many parents will tell you that the first six months are the easiest time to travel with a baby. Is it easy? Not exactly, but with enough planning and the right attitude, it’s not as hard as you might think. Is it selfish? Probably, but so is most travel. Again, planning, attitude and a good amount of luck factor in to ensuring that you and baby aren’t a nuisance to other passengers and that you and your child have a safe and healthy trip. My baby is too young to remember her early adventures, but she’s learning to be adaptable and sociable, and does well with travel, new people, and noise. Is it fun? Your carefree days of travel may be over, but you can still enjoy exploring new places, indulging in great food and wine (it might just be at a sidewalk cafe at 4pm instead of a trendy restaurant at 9pm), and engaging with locals more deeply than you ever did before baby. Given the patience, resourcefulness, and ingenuity that I’ve developed while traveling with a baby, I’d say it has made me a better traveler, maybe even a better person.

Living in a foreign country like Turkey puts me at an advantage: I deal with a language and cultural barrier every day and everything is much more complicated and difficult than it would be at home in New York. Because this is not our permanent home and imported items are expensive, we made it through the first few months with little more than a stroller, a baby wrap to carry her, and a portable changing pad, so we already travel light. I say it gives me an advantage because I’m already used to the challenges and unfamiliarity inherent in travel. What makes foreign travel daunting (even without a baby) is the foreignness of it all, which has become my normal (after nearly two years abroad, I can tell you that knowing what’s going on all the time is overrated). The skills I’ve honed as a traveler and an expat — problem-solving, thinking ten steps ahead, and planning an exit strategy — are the same I use as a parent; you can apply the same lessons with a child or on the road.Now with a few trips under my belt with baby both solo and with my husband (and more travel planned in the coming weeks and months), I’ve developed some guidelines to help with traveling with a baby. I’ll be posting some additional articles on how to cope with a baby on a plane and on the ground, travel gear recommendations, as well as some destination-specific info, but first: some tips on planning a trip with a baby.

Choose a baby-friendly destination. You may find that people everywhere are much more understanding and helpful to people traveling with babies than you imagine, but some places are more baby-friendly than others. In my experience, Mediterranean Europe is full of baby-lovers, even if the cobblestones, stairs, and ancient infrastructure presents a lot of challenges. Istanbul can be a nightmare to navigate with a stroller, but there are always friendly Turks willing to help. I’ve also heard babies in Latin America and Southeast Asia are treated like rock stars. Generally, countries with a high birth rate tend to be friendlier than others, though I’ve found the United States to be the most difficult in terms of other people’s attitudes.

-Prepare to pare down: There are a lot of great things about having a baby in the 21st century, but people managed quite well for generations without wipe warmers (really, this is a thing?!) and baby gyms. There are a few items I use at home every day such as a bouncy seat, a nursing pillow, and a folding bathtub, but I’ve done fine without them for weeks at a time while traveling. I know at some point down the line, I’ll need to pack a myriad of toys, snacks, and diversions for my child, but infants need very little. It may help to wean yourself off of baby gear in advance of your trip to see how well you can get along with less. Let the baby get used to a travel cot if you plan to use one, try getting around for a day with just a baby carrier, and introduce toys that can be easily attached to a stroller and then stashed in a pocket. Think about your destination: will a stroller be more of a hinderance than a help or can you get along with another mode of transport? Do you need a car seat or can you rent one? What can serve multiple purposes? I carry a thin Turkish towel that looks like a pashmina and I can use it as a burp cloth, nursing cover, baby blanket, and a scarf. The less you can pack, the better. Really all you can handle is baby in a stroller, one wheeled suitcase, and a purse and/or diaper bag. Anything more and you’ll regret it. Also, keep in mind that babies are born everywhere, and there are few places in the world where you can’t buy diapers, formula, clothes, or other gear. Pack enough in your carry-on to get through the first day and night in case you arrive at your destination after shops close.

-Schedule travel around baby: Babies are adaptable, but when it comes to travel, especially flying, make it as easy on yourself as possible. My baby generally wakes up early to eat, then goes back to sleep for a few hours, and sleeps through most of the night. Therefore, I’ve tried to book flights for early in the morning or overnight so she’s awake as little as possible. In the six flights we took to and from the US and domestically, the only one we had any trouble with was a 45-minute Boston to New York flight in the early evening, when she tends to be cranky. It’s hard to comfort a baby when you’re standing in line or getting ready to board a flight, so if your baby is already asleep at the airport, that’s half the battle. There used to be nothing I hated more than getting to the airport at the crack of dawn, but traveling with a sleeping, and more importantly, quiet baby is worth getting up early.

-Consider an apartment rental: With the popularity of websites such as AirBnB (even after the home trashing scandal), renting an apartment for even a short stay is an increasingly viable option when planning a trip. It not only gives you more space and a more home-like environment, it can also help you to get to know a place more through the neighborhood and markets when you buy food to cook on your trip. For a parent, an apartment has several key advantages over a hotel room. Having access to laundry while traveling can be a huge help and reduce your packing load significantly. Likewise, whether you are breastfeeding or using formula, having a kitchen with a fridge can be a necessity with a baby. If you’re set on a hotel stay (daily room-cleaning could be a big help too!), make sure your room has a minibar fridge to stash bottles inside and a bathtub if your baby is too big for the sink, and get info on the closest laundromat.

-Do your research: The last thing you want when traveling is to be standing on a subway platform with a crying baby, after hauling a heavy stroller up a flight of stairs, only to discover the train is bypassing your station. Before I travel next week to Slovenia and Italy, I’m looking up everything from how to cross the border by taxi, to what train stations have elevators, to public bathrooms in Venice with baby-changing stations (though I’ve managed many times on the top of a toilet seat lid and a changing pad). All the stuff about a destination you could wait to figure out until you arrived before you had a baby will help you a lot to plan in advance. Here’s some examples of things to research before you go, the more prepared you can be, the better.

Stay tuned for more tips on travel with a baby, in the air and on the ground plus destination guides for foreign travel with a baby. Waiting for baby to arrive? Check out past Knocked Up Abroad articles on traveling while pregnant and what to expect when you’re expecting in Turkey.