Essential Gear

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, Travel Guide 1997-1998

Essential Gear

Soft luggage with an outdoor pedigree has it all over the pricey-but-brittle department-store stuff. Bags made of Cordura or ballistics nylon are very strong, abrasion-resistant, and relatively light. But materials themselves don't make for a durable bag; Construction does. Here, everything's double-stitched and bar-tacked, the big zippers won't blow out when overstuffed, and handles are reinforced — so it's just a matter of choosing the best design for your trip. Augment it with smaller special-purpose carriers, and you're ready to bag most anything.
By Bob Howells

all-terrain bag
I'm a duffel kind of guy. They're uncomplicated, easy to pack, easy to access. I've been a fan of Best American Duffel for some time, and a B.A.D. No. 4 ($104, 25 by 16 by 13 inches) is generally my bag of choice. But for a long trip that requires heavy gear, a big duffel stuffed to the gills is pretty hard on the old sacroiliac. I've been unimpressed with the rolling-duffel genre (crummy wheels and poor construction) — until now. No surprise that B.A.D.'s first roller is a good one: The B.A.D. All-Terrain Bag ($160, 30 by 14.5 by 14 inches) uses smooth urethane sealed-bearing in-line skate wheels mated to a tough Cordura bag with a big horseshoe-shaped zipper.

saddle tote/security belt
I've been carrying a shoulder bag for more than 20 years now, ever since I first noticed Euro-pean men toting "purses" unabashed. Why not? It makes sense to consolidate wallet, sunglasses, notebook, pen, address book, and business cards — not
to mention such miscellanea as traveler's checks and airplane tickets. Ex Officio's Saddle Tote ($39, 8 by 10 by 2.5 inches) is my current favorite: six zippered compartments, another six open slots, plus a sunglasses holder on the shoulder strap. Though it's not fully waterproof, its polyurethane coating has repelled a number of downpours. I rarely resort to carrying a hidden money belt, but when I feel the need to protect my cards and currency, Eagle Creek's Undercover Deluxe Security Belt ($12) works well — it puts a soft, fleecy surface against the skin and holds more money than I'd ever want to carry.

rolling duffel
The Orvis Battenkill Magnum Rolladuffle ($225, 29 by 14 by 14 inches) is another strong beast of a bag. With four smooth ball-bearing wheels and a sturdy, reinforced bottom, it'll roll any load (though it could use a second grab-handle for stair-carries), and three exterior pockets let you isolate some items. The heavy canvas fabric is specially treated to turn back weather and is immensely strong.

I've probably used a dozen toiletry kits over the years, but none better than The North Face's new Kit Bag ($34). Its three compartments hold a lot in a compact (11 by 7 by 3 inches) space, and it hangs by way of a buckled strap (hook-style hangers tend to fall off their perches). Eagle Creek's All Aboard Trip Kit ($30) is larger (12 by 9 by 4.5 inches) — it'll carry full-size bottles and, dare I say it, a hair-dryer. I like it as an organizer to keep small nontoiletries (like underwear, flashlight, pocketknife) from getting lost in a cavernous duffel. Bean's Personal Organizer ($25, 10 by 9 by 3 inches) by L.L. Bean is a similar, though smaller, design; a removable mesh caddy lets you hang your hair-care items in the shower.

lumbar packs
I like lumbar packs that are big and sturdy enough to be daypack substitutes. I also prefer top-loaders that don't spill their contents when opened. These two are the best around. The Dana Design Madison ($59) is like a klettersack for the hips, with a flap that buckles over an 800-cubic-inch, back-padded main compartment. The hipbelt runs around the bag's exterior, so when you cinch it, the load tucks into your back. It's a decent camera bag, too. The Mountainsmith Day Pack ($85, 1,254 cubic inches) has more bells and whistles, with two zippered compartments, side water-bottle carriers, and trim straps to cinch a load into the lumbar. I use it often as my airline carry-on, then as a daypack for hiking.

I wish I'd had a JanSport Minimalist ($130) for my long-ago Eurail wander through Europe instead of my conspicuously bulky frame pack. It's a streamlined internal-frame pack with a decent suspension and enough capacity (3,900 cubic inches plus a 700 cubic-inch extension topside) to carry a trek's worth of clothes and incidentals. It's not fancy (though I was impressed with the optional, detachable modular pockets I tried: a padded camera bag and a basic shoulder bag), not highly adjustable, not up to big loads of backcountry gear. It's for going light, fast, and inexpensively. The K2 FlashFit RidgeRunner ($130, 2,850 cubic inches) hums a similar tune — it's an oversize daypack ideal for lightweight traveling, with an effective and easy-to-adjust harness system. As for the Lowe Alpine Contour Mountain 40 ($99, 2,400 cubic inches), it's the best frameless daypack I've used — it hugs the shape of my back to carry 20 pounds very nicely. I loaded it up last summer for long day hikes in Alaska and used it as my carry-on for a ton of books and souvenirs.

Patagonia's MLC (Maximum Legal Carry-On; $165, 21 by 9 by 15 inches) is probably overbuilt for its purpose, but I'll take it . . . anywhere. Sized to fit within one
of those airport templates that determine whether a bag gets to ride with you or in the hold, the MLC is a two-compartment suitcase made of super-strong ballistics nylon — an anvil salesman couldn't stress it. The molded-foam, rubberized (nonslip) shoulder strap is the best I've used, and hideaway backpack straps are nicely padded. There's even a small waist strap, though no framework to support a long carry.

hybrid bag
An ingenious hybrid bag, Eagle Creek's Cargo Voyager Large ($120, 4,500 cubic inches) has the large horseshoe zippered opening of a duffel, the looks and extra pockets of a suitcase (the end pockets are big enough to hold a pair of day hikers each) — plus hideaway backpack straps for portages. No suspension system, though; this isn't a bag for long carries on the back.

The one bag you must own
The North Face Lhasa ($250, 4,400 cubic inches) is the rare convertible built to expedition standards, and if you're only going to buy one travel bag, this should be it. It's a pack first and suitcase second, with an adjustable harness and two aluminum stays to transfer weight (it'll haul a good 40 pounds) to the padded hipbelt. The whole harness zips away for suitcase carry. Inside is a tricky little multicompartment organizer for small items, and outside there's a 1,200-cubic-inch, zip-off daypack. Down below, a sleeping bag compartment is useful also for isolating things like muddy shoes or dirty clothes. The thoughtful design, great carry, and clean looks of the Lhasa make it the pack I'd carry for any trip involving serious hoofing.

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