One-Bag Travel

I just got back from a short work-related trip to Seattle. I’ve never traveled for business before, but–being somewhat obsessed with bags–I’ve absorbed a ton of information about travel, especially traveling light. I’ve always found the idea of hopping on a plane with nothing but a backpack interesting, so I thought I’d give it a try. While it’s still fresh, here are a few take-aways from the experience.

Special Gear

I didn’t want to blow a ton of cash to prep for the trip, so I tried to lean on stuff I already had. That said, a lot of one-bag travelers recommend having a truly bulletproof bag. For comfort, a backpack beats a shoulder bag, and I only own one backpack (and it has issues, including a lack of water resistance and, at 34 liters, being far too large).

One of the most recommended backpacks among one-bag travelers is the GORUCK GR1 due to its indestructible construction, ergonomics, weather resistance, and customizability. Sadly, this bag is horribly expensive. I’ve wanted one for years.

Thanks to some timely Reddit lurking, I found a person selling a brand new 21-liter GR1 (with the tags still on it!) for just over half the retail price. I jumped on it, and I’m very glad I did. This bag is amazing. It’s so good that I’m selling my other bags on Craigslist. I’d cover all the reasons why I love the GR1 so much, but that could (and should, at some point) fill a whole separate article.

I also picked up some Eagle Creek Specter packing cubes. They’re incredibly lightweight and hold a lot more than you’d expect. A set comes with a small, medium, and large cube. The medium cube comfortably held three pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear, a set of gym clothes, and pajamas. Amazing. I used the small cube to hold my wool mittens, beanie, and merino wool buff. Packing cubes aren’t necessary, but they definitely helped keep the inside of the bag neat and organized.

I also picked up some disposable ear plugs and an eye mask. More on this later. All told, I spent about $250 on gear.

Pain Points

My phone. I used my phone a lot more than I thought I would. I’m still using an iPhone 6 Plus. It has a new-ish battery that was installed last November, but the new battery hasn’t done much to help performance. iOS 11 slowed the device to a crawl, but performance has been getting worse as time goes on, and the battery still only lasts half a day under moderate use. I’m beginning to think the phone has some sort of hardware problem now. Bottom line: a phone that lasts a full day under heavy use is a must. Having to charge over and over sucks. On the flip side, my Anker battery/charging brick was absolutely wonderful. A++ would buy again.

Even though I gave United my KTN twice, my TSA Pre status didn’t show up on my boarding passes. Boooooo. Felt like I paid for nothing.

Hauling my parka around was a pain in the ass, too. Not horrible, but not fun, either. There’s no way it would fit in my fully packed bag, and I didn’t want to wear it constantly because I’d sweat to death. I solved this on the trip home by stopping by REI and buying some Velcro straps for $3 so I could lash the coat to the outside of my bag. I really didn’t think I’d use the molle on the outside of the GR1, but now I’m planning to use it for all sorts of things.

Oh, pro tip: scentless hand sanitizer. I’m not a germaphobe, and I usually don’t bother with hand sanitizer, but with this nasty flu going around, I’d be remiss if I didn’t try to protect myself at least a little bit. And I’d hate to bring it home to my family. Sadly, the container I brought with me had a weird, annoying fragrance that got all over everything I touched. Ew.

Finally, I took a red eye home and planned to sleep on the plane. LOL yeah that didn’t work. I slept for about two hours and woke up with blinding knee pain. Bleh. Having ear plugs and an eye mask was really nice, though. A pillow would have been good–I’d like to pick up Tom Bihn’s travel pillow for any future trips. It’s a tiny sack you stuff a sweater or hoodie into (instead of lamely balling up your sweater and trying to sleep on it like I did). When the pillow is empty, it takes up very little space, which is a big plus.

Unexpected Surprises

My Draplin Stuff Sheath got a lot more action than I thought it would. It’s super convenient for catching boarding passes, receipts, etc. You can stash it in your back pocket and throw all your pocket scraps in it. Super cool.

One of my longer flights involved a plane with non-functioning WiFi. I had some cached media (podcasts, music, books, Instapaper articles) on my phone, which saved me from being completely bored. Oddly–and this happens to me on every trip–I always end up wanting to listen to or watch something that I didn’t bother to download. Brains are dumb.

Also surprising: I barely saw my iPad during the entire trip. I ended up with a lot less free time than I expected, so it stayed in my bag. I could have brought it out during layovers, but it felt conspicuously large.

My friend Jason reminded me that I own a Qlipter, so I brought that, too, and it was a badass addition to my setup. I hooked it to the grab handle on the top of the GR1 and used it to hang the bag on hooks under bars and on bathroom stall doors when no other hooks were available. In that last scenario, you can flip out the Qlipter’s hook and use it to hang your coat on. It’s two hooks in one. Super handy!

What I’d Change

There’s the aforementioned hand sanitizer and travel pillow, and I’d upgrade my phone. I’d also bring a reusable ripstop grocery sack for carrying things onto the plane like gifts, bottled water, and other things I picked up. You can avoid plastic bag fees at O’Hare that way, and you also avoid the guilt of using plastic bags.

That’s…that’s about it! I didn’t feel like I was missing anything critical, and I didn’t feel like I overpacked. Any annoyances I encountered were easily fixed, and none were show-stoppers.

I’m pretty happy with how it went, which is great, but now I’m not sure where to go next with my setup. I know some folks would switch to cutting weight by buying expensive, lightweight gear, but that seems silly since the pack wasn’t terribly heavy to begin with. I think the only way to find any possible improvements would be to carry the same load again on a few more trips to see if any cracks emerge. But in the short term, I’d rather just stay at home with my family for a bit.