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Kampala, Uganda; Oct 17, 2004

gear: luggage (and other things that hold stuff)

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Since we sometimes have a home base for a month and sometimes don’t, we need a flexible luggage system. If we’re renting an apartment, all we need to do is get everything to the new location once. But if we’re traipsing about the country, we need to be able to tote it all.

In any case, it is important to be able to carry or pull all our stuff simultaneously without assistance. In most circumstances, this means that each of us is wearing a normal-sized backpack and perhaps a smaller item (travel purse or small camera bag) while towing our larger backpacks (on wheels). If the terrain is rough, however, we can wear our large backpacks and put our normal-sized backpacks on our fronts. This gives us the appearance of dwarves making an awkward getaway, but it gets the job done. Specifically, we are using:

-Large backpack (1 each)
Swiss Army Victorinox Trek Pack Plus 22” (Susan) and Trek Pack Plus 26” (Grace). Backpacks with wheels are inherently not as comfortable as proper backpacking packs, but these feel pretty good and have a waist belt for extra support. They’re also lightweight, and quite sturdy. Fortunately, we are rolling them a lot more than carrying them. (Tip: When shopping for backpacks, make sure you try them on with the waist strap and loaded down with weight.)
-Normal-sized backpack (Susan)
This is an old North Face jobby. It’s not the most comfortable, so we might replace it at some point, but it’s big enough and flexible, and we can strap stuff to the outside if necessary.
-Equipment backpack (Grace)
Crumpler Shrinkle (they have kinda’ weird names for their products over at Crumpler). This is our coolest piece of luggage – super flexible and built like a tank. The main compartment is designed to hold a mess of camera gear, and there’s another compartment for a laptop. The main compartment is configurable with velcro adjustable stiff padding, so we can make safe little compartments that perfectly fit our particular bits and bobs. The whole padded main compartment is removable, which transforms the backpack into a good-sized daypack. The laptop holder is also removable, so sometimes we just take the laptop case to an internet café without lugging the whole pack. And best of all, the Crumpler doesn’t make us LOOK like we’re carrying a bunch of techazoid stuff; it just looks like a normal, skate-punk backpack.
-Extra daypack (1 shared)
Our large, wheeled Victorinox packs each came with a free daypack that straps onto the outside. We left one of these at home, but brought the other one with us. It’s smaller than our normal backpacks, so it makes a great daypack. For flights, it’s usually flattened and stuffed inside one of the big packs, but if we need to carry something extra, we can use it as another piece of checked luggage or haul it around attached to either of the big packs.
-Camera sling (Grace)
Tamrac Velocity 7. When we’re flying, we use this as a small carry-on for non-camera stuff. When we’re hiking or around town, we use it to carry the camera since the Crumpler pack is usually too much to lug around. It also has an optional waist belt for when it gets heavy. It holds (just barely) the camera with one of the medium-size lenses or the zoom lens attached and another one loose, and we have an add-on pouch that can fit the other medium-size lens if necessary (see Equipment for lens details). We prefer the sling variety because it can be worn like a backpack when walking (more comfortable than a pouch) and can be moved around to the front for access and safety when desired (more convenient than a backpack, and sometimes there’s no more room on Grace’s back anyway).
-Beach purse (Susan)
This is very light (no frame) and useful for short excursions. It also packs down to nothing.
-Hidden money pouch
We rarely use this since we prefer secure pockets for everyday, but it does come in handy when we’re moving from location to location, and in the airports.
-Hanging toiletry bag
Swiss Army Victorinox. You’d be surprised how great it is to be able to hang this puppy up in all sorts of random bathrooms. It’s good-sized and has a main pocket for larger bottles with a couple zip up pockets on either side. It also has a waterproof inner lining so it’s easy to clean up spills, of which we’ve had several.
-Flexible mesh containers and flat-packing folder thingie
Eagle Creek. These are great for organizing things inside the backpacks (medicine, clothes that are still clean, clothes that aren’t really clean but can be worn 5 more times if need be, etc.). The flat-packing folder thingie is for keeping shirts and dresses (or dress, rather) relatively wrinkle-free and compact.
-Shoe bags
Lewis N. Clark. These are good for when our shoes get really dirty (and also handy for carrying other random things).
-Pill case
Lewis N. Clark. Surprisingly, this is one of our favorite items. Keeping medicine organized and accessible is a trick, and this thing is the perfect pony. It’s more compact than carrying all the bottles and boxes around. We’ve labeled each of the pouches and keep the directions in the side folder.
-Ziploc bags
These are worth their weight in gold, or at least Clif Bars. They’re good for everything, including keeping things organized; quarantining smelly or dirty things until we can clean them, holding trash on long hikes until we can throw it away; insuring against possible shampoo or sunscreen explosions; or even storing food, as if they were actually designed for this purpose. (Tip: Pack lots of extra gallon-sized and sandwich-sized bags in your luggage since you can’t get them everywhere and if you can get them, you don’t necessarily want 30 of them. And only buy the heavy-duty freezer type.)

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© 2004-2012 susan & grace, all rights reserved

-- comments from readers --


Question about your large backpack (trek pack plus) Did you have any trouble taking it as a carry on? I was thinking of buying a travel bag and I'm debating whether or not to buy the 26" or 22" size bag. I know most US airlines don't really care, but some smaller airlines and international airlines are strict, or simply the overhead bin isn't big enough. Any suggestions on between the 2 sizes? I almost NEVER check any luggage in, but try to always just do carry on.

--Stephan L. (Oakland, California, USA); Aug 29, 2006

We actually checked both those bags. We carried our small backpacks on and there would just be no way they would let us do that with the big bags, too. You can probably carry on the 22" sometimes, but checking the 26" would be tough. Some airlines (and some check-in agents) are very strict, so we sometimes even had trouble carrying on our small backpacks (the one with the laptop and the camera gear is quite heavy), especially if we were flying in a small plane.

--Susan & Grace; Nov 4, 2006


Your trip sounds fantastic! Hope you are continually safe and enjoying the world. I am about to set out on a year-long trip of my own and found your site fantastic. Quick question about your rolling backpacks: how are they treating you? I bought a similar model, but everyone is telling me to ditch it and bring a more traditional backpack. Are you finding they work well? If you have any great tips, I'm all ears.

--Elizabeth S. (Washington, USA); Feb 8, 2006

Many hardcore backpackers would probably advise against the rolling packs, but we're really glad that we chose ours. The arguments against them are simple: 1) they're a bit heavier since they include the wheel gear, and 2) they're not as comfortable as a proper, high-quality pack.

The big reason we liked them is that they're less tiring. If you're in a place with flat ground (city, airport, etc.), then it's much less tiring to drag them around since the weight is on the ground (instead of on you). And of course, if you need to, you can carry them on your back, but most of the time we didn't need to do this. Also, we were not always on the go, so we simply had to get our stuff from one place to the next, and then we'd use daypacks for most of the time until our next move.

All this said, it really depends on your trip. If you will be in lots of places with no roads and you need to carry your pack into the jungle or along dirt paths all the time, then maybe using a rolling pack isn't the greatest idea. But if, on average, you will be able to leave it on the ground and roll it, and once in a while carry it, then we highly recommend them! We hope this helps!

--Susan & Grace; Feb 10, 2006


Thanks for the site and info its great.

Any problems with the pill case? Understood some countries like to see your medicines in their original packages. I'm on various meds as older and would prefer they were not confiscated.

--Rory (London, England); Sep 10, 2005

We haven't had any trouble with the pill case (it was only examined once, at Wilson Airport in Kenya, where we explained that we were traveling for a whole year, which seemed to do the trick). Just in case, however, we carry the original labels for our medications. You should also carry your prescriptions (or at least copies). Some places will let you refill them on the road.

--Susan; Sep 13, 2005