Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Travelling light and... buying the right pack

 I bought a North Face pack here in Phnom Penh last year.  It’s not a ‘real’ North Face of course but it’s a pretty decent copy with lots of features and the latest aircell frame for ventilation.  It worked well and I’m still using it but by the end of 4 months in Africa the frame was poking out through the seams.  Despite getting it sewn up at the local tailor back here in Phnom Penh, the writing is on the wall and the tear is still slowly getting worse. Can't say I blame it as I’ve lugged it through some tough going and to be fair, it was only $10.  

In the end though, you get what you pay for.   I was using my 25 year old Karrimor pack the other day to carry groceries back from the supermarket and reflected on the value of buying quality.  This pack is looking a bit tired now and is a bit frayed around the edges so not really up to 24/7 travel usage but is still going strong for day to day stuff.  It has a tiny tear at the strap seams which I put on there last year when I used it for a month as my only bag and loaded it up with 15kg to travel for a month through Asia, US and Australia.  The tear is probably my fault because I prefer travelling with only carry-on luggage so was swinging it around ultra-casually in front of the airline check-in clerks to make it look like it weighed more like 7 kg than the 17kg it actually weighed.  I used to wonder about the strength of the overhead lockers in planes but now I know – they are plenty strong lol. 

You may be wondering how I manage to avoid having the bag weighed and having to put it into the hold...  Well, I did get caught out many years ago but since then I have perfected the craft with a sentence. "You're welcome to weigh the bag but most of the contents are going to be handed over to a friend who is meeting me here a the airport." And if in transit in the secure area "I'm meeting a colleague on flight XYZ to give him back his laptop and some documents" (having glanced at the arrivals board on the way to the transit desk). They know you're lying of course but not much that they can do about it (but shhhhh... don't tell anyone else this trick OK?).

At any rate, it’s become apparent from comparing my original Karrimor to my North Face pack from the Russian Markets in Phnom Penh that spending $100 on a pack that lasts 25 years is better value than $10 on a pack that lasts 6 months.  Hence I’ve going searching for a replacement quality day pack to use as my primary travel bag.  And I think I’ve found it.  The Osprey Atmos 35.

I’ve been a fan of Osprey packs for a while now and my number one hiking pack is an Osprey Aether that I bought new on eBay a few years ago.  There are a number (a small number) of companies that make truly high quality packs but none better (IMHO) than Osprey.  Hence when the time came to go looking for a travel pack I went back to eBay.  I woke up this morning to find that I’d been the highest bidder on a secondhand one in mint condition. GBP70 delivered which is about 20 quid cheaper than I could get one delivered new from the US or UK so I’m pretty happy with that.   I’ll report back later with a field report when I’ve had a chance to load it with 20kg and put it into an overhead locker somewhere.

The Atmos is a worthy successor to the Karrimor but in many respects they are chalk and cheese.  The Osprey is a state of the art lightweight daypack with a fabulous frame and lots of features.  The Karrimor is an ultralight nylon sack with 3 outside pockets and two basic shoulder straps.  Years ago I replaced the original frame by cutting down and folding over a foam sleeping pad which made for a great backing and gave me an insulated sleeping mat in emergencies.   I love how simple and light the Karrimor is but I can also appreciate the benefits of a decent harness and some extra features.

In terms of travelling light, I think I can pretty much claim to have got the hang of it. I can travel now indefinitely with just carry on luggage and in any climates.  The blue bag in the second picture is my Karrimor in Bangkok airport at the end of a month of travel.  Even with laptop, camera, business suit and four changes of clothes that was all I carried for the month.  The camera case is there beside it for comparison. The size of bag is pretty typical of how it was for most of the trip with the camera case inside but when the picture was taken I’d stocked up on nuts and seeds to bring back to Cambodia so although it fitted inside OK, I was was carrying the camera separately.

So what do I carry in a bag that size?

  • Toiletries in a plastic ziplock bag including sample size toothpaste tube which I refill and a 20ml bottle of shaving oil (which works better than shave cream and only needs 2 or 3 drops
  • Business suit
  • 2 x business shirts
  • 2 x ties
  • Columbia zip off trousers (‘Titanium’ range - perfect for travel as it dries in hotel bathroom overnight)
  • Columbia longsleeve shirt (Titanium)
  • Shorts
  • hat
  • Walking sandals or running shoes
  • 2 x polo shirts
  • thermal t-shirt
  • thermal pants
  • thermal longsleeve t-shirt
  • ultralight down jacket
  • Goretex paclite raincoat
  • 15” Macbook, cables, powersupply, gadets, ipod etc
  • Canon 5D MkII camera
  • 4 x socks
  • Book(s)
Jeans, cotton business shirt and black elastic sided riding boots (which go with suit or jeans) are the standard travel attire.   If I left out the suit, laptop and DSLR camera the load comes down to well under 10kg but frankly I’d rather leave spare clothes behind than travel without the MacBook & the 5D.
I often carry less than that and could write more on this but a guy called Tynan has already done a great job.  His list isn’t exactly how I’d go but it’s got some great ideas  http://tynan.net/the-gear-of-life-nomadic

The suit I happily leave behind whenever I can. In fact, I usually avoid ‘urban camouflage’ at all costs.  Not that they are uncomfortable – on the contrary they are very comfy but all that dry cleaning and pressing is not for us nomads.  I was at Phnom Penh airport recently waiting for friends to disembark and watching businessmen getting off the plane  wearing suits into 35 degrees and 100% humidity.   It could be just my biases and maybe they are happy as Larry but I felt sorry for them.  Frankly, if you had any other option at all, would you choose to fly into Phnom Penh in a suit? Perhaps they had good reason but in any case I somehow had to wonder if they were trapped by their jobs or even just their own lack of imagination.  A bit like me thinking that I need to wear suits to give a presentation eh?   I guess I just need to work on my limiting beliefs a little more :-)

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