Patagonia Stormfront Roll Top Boat Bag thoughts, part 1

For the past few years I’ve been packing ever less and traveling ever more. In this new life travel comes down to three things: what you need, what you have, and how annoyed by lugging it around you are. The challenge lies in minimizing the last while equalizing the first two. The key to all three of course is to minimize the first, need, which makes the resulting jenga algebra easier.

This review is about one way to do all three.

Duffels have made a comeback the past few years, often in the guise of a weekender. The premise is simple: a bag to hold some stuff for a short trip that doesn’t require much carrying. This means no hiking, though some duffels have backpack straps. This means no wheels. And, most essentially for the category, this means not much bag structure.

The poorly named Patagonia Stormfront Roll Top Boat Bag 47L focuses on this last element. The entire bag consists of a TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) coated nylon that is cut and welded into shape. The handles, shoulder strap attachment points, zipper pocket, and carry loops are all welded on. This is a common construction in the boat/wet outdoor market, and all the bags in the Stormfront line feature the same base materials. Sea Line also makes a great line of bags using similar styling and a wider range of colors.

The Roll Top Boat Bag (hereafter boat bag to save words) is unique to this line in both size (47 liters) and lack of structure. When empty it can be folded or squished completely flat. There is a stiff plastic plate at the bottom, which is very useful to keep some shape when packing, but can be removed as needed. There are two simple mesh zip pockets internal and one external. There are two loops for attaching sandals, towels, hats, or jackets that were probably intended for more specific fishing gear. And that’s it. Empty, the bag folds almost flat, and is incredibly easy to stow in a closet, a major benefit in small apartments.

The best feature of this bag is also it’s great weakness: the roll top. The roll top provides a simple, waterproof, and variable size closure system. The last part is the key. Open, this bag becomes a holding cube, able to contain and hide huge amounts of gear. It is ideal when staying somewhere for a few days, as it can be opened up and used as a staging area, like a set of drawers, for all one’s belongings. Better than a small suitcase in this regard. Two of us have operated out of one for a week, without much re-packing during that time. It’s cavernous when fully expanded, as the pictures on Patagonia’s site demonstrate.

Needless to say this style of bag requires pack-it cubes. The specific style doesn’t matter, but in a bag without structure, items need to be grouped to prevent everything becoming a stew at the bottom of the bag. And that stew headlines the second part of this review, the problems with this kind of bag structure.  First, roll top bags require a lengthy opening. Especially in the minimal style of the Stormfront, which features only one tiny exterior pocket, this means every interaction requires unclipping and unrolling the entire bag. This wouldn’t be such a burden if not for the second problem, unique to roll top duffels: shouldering it causes the closure to shift and gradually work it’s way open. This happens because when carried by the shoulder strap the two ends of the strap exert compressing pressure from the bag’s ends, which crunches it to the middle. The result is that the flat roll top becomes arched, and is no longer held flat and tight across the bag. Under this pressure the rolled portion, without something to secure it in the middle, will gradually work its way open. This is especially problematic when moving quickly while carrying the bag on one shoulder, but happens over time regardless of position or speed. Also, because the TPU coating on the Stormfront is quite slick, it loosens especially easily. Without some kind of anchor or strap though, I believe any roll top bag of this size will open eventually. On the Stormfront it means carrying the bag is an exercise in rearranging, as the top will gradually shift, which allows the contents to move. Without pack-it cubes, the entire bag becomes a stew of items. With them, it retains the structure of the cubes’ exterior, but slides uncomfortably on the back.

Thus, after a lot of use, this is an excellent bag at the destination, but a difficult bag to carry to one. If transit involves primarily driving, boating, or short airplane rides where it doesn’t need to be checked, this is an excellent bag. The light weight, collapsibility, and cavernous interior are strong recommendations. Given the lengthy name, this is precisely the market Patagonia is targeting, and probably a correct one. Unfortunately the roll top that gives it such amazing storage when open is incredibly finicky when closed, and requires patience to carry for any length of time. This makes the bag much less useful for long walks or active sports, which are my primary use cases. The rather poor shoulder strap on the boat bag does not help, as it is thin and shifts around during use.

Overall this is a very well-built bag for specific uses, and we love it for short flights or weekend trips to friends’ houses.

Unfortunately the shifting and uncomfortable experience of carrying this bag for several hours has soured me somewhat on roll top duffels, and so I avoid all thought of more expensive ones like this seemingly awesome Outlier bag. I’d love to hear from other folk who carry roll top duffels, especially on a shoulder for any length of time.

Walking borders

I get out of the taxi on a highway offramp. The driver, from Dongguan, doesn’t want to be on the surface streets of Shenzhen. After a week on the road I don’t mind, and I shoulder my backpack and duffle. I weave through stopped traffic to the curb, following it down to ground level. The border is less than a hundred meters away, a large building that houses Chinese customs connected to a walking bridge across the river to another building that houses Hong Kong customs and the Lok Ma Chau train station.

I’ve walked further to borders.

Carrying gear through traffic on the surface street I pause on the dotted yellow as cars start to move and pass on either side. It’s an action that would cause problems in San Francisco or New York but here, like so much of the world, is simply part of crossing the street. Three cars later there is a gap and I am on the far sidewalk. Five minutes later I’m in line for exit customs. Five minutes after that I look at the river that separates Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Like always it makes me realize how small the differences are between places and how much impact they have on our lives.

Borders are largely artificial. Yes, the river forms a nice demarcating line, like the Rio Grande between Texas and Mexico, but the differences in income, opportunity, language and safety are not caused by the river.

On the train into Hong Kong the air is already slightly better. Pollution does not respect borders, but the sources of it do. Hong Kong’s air has worsened over the last decade due to its proximity to Shenzhen, Dongguan, and he whole Guangzhou region, but it’s still better than those cities. So too is the food, Internet, and transit, not to mention salaries. The effects of man. Housing is more expensive though, so many Hong Kong residents have started living in Shenzhen, commuting across the border to take advantage of the artificial cost disparity.

Walking this border is new to me. I first crossed it on foot less than a year ago, though the lines and shops have grown familiar with frequent repetition. Without an electronic ID card I have to wait in line, unlike my commuter friends. It’s still an amazingly efficient border, on both sides. Hong Kong customs are rightfully considered a model, fast, well-organized, and simple to cross. Being a trading port and an international hub requires good customs, I think.

Less than one year. Surprising to me, as it feels like much longer. Fourteen times at least. First with others, colleagues and factory representatives. Then by myself, often met on one side or the other. And now, in a taxi I found, dropped on the off ramp from the highway.

The borders we cross say a lot about our lives. As a boy from upstate New York, the frequency with which I walk the Hong Kong Shenzhen border serves as a shorthand explanation of my job, checking factories and working on manufacturing problems. It also outlines another, more common border I frequent: that between San Francisco and Hong Kong, delineated by airports and the Pacific. This border, seemingly unremarkable, is of course the slowest to cross, and the most expensive. Impossible on foot, or as a daily commute.

Two years ago my border crossings were very different, the product of another job, another life.

In that life I stepped out of the minivan into the harsh light of a Juarez autumn. I carried less, just my backpack, and walked faster through traffic, uncertain of its comfort with mid-stream pedestrians. Hawkers on the corner offered beads and newspapers. The footbridge, a couple hundred meters ahead, arced up over to the U.S. border beside the bridge for cars, jammed and barely moving. Without me onboard my host could avoid this line, using his express pass to meet me on the other side. By walking four hundred meters I saved us each an hour or more. It was an easy trade.

That border changed my travel strategy, led me to the single backpack packing method I use everywhere now. It also taught me that the strangest feeling a border can bring is that of having to ask to be let back in to one’s own country.

So much easier, less stressful, and faster, to ask for permission to enter Hong Kong.

The walking borders of my life two years ago were all between Mexico and the U.S. Mostly El Paso and Juarez, but also Tijuana and San Diego, after long days on the road. Those trips, a staple of my 2012 existence, have disappeared from my life entirely, replaced by Shenzhen and Zhongshan, by so many evenings in Hong Kong. In some ways it’s a direct exchange. I have traded the hot summer afternoons in Mexico, the air dry, for Hong Kong’s humidity and Dongguan’s pollution. Walking back from where the car traffic became impenetrable, almost a mile from the border in Tijuana, to my rental car on the other side of the US border, heading to San Diego airport, flying back to SFO, all that has been replaced by a car ride to Lok Ma Chau, a walk across that bridge, a train ride to Yau Ma Tei, a train to HKG, a flight to SFO. Longer, but much the same. Travel necessitated by sprawling supply chains that are themselves created by the artificial borders I cross.

What would I have said, at twenty, if told that fifteen years later I’d walk the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong a dozen times a year? Would I have been more surprised to know that at thirty three I’d spent months in Juarez? I suspect that twenty year old would be surprised by both, and then by neither, because he too was always seeking adventure, seeking to understand new things and to learn new places. He would be surprised at the specifics, at this afternoon’s offramp stroll. The general picture, of a life on the go, crossing borders on foot for money, would seem entirely appropriate. Or perhaps that’s the present talking, aware of all the strange jobs and odd decisions that brought me here. Perhaps that boy of twenty would doubt this future’s existence entirely, knowing little of Mexican factories and less of Chinese customs.

Either way, I’m glad to be back in Hong Kong, one border closer to home.