Outlier Ultrahigh Rolltop Backpack thoughts, part 1

I’m on my second, so this is a review of both versions of yet another horribly named bag. The first version had a non-stretch liner to the front zip pocket, no top to the interior sleeve that holds the back plate in place, and slightly different angles on the side stretch pockets. I believe all changes are very much for the better, and recommend the second version in all situations. After several years of only second hand availability, Outlier has recently re-stocked, which makes this review more timely. Unfortunately the price has increased significantly, which makes correctly valuing the product harder. Hopefully this review will help with that as well.

As mentioned elsewhere, over the last several years I’ve worked hard to eliminate weight and stuff from my travel kit. One of the key steps was moving to single-bag travel. For short trips that means the GR1 and for longer trips a North Face Base Camp Duffel that I am also working on a review of. Both of those bags, while ideal for packability, durability, and flexibility, are heavier than necessary for a day pack. For simple packability, Eagle Creek and others sell ultra-light weight day packs, but those too lack structure and durability, not to mention sacrificing something in appearance. These considerations, and a curiosity about materials, led me to dyneema bags and the Outlier Ultrahigh Rolltop Backpack.

The rolltop has two great features: it’s incredibly lightweight, and it can be collapsed to basically nothing. This means I can add it to my single bag carry by removing the frame sheet and rolling it up. The frame sheet I put in the bottom of the North Face duffel and the rolled bag gets crammed in above the pack it cubes. This lets me have a durable, light weight bag for daily use, mostly taking samples and laptop to work meetings, as well as shopping, hiking, or whatever else. For these situations the appearance and durability of the Outlier bag are far superior to similar light weight bags, and yet it can be collapsed for longer cross-border journeys as well as put into the duffel for international flights, allowing me to avoid checking luggage.

The bag itself has a couple of good features and a couple of drawbacks. Most of them center around the roll top, which long time readers will know I’m not a fan of. In this case, the most critical one is that the roll top makes the bag lie very flat when opened, and allows it to both accommodate large items and compress tightly when mostly empty. While it remains annoyingly slow to open, despite the Fidlock closures, the roll top is a solid compromise given the bag’s weight, size, and materials. I’d be very curious to test the quad zip version, but have not had an opportunity. Given the price, I don’t expect to.

Between the first and second generation Outlier revised the bag slightly as noted above. Most importantly for me, they changed the inner material of the zip pocket from a non-stretch fabric to a stretch one. This is critical as that non-stretch material on my first bag tore during my first year of use, probably due to a pen or key or other object pressing against the edge of the pocket during use. Two years in the second version with a 4-way stretch material for that pocket shows no signs of damage or even wear. It’s a critical improvement in my experience. The other changes are also for the better, as mentioned, but more minor, and wouldn’t impact my purchase decision.

One of the big features of the roll top system on this bag is the Fidlock magnetic closures that secure the roll. These are great, quick to attach and release. However, when using the bag open-topped, which I do a lot when doing grocery runs to maximize internal volume, the magnetic pieces stick out and can get caught on doorways. I have lost one this way, tearing it out on a doorway and then being unable to properly screw it in again, leading to it falling out repeatedly. Outlier support sent me a new magnet piece, which I screwed in on my own and has worked perfectly over the last four months. I still use the bag open like that a lot, because it’s the most convenient fashion, but am a bit more careful when entering or exiting houses and cars.

The bag is also a bit small for a 15” laptop, which is not a problem I have, but something to be aware of depending on gear needs. It’s a very comfortable home for a 13” size. It also, wonderfully, perfectly fits a six pack of beer in bottles in normal vertical fashion, something that may or may not have been on the designers’ minds.

As someone who is on the road and generally rough on bags, I’ve damaged most parts of this bag over the years, so have a good feel for the overall durability. The fabric on the zipper pull gave out on my current trip, and the zipper pull is slightly too small for comfort without, so I’ll have to add something to that. I’ve bent the frame sheet due to extreme travel situations, and it’s a little hard to get perfectly flat again, though this doesn’t impact the bag or my use at all. And I’ve filled the Fidlock magnet ends with sand frequently enough to be well aware of how difficult sand is to remove from magnets. In short, I’ve put this bag through a lot, and other than the internal pocket tearing, which has been addressed in v2, and the Fidlock magnet getting pulled off, the bag is in incredible shape. Outlier’s durability claims for the material are true. This also speaks well for other cuben or dyneema bags such as SDR Traveller, Hyperlite, and Pitcharpak’s wallet line, which I’ve used for a half dozen years at this point.

While the Outlier rolltop is a very specific product aimed at a relatively specific market, I find myself using and thus recommending this bag more than any other I own, including the GR1, which I love. The combination of durability, flexibility, and lightweight structure make the Outlier bag an easy choice on days when I’m not sure what I’ll encounter, and make me happy to take a bag when I otherwise wouldn’t, as it’s basically no burden when empty.

At a new higher price this bag is a little harder to recommend, simply because $475 is a lot of money for any product. However, as I said about the GR1, if it fits your budget, this is a hard bag to beat, and I absolutely love mine.

Torn between

On the road again life is a procession of transportation, offices, factories, and hotels. In between each new step is a moment of carrying gear, of lugging duffle bags out of taxi trunks and yanking them off of conveyor belts, of carrying samples up chill concrete stairs and sorting them into piles based on vendor on hotel beds. Re-packing after one night in a Dongguan hotel I realize how many of the possessions spread out around the room were bought specifically for this life. This bag, bought for carrying across the Mexican border with shoes inside. The other bag, bought to be a one bag carry all for a trip to Japan. This clothing specifically chosen for weight and the ability to wear it multiple times without attracting attention. Jeans for their comfort when slept in on trans-Pacific flights. Laptop charger combined with phone charger to minimize cabling, and the cabling itself extra long, to support strangely-located outlets in hotels and airports. A toiletry kit that does not get unpacked at home, in a light weight bag from Tokyu Hands. Click pens that do not explode when pressure changes, which have replaced the Uni-balls I used to carry. A custom-made wallet for passport and larger Chinese bills.

Standing nine stories up in Chang’an, packing at eight am after swimming, my focus on gear suddenly becomes clear. So much of my life is spent moving that I have re-configured almost everything around it, often without notice.

Later, in a hotel in Shanghai for most of a week, I begin to unpack into the life of a resident. I build small habits around the coffee shop, a breakfast spot, and the comfort of a fixed hotel room. Clothes are hung rather than draped on furniture. Shoes have a spot by the door. And the lights, music, and heat are all configured for residency rather than taking whatever comes in a more transient style. Here, finally, I do laundry, and I consider how few items have made this journey with me.

At home in San Francisco, in our one bedroom with it’s limited closet space, we debate furniture. More than a year now and still no table other than in the kitchen. We have a sofa, a large purchase by both standards, bought as a wedding gift to ourselves. We have a chair, and some lights. Plants. Art. Enough, really, to fill the small space. And yet often, lying jet-lagged on the bed, I wonder what we really need, what of these belongings we’ll take with us when we leave. The three legged chair, bought as a present a few years ago. Clothes, though not all of them. Bags. Electronics, in some minimal form. And books, letters, and art, the daily acquisitions of long distance friendships.

The balance is between a garden and a backpack, between a nice library of books and an iPad instead of a laptop, between pants for every day and an “every day” pair of pants. In my desire to live with less, to travel more, is a limit on how many things I am willing to have at home, how much time and energy I have to build one.

Sitting on the roof of our apartment building a week later, as the sun sets behind the Sutro tower, I wonder if this debate is honest. Watching Tara play the guitar, watching Mr. Squish sniff the strawberries, would I really rather have less? Could I possibly handle any more time on the move?

And out of all this optimized carry is anything as important as these few minutes a day on this rooftop, watching each other relax as the sky goes orange?

The answer is obvious and demonstrates why I shouldn’t bother accumulating stuff in the first place. Living with less is just a matter of living where we are without concern for what might be, without investing emotions in belongings.

Because the people and the animals are more mobile than any minimal set of items, and they’re what I’ll be taking with me, wherever is next.

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.

Picharpak Travel Wallet thoughts, part 1

I’ve been looking for a travel wallet lately. I’d like something that will hold a passport, a couple of different transit cards, money, maybe a spare SIM, a couple of business cards, and still fit in a back pocket. Over the past year or two I’ve started traveling with my passport tucked behind my wallet in my back pocket, so I know a wallet sized for the passport would fit my use cases. What I didn’t know was how well, or where to get one. Money too has been a problem, as most US-made wallets don’t gracefully hold larger bills. As someone who spends a lot of time in China, where the 100 RMB notes are large, this is an annoyance that grates. So I was looking for a wallet that fit a passport, fit in a back pocket, held Chinese currency, and possibly had a SIM slot.

While there are plenty of blogs devoted to frequent fliers, milage points, hotel reviews, two week camping trips, and non-tent sleeping options, the parts of travel that matter to me are surprisingly lightly covered. Traveling light but not backpacking, carrying as little as possible, carrying it in a way that allows for inconvenient travel methods and locations, and yet still being presentable for business meetings seems to be an under-served market. Or just a small one.

The only wallet I found that seemed designed around my needs was Bellroy’s Travel Wallet. At $120, it’s still on my shopping list, or Christmas list. The video though perfectly encapsulated my use cases. I don’t particularly care about the pen, as I have a favorite cheap pen on hand at all times, but the rest? It’s got a SIM slot, a passport slot, spare card slots for transit cards, and is big enough to hold boarding passes! If that doesn’t sound exciting, I’ve proven how specific the use case is.

For the last two years I’ve carried a Yasutomo 2020 wa-ben cuben fiber wallet. Like so many people, this was inspired by William Gibson’s interview. As someone who spends a lot of time looking at outdoor gear, fibers, bags, and clothing, I have been talking to and watching Jason’s company, now Picharpak Workshop, ever since. He’s been building a broader product base, and during a conversation one night in Hong Kong, I offered to test new products. For Christmas I bought my fiancée one of his limited edition hybrid wallets. To my my surprise an early sample of a travel wallet showed up in the package!

Built on the same idea as Bellroy’s, Picharpak’s travel wallet features a couple of extra card slots in the back and two spare SIM slots on the passport sleeve. It also has an extra slot for a touch pay transit card behind the normal card slots. Otherwise it resembles the wa-ben, with the same two slots for bills or receipts and the same cuben fiber construction. Like my original wa-ben, the travel wallet prototype is made of CT9.5, and so won’t offer good abrasion resistance. Jason’s newer hybrid wallets have different outermost layers and offer much better abrasion resistance. From the turfed-up photos of my 2 year old wallet it’s clear this is a serious design improvement. Along with the limited hybrid, I ordered one of the newer woven fiber cuben hybrids, to possibly replace my old wa-ben and to check whether the transparent options had been improved as well. They have, and the new woven cuben hybrid retains the old look while offering a smother and more durable outer shell. I’m all for it.

Testing has taken some time. A couple of day trips to Mexico in January provided the first opportunity. The wallet was a relief from carrying passport and wallet in the same pocket, l as I’d supposed, convenient and simple. Swapping wallets prior to travel was the only obstacle. After the second trip I considered carrying the travel wallet as my regular wallet. However on the second trip I learned that the slick CT9.5 slips out of pants with stretch. Not ideal, but I’d expect a full version to feature the hybrid construction. At this point I also switched full time to the hybrid wallet, and now can’t see myself returning to the CT9.5 construction full time. One of the early concerns, that the SIM card would slip out its holder, proved unfounded. My China Unicom SIM, seen in the photos, has been secure for the past three months.

Travel wallets like this may be a small market, but they’re an excellent idea. For those of us who travel lightly, frequently, and yet for work, the simplification is worth the wallet-swapping. I can’t wait for a finished version.

GR1 thoughts, part 1

The GR1 was a Christmas present last year, 2012. As the number of day trips I make to factories increases, I was looking for a single backpack to cary clothes, samples, and a laptop into strange environments. I needed a backpack because of the walking, and a single bag because of the flights, cars, busses, and hassle of travel. Because these trips are usually only for a couple of days, I didn’t need that much space. The last two years of repeated packing have made me a more economical traveler, and I started as a minimalist with regards to things.

I did about thirty hours of reading before putting the GR1 on my Christmas list. I already have a couple of really wonderful bags, including a custom-built R.E.Load Civilian messenger, a Tom Bihn ID briefcase, and a Timbuk2 Q backpack. For work I’d been using the Q, as carrying a laptop, samples, and notebook on one shoulder had gotten painful. Backpacks and dress clothes will never meld perfectly, but for frequent travel they’re far superior. The Q has wonderful pockets and access points, and remains one of my favorite bags, but it was stretched to capacity with clothing, and simply couldn’t handle a spare pair of shoes. In many ways the GR1 was simply a step up from the Q, with similar intentions and a larger carrying capacity.

As an operations and manufacturing person, the US-made nature of all of these bags is important. While the Q is imported, many of Timbuk2’s bags are made in the US and the R.E.Load, Tom Bihn, and Goruck bags are entirely US-made. Manufacturing will only come back to the US if the end customers care, and I do. Money before words.

How then has the last year been, traveling with the GR1? How has it weathered Mexican factories, Chinese ferries, Japanese business meetings and dozens upon dozens of airports, sports fields, and shopping trips? Are the straps really better for their width, and the laptop slot better for the curved zipper? Is the ability to pack it flat really better than a top-loading style bag, and is the minimal aesthetic in terms of pockets really more customizable with additional smaller pockets or pack-it cubes? These were some of my questions, especially given the price, and some of the things I wanted to answer publicly, to help those doing similar research.

First, a sketch from months ago outlining some of my thoughts at the time:

image

The notes from 8 months in hold true at 12, with a few changes.

Best parts of the GR1:

  • It rarely looks dirty, and cleans easily.
  • It’s always big enough for one more thing, which is usually my hat or jacket when the sun comes out.
  • It’s sturdy enough that I can pick it up from any reachable part, even fully loaded.
  • It stows cleanly because there are few dangling pieces to catch in doors and overhead bins, or on branches and other people, like in a crowded bus or subway.

Worst parts:

  • There’s no side handle, which the Q has, so sometimes it’s hard to get a grip on.
  • Because the zipper on the laptop slot wraps from side to top, it hampers me in two ways:
    • The zipper dangles down into my back, rather than off the side of the bag
    • It’s very hard to take the laptop out without taking the bag off, a useful ability in airport security lines. The Q backpack laptop compartment is incredibly easy to access one handed while wearing the bag. The curved zipper design on the laptop/hydration pocket is the biggest drawback of the GR1, and something I’d really like to see changed. Maybe it’s different with a hydration bladder, which I never use. It’s hard for me to see how, given that the zipper would still hang down into the wearer’s back even if the access isn’t an issue.
  • The straps are set a little wide for a 5’9″ guy, especially when first purchased, as they’re very stiff to begin with. 12 months later this bothers me less than it did at 8 months.

What then are my thoughts on this bag, three hundred dollars and three hundred and sixty five days later? It’s a very good backpack, built in the US for people who move and travel in much the same way I do. In the same year I’ve owned it, Jorve has also carried one every day, and Seth has purchased a GR2 and dragged it to Myanmar and back a few times, as well as around Asia and up through the New England coast to Maine. The Goruck bags are good bags. If the money makes sense, and the use that’s outlined above, in other reviews, and on their site sounds like yours, then yes, the gear’s good.