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.

The future in 2G

A lot of my job is done abroad. This year I spent almost two and a half months abroad, 73 days all told. Being out of the States so often and for so long, cumulatively, gives me many opprotunities to learn and to remember things I’ve forgotten since moving back to the US in 2008. I really appreciate these chances, even if some of them are lonely, or represent significant challenges at work. Enough are interesting and for personal adventure to keep me happy, and keep me traveling.

2014 brought one specific change to my travel methods, and because of that an experience I wanted to share. I no longer use local SIMs, save in extraordinary situations. In October of 2013, T-Mobile, an American mobile phone company, launched free international data roaming. Even now, more than a year later, typing those words feels amazing. Free international data. To give context, previous international data deals available in the US ran something in the realm of $30 USD for 50 megabytes of international roaming data. Thirty dollars for fifty megabytes. It’s easy to see why I switched to T-Mobile.

The catch, because of course there is one, is that this free and unlimited data comes down from the tower at 2G speeds.

So I spent one fifth of 2014 on 2G, and the remaining four fifths on LTE. Or with no service in the wilder parts of the US, specifically northern California, north western Colorado, and a lot of the cross-country train ride. That is another trade-off that comes with chosing T-Mobile. It’s an easy choice for me, being primarily a city person.

Having free international data and spending so much time on the road, be it in the trains of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo, or the traffic of Manila and Shenzhen, not to mention factories, restaurants, and hotels, means a lot of phone time. A lot of email. A lot of Twitter. A lot of web. And that leads to the point. In 2014, the web is hard on 2G. Sites load slowly, first displaying banner ads and only then, tens of seconds later, the all-text content of the article. Mastheads take dozens of seconds to load, complex drop down menus and high-resolution logos. Analytics packages. And ads. Some activities and apps simply don’t scale well to 2G. Instagram, for example, is an exercise in patience, but a worthwhile one. And Google Maps, well…

In 2014 it feels like the network is finally everywhere, or almost. And it feels like the future. Being able to turn on my phone in any country on landing and check on my cat, at home in San Francisco, will probably still feel surprisingly wonderful for another couple of years. And 2G isn’t bad for most things. Despite how it probably sounds, this post is not meant as a complaint. It’s meant as a note, a reminder, and a future consideration. For example, loading time for maps matter. More than anything, maps are used when in unfamiliar locations, and often those are situations without great network access. Be it hotel wifi, 2G cell network, or just the slow connections of many smaller cities, maps are most necessary on the fringes, out of our comfort zone, and often in something of a hurry. Yes, most of the places I’ve been have faster networks. Hong Kong has excellent service, faster than the US in many cases. But not every place does. Not every city has LTE, nor every carrier, and that’s the point.

I view these 73 days on 2G as a test of how we interact with networks, and as a challenge for service design. Twitter as it used to be, all text 140 characters or less, was the perfect low-bandwidth mobile-first service. Modern Twitter, with video, photos, expanded links, and soundcloud embedded, is increasingly something built for fast networks, for always-on connections. Not necessarily a bad set of decisions, but a definite shift from a service originally built on SMS, built for the mobile networks we used to have and that many still do.

Of course not all things are built for slow mobile networks, and that’s fine. Heck, Tumblr is one of them, image heavy and full of .gifs. Oh god, .gifs on 2G. If ever a format’s resurgence has come without consideration of bandwith, .gif is it.

Overall I think a few weeks on 2G is something product teams should experience, and consider, not just today or this year, but well into the future. There will be people on slower networks and with worse connections for much longer than San Francisco, which had quite poor cell networks just a handfull of years ago. If a service is designed to “change the world” it needs to be usable out in that world.

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:


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.

Honda Fit thoughts, part 1

Next week will mark my fourth month with the 2010 Honda Fit Sport.  Like all items thoroughly researched online prior to purchase, I had expectations and opinions about it and cars like it long before I set foot in a dealer or got behind the wheel. 

Now, with the benefit of a few weeks behind the wheel, my opinions have been clarified with experience, and I can say something far too rare:

The Honda Fit consistently exceeds my expectations and surprises me with the consideration that went into it’s design. 

Named “the Mobile,” as it does not squire Batman, my Fit Sport has a range of options surprising both for breadth and specificity. There are 8+ cup holders. Paddle shifters. A USB port for the stereo. Tire air level indicators. Magic seats. A MPG read out. Seemingly every feature I envy on larger cars. And yet the list of features left out is striking too: automatic headlights, steering wheel volume controls, a temperature gauge, automatic seats, floor mats (which are optional).  Each of these represents a choice to meet a price, but more importantly to cater to a specific customer. And that customer, it seems, is me. The Mobile has everything I want and absolutely nothing I don’t.

The Fit is not a big car. Living in San Francisco, this is a major consideration, as parking is a challenge even in my neighborhood. Being able to park on my block, often in front of my house, because the Fit is small enough for the odd spaces that sit vacant, is a boon of startlingly large proportions.  This is why I was looking at hatchbacks.

Yet, and this is the miracle of Honda’s design, the Fit feels full-sized from the inside.  Five adults fit without discomfort.  And the “Magic Seat” touted by salesmen on both coasts is indeed magical, transforming the car that seems to have no depth to a hauler to rival small SUV’s.  Does this miracle of engineering and optical trickery seem impossible to believe? It should. The proof however overwhelms the skepticism.  Consider the following list:

  • A Full size Ikea mattress
  • Four Workrite Sierra single table electric desks (unassembled)
  • Two 5’9" humans, prone and asleep

All of those things have fit comfortably in the Fit with the seats flat.  Not at the same time, of course.

The last one is particularly impressive, given the car’s length and width, both of which are smaller than a standard family car.  Sleeping in it, I wondered if my legs would cramp.  Actually, no, because, with a slight bend at the waist, I could keep them straight.

While this doesn’t help the 6’5" members of our community, it’s an impressive feature of a ~$17,000 car, options depending.

This post comes about because a woman, walking by while I was parking in an exceptionally small space directly across from my apartment building today, said “I’m thinking of getting one of those.”

My response was simply that it was an outstanding automobile, and that I loved it more every day.

“That’s a strong endorsement,” she said.

Which is true.