When the weather warms up, we all want to travel. Spring break is up first, when students around the country flock to beach resorts like Cancun, Daytona Beach, and Lake Havasu to party like there’s no tomorrow. Then it’s summer vacation, where the rest of us can join in on the warm weather fun.
I had a bit of travel under my belt before moving into the van for 5 years. Growing up a military brat, its practically one of the first skills I learned. While packing is an important skill, where you really need to start is at the bag.
There are a ton of different types of bags and cases to carry your stuff with you on your travels and which you choose largely depends on what type of trip you’re taking and what you plan to bring.
First, let’s discuss the difference between driving and flying, because that’s the first consideration in which type of bag you need.
Road Trips vs Flying/Cruising
Airlines are constantly changing prices and many charge a la carte fees for checked luggage. Some even have restrictions on these sizes. As for what you can bring with you, it’s usually a carry-on bag smaller than 22x14x9 inches and a personal item smaller than the carry-on. Some airlines and flights have special rules, so you always want to check with the airline before packing a bag for a trip.
Personally I hate checking luggage, but I often did it when traveling because I needed more than I could fit in a single carry-on for anything more than a weekend trip. Cruises aren’t much different and most cruise lines will limit your luggage quantity, size, and weight. This is why I typically choose to drive whenever possible, although you obviously can’t drive everywhere in the world.
On a road trip, you’re limited to what fits in (or on, towed behind, etc.) the vehicle you’re driving. This opens up storage possibilities and you can fit much larger bags like full-sized duffels you wouldn’t dare try getting on an airplane. You can also bring other vehicles with you that open up their own storage possibilities.
Some bags are specifically designed for use on commercial airlines, and that’s something to take into consideration as well. Personally I find it useful to have a variety of bags on hand for usage in different scenarios, and even when I lived in the van, bags and luggage were an essential part of storage and organizing my life.
Of course, you need to understand a little more about what types of bags are available and what they’re good for. I like to divide it into two categories
Base Camp vs Day Trip
You’ve likely heard the term base camp but may not have considered how it relates to every trip you take. Base camp bags can hold more gear and clothing, and if you’re doing a week or longer trip, you’ll need one of these.
When visiting friends or family, their home is base camp. This is the best-case scenario because you’ll likely have free access to whatever gear you need for your trip. When staying at a hotel, your base camp is what’s necessary for the hotel room as your base camp. Things can be packed that are meant to be unpacked and set up.
Meanwhile, for day trips, you’ll need a smaller bag, like a backpack or messenger bag. These hold much less, but you’re unlikely to need much more than a few snacks, some electronics, and whatever personal items you need. It’s the same difference between checked and carry-on luggage, and which type of bag you choose for each depends on the situation.
There are inner bags and outer bags, and I’ll profile some of my favorites in each category, depending on whether you want something small, large, all-purpose, specialty, or whatever.
Outer Bag Types
Outer bags are meant to hold everything you need. They’ll have different pockets and storage compartments meant for different purposes. Even after choosing a type of bag, there are several subcategories – a mountaineering backpack will be different than a backpacking pack or a gaming backpack.
Backpacks are bags that attach to your back using straps. The smallest backpacks are hydration packs, which often only have a pocket for the bladder and maybe a few other small things. Some hydration packs get larger and other bags can be equipped with these systems.
The next size up is a weekend bag, which is meant for 1-3 nights. These are typically the size of a high school backpack, around 30-50 liters and can handle a day trip. The next step up is a multiday pack, which are 50-80 liter packs that can hold a bit more and start including internal and external support frames.
At the top of the backpack pyramid is the Extended Trip backpack, those large bags used when backpacking across Europe or for any extended stay of a week or longer. These bags can hold 70+ liters and will even have external connectors for attaching even more gear that won’t fit, like skis or snowshoes.
A tote bag is typically used for the beach or shopping trips by men as they do somewhat resemble purses when worn on the shoulder (which is honestly the most comfortable way to carry them when full). Tote bags are often made of canvas and are sold as reusable shopping bags in most grocery stores.
These bags are great for throwing a towel, swim trunks, sunscreen, and a few other items in for a trip to the beach. They’re also useful when traveling on business trips to conventions, trade shows, and other large events because they’re easy to throw marketing materials into.
Since they’re usually made of entirely fabric, tote bags can easily be folded and kept in your pocket or other luggage in case you need extra carrying space while on a trip. Most of them will fit carry-on restrictions, but you’re better off using a backpack for that.
Also made of canvas, duffel bags (also spelled duffle, so you can’t get it wrong), are cylindrical in shape and, like backpacks, come in a wide variety of sizes to accommodate different uses. Smaller duffel bags are great as yoga or gym bags. They’re easy to carry and can fit everything you need for a workout.
Duffel bags get much larger than your typical backpack and many can be worn as a backpack. In military basic training, you’ll be assigned a duffel bag full of gear to load into your storage locker and trunk. If you need something big enough to carry anything, a duffel bag may be the way to go.
Pop culture also associates duffle bags with gray area and illegal activities such as drug trades, illicit payments, etc. Duffle bag boys are the Hollywood version though – the actual slang refers to those who use paper bags to exchange cash. That’s how it’s done for those who live in reality and can’t afford to give away luggage haha.
If you’re a teacher, lawyer, politician, or anyone else that regularly deals with paper (it’s still quite common despite our “paperless” society), you’ve likely considered a briefcase already. And once again, Hollywood has associated these portable containers with often illicit financial transactions. In the case of Pulp Fiction, the briefcase even held Marsellus Wallace’s soul.
Briefcases often have folders and can even fit most laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Although we typically think of briefcases as hard, they’re often soft – in fact a laptop bag is a type of briefcase. These make excellent bags for air travel when used in conjunction with a backpack to avoid checking any luggage.
In the business world, a briefcase is like a tie so there are some quite expensive designer ones out there. It’s about as close of an equivalent as men get to women’s purse fetish, though not necessarily in style (that honor goes to the messenger bag).
Suitcases are specifically designed for travel, and suitcase manufacturers do their best to design and label carry-on luggage as such so consumers can buy with ease. Since suitcases have been around for so long, you’ll see a huge variety of styles from throughout the years on the roads if you keep an eye out. Despite the widespread availability, someone else always has one that looks like yours at baggage claim.
Sometimes made of fabric, other times from polymers, you’ll even find leather, vinyl, metal, even wooden suitcases for a variety of uses. Some have built-in wheels and troll handles to allow them to roll along with you. The basic difference between a duffel and suitcase is the shape. Suitcases are more squared. There’s also usually a frame so an empty or full suitcase takes up the same amount of space, whereas a duffel collapses.
If you’re going to buy a suitcase, make sure it’s compliant with all FAA laws regarding locks, size, etc. to avoid any issues. Again, do your best not to check luggage, but obviously that’s not always an option.
The last type of outer bag is the messenger bag, purse, or murse. These bags have a long shoulder strap and are designed to be worn across the body and hold your tampons, nail polish, and other feminine needs. They’re also popular with bike messengers and other delivery people.
As a former paperboy, we used murses occasionally, but our standard was basically a poncho with deep pockets that could be tied to your bike if you were good enough. Messenger bags are great because you can flip them around without too much effort, which was a struggle with the newspaper poncho.
If you’re a woman, you don’t need me telling you why a purse is useful, but guys will definitely want one for any type of courier job or trips that involve carrying things that need to be constantly accessed. A tote doesn’t have the right strap, and a laptop bag doesn’t fit right – just be a man and buy the damn murse.
Inner Bag Types
Although today’s modern bags are engineered for optimal storage and hold much more than you’d think, there’s still a need for supplemental bags. Sometimes it’s because you have specialty items to carry that need to be kept separate for protection. Otherwise it’s because you need to switch things out between bags or keep track of things.
1. Toiletry Bag
Toiletry bags are designed to hold body hygiene and grooming essentials like a toothbrush, comb, nail clippers, toothpaste, deodorant, vitamins, spare contacts/glasses, etc. You can find cheap versions at the store that are pre-filled with cheap versions of the items or you can spend $10-$50 on a small bag specifically made for toiletries.
Some luggage sets and suitcases come with a toiletry bag, and if it doesn’t, I’d recommend getting one, as the pressure of traveling could cause something to open and spill out into the rest of the bag. There’s nothing worse than flying all the way out to Hawaii only to open your suitcase and find sunscreen or lotion all over your clothes.
2. Waterproof Bag
Like toiletry bags (which are also typically waterproof), waterproof bags are designed to keep water from penetrating through. The difference is toiletry bags keep the liquid in (when they’re waterpoof), whereas waterproof bags are designed to keep water out.
Use these bags to store electronics, wallets, case, and other valuables when traveling anywhere these things may get wet. Water damage isn’t covered on pretty much any warranty or insurance plan for smartphones and such, so you’d be wise to protect your investment.
3. Smell-proof Bag
If you’re a medical marijuana user, it can be scary traveling. That’s because cannabis laws vary from state to state, county to county, and even city to city. It’s never a good idea to cross any borders carrying drugs, but you’ll still want a smell-proof bag when traveling within the city on your normal commute.
Smell-proof bags use a combination of scent repelling/absorbing technologies in the liners and included packets to keep any strong odors from seeping through. While smaller ones are designed for medical users, larger ones are often used for diapers or even emergency bathroom usage. Whatever smell you’re covering, there’s a solution if you look.
4. Anti-static Bag
Another useful inner bag to have on hand (especially when transporting electronics) is an anti-static bag. These are the coated polyethelene bags used to protect video cards, motherboards, and other computer components in their original shipping containers.
Anti-static bags discharge static electricity either through dissipation or conduction in order to keep the components inside from being fried and possibly destroyed. Keep in mind anti-static bags do not protect components from the ravages of extreme temperatures.
5. Hydration Bladders
You likely know them as Camelbaks because of the brand’s excellent marketing push in the market several decades ago. These days plenty of bag, pack, and outdoor companies include hydration bladders into much more than the standard Camelbak (which is still one of my favorite products of all time).
If you’re going to drier climates, anywhere outdoors, or for long walks, you’re going to need to stay hydrated. These bags hold anywhere from 1 to several liters of liquid and, although they can be filled with other liquids (i.e. wine, juice, beer, etc.), it’s best to keep them straight H2O.
6. Specialty Bags
Specialty bags and cases are also available for specific uses, and often come with the equipment they’re meant to protect. Microphones and headphones, for example, will come in their own bags. You can also buy a third-party bag for different uses, like vape cases, art supply bags, etc.
Camera bags are usually necessary for DSLR and other camera equipment. These are so popular you can even find specialty camera versions of other bags just like you can for video game consoles, computer equipment and more. These gear bags are also used by professionals in outdoor fields. If you travel with specialty items, a specialty bag makes life a lot easier.