The one bag: what I've learned from 38 trips through airport security

Mon Sep 18, 2017 · 7 min read

travelhow-togear review

Here’s a brief post short lecture on what I look for in a one-bagging pack candidate.

First, because the decision is so individual, here’s some background on my preferences based on what I do and how I travel.

For me, the majority of the decision of whether or not a bag works for me really comes down to a few things: does it slow me down, is it frictionless to live out of, and how does it make me feel when I carry it?

Does it slow me down?

The point where I notice this the most is at airport security. Here’s the way it usually goes:

  1. Arrive at security and take backpack off
  2. Remove laptop from pack and place in tray
  3. Remove liquids bag from pack and place in tray
  4. Place backpack on conveyor
  5. (Sometimes) remove shoes and place in separate tray

I don’t usually have a belt, jacket, or pocket change, but those go in trays too.

Side carry handles. I will never get a pack without at least one of these - they make all the difference! Side carry handles are ideal for manipulating the pack when it’s off your back because their position gives you an optimal point for controlling the pack’s weight. At airport security this means it’s easier to lift and place on the conveyor belt; on the plane, they make storage and retrieval from overhead compartments a breeze.

Separate laptop compartment. For speedy removal and repacking of a laptop, having a separate compartment is key. With a separate compartment, I open the dedicated zipper, take out the laptop, and I can even leave the zipper undone while the bag goes through the scanner since it’s an empty pocket otherwise. Putting the laptop back after screening and zipping it up again can be done with one hand while the other hand steadies the bag.

Easy access storage area. If possible, I prefer to also have the liquids bag in its own separate compartment. It helps me speed through security in similar fashion to the separate laptop compartment idea, and, if anything should ever explode, it doesn’t get all over the rest of my stuff.

If I don’t have a separate compartment for this, I would either pack it last in the most accessible part of the pack, or keep it in a separate, smaller “personal item” bag that I can also carry on. When I’m rocking this 1+ set up, I also put my laptop in this bag. The pack goes in the overhead, and the personal item bag stays under the seat in front of me for easy access on long flights.

Is it frictionless to live out of?

Bags that open up completely in a clamshell, suitcase or top-flap fashion are the easiest to live out of. Especially with the use of packing cubes, you basically have a portable dresser. While some swear by top-loaders, I really don’t want to have to take everything out of my bag and spread it all out on the bed, couch, or floor, just to find something at the bottom. I literally live out of my bag - I don’t use closets or dressers because I’ll inevitably forget something in them. This means that at any point, I could simply just close up my bag and go - everything’s already organized and accounted for.

Living out of the bag means moving from place to place is a total non-issue. Packing up for a change of location takes under five minutes, and under ten minutes if I’ve not yet rolled up my laundry.

Here’s what I’m currently rocking:

Clamshell opening. Bags that open with a clamshell style open up all the way and lay flat. This is excellent for finding things without taking apart your pack, and it’s super helpful for living out of to be able to see where everything is.

Packing cubes. Just one, currently. It’s amazing how much you can carry in a compact space if you roll it up burrito-style and put it in a packing cube. An added bonus is that it’s as easy to live out of as any drawer.

Burrito-rolls in a packing cube

How does it make me feel when I carry it?

This is entirely subjective. Personally, I want a bag that stays close to my back, feels like a part of me, and moves when I do. No drag, no dangling straps, nothing to catch on stuff if I’m zipping through a crowd. I want to be able to stand tall and hold my posture thanks to properly balanced weight. I never want to think of it as “lugging my stuff around.”

Get a pack that fits. A lot of people don’t realize that backpacks, like clothing, come in sizes suited to different body types. I can’t claim to be very knowledgeable in this field - you can find fit experts at hiking and outdoor stores like MEC and REI. Generally, the pack should sit high up on your back, with the weight pushing downward, not pulling you backwards. The back of the pack should sit straight and close to your back. (If anyone has fit advice to add, please do so in the comments!)

Strap keepers. These underappreciated devices take a few different forms. Some are simple elastic fabric brands that come along with the pack, where you roll up the excess strap and tuck it in. Then there are Web Dominators: plastic clip things that look sort of like the top of a fork, with some elastic cord attached. The plastic bit anchors to the strap and the excess gets rolled up, then held in place against the plastic bit with a wrap of the elastic cord.

Web Dominator

Removable hip belt. These make all the difference in comfort, but have the tendency to make you look like a hiker or backpacker, which you may not always want. A removable belt gives me the option to choose, and saves my back when I have to wait in long lines at immigration, slowly shuffling forward two feet every ten seconds.

Definitely try it on first. If you’re buying a pack online, ensure that the seller offers a change-of-mind return. It’s really hard to tell if you’re going to like something and if it’s going to suit you without putting it on first. In the store or at home, load up the pack with around the weight of the stuff you’ll be carrying. Play with the different straps and find a configuration that feels comfortable, and then wear it for at least 30 minutes to an hour. If you don’t want to defenestrate the thing by the end of it, congratulations, it’s a match!

Tl;dr: here’s what I look for in a one-bagging pack

  1. Side carry handles
  2. Separate laptop compartment
  3. Easy access outer storage area for liquids bag
  4. Clamshell, suitcase, or top-flap style opening
  5. Proper fit for my body type
  6. Strap management
  7. Removable hip belt

If you have differing perspectives or your own must-haves to share, I’d love to hear it in the comments.

Okay, so… what pack do you have?!?

Oh, well, funny you should ask. It’s currently this one.