Perpetually #huangry. Occasionally #huangover.

Traveling with GORUCK

When I started at BOF, I knew I would be traveling quite a bit for BFGoodrich, but I'm not sure I understood what the practical implications would be. Traveling for work is entirely different from traveling for fun. And even within the category of business travel, BFGoodrich's particular demands are rather unique: I'm standing in deserts or on sunbaked asphalt much more often than I am in air-conditioned conference rooms.

Suffice to say the past 10 months have been incredibly educational. (See my previous post on things I learned while on the road.) A big part of this education has been learning how to travel. That sounds a little obvious, but what I mean is that there are all these little efficiencies, tricks, and preferences you develop when packing, going through airport security, using overhead bins, etc. Luggage, of course, plays a huge role here. Over the dozen or so trips I've had, I've settled on GORUCK bags as the best solution for my needs.

When I started traveling, I had two main bags: a Fjallraven No.21 medium rucksack (20L) and a Brooks Brothers football leather weekender (about 36L). I loved the vintage/mountaineering vibes of the Fjallraven, and there's a romantic sophistication to leather weekenders. But they didn't match each other aesthetically, and they also didn't function according to what I needed. 

The Fjallraven's external straps and rain cover cinch made getting into the bag a pain in the ass, plus the top-loading configuration meant it was difficult to pack the space efficiently and once packed, it was difficult to get to things without unpacking it all. The straps also tended to snag on things.

As for the weekender, its beauty was what ended up annoying me. I spent a lot of time worrying about the soft, pebbled leather getting marked up or cut open by the exposed metal fittings you find all over airplanes and in airports. And that was just as carryon luggage. I never checked it, and I don't think I would ever be comfortable trusting conveyor belts and baggage handlers.

Because of those experiences, I ended up with the following list of criteria for my luggage:

  • Tough. Things get beaten up, squished, and tossed around. Having seams, zippers, or handles fail mid-trip sucks.
  • Nondescript. No need attracting unnecessary attention, especially when you're packing lenses and camera bodies.
  • Streamlined. There's all sorts of things on airplanes that will snag straps on luggage, which just increases the chances you'll rip up your luggage.
  • Exterior pockets. For stashing ID, phone, miscellaneous pocket contents, etc. when going through security. It's also helpful to have a externally accessible laptop pocket, since you always have to take it out for TSA. It's great to be able to remove your laptop without having to open up your entire bag.
  • Soft shell. Not that I have anything against hard cases, but they tend to be more difficult to stow in overhead compartments, especially the regional jets you sometimes get on short hops — GSP to ATL, for example. That said, I do have a Pelican hard case for when I have to pack and protect a bunch of camera gear. (Normally, for events, I just pack my two camera bodies and three lenses into a Domke bag I use as an insert.)
  • Accessible and flexible. I want to be able to get into my bag easily. It helps if I ever need to grab anything in the airport or in a rental car, and it also helps with the packing process. I also want to be able to configure my bags for the particular needs of every trip. 

These criteria led me to GORUCK. Their pedigree traces back to gear made for SF operators, plus there's this subculture of people who go rucking for exercise. (Personally, I don't get putting rocks in a bag and walking around with them. But I do CrossFit, so I'm sure people say the same thing about me.) My travel isn't as extreme as deploying to an active conflict zone or dragging awkward weights through the woods, but it's nice to know that you can beat on GORUCK's gear.

I started with a GR1 backpack (21L) as a replacement for the Fjallraven. The externally accessible laptop pocket was a huge selling point for me, plus it's basically just a big rectangle you can open all the way up. That, along with the integrated MOLLE webbing, means that the bag is a highly modular blank canvas. It was also the perfect width for using a Domke F-5XB shoulder bag as a camera insert. (I can also just use the Domke by itself when I don't need to haul around the entire GR1.) Most recently, I bought a 32L Kit Bag, which has taken over for my leather weekender. It, like the GR1, is a blank canvas: a basic duffel bag with a few pockets. But you can stuff a surprising amount of stuff inside while remaining carryon compliant.

Quality is evident in both bags. Military-grade black 1000D Cordura fabric is the basis for both bags, which makes these bags relatively water- and abrasion-resistant. From what I've observed, stitching is neat and tight, so I don't worry about seams coming apart even when stuffed full. Zippers — which come with individual pulls — are smooth, reliable, and quiet. I also really enjoy the fact that these bags have minimal markings and few straps/fittings. There's a small grid of MOLLE webbing on the GR1, a couple of thick D-rings for attaching shoulder straps on the Kit Bag, a 2"x3" Velcro area for attaching patches, and not much else. You could say these bags are plain to a fault, but I find their low-key, business-like nature attractive. These are the most elemental, tough, and functional versions of a backpack and duffel bag you could imagine.

Though they are minimal, they aren't necessarily spartan. The straps on the GR1 are super thick and padded and have been extremely comfortable, even when the GR1 is stuffed to capacity. The laptop pocket is also great: when the GR1 is worn, the pocket is sandwiched between your back and the rest of the bag, so no one is going to get into it without you being aware. It also has some confidence inspiring rigidity and padding, and it's big enough to contain a 13" MacBook Pro (Early 2015) in a neoprene sleeve. The only complaint I have about the GR1 is that there's very little back ventilation, so back sweat is an inevitability.

The Kit Bag seems less thought out. The handles are just nylon straps folded over and sewn together, so they're stiff and not particularly ergonomically shaped. Right now, they cut into my hands when I hold on for an extended period of time. I expect they'll break in over time and get better, but it's just not terribly fun to realize when you've lost circulation to your fingers. At least the shoulder strap is as padded as the GR1's straps. The bottom of the Kit Bag is also a bit lackluster: there aren't any feet to keep the bag off the ground, nor is there any additional fabric layering. While the Cordura may be tough, it would be nice to have some extra reassurance on the part of the bag that is touching all the grossness in the world.

Those things are just minor quibbles in my book. These bags are tough, handsome in an understated way, and eminently functional. I have no qualms about stuffing them full, throwing them into the overhead bin, setting them down in dirt, etc. I don't have to worry about these bags. They do their job and they don't get in my way. When traveling, that's the best kind of compliment.