Choosing the ‘just right’ go bag

January 9, 2013

Go Bag LogoBefore you can properly stock a go bag, you have to, well, have one to fill. For a while, I tried to mix it up — one go bag for the weekend (fewer things needed) and another for the week. Dumb. Trust me: You’ll always forget to decant. You’ll need some obscure dongle or cord you didn’t anticipate. So aim for the Go Bag Golden Rule: Have only one.

The bag itself is the most visible decision you’ll make, so you’ll want it to reflect your style, just keep practicality in mind. Thin and streamlined is sexy, but too small invites overstuffing. Nothing that looks good still looks good if it won’t close neatly. Too big is can become bulky and might lead to extraneous items. You want it to fill out just right.

Don’t be afraid to pay for quality and invest in a bag that feels right and looks good on you. I paid nearly $200 for the messenger bag I use now, but have paid as little as $50 and everything in between. Above $200 you are likely paying for cachet rather than carry, but who am I to object?

I’ve found that sturdy handles with comfortable grips are a necessity. Shoulder straps — whether cross-chest or backpack style — can cause you to sport a waist-high tumor-like protrusion, though they can be a godsend if you have to use your phone and, say, hold a subway pole at the same time. Make sure you find something you like and that doesn’t cause you strain, because this will become your daily companion.

15' Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger Bag

John Abell’s go bag

Choosing the right go bag is ultimately personal. Me? I currently use a 4-year-old 15″ Timbuk2 laptop messenger bag, which is just the right size to work from a variety of remote locations and allow me to be self-sufficient (I went for the hand-stitched model made in San Francisco, which came at a premium). The padded insert was designed for a standard laptop, but it’s roomy enough for a sheathed MacBook Air and a tablet and other thin items. There are some additional pockets and compartments, but not so many you have to dream up uses for them. I’ve modded it a tad: I put a grommet hole in the strap to attach things (right now, my QR code business card in case I lose it and some good samaritan finds it).  I also removed the Velcro, which held the flap down without using the clips, but constantly made that atrocious Velcro noise.

Before finding my current go bag, I tested several solutions: backpacks, waist packs, gym bags, canvas totes, photojournalist vests and “gadget” jackets with a gazillion pockets.  I discovered that mainstream computer bags worked best for me. My biggest mis-fires? At one end of the spectrum was a 15″ Booq Slim that was well designed but too diminutive for my needs. The bag determined what I would carry, rather than accommodating what I needed. It’s a great choice when a sleeker look is warranted. But it’s not the right bag for anyone who isn’t a die-hard minimalist.

At the other extreme I went completely rogue: A Husky tool bag. It had 31 internal pockets, 28 internal elastic straps and 12 external pockets. You see the problem right away: those compartments had to be filled. An umbrella I never used. Four boxes of gum instead of one. Hand sanitizer. Cutlery. Not to mention, the bag was always heavier than its contents.

All packed tightly

Here’s what I’ve learned about the right go bag:

It’s capacity should be — just — a little more than you generally need. Allow for about 20% overhead for ad hoc stuff — enough room to toss in extra power bars or your packable raincoat. It should be roomy enough, fully packed, for you to access anything easily. The items in the bag shouldn’t have to be jigsawed in, like an overnight carry-on crammed for a four-day trip. The bag must open and close without stress. A wide mouth is best, the better to leave open at your ports of call. Above all, it should feel comfortable, portable, and ready to grab at a moment’s notice: an extension of you.

After all, your go bag is to everything you need to go. You should never want to leave home without it.

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