For the best part of three years now I’ve been living as a “digital nomad”. Nobody I know, including hundreds of digital nomad friends I’ve made along the way, really likes the term, but it’s less clunky than “location independent entrepreneur” and generally conveys the idea of working whilst travelling. Or as one of my nomad friends says, “owning a laptop and a backpack”. And it’s backpacks I want to talk about today. Or to be specific, shoulder bags.
If you move frequently, bags take on a greatly increased significance in your life. Traditional backpackers of the kind who have been trawling up and down the hippy trail since the 70s and 80s, carry all kinds of things like sleeping bags, cooking gear and emergency medical supplies. And good for them, I appreciate their survivalist ethic, I simply don’t share it. The “digital nomad” ethic is more…minimalist.
I can pack everything I own into two bags in under an hour, walk or ride on a scooter with those bags to an airport, get on an airplane without paying additional luggage fees, and then drop my bags at a new apartment in a new city on the same day. I do this roughly every few months. While it wouldn’t suit everyone, I love the nomadic freedom my minimalist luggage allows me.
Key to my lightweight travel rig is a Lowe Alpine TT Carry On 40. They don’t make these anymore, but the most important thing is that a 40 litre bag is about the limit that you can carry on to most budget airlines. If you can fit the bulk of your possessions into 40 litres of luggage space you can travel almost for nothing, as most budget airlines offer super cheap seats in the expectation they will make money from your luggage.
Most travellers and nomads combine a backpack with a small bag that they carry day to day. Something like the Osprey Daylite Backpack is not uncommon. The clear problem with this is that you’re travelling with two backpacks but you only have one back. Which is why you see travellers with their smaller pack slung across their chest, like some giant needy baby.
Look. If you’re walking through New Delhi in 48C temperatures, you’re going to be a sweaty mess. But at least my torso and essential organs aren’t swaddled on both sides by two huge bundles of heat retaining fabric. This is because I carry a shoulder bag, which I can more easily combine with my main backpack.
A shoulder bag is also, in 98% of situations, both more convenient and more secure than a small backpack. Walking through a Bangkok street market? You can shift a shoulder bag to your front for security. Need to get your wallet in a hurry? You don’t have to twist your shoulders every five minutes to access your bag. Shoulder bags for the win!
I’ve been travelling for over two years with a shoulder bag purchased from a camping shop in the UK for the princely sum of £10. I love that bag. It’s been to Thailand, Malaysia, Laos and across India with me, on planes, bikes, scooters and trains, and for a budget shoulder bag it’s done a great job, but it’s never been ideal. So for the whole of that two years I have been looking for a replacement. SPOILER ALERT : it took me until this week to find one.
Why? Well, other than being the world’s most demanding shoulder bag shopper, companies that make bags do not take the shoulder bag seriously. That is my conclusion after 24 solid months of bag hunting. Shops that are packed full of backpacks will have maybe one or two derisory shoulder bag offerings. And they are ALL WRONG.
Of course, there are no end of impractical, fashion oriented handbags. There also lots of poor quality “manbags” made from canvas and leather, a heavy material that no traveller wants to lug around. Then there messenger bags, with their stupid huge fold over top flaps. Or specialist laptop bags, with ridiculous amounts of padding. Low end bags usually have cheap plastic strap attachments that tangle or break easily. The few high end bags I found that came close to my needs were always either way to big or way to small. Seriously, I looked at hundreds of bags in the last two years, and none of them were better than my £10 camping bag.
(I actually came very close to setting up a Kickstarter for the ultimate digital nomad shoulder bag, but I’m a writer not a luggage magnate. However, if you’re one of the legions of bag companies failing miserably to make a decent shoulder bag, I can tell you exactly where you are going wrong.)
The right bag, when I found it, really surprised me. The Targus Revolution 13 took a little while to win me over when I found it on sale at one of Chiang Mai’s huge electronics stores. Targus is a brand I associate with laptop cases made in the era of 17″ laptops that weighed 6kg and needed industrial grade padding just for a walk down the street. My laptop is a shard of aluminium I could beat a mugger to death with without damaging, it doesn’t need that much padding! But after some rigorous testing, the Targus won me over.
(Yes, I am the guy who stands in the electronics store for an hour testing a bag before buying it. With a growing audience of the stores employees watching me.)
The Targus is similar to the Thule Subterra that was another close contender in my bag hunt. The Subterra is just too small however, and has a weedy strap. The Targus seems small at first, but has a deceptive Tardis like like quality that means it can hold a lot more stuff than seems possible. It has a great strap, with strong metal clips placed a little away from the bags outer edges, which makes the bag much less liable to spin around in annoying ways.
It’s fair to say I am a super-fussy shoulder bag buyer, so I do have criticisms of the Targus. It’s black, when I’d really prefer a slate grey colour for daily use. Some of the internal pockets are of questionable value – a tiny pocket for SD cards? Really Targus? Most of all, it looks like the kind of bag that is likely to have a lot of valuable electronic kit in, which is a security problem in itself, but one that’s unavoidably true anyway as a traveller in very poor places.
All in all, the Targus is a great bag that has really surprised me. The more general point of this post though is 1) a good shoulder bag is a great travel companion and 2) bag makers…do better on the shoulder bags!
Follow me on Twitter, I’ll tell you more about being a nomad. And…er…scifi! @damiengwalter