Some context: I’m currently 15 months into a round-the-world adventure. Having already explored 15 countries across four continents, I feel it’s about time to do a review of the gear I carry with me. Many have asked me to review individual pieces of gear, and this post is designed to do just that. Let’s do this!
The short version: Everything I travel with fits into one backpack — a 30-Liter SLICKS TRIP (Black) backpack, pictured above and below. I also carry a 13-Liter Osprey Daylite daypack, which fits neatly inside the SLICKS pack when I’m moving long distances. The total weight is 9.5kg (21 lbs), give or take a few grams. I have used this gear to traverse both urban and (very) remote environments, and the clothing I carry is sufficient for temperatures as low as -10C (14F in Freedom Units). With the way I travel, I do laundry every week or so.
Here’s the SLICKS backpack and everything that fits into it (click on the image to see a larger version):
The long version: below is a brief review of the SLICKS pack itself and a quick breakdown of everything that I pack inside it.
1.) The pack itself
If you’ve read/seen other reviews of the SLICKS backpack, you probably already know that it isn’t designed for year-long journeys. In fact, it was designed for 1-2 day business trips — and the included accessories (hanging toiletry kit, dress shirt cover, and “Tripcover” organizational pouch) serve as a constant reminder of that.
Needless to say, I have pushed this bag far and beyond what it is expected to do — and have crammed more much into it than the bag designers intended.
What I liked about using this backpack for full time travel:
- There’s a lot of built-in organization in the SLICKS pack, so much so that it renders “packing cubes” pointless. The “Tripcover” itself — an insert with two medium-size compartments — serves as a sufficient organizational pouch for most of what I carry. Given the sheer amount of pockets and compartments, I opted to leave behind the SLICKS toiletry kit and shirt protector (both have their uses, but would have taken up too much space).
- The pack is built of solid, sturdy materials. It has held up very well, despite being straight up abused on the trip. This bag has been manhandled by baggage handlers (I’ve had to check it in a couple times on low cost airlines), thrown on top of a jeep in the desert for days at a time, and has been carried long distances across cities. The zippers still look (and feel) like new, and the only damage to the pack is a tiny adjustment strap (which tore from the main backpack strap it was connected to). More on this below.
- It has a compact, sleek footprint. It fits easily (with room to spare) in any aircraft compartment, and (with some finagling) can be stuffed into overhead shelves on long-distance buses.
- It’s comfortable to carry. The straps (and back) are padded, and there are built-in waist and hip straps to help you balance the load. I’m almost exactly 6 feet tall, and this pack fits perfectly on my back. Although I haven’t needed to, I’d be OK with carrying this backpack — fully loaded — for 20km or more.
- There are many well though-out features. The small and lightweight laundry bag, for example, has been supremely useful for storing dirty (and smelly) clothing until the next wash-and-fold laundry stop. At the front of the bag, there’s a cavernous compartment which is great for throwing larger items that may need to be accessed quickly (e.g. a zip loc bag of liquids, flip-flops, sunglasses). Finally, there’s a quick access pocket on the side for frequently-used smaller objects — pens, small notebooks, earphones, earplugs, and the like. On the inside of the bag, there are a multitude of discreet pockets that are ideal for storing cash, passports, and other valuables — this is perfect for paranoid types like me.
- Finally, the bag is has a clamshell design — it opens flat, briefcase style (this makes it easier to organize and put in/remove stuff). Whoever designed the bag has clearly traveled extensively.
What could be better:
- The bag is heavy. Lifted straight from the official site: pack 1,390 grams, Tripcover 285 g, Shirtcover 216 g, Laundrybag 18 g, Washbag 133 g, Raincover 94 g. Put all that together and we’re already at 2.14 kg (4.7 lbs) for the bag alone. Even by ditching the Washbag and Shirtcover, I’m still at 1.8 kg. This makes things tricky if your goal is to hit the magic 7 kg mark, which is the point at which I think you go from merely minimalist to ultralight. At 7 kilograms (15.5 lbs), you’ll be impressing all but the most grumpy of airline check-in staff.
- Part of the bulkiness of this bag comes from the multitude of straps, clicks, and compartments. As other reviewers have noted, there may simply be too much compartmentalization. Case in point: to get to my camera — located in one of the compartments of the Tripcover — I have to first unclip both of the bag’s compression straps, unzip the bag to open it up, unclip the compression strap on the bottom Tripcover pocket, and then unzip the pocket itself. Is all that really necessary for a theoretical pack weight of at most 10 kilos? I’d argue it isn’t. I mentioned above that there was a small adjustment strap that tore — and it had precisely zero effect on my usage (in fact, it makes me want to cut the other one off for symmetry’s sake). With all the bits, bobs, and layers of material, you’d think I was transporting goods from the House of Fabergé.
- When the bag is full, it becomes hard to remove items from it for quick access. At full capacity, the laptop compartment gets quite tight — and I feel bad for the Macbook that needs to be violently stuffed into it following a baggage scan at the airport. Note: this is really no one’s fault but my own, as I am (admittedly) “overclocking” this backpack.
Other observations about the pack:
- There’s a rain-cover built into the bag. It’s pretty slick (heh), and fits neatly into its own dedicated pocket. In 15 months of travel, I have never used it. The pocket it’s in, however, is a really cool one — it’s disguised well, and could hypothetically be used to hide a decent amount of cash (or a thumb drive containing plans for world domination). I call it the KGB pocket.
- There’s a hip strap built in, which neatly hides away into the sides of the bag. Just as well, as I have never used it. The waist strap is also of questionable utility, although I clip it in sometimes just because it’s there. Unless you’re literally smuggling gold bullion, it would be difficult to stuff enough mass into this thing to justify much in load distribution. I’ve never carried it on my back for more than 10 km a day, however, so I guess these features make sense. Now that I think about it, the waist strap could be useful for balance (if you’re turning sharp corners on the getaway motorbike).
- I have gotten a few comments on the bag — people find that it looks cool and/or unique. It certainly stands out in a sea of typical “backpacker” packs. When I pass through the “nothing to declare” corridor of Arrivals in a new country carrying only the SLICKS bag and a stern expression, I get curious looks from Customs. “Is that really everything?” is a question I’ve already heard a few times.
- It’s not a cheap bag. At the regular price of 329 Francs, the bag comes to almost $350 USD. These days, that amount of money goes a long way in the travel pack department — anyone planning a long trip would be spoiled for choice with a backpack budget like that. Right off the top of my head, I can think of a few packs that could may well work better than this one for the purposes of one-bag travel (although I haven’t personally tested them).Full disclosure: I was sent this bag by SLICKS to try out in exchange for an honest opinion (although there was never any expectation about using it for 15+ months as a RTW solution).
TL;DR: I have managed to use a 30L backpack designed for 2 day business trips for a trip going on 15 months. Could it have been easier with another bag? Probably. But things worked out just fine, and the SLICKS bag has held up admirably.
2.) What goes in the pack
- An Osprey Daylite (13L) daypack. This is a great little pack for walking around town — or much more. There’s plenty of space and organization for your daily items, and a handy outside compartment at the back that fits a hydration bladder (or two bottles of wine, in a pinch).When I need to get work done at a cafe or coworking space, the pack easily fits a 13” laptop, camera, mini tripod, sweater — with plenty of room to spare for a pack lunch or surprise grocery purchases on the way back home.It’s worth noting that I have well and truly abused this thing — and it’s holding up well after 4+ years of use. Kudos to Osprey for this level of build quality.
The lowdown: this is a great daypack, but I think there are better options out there. For one, the side pockets aren’t deep or sturdy enough to reliably carry water bottles. Additionally, the backpack straps are connected at the top — and this bit has a habit of digging into my neck when the pack sits high on the back. With all that said, I’ll continue to use the pack until it finally gives up (or until I meet someone that could use it as a donation).[OK, so I guess the presence of a daypack means that this isn’t technically a one-bag travel solution. In my defence, however, the daypack goes inside the main bag on “travel” (e.g. flight) days. When I’m relocating, I’m still just carrying one bag.]
- Macbook Air 13” laptop (mid-2011 model). While the laptop debate continues to rage on in the traveler and remote worker communities, I have found the Macbook Air (mostly) sufficient for everything I need to get done.While this is an older model (ancient, in “computer” years), it can still handle basic computing tasks — as well as editing RAW files in Photoshop and full-stack web development. I have gotten a ridiculous amount of mileage out of it, and I expect it to keep trucking along.
The lowdown: while the Macbook Air 13” was arguably the ultimate travel companion as of 2012 or so, there are undeniably better choices out there. My machine is certainly showing its age. Once this thing dies (or I offload it to someone else), I plan to upgrade to either a Macbook 12” Retina 2017 (m3) or Macbook Pro 13” Retina (also 2017). An argument could be made for either — and the choice isn’t easy for someone that does a lot of traveling while simultaneously shooting RAW and dabbling in video editing.Accessories I bring with the laptop: standard Apple charger, extension cord (rarely used), and a basic Logitech USB mouse.
- A Ricoh GR camera (first edition). This is a fixed lens (28mm equivalent) compact with a 16 megapixel APS-C sized sensor.
While this camera is somewhat of a legend among street photographers, it has also found a place in many travelers’ packs — and for good reason. The lens, although fixed at 28mm, is one of the sharpest out there. The ergonomics of the camera, refined over multiple generations in the film photography era, are nothing short of genius — the Ricoh GR can be effectively used one-handed. It features a full set of manual controls, a built-in ND filter, and a host of other features that make it a photographer’s camera (as pretentious as that sounds).
The lowdown: I have been more than satisfied with the shots I have taken with the GR, and it has done wonders for my progress as a student of photography. With that said, I increasingly feel limited by the lack of reach — as well as with the sub-par low light performance. On top of these minor frustrations, my Ricoh GR has unfortunately attracted some sensor dust (despite being handled with care and stored 100% of the time in a camera pouch). If you’re shooting street scenes, the GR (now on the 2nd iteration) perhaps still offers the best price:performance ratio of fixed lens compacts. For the traveler, however, there are better options. I’m investigating a few options as a replacement/upgrade, and the most likely candidate is now the Panasonic GX85 with 12-32mm kit lens.
While I hate traveling with DSLRs, I do miss the possibilities they afford (a dream setup would probably consist of a Nikon D750 with 24-120 f/4, Rokinon 14mm, and a 50mm 1.8g).
Accessories I bring with the camera: small Lowepro camera pouch, and a tiny Manfrotto Table-top tripod. A few words on the tripod: it does the job, although I would hesitate to put anything heavier than a compact on it. Range of motion somewhat limited (don’t try to do astrophotography or portrait-orientation shots with this thing).
- Universal USB Travel Adapter. This is probably the most used item in my bag — it simply fits every plug I’ve come across. Mine is by Tumi (I got it as a gift), but there are plenty of affordable options out there. Whatever you do, make sure you have one of these. One USB port is great, two or more would be even better. A great feature of my adapter is a small LED light to indicate presence of electricity — useful for identifying the one outlet in your budget hotel room that actually supplies current.
- Sunglasses and prescription glasses, in separate cases. In my case, both are by Oliver Peoples (complete overkill, from my hipster days).
- Two smartphones: Apple iPhone 5 and Motorola Moto G (as a backup), both unlocked. These do the job, although having two phones is probably overkill. The iPhone 5’s camera now feels outdated, and I plan to upgrade to a 6 or newer model. Silver lining: once the iPhone 5 comes out, no one wants to mug me.As an accessory for the phones, I have one of those cheap transparent plastic neck pouches. While this is useful for surviving festivals such as Thailand’s Songkran, it’s not really necessary and I’ll give it away at the first opportunity.
- Two manila folders of… important papers. (Shout out to Chase Reeves: business papers, man). Also, a couple of notebooks and a pen. Always carry a pen.
- A passport wallet for my passports, ID cards, vaccination cards, scuba certification card, etc. I use a basic one that I got for free from Black’s photography years ago, and it has held up pretty well. Goes on the inside front pocket of the SLICKS bag (but don’t tell anyone that!) There are probably better/fancier ones out there with carbon fiber materials and RFID protectors or whatever, but I don’t think they are necessary.
- Toiletries, most of which go in a small REI shower bag (orange in the pic). Liquids go in a separate Ziploc bag for quickly placating baggage inspectors.
- A small pouch that contains random bits and bobs such as earphones, earplugs, USB drives.
- Tiny REI microfiber towel. Takes up almost no space, but has proven itself useful on impromptu snorkeling expeditions and the like. While everyone is waiting to dry off in the sun, I deploy this thing and dry myself in seconds. The towel itself dries in just 15 minutes. This was a purchase from the days when I gave way too much thought to gear — but one that I don’t regret.
Let’s get this out of the way immediately: I travel with only the bare necessities: five cotton t-shirts, one Uniqlo airism tee (started with 3, lost one and ripped the other one), one pair of Outlier New Way shorts (that double as swimming trunks), a pair of Levi’s jeans, a cheap “mid-layer” fleece, and a Montbell windbreaker. As far as basics go, I have four pairs of socks and seven pairs of Uniqlo airism underwear. That’s it (really).
Story time: I once went to Tokyo (’twas my first time in Japan), and thought it necessary to bring some fancy threads to fit in. I packed my classy Alden lace-ups, tailored slacks and dress shirts. This ended up being counter-productive, as I didn’t actually out-dress anyone there and was thus mistaken for an English Teacher (nothing against you guys, really). That was the last straw, and also the point at which I truly ran out of fucks.I realized there’s no point half-assing the formalwear: either go full James Bond, or leave the fancy stuff at home. Now, I’ll brazenly enter clubs with my beat-up Nike trainers, jeans, and a cotton tee. No ties, no collars, and certainly no cuff-links.
Here’s the thing: you don’t need expensive clothing to travel with. You could very well spend $200 on fancy “merino wool” shirts — spun from the wool of a baby llama — only to find that they’ve developed rips a month into the trip (or worse, got mistakenly swapped for some dude’s Gap tee at a $1/kilo wash and fold in Saigon). My advice is to try traveling with what you have already — save your cash for bungee jumps and scuba dives.Clothing that I picked up along the way, and will readily give away if presented the chance: wool gloves, thermal socks, and a sun hat.
- Flip-flops. Picked these up in Bali for a few dollars, and have kept them around since. Great for beach days, or for navigating surfaces of questionable hygiene. Travel long enough, and you’ll discover how useful these (or sandals) are.
And that’s everything! Here’s a picture of everything packed up and ready to go (only my shoes, a pair of Nike trainers, are missing):
Concluding thoughts (and advice):
Traveling with only a 30 Liter size carry-on backpack has been immensely liberating, and I’m glad I made the decision to do so. Aside from the obvious benefits (both hands free, not having to check the bag for air travel), this setup lets me focus on what’s most important: seeing the places I want to see, in the manner that I’d like and unburdened by stuff. At this point, all that remains is shedding the emotional baggage…
If you haven’t tried this style of “minimalist” one-bag travel, I urge you to give it a shot. Some advice for those just getting started:
- The first step is to shed the classic suitcase (roller). At this point, your first instinct may be to go with a backpack featuring the “maximum allowed” carry-on dimensions (typically at 45 Liters of capacity). Please try to resist this urge, as large backpacks only beg to be stuffed with things you won’t actually use.
- For the vast majority of travelers, I would suggest aiming for a total backpack load-out of 25 to 30 Liters (not a typo). This gives you plenty of room for anything you might need, as well for specialty items that are unique to your interests/needs. Aim for a weight under 10kg, and go down from there.
- If you’re only traveling to tropical climates, you really don’t need much. In fact, I plan to spend extensive time in South East Asia next year with only a 18L backpack. While it can be done with even less than that, I still plan to bring all my electronics. If/when I pull this off, I’ll make sure to write about it.
- Don’t spend money on fancy travel stuff until you have proven it’s usefulness. As a general rule, no individual piece of clothing should cost more than $100 (I would personally draw the line at $50).
- By and large, traveling these days is easy. It’s actually a challenge to get off the beaten path. Most travel equipment more than suffices, and there’s no need to chase after the last 10% in performance (unless the money is really burning a hole in your pocket).
- As cheesy as it sounds, the most useful thing you could bring is simply more money. Also — and it’s worth saying again — bring backup debit and credit cards (you don’t want to be stranded without cash in a faraway land). If you need to buy clothing, you can do that just about anywhere.
If you have any specific questions, feel free to comment on this post (or send me an email directly: contact at sologuides dot com).