Baggage Design Essentials
I'm passionate about baggage. Your baggage is basically your home when you're not at home. It holds all of your gear you need for the afternoon, day, weekend, week, month, year, life.
The present times to me feel like, lets call it modern nomadism. People of my generation, I guess millenials, are on the move a lot. We travel far everyday for work and study. In the evening and on weekends we travel to meet friends and family, for sport and activities. Most people have a home, but we venture far from it for all different aspects of life. And we don't necessarily return to it between every endeavour. We may even have multiple homes. Still a room at the parents house, a shared flat in the city, often stay at the girl-/boyfriends place, over the weekend living with friends in their apartment in the mountains. The internet brings places and people all over the world so close to us, which makes us want to see them with our own eyes even more. And although fast transport let us reach these people and places in a short time, we still need to bring our essential things with us. This is where well designed carry equipment comes into play.
I have a bag with me almost all the time, that holds my essentials like keys, wallet, phone, basic toiletries, bottle of water, utilities like pen, knife, headlamp and a tote bag for grocery shopping, laptop, ereader, notebook, sunglasses, spare clothes, sport clothes. Obviously I don't have everything with me all the time, my sport clothes are only with me if I intend to do sport that day. For me the go-to baggage is a backpack around the size of 20 litres. Over the years I tried a few of them, from Fjällräven, Freitag, Qwstion and more. I considered many more. Each backpack has its advantages and disadvantages, but there are some essential characteristics a pack needs to have in order to work for me.
In this article I'd like to explore the ways of carry and what makes a bag work. My focus is on general baggage for everyday use, there seems to be a term for that: Everyday Carry. Most common are backpacks, messenger bags and gym handbags. But I guess you could also apply my observations to other categories. For example: sport backpacks for outdoor activities such as hiking and biking, larger travel backpacks, equipment bags for example for photographers, smaller and more elegant bags for going out.
There are different purposes we use baggage for. Some baggage items work well for multiple, some are very specific and only serve a single purpose. I came up with the following categories, I think they cover most use cases.
- everyday carry / daily carry
- travel / 1 bag travel
- sport / activities
- work / craft
- (vehicle mounted)
Before we look at the essential features, lets try to list what kind of baggage items have established themselves and are common nowadays.
The simplest carry option there is. Just a thin fabric sack with handles. Great for carrying groceries for a short distance or if you don't have a lot of items with you. Can also very easily carried inside your main bag, for situations where you're out of space in that one.
A small bag with grab handles that you carry by hand or hang it over one shoulder. Usually has one large opening with a small pocket on the in- or outside. Often rather elegant out of leather. Popular with but not only women. Mainly for carrying your essentials like keys, wallet, phone.
Briefcases / Satchels
A bag with a flap that covers top and front. Briefcases are usually carried by hand by a grab handle. Satchels and sometimes briefcases feature a shoulder strap. If so they are carried on the hip either straight down from the shoulder or diagonally from the opposite shoulder. Briefcases often have a very rigid shape whereas satchels have a softer shell. Both are often made out of leather. Most often used for work to carry documents, notebook, laptop.
Sport Bags / Weekender Bags / Duffle Bags
Medium to large size bags with an elongated shape. Feature a large opening to the main compartment up top. Usually don't have a lot of organizational pockets. Can be carried by the grab handles that come together over the main compartment, or sometimes on the hip hanging straight down from the shoulder by a shoulder strap. These bags are often used to carry sport equipment, clothing, or generally larger items. Because the large opening gives you a good overview of the contents, you don't need to organize and pack them carefully.
Mostly rectangular shaped with a rigid or hard shell. The one big main compartment opens on hinges into two halves. Thus it gives you a large laid out view of our items. Is most often used for travelling due to its easy way of packing and accessing its contents. Also because it offers great protection from the outside and due to the locking mechanism also from thiefs.
Fanny Packs / Bum Bags
Small pouches that are carried by a strap around the hips. Contrary to its vulgar name the pouch is most often positioned at the front under the belly but can be positioned on all sides. They are often smaller than handbags and are also used for essential items. Sometimes they are "abused" by carrying them on the back hanging over one shoulder diagonally to under the other. These bags are known to be rather unstylish and are often found on hikers. Although they are sometimes used as a somewhat controversial style accessory.
Sling Bags / Sailor Bags
Sling bags are basically fanny packs optimized for back carry diagonally over one sholder to under the other. But they can also be larger with more organization. A Sailor bag is fabric sack with an opening up top that can be closed by tightening a cord that also acts as the shoulder strap, carried the same way as a sling bag. They are smaller than a backpack yet still give you the same freedom of movement and of your hands.
A messenger bag is a large sling bag. It is also similar to a satchel, but made out of a softer canvas, synthetic material or truck tarp. It's carried cross-body over one shoulder on the back like a sling bag. Although the strap can be loosened to carry it on the hip instead. The modern messenger bag has its roots in the daily work of bicycle couriers. They are often very weather resistant and can be accessed quicker than a backpack by swinging it from the back to front and accessing its contents from above.
Up to 25 litres of volume. A backpack is a bag that is carried on the back. It hangs by two shoulder straps from your shoulders. In addition to the straps it usually features one or more grab handles for easier lifting by hand. It features a large compartment and some smaller ones on the in- and outside for improved organization. More traditional looking backpacks have a flap that covers the top and upper front area and closes with a buckle, hook or magnet. More activity oriented packs feature a rolltop closure. But the most common way compartments are accessed is by zippers. Daypacks are small backpacks intended to carry your daily essentials. Are often a bit larger than a messenger bag, satchel or handbag. Their biggest advantages are that their out of your way and leave your hands free and also that the weight is usually easier to carry on your back.
From 25 up to 35 litres of volume. The big brother of a daypack. Can hold more stuff, can be used for minimal travel or for outdoor activities like hiking. Often feature a sternum strap and a hip belt to better distribute the weight. Packs for outdoor activities can feature an internal frame for better shape and more comfortable carry.
More than 35 litres of volume. These backpacks are even larger backpacks with the same features but even more space, more strap padding and a better back frame. Usually are used to carry your belongings during travels, specific equipment for photography, work, outdoor activities. Some even let you attach a small backpack to the front side of the shoulder straps, so that it hangs down your chest and lets you stand more upright due to better weight distribution.
Large bags that hold a lot of weight sometimes feature small wheels so that you can pull them along instead of having to lift them of the floor. This is ideal during transit or in urban environments but less convenient on uneven terrain. This feature can be found on large:
- Suitcases: Can be lifted by hand or pulled along.
- Duffle bags: Same here.
- Backpacks: Can be pulled along and carried on the back on uneven terrain.
As with the multifunctionality of rolling baggage there are other bags that combine multiple carry or opening styles. Most often the reason is that the weight of your load can vary quite a bit. Some carry styles lend themselves more for light loads, others more for heavy loads. Also for certain situations you maybe prefer the way you can open and pack your bag of one baggage type but prefer the carry style of another.
- Tote backpacks: A tote bag that can be carried as a small backpack for heavier loads or for style.
- Duffle backpacks: A duffle bag with the optional carry style of a backpack. Is easier to pack than a backpack.
- Backpack one shoulder carry: Some backpacks feature the additional shoulder carry style of a satchel. Often because it fits better into work meetings.
There is a niche sector for small travel bags, that you can pack down small when empty and carried inside your main baggage. Once you leave your main bag at a hotel you can unpack this small bag and use it to carry your essentials. They are usually made out of thin and light materials with little padding and thus little comfort. Some overcome this with inflatable padding.
Which type of baggage fits your lifestyle the most depends heavily on what you carry, where you carry it and how you travel.
There are baggage items, that have many pockets and compartments, but there are also those, which offer just an empty space to fill with things. For bags that already offer a lot of organization these accessories are probably less important, but they can drastically improve your comfort on the road. Also it's important to keep in mind that some bags are designed to be used with such accessories. So it doesn't make sense to judge them on their own.
Packing Cubes / Sacks / Pouches
Let you organize your clothes and other belongings but still unpack quickly once at your location. They are a compartmentalized wardrobe on the go.
Helps you organize and pack your toiletries.
Prevents the inside of your main bag from getting dirty.
Easier organization and access of your camera gear. Same concept as a packing cube but with more padding for protection and a bigger focus on in-bag-access.
Lets you keep all your money and cards in one place.
Lets you protect your equipment from bad weather without the need for a very outdoor oriented bag or improves weather protection on a already weather resistant bag.
Removable Sternum-, Waist- or Shoulder-Straps
Give you improved weight distribution and comfort but can be hidden when not needed.
So finally on to my baggage design essentials. These are as I said mostly based on my experience with backpacks for everyday use. So not every feature makes sense on every baggage item. Or maybe I don't mention one that is quintessential in some areas of carry. But for most types I think they really improve the experience you have of using the product and enable you to better do your thing.
All of the following features fall in one or more of these basics a bag needs to check:
These are pockets on the outside of the bag that you can access without opening up the main compartment. A small one for your valuables like keys, wallet and phone is absolutely essential. It makes using these items so much easier. On some bags like backpacks it's also important, that it's placed in a secure position. Meaning in a place where you would notice somebody opening it. For example on top near your neck, on the side near your back or integrated into the back panel, so lying flat against your back. On many backpacks this pocket is placed on the pack's frontside, so that the whole bag is between you and your valuables. In a full train where people have to stand tight against each other chances are you wouldn't notice somebody opening the pocket. For larger bags it's also very handy to have a second quick-access pocket that is a bit larger so it can hold a book or your gloves. As this pocket's focus is not on valuables the placement doesn't need to be secure. Apart from security another point to keep in mind when positioning the pockets is on-body access. This isn't always possible or needed but if it works it simplifies your day a lot. An example is to remove only one strap of your backpack from your shoulders and swing it around the shoulder without putting down the bag to grab your phone from the quick-access pocket.
This is one the main things you need to get right in order to ensure that the bag is fun to use. A lot of bags offer a top-loading way to pack your things. Meaning that they offer a opening on the top of the bag. This is a logical solution when you think about gravity. This opening can be a zipper, a flap that covers the top, a rolltop that's closed by making a roll out of the uppermost fabric of the bag or it can be a tightening mechanism that contracts the opening by a cord in order to close it. Top-loading bags are usually very practical but can be a problem for large bags or bags that are higher than they are wide. Basically as soon as you need to stack a lot of items on top of each other. Because then it gets really difficult to reach items that you packed lower down in the bag. This is where clamshell openings or side openings come in handy. A clamshell opening let's you open the bag on three sides and fold back over the remaining side. It offers a great overview of the contents and is commonly found on suitcases, duffle bags and started to appear on newer backpacks that are mostly on the larger side. On smaller backpacks you can often find half-clamshell openings. As the name suggests these let you fold back the opening but not all the way. Another solution is a zipper on the side of the bag that gets you a side view of your packed stuff. It is often found in combination with a top-loading opening.
Most bags feature one large main compartment. This lets you pack things of all sizes and shapes and makes the bag very versatile. Accessory pouches can help with organization but I think it's better to offer a minimum of organization by default. Putting a pocket on the inside of the main compartment lets you store small or delicate items in there so they don't mix with the larger items and get lost under them.
Number of Pockets
To create the right amount of pockets is a balance that is difficult to achieve. Yet if mastered makes the bag very versatile. It's about offering ways of organization without putting in unnecessary and too specific pockets. More pockets let you organize more but make packing and unpacking more tedious. It depends a lot on the type, size and usage of the bag. I guess somewhere from 3 to 7 pockets is good. Less than 3 forces you to put all of your things in the same place which probably gets messy. More than 7 pockets can be appropriate but in many cases you should probably ask yourself if it's not better to improve the existing pockets instead of adding more.
This is something even well-known brands often get wrong. If you add pockets to your bag, most of the time it improves the handling if the pocket in constructed with volume. Meaning that it's not a flat fabric sandwich. Sometimes that's perfectly fine, for example to store flat items like a smartphone or a notebook. But items come in very different forms an often don't fit well into a flat pocket. Also if the pocket has volume you can see better inside when opening it and thus find your items easier. Another point of consideration is wether the pockets volume should expand into other compartments or if it should be self-contained. It can be annoying if you fill a pocket just to discover that your main compartment is now half the size and your camera doesn't fit in there anymore. And the opposite is often the case with flat pockets on the outside of the bag. When you fill the main compartment close it and discover that you can't put anything into the pocket because it's pressed flat. Yet there are pockets which are less important and for which it's a benefit if they don't reserve space when not in use.
Laptop- / Tablet-Compartment
These compartment hold very delicate items so it's important that there aren't any materials in there that can scratch your devices. There should also be enough padding around this pocket the contents are protected from other things inside the bag and from the elements outside the bag that get in contact with it. It can also be an advantage if the compartment doesn't go all the way down to the bottom. So your devices are suspended and don't bump against the ground when you put down your bag. There is also a usability mistake that I've seen a lot. It's important that the way of entry to the compartment is free. Meaning that you can put your device into the compartment directly without the need to hold a part of the bag out of the way. A common example is if the top zipper on a backpack is position towards the front of the top side of the bag but the laptop compartent is positioned on the back panel inside the main compartment. Then you need to carefully move the zipper out of the way in order to slide in the device to prevent scratching it on the zippers. Also this way it's almost impossible to access your device when the main compartment is packed full with things. A better solution would be if the laptop compartment had a separate opening to the outside so you can access it directly.
Outside Attachment / Strap
This makes such a difference in a climate where it's cold in the morning and evening but warm during the day. Jackets need a lot of space and can easily fill a medium bag all on their own. If you can attach your jacket to the outside you don't have to hold it but still have enough space inside the bag for your other items. This can be achieved with straps that can be thightened down or with the grab handles themselves so you can thread your jacket in between.
Holding of Shape
When you look at bags in the store they mostly look voluminous and have a good looking silouette. This is because there full. They're filled with filling material. But I've seen many bags that lose their intended shape when you carry less items. For some bags this isn't a problem, but often it doesn't look good if they fold in on themselves. A more rigid structure can be achieved through thoughtful construction, placing the seams in the right place. The thickness and stiffness of the fabric has a big influence. And how much padding the hull of the bag contains.
Balance on Ground
It's very annoying when a bag can't stand on its bottom and falls to its side easily. It's not always possible as this is also dependent on how the bag is packed. But if the construction takes this into account it heightens the chances that it stays in place.
When you transport your possessions it's very important that they are protected from the outside. This can be achieved by well designed openings that don't let dirt get into the bag easily. Also by putting padding in the right places to make sure objects don't collide with the ground when putting down the bag.
Zipper Size and Quality
For larger compartments especially for those that open clamshell style it's essential to use big enough zippers. They are stronger and less prone to damage and wear. As zippers are one of the more delicate parts on a bag it's worth investing in quality brands like YKK instead of cheap ones. The zipper is sewn onto the bag, so when it breaks all the other nice materials are wasted because it can't be used anymore.
Padded Straps and Handles
I've owned more than one backpack that I liked a lot for its looks but started to hate when carrying it fully loaded. In order to be comfortable to carry it's essential that the handles and straps are well padded. Often this gets neglected to achieve a cleaner and slimmer look. It's hard to find the right balance and it's something you find out only after using the bag for real.
Balanced Straps and Handles
The bag should stay close to your body. I've seen a few backpacks that seem to fall backward of the shoulders so that they only touch the back on the bottom. The reason can be that the straps aren't properly tightened by the user but can also be a balance issue of the straps and their position on the bag. A related problem is caused by handles that aren't placed in the center of the respective side of the bag. That way the bag hangs tilted in the air and can potentially hinder you from comfortably walking.
Different loads need different supports to carry the bag. For backpacks additional sternum straps help stabilize the weight and a waist belt takes weight off your shoulders and puts it onto your hips which lets you walk more upright. Large duffle bags can get really heavy when carrying for long distances by hand. An additional shoulder strap or wheels give you an alternative so you can switch from time to time or they can even lessen the weight. Another aspect is the construction, for backpacks it's better if the bag encourages you to pack heavy item higher up, so they are positioned higher up on your back. Compression straps can help in stabilizing the bag's contents.
Excess Strap Management
It's very useful being able to adjust the strap length. But many bags leave the excess strap just dangling which can be annoying. Here a mechanism to attach the excess strap length to the part being used can be very helpful.
On every bag there are certain spots that get more stress than the rest. A good example is the bottom which touches the ground every time you put down the bag or slide it into place. It's important that the material used in such a spot is extra durable.
It's not very pleasant living in fear of getting your belongings damaged as soon as it starts dripping. Not every bag needs to be water proof but using a base material that is at least resistant to water already helps in many situations. It can also be the ground that is wet due to some spilling and you don't see it. Waxed canvas is popular material and of course synthetics.
These are features that a carry product doesn't need to excel in its purpose but they can certainly make the owner's heart get warm when discovering its use and comfort.
Colorful Inner Lining
Makes the inside pop! Light colors can help with visibility as they reflect the light more. Also it can be a pleasant surprise if the look differs from the maybe very classy outside.
Fluffy Quick-Access Pocket Lining
A soft inner material makes sure your glasses or your phone feel really comfortable and secure but also lets you enjoy to touch it, hence to use it.
Magnets can simplify the experience of using the bag a lot. for example holding two grab handles on the top automatically together, instead of needing to clip them together every time. It can also be practical as a closing mechanism. For example holding a top flap in place. Those classic buckles look nice for sure, but opening and closing them is no quick action. Small pockets are much quicker to use than with a zipper, although the are probably a little less secure. Magnets can also be useful to close a sternum strap or holding things in place.
The cold touch of metal and the precise edges of milled aluminum pieces surely feel better than ugly black plastic hardware?
Soft Zipper Pulls
Large fabric or leather handles feel good and are easier to grab than small metallic ones.
Zipper Counter Pulls
Small lashes on the ends of a large zipper that give a place to grab the bag and pull against the force that you pull in the other direction with the zipper pull itself. This is a feature that's not needed in most situations and especially not on small and short zippers. But for zippers that span a large portion of the bag and need more force because they're bigger it can exactly what it needs to make using it simple.
The straps of your bag get in contact with your clothes a lot. It can be very useful being able to stow them away when you know they could get dirty. For example when putting a backpack down on a filthy train floor. Also it's practical when you want to carry your bag by its handles for a longer period of time, because the straps can get in the way.
Expandability / Compressibility
Sometimes you need to carry one more thing. Then it's very handy if the bag offers some kind of expandability. Just as a temporary solution of course. The other case is if you want to use a large bag to carry a small number of items. Then it's very nice being able to make the bag feel a little more compact. These features can be handy, yet it's difficult to get them right without sacrificing style or comfort. On of the cleanest solutions is a rolltop opening which has a classic feel to it and lets you roll the top up more if you carry little and roll it up less if you carry much.
Probably a very subjective and incomplete list, but nonetheless a discovery of features that have established themselves in the industry and are of questionable use from my point of view.
They are often not very attractive, can make the bag unbalanced. and I just prefer to put the waterbottle inside the bag, but that is really subjective. On the other hand on sport oriented bags this is likely a must have.
I carry a pen with me all the time but I have never used a holder to carry it. Probably quite handy on work related baggage. If I have one pen I just put it into a small compartment, if I have multiple I put them in a pencil case and then carry that in the main compartment of my bag.
Same thing as with pen holders. All my keys are already stacked on a key ring and I prefer just putting that into a quick-access pocket instead of fixing it to the bag.
Of course on large bags this is very important but for example on backpacks with a volume up to 35 litres I've never felt the need to tighten the pack down. They clutter the aesthetic and often are in the way when you want to open the main compartment.
Of course different activities demand different bags and different bags demand different features. The features I listed above don't make sense on every bag but I thing a careful selection of a subset of these can improve, simplify, delight and enable you to enjoy your day more.
Places on the internet where people share their passion and thoughts about carry and new products. Their content has partially influenced this article.