This Traveler’s Got a Brand New Bag

A member of a writer’s group I belong to recently posted this question: If you had to name the dumbest purchase you’ve ever made, what would it be?

“Easy one”, I thought, “my first marriage license.”

After I finished cracking myself up, I thought back on the massive ton of crap we have jettisoned from our lives. If you’ve read any posts from 2014, you probably remember me talking about that in the Bicycling Burglar and the very first SJOD post, 7 Airports, 4 Countries, 1 Carry-on bag, and Weather Systems up the Wazoo.

Brian and I didn’t get to a place in our lives where we felt an urgent need to discard stuff without first accumulating all of it. So clearly I have made lots of dumb purchases.

Traveling light, Oslo to Dublin

Traveling light, Oslo to Dublin

Clothing comes to mind. Considering the fact that I hate going to a mall and trying on clothes, I own a lot of them. That’s because I consider a great find at my local thrift store a triumph. One woman’s trash is another woman’s, “Holy moly! Check this out!”, and in the cart it goes. Our closet requires periodic purging, but that’s okay because most of the stuff in there came from thrift stores and will be donated back to them. We’re helping our community, right? Maybe those purchases are not so dumb.

Here’s my shortlist of dumb purchases: (Don’t be offended if these are your favorite things. You can write your own list of dumb stuff.)

  • Shoes: Back in my 20s, I owned a bunch of shoes. That’s a pretty common affliction. Shoes are cool, other people admire them, and they make a statement about you. Mine said, I can’t afford to buy a good car because I spend money on stupid stuff like shoes. One night, while laying on my closet floor in the throes of an early-life crisis, I had an epiphany: having 80 pairs of shoes organized according to style and color wasn’t a clear-eyed path to happiness. Having 80 pairs of shoes at one time ranks in the top 4 of my dumbest purchases. So, after a fun evening of trying on every damn pair (while still laying on the closet floor) I got to work giving my shoes away.

    ©BGabriel, 2015

    My shoe requirements are simpler these days

  • A New Car: When I finally could afford a new car, I bought a 5-speed, standard transmission Camaro. It was sporty, fun to drive, and beautiful, right up until that split-second flash of Minnesota winter sun reflecting off a pile of snow the size of a 3-story building blinded me and I ran that beautiful new car into a concrete-filled steel post in the center of a Target parking lot. Dumb. Goodbye, new car. These days I prefer my cars like I do my red wine: with character that says it’s been around awhile, though lovingly cared for.
  • Decorative Crap: During my sorting-and-discarding-stuff phases, I realized that most of the things I regret buying weren’t major purchases, but small things. Things that sat on end tables and hung on walls but to which we had no personal connection. We got rid of them and guess what? I’ve never missed a single one. Instead, not having that stuff around gave us mental breathing room, and we started getting back to the kind of life we used to have when we traveled full time; where we made choices that allowed us to live for experience rather than accumulating more crap.
  • Cookbooks: I almost didn’t put this in my ‘dumb’ list. Cooking has been one of the great loves of my life, including more than a decade as a chef aboard yachts. Cookbooks were a tool.  Except I realized they were collecting dust because I tend not to actually need them. I’m down to 22 cookbooks now, about one-third of my pre-discarding days. Here’s a crazy thing: I had to search the cabinets to find them because it’d been a year since I looked at most of them. Time to jettison again.

I’ve made some smart purchases, too. For instance:

  • Marriage license #2: It’s in an envelope marked “ON HER MAJESTY’S SERVICE”, and is signed by Mrs. Singh next to her bright red official British Virgin Islands registrar stamp. It makes me happy to look at, which I do every year, (even though ‘celebrated’ was misspelled.)
  • Passport: That little 3 1/2 by 5-inch inspirational agent of change. Hands down, the best investment I’ve ever made.
  • SCUBA lessons: Adventure + underwater + ability to breath = awesomeness.
  • My brand new, Hoodoo red, Porter 46 Traveler’s pack from Osprey.

    The new travel pack!

    The new travel pack!

I haven’t owned a great travel pack in years, which, when I realized it a while back came as a shock. Decades ago, I traveled with a duffel bag. I was never a typical “backpacker”, roaming through Europe or on the Southeast Asia circuit, backpack towering over my rounded back, shoes dangling from straps. I hung on to that simple duffel bag for years, especially while we lived, worked and traveled aboard boats. Duffels crush down to occupy a small space, a critical feature if you’re living on a boat. Plus, they’re soft;  they won’t bang around and damage anything. I got my first wheeled bag when we sold our boat, Black Angel. Roller bags were new then and seemed like a great travel bag; carry-on size, fairly lightweight, basic. Honestly though, have you ever dragged a roller bag down a cobblestone lane in France, or along a dirt road in Cambodia? I have. It involved cursing. Wheeled bags have their limits, and materials technology has advanced to where that old bag (most of it’s original zipper tabs replaced by paper clips) feels like it weighs more empty than the stuff I carry in it. Maybe it’s absorbed a lot of road dust. And curses.

Over the past few years, Brian and I have cobbled together an assortment of packs. I like a messenger bag for ease of access while wandering my new locale looking for trouble and a great photograph, and for shoving under the seat on a plane. For the bulk of my gear, I went back and forth between that old roller bag and an over-the-shoulder duffel, and hated both of them. On trips to Malaysia, Bali, Ireland, and Norway, either the duffel cut into my shoulders making my neck a mess of knots, or the roller bag, though carry-on size, was too big for the tiny cabins of southeast Asia’s airplanes, and wrestling it over those stones was just as bad as it was the first time I did it 15 years ago. Something had to change.

For our upcoming trip, a short (16 day) journey in the tropical heat of hurricane season, we’re packing even lighter than is normal for us. Lightweight clothes (and few of them) and no electronics (really!). We’ll each carry a camera and our travel journals plus pens and colored pencils, as we aspire to create travel journals we’d be content to read a decade from now without cringing. We need to bring everything we’ll use, like toilet paper, and I found the world’s smallest travel hair dryer (we all have our burdens to bear and I’d rather eliminate a pair of shorts). Both of us began a search for a travel pack, without wheels, small enough to fit in the overhead of a Caribbean plane but with ample space to carry all of our gear.

No rollerbag allowed

No rollerbag allowed

We got lucky with Brian’s pack. Our thrift store peregrinations paid off. He snagged a practically new Mountainsmith Rambler travel pack for under 10 bucks. I tried it out on a trip to Minneapolis and loved it, but finders-keepers and all that. Over the past 9 months, I’ve scoured thrift stores for a similar triumph of my own with no luck, so last week I decided to consider a new travel pack. A year ago I’d done some research, so I dug up that information and started from there. I narrowed it down to a couple of packs designed for travel rather than hiking, then drove over to REI.

Places that carry travel and hiking gear (like REI does) make me happy to be who I am: a traveler and hiker. The gadgets are super cool, the packs are a rainbow of hues hung along the walls. The clothes are a far cry from the heavy shite I wore on my travels decades ago. I would love to work at a place like REI, but I fear my paycheck would go toward even more travel gear.

After speaking to a pack expert, along with another woman who was looking at purchasing a similar pack, I discovered that A) one pack I’d researched was too big for me, and B) the other was no longer available. Never fear! This is REI, so there were other choices.

Once again, I narrowed my selection down to two packs. #1 was an Osprey Ozone 46. #2 an Osprey Porter 46. I like Osprey packs for their lifetime guarantee and how they fit my frame, as well as the clever designs (by which I mean pockets for snacks and a flask.) My REI personal shopper helped me load each one with bean bags and filler to simulate a full pack, then I spent the next two hours wandering around the store, imagining myself sweating in the heat of a tropical sun, or holding the pack on my lap during a jouncing, 5 hour bus ride. Did choice #2 ride too high behind my head? Were the straps of choice #1 liable to chafe on my neck? Could I fit everything I wanted to bring and still carry the pack on a small plane? The position of the laptop computer stowage on each pack was different; would that be important to me on later trips? #2 had protective compression “wings” that looked weird at first, but once the bag was filled, demonstrated their purpose. #1 had more snack pockets. #2 had a perfect spot for my stainless steel Jameson’s flask.

120 minutes into my quest, I was still indecisive. I hoped some random person walking by would choose for me. Most declined, but one brave young woman took on the challenge. She spent 10 minutes checking out the packs, asking me questions about my requirements and then stood back, head cocked to one side, eyes narrowed. Finally, she pointed to the Porter pack. “That one.” I raised my brows in a question. She answered, “Because if you’re flying on some tiny little island-jumping plane in Malaysia and they force you to check the bag, those compression wings will protect your shit.” I’ve been in that situation in Malaysia! Decision made.

Nothing makes a traveler happier than anticipating the next journey. This new Hoodoo red pack has me vibrating with traveler’s delight as I stow my gear in it’s clever pockets, counting the days until we fly off.

But still…it’s just a bag, right? Wrong.

The new pack is a symbol. A Hoodoo red, 46 liter symbol of a new stage of travel for Brian and I, just over the horizon, as our dogs get older and we edge closer to retirement. A symbol of change, which is primarily what travel is about for me. Of potential: adventure, experience, surprises, and connections to be made.

Now then, I’ve got to get packing…

Resources: (Please note- nobody paid me or gave me free stuff to say nice things about REI or Osprey gear. All opinions are my own.)

Osprey Porter 46 Travel Pack


Barbara Gabriel

Writer. Day Stealer. Chronic Traveler. Raised along Highway 61 in Minnesota, I ran away to sea & messed about in boats. I curse like a sailor and love travel, food, most people, and a well-fitting pair of boots. I try to combine those any chance I can.


  1. As I sit here surrounded by shit I neither need nor want, I wonder if I could pick out my dumbest purchase…

  2. We have learned that one of the better benefits of living on a boat is stuff prevention.
    Ridding ourselves of years of accumulating things we don’t need was the most difficult part of boating.

    • You’d understand that better than most everyone I know. I loved the days when, upon bringing some new thing on to the boat, you got rid of something else. A boat is a fantastic ‘stuff collection prevention device’.

  3. Wicked good, Barb! Just a few wonderful spots: best purchase ever = passport. Full stop. Getting rid of bits “that have no personal connection.” Making sure you had the spot for the Jameson flask! I’ve given duffel bags plenty of use, but remain a backpacker until my shoulders give out.

  4. Pingback: Packing for Travel: Know Thyself | Steal Just One Day

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