A Onebagging First with the Tortuga Travel Backpack

The Tortuga Travel Backpack helped me completely rethink how I travel.

A trip for me usually begins by pulling one of my largest suitcases out of the attic and stuffing it full of a broad spectrum of clothing and toiletry options. One never knows when a freak snowstorm, monsoon, and sweltering heat wave may happen across the same weekend, right? The few plane flights I have taken as an adult have been punctuated by sweating the weight of my checked baggage to start and the brutal wait of the luggage carousel to finish.

As someone who holds efficiency in high esteem, this struggle between situational packing and what it costs me in time and luggage weight has always been frustrating. As a terminally curious internet peruser, the whole “one bag traveling” movement is familiar to me in passing and seemed to be a sensible compromise.

Preparing for a one bag trip always felt daunting. Why bother prioritizing and compromising when I can just stuff everything into my huge suitcase? Striking a balance between streamlined traveling and my wanton laziness and dearth of free time as a parent felt too difficult. The up-front expense inherent to trading in luggage I already own for a purpose-built bag was another big barrier. Respected and well-reviewed bags, while cheaper than a good set of luggage, still require a large up-front expense to essentially test drive a lifestyle that I’m not sure suits me. At the same time, no bag in my extensive arsenal was nearly large enough to stand in for a suitcase.

With a trip to the NJ/NY area fast approaching, the proprietor of this website offered an interesting proposition: test drive a brand new Tortuga Travel Backpack (TTB hereafter) as my sole luggage in exchange for an unvarnished review of the experience. Billed as a no-compromises alternative to a suitcase with space to accommodate a month’s worth of provisions, this pack looked like a winner and I eagerly agreed to the deal.

What struck me first about the TTB is how unfussy and plain it is, in the best possible way. It is an unassuming black monolith of a bag; this facade belies its light curb weight of 3.65 pounds (58.4 ounces). For reference, the mass of this bag compares favorably with a 13” Retina MacBook Pro (3.46 pounds). It does not appear that Tortuga sacrificed rugged durability to achieve this lightness either; the pack looks like it could survive some rough escapades and indeed acquitted itself well on my travels.

The TTB is divided into two compartments: the main packing area and a secondary outer pocket. The main compartment has an auxiliary access point to slip a laptop in-and-out below the other packed items. Padded handles at the top and to one side are always available for hand carrying. Both sides of the bag have smaller zippered pouches that work perfectly to hold a water bottle or other tchotchkes. Hidden to the rear of the bag behind a zippered flap are generously padded backpack straps and a waist belt (with its own zippered pockets) that work in unison to keep the bag comfortably pressed against you. Thankfully, back support is built in too. Two sturdily-buckled compression straps on the exterior of the bag are there to help slim the bag down when necessary. Likewise, buckled elastic in the main compartment is meant to keep its contents from shifting too drastically.

Was this bag spacious as advertised? Here is the packing list for my 3-day, 2-night trip:
4x boxers
4x undershirts
3x socks
1x shorts
3x t-shirts
4x jerseys
1x windbreaker/rain jacket
1x quart bag of toiletries
1x toothbrush in hard case
1x eyeglasses in hard case
1x Garden & Gun Magazine
1x iPhone 5s charger
1x Canon Rebel EOS XS with Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens in a Timbuk2 Sneak Camera Case

Admittedly this load-out was a bit much for such a short trip (as is often the case with me), but the main compartment had ample space to hold everything on my list (save the camera & bag) without testing my Tetris acumen. All of my clothes were folded simply and packed flat. My DSLR was squeezed in to the secondary outer pocket, which is where my toiletries, toothbrush, glasses, and charger ended up stowed as well. The magazine nestled in to the laptop pocket. In terms of letting me pack what I want how I want, the TTB performed admirably. With a bit more packing discipline on my part, I could definitely see this bag accommodating me for week-long-or-more trips.

When it came time to hit the skies, I found the TTB a mixed bag (rimshot). Although I was able to carry the TTB on my little 50-seater jet without any objections from the flight crew, it proved to be a tight squeeze in an overhead bin even filled to less-than-capacity and with the camera bag eventually removed from the front pocket. I struggled with the external compression straps and found them stiffly ineffective in shrinking the bag down to a more agreeable size. Perhaps this mismatch between bag and bin is attributable to the small jet or my lackadaisical packing style and could be partially relieved with packing cubes. In the moment, though, it was frustrating. Arriving at my hotel room I discovered that the internal elastic straps did a relatively poor job of preventing my clothes from shifting and settling; perhaps a change to adjustable straps in future revisions might help address this issue and keep contents more firmly in place.

Both external handles felt perfectly placed and made it easy to slot the TTB down the airplane’s aisle. Likewise, the backpack and waist straps welded the bag to my body and made it feel like an extension of me while I traversed the airport. I never felt any discomfort or lingering effects from carrying such a load on my back. A shoulder strap for those times when the backpack straps do not quite make sense would be a welcomed additional option.

The zippered flap for the strap enclosure tested my patience; though there is a convenient velcroed pouch at the bottom of the bag to store this flap when the straps are deployed, wrangling the flap into this pouch required far too much effort. Speaking of zippers, I sometimes found their operation to be less smooth than expected across all of the bag’s various openings.

These assorted shortcomings are minor and easy to overlook for all of the extra conveniences that the TTB (and one bag traveling in general) brought to my trip. Not having to wait in line to check or retrieve a bag reclaimed time I could use to do other things on my trip (like sleeping in a bit before an early flight home!). Likewise I did not have to worry about my luggage being lost in transit or otherwise assaulted in the storage hold. Conveying my luggage on my back meant I did not have to cajole a tiny-wheeled suitcase over uneven terrain. These are all big plusses over more traditional luggage options.

I find myself a surprise convert to one bag traveling after a single attempt and an overall positive experience with the Tortuga Travel Backpack. The efficiency and convenience that I experienced in this trip made me want this as my regular traveling style. I definitely would consider the Tortuga Travel Bag a resource in My Travel Arsenal.

Comfortable handles, backpack straps, and waist belt
Simple styling

Almost too large for an overhead bin
Zipper operation is sometimes not smooth
Ineffectual external compression straps
Internal elastic straps not tight enough
Backpack strap storage flap is a pain

Tortuga Travel Backpack Overall Rating: ★★★★☆