Good gear bags matter.
Just ask any guide who has to carry yours up and down a steep mountain. A well-designed bag can make his (or her, things are changing) life a whole lot easier.
This past November, just before I headed back to Africa to climb Mt. Kenya, I looked into gear bags. The ones I had were at least twenty years old. Functional, sure. Strong black cloth with years yet left in them. But given the offerings that were on the market, it was time to upgrade.
I’d already been up Kilimanjaro, Macchu Picchu and the Everest Base Camp. I’d had a chance to watch the porters, and it was instructive. Often they would fashion a set of backpack straps out of string, which often cut into their shoulders from the weight. Something much better had to be available. This isn’t just a courtesy to the very hard working folks who schlep your stuff up the mountain for you. The right gear bag can also save your life.
A walk through any gear store’s offerings is a mind-boggling set of choices from Patagonia to North Face. I didn’t have the time or the patience to go through every single one, so I went to one of my favorite sources: Sea to Summit. I’ve been a fan of their dry bags and tiny, lightweight stuffable backpacks for years.
I did some homework. The bags (https://seatosummit.com/product/duffle/ )were waterproof, a solid heavy material that would resist abrasions. Being tossed, dragged, dropped and otherwise generally abused by porters- not intentionally, but it happens- means that a gear bag has to be exceptionally well-made to survive the rigors of a long trip. With your precious sleeping bags and other gear inside, the last thing you need is to have a rain or snowfall drench your gear. Not all all outfitters provide tarps for their porters to protect your equipment, so the better strategy is to invest a bag that does that for you.
I bought the bright blue 130L bag. The color made it easy to identify as mine when the bags were piled at the campsite when we arrived. It comes with heavy duty straps which can be adjusted, which makes carrying it far easier for the porters. You can fit them as a one-shoulder sling, a two-handed hold (the straps are magnetized) or as a backpack. They fit into heavy duty clips which are easy to adjust.
Each night after we threw our bags into the tent, I had no trouble finding my gear. The is partly because inside is lined with bright yellow which reflects light. I also love it that the inside also shows all the different ways you can configure the bag straps, which usually comes in a paper insert, which I always lose, and then I can’t remember. I further protect my equipment by putting everything into packing cubes and then into Sea To Summit dry bags. Each one is marked for its contents, and because I memorize the colors, getting access to what I need is a breeze.
While that may seem like overkill to some, and it does indeed add additional weight, it only takes one wet sleeping bag to teach you to always add an additional layer of protection. In some of the places I go, wet gear can be deadly. There is nothing like reaching into a cube and pulling out a neatly-folded, clean pair of undies or a fresh layering top that is both dry and sweet-smelling.
Especially when you aren’t.
To give you a perfect example of what happens when you don’t do this, this morning when I moved into a new hotel room here in Bali, I put an opened bottle of water in my backpack. The screwtop came loose. Only the stuff that was in dry bags survived. I wish to hell I had bagged everything else, because I do dumb stuff like this. Or, I trust a container to be waterproof, it isn’t, and there go weeks of notes that I can’t get back. To say nothing of my computer.
As it was, on our hike we had solid rain, dense fog, and humidity for the first three days of the ascent. The strong bag protected everything for the most part, but some moisture made it into the bag because the zipper was exposed. There is a lip covering that zipper around the circumference of the bag, but that is defeated once the porter hoists the bag upright to align with their body. This is minor, but for my part, still worth taking the extra precaution.
I’ll be using this bag again for a four-week horse packing trip in northern British Columbia. I expect rain, possibly snow. After this experience of eight days on Mt. Kenya I have complete faith in this bag. I like that there are lots of ways to tie it down on a horse or a vehicle.
Admittedly, these gear bags are heavy. They add extra weight to your overall airplane load. So does the extra layering of the cubes and dry bags. By trip’s end, though, the bag itself bore little more than the expected marks and scuffs from the rocks and dirt. Those are easily washed off. The one deep scuff mark did no damage to the bag’s integrity.
The solid construction, fun brilliant colors (makes it easy to find yours among all the black and camo bags) and the many features of this bag make it a winner. I have a smaller bag in orange which will work perfectly for a shorter, less-epic trip.
Sea to Summit’s winning gear bag got top honors for good reason. If you’re serious about getting your gear up and down the mountain- protect, dry, and safe- this is your baby.