In Part One, Lauren and I were trying to find luggage that met both of our requirements for the round-the-world trip. Somewhere along the way, we also had developed our own concept of “one bag travel” — one that was a little different from the way we saw other people doing it.
Unlike some One Bag Only purists, we decided that everything we brought along should be able to fit into one bag — but we didn’t necessarily need to be dogmatic about it. If it made things more convenient for each of us to supplement our main suitcase with a couple of small bags as well, that was fine by us… so long as we could fit everything back into our main bags should that become necessary. We also both wanted something that we could carry onboard airplanes, fit into the overhead racks of trains and ferry boats, and also be sturdy enough to check if we wanted to.
But Lauren wanted a backpack and I wanted something a little less…. granola.
By unpacking my travel attitudes a bit before planning our trip, I had to face up to the fact that I had a kind of aesthetic allergy to backpacks. For me, I felt like I’d look more like an invading soldier than a respectful guest if I hoisted around some enormous, oversized pack that fellow pedestrians would have to dodge.
Was there a way to split the difference so that we could keep a low profile while moving around easily and quietly? Was there such a thing as a “carry on / backpack hybrid” that was also sturdy enough to survive as checked luggage, but didn’t make me look like I was about to climb K2? Perhaps a bag elegant and simple enough to not be out-of-place in either a nice hotel or in a hostel?
Would either of these bags be able to meet all of our needs? I bought one of each to find out.
In this post, we’ll look at the Sky Train — and in the next part of the series, the Aeronaut.
THE RED OXX SKY TRAIN
I found many positive reviews about the Red Oxx Sky Train and also the company’s overall approach to building rugged luggage. Made in Montana and designed by former military parachute riggers (with a little help from “One Bag Travel” guru Doug Dyment), the Sky Train looked like a bag that practically begged us to stuff it to the gills and take it around the world!
I wasn’t the only one who felt that way: Many people were already using this bag for their extended travels and were singing its praises. The bag’s heavy ballistic nylon construction, fitted out with metal hardware and zippers with monkey knots attached for easy opening and closure, seemed rock solid. Another plus: I found reviews from a number of women who said that it was a good size for their frame. Lauren isn’t a wimp by any stretch but, at 5’4″ (about 1.6 meters), it would be easy for a large bag to throw off her balance. The only disparaging comments about the bag that I could find were that the company’s logo patch was, um, a little ugly.
After working around a few browser-related issues with their online store, I was able to order the Sky Train and it was shipped and delivered within about a week. When UPS delivered the box, I was a little shocked by how light it was. The Sky Train inside seemed smaller than I had imagined it would be. But as I started to unzip its two compartments, I quickly got a sense of the volume that it could contain. As many people had mentioned, the hardware felt solid and I really liked how the knots on the zippers made them easier to use. And yes, to my taste as well, the logo patch was … a little intense. I’m trying to be more of a glass-half-full-kind-of-guy, so I decided that the patch would probably make it easier to spot on a baggage carousel if I had to check it.
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Per our wishlist, the Sky Train lets you carry it like a suitcase, over one shoulder like a messenger bag, or on both shoulders like a backpack. The website’s sales pitch claimed that you can easily stow the bag in the overhead bin or under your seat. This would be important in our expected planes-trains-and-boats style of travel.
Essentially, Sky Train’s design consists of two main interior compartments and an outside zippered pocket. The main compartment has compression tie downs to secure your contents, while the secondary compartment has a small zippered pocket for your toiletries or loose items. Per the Onebag.com philosophy, “bundle wrapping” your clothes is recommended — and Red Oxx helpfully provides a link to a PDF of a Packing Diagram to demonstrate that process with the Sky Train.
All-in-all, it looked like a hell of a bag. But how would it perform out in the real world?
TRAVELING WITH THE SKY TRAIN
Because the Sky Train was more compact than the Tom Bihn Aeronaut, we decided that it would be Lauren’s bag on this trip. But before we left the country, I took the Sky Train on a short, domestic trip with a few connections to test it out myself. Since it was just a quick turn-around, I ended up packing it lighter than Lauren would for our trip around the world. On both large and small planes, the Sky Train was able to fit into the overhead compartment. However on a smaller plane (a Bombardier Dash 8 for all you über-flyers), I had to kind of rock it back and forth until it fit into the bin and, in fact, I scuffed the bag while trying to extract it.
From this experience (and from some “test packs” as we prepared for our circumnavigation), it became clearer that the Sky Train carries its substantial volume by expanding its depth. How much it could expand became clear as we boarded our first flight — a United 757 that is part of their roomier, Premium transcontinental service between New York and Los Angeles. Lauren’s bag, now fully packed, would not fit into the overhead bin no matter how I maneuvered it. Thankfully we had boarded the aircraft early enough to where I could run it up to the front and, with the help of a sympathetic flight attendant, stow it in a closet.
When we got to Tahiti and Lauren put the fully loaded Sky Train on as a backpack for the first time, I could see the issue even more clearly: The bag had expanded so much that she looked like she had grown a shell. No wonder it wouldn’t fit in the overhead compartment!
The moral of this particular lesson: This bag has got some serious Z-Axis for its size — so pack accordingly!
Lauren was able to fill the Sky Train with almost two week’s worth of clothes, two pairs of shoes, some flip-flops, her toiletries, assorted chargers and gadgets, a small umbrella, a laundry bag, and a few magazines. One key to getting so much stuff to fit inside were the compression straps in the main compartment.
After a minute or two of what I call Travel Tetris, Lauren could maneuver her items into optimum position and then “lock” them into place with the straps. At this point, the heavy-duty zippers with the monkey knots really came into their own! Sometimes it took her a while to get the Sky Train zipped up, but the zippers held up without jamming or sticking and, once closed, stayed closed without slippage.
“So — were there any drawbacks to this bag?”, you might ask. There were only a couple:
- The metal fittings felt heavy compared to the Tom Bihn Aeronaut — which wasn’t always a bad thing. There was one flight where in our haste to check in our baggage, we forgot to stow the backpack straps. The spring-release mechanism that lets you attach and detach the backpack straps became bent from the loving care Lauren’s bag received from the ground crew. We could sort of bend it back into position and it wasn’t an issue for the rest of our trip. A smaller-profile part might not have been caught in whatever mangled it in the first place but, then again, a smaller plastic piece might have broken completely. ((In any event, it gives us a chance to test out the “No Bull” Warranty and report back here))
- We preferred the Tom Bihn Absolute Shoulder Strap to the stock Red Oxx strap and replaced it for this trip.
Lauren really enjoyed using the Sky Train and it held up beautifully over 3 months and 40,000+ miles (64,000+ km.) of travel — and we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone looking for a “one bag solution”. It delivered what it promised: It’s a well-made, compact piece of gear that you can load up and take anywhere!
But the Red Oxx isn’t the only good option… In Part Three of “Around The World With One Bag”, I’ll review the Tom Bihn Aeronaut: A bag that, for some people, may be an even better performer than the Sky Train!