I’d already done a packing test at home with three bags in my possession—Trager Cross Country, Dakine Eve, and Ogio Operatrix—and found each bag wanting in key areas. After a lot of online time reading reviews and product research, I’d narrowed the field to three promising candidates:
- Osprey Porter 30
- The North Face Surge II
- The North Face Surge II Women’s
(I’d also been interested in a few bags from Tom Bihn, but their only store is in Seattle; I wasn’t going to purchase a bag without seeing it in person, and I don’t have the energy for a road trip right now.)
So I loaded up the Dakine Eve with my standard pack test items (for ultralight travel):
- MacBook Air 13″
- iPad Mini
- Royal Robbins Cardiff pants
- black skirt
- 2 pairs socks
- 2 pairs underwear
- L.L. Bean down parka
- L.L. Bean rain shell
- air sickness bag (seriously, it’s always good to have one of these on hand)
- cosmetics bag
- toiletries bag (x2)
- Camelback rain cover for backpack
- 24-ounce water bottle
- Anita sports bra
- Columbia Sportswear Omniheat leggings
- Columbia Sportswear half-zip top
- tech accessories bag (headphones, USB cables, flash drives, etc.)
- REI Sahara hat
- Gamma Ray computer glasses
- moleskin bullet journal with DIY pen quiver
- C Wonder viscose and lambswool sweater
(Just a generic pack list. A specific destination would require the addition of some items and allow the elimination of others. Also, I am aware that I don’t have any shoes on this list!)
As I walked through REI’s doors and passed the climbing pinnacle, I waited for an employee to stop me. In my experience, retailers aren’t too keen on people walking around their stores wearing backpacks. But at REI, maybe this is a fairly normal occurrence. I headed upstairs and grabbed an Osprey Porter 30 and one each of the men’s and women’s North Face Surge II packs, then looked around for a clear area where I could get down to business. I found the perfect space over in the rock climbing area: a wide bench meant for people trying on climbing shoes, but no one actually using it (yet).
I started unloading the Dakine, then thought maybe I should inform someone of what I was doing. I didn’t want anyone to think I was trying to steal gear or something. I found the nearest REI employee and managed to get out something along the lines of, “I brought some stuff from home and am just over here doing a pack test” before he shrugged and said, “Sure, whatever you want. Just let us know if you have questions.”
I then spent at least ninety minutes packing, unpacking, repacking, walking around, and sighing, and even in a wilderness supply store I caught some strange looks from other shopping adventurers. I tested each bag for capacity (could it fit all my stuff?) and comfort/fit (what did it feel like on my body?) with both the full travel load and the “tech load” of what I’d carry in a day bag. I conducted these load and fit tests several times over and was beginning to fret that no such dual-purpose bag yet existed.
The first REI employee who stopped by to offer assistance and engage me in conversation was Lindsey. I gestured to the three packs in contention, explained the research I’d done to narrow it down this far, and then shook my head. “Each of these packs is perfect in its own way, but there’s also something critically wrong with every single one of them.”
Lindsey understood. She herself has the Osprey Porter 45 for travel and had been eyeing the Porter 30, but she agreed that while the Porter 30 is an awesome travel bag—seriously, the thing packs like a suitcase, holds everything with room to spare, and feels like a cloud on my back—it leaves a great deal to be desired in the day bag department. Without enough weight in the bag, the top handle rises above my shoulders and my head bumps against it whenever I look up or sit down. Even with the fancy padded straps the Porter 30 feels ungainly when it doesn’t contain a full load. I’m not crazy about the fact that it doesn’t look like a regular backpack, so it might make me stand out as a tourist. (And I’m not keen on the available colors, but that’s a low priority.)
Despite glowing online reviews and the practically religious reverence of digital nomads across the globe, both Surge IIs were disappointments when fully loaded. The waist strap on both is a joke when the bag is weighed down; pressing into my belly, it felt more like an afterthought than a mechanism of support. The women’s Surge II at 27 liters was a tight fit with test pack items, and the waist strap was practically at the bottom of my ribcage. As someone who can (and occasionally does) wear children’s clothing, I hadn’t thought I had a long torso. The curved shoulder straps felt nice, though. With the men’s model (32 liters) there was plenty of room for my stuff and the non-supportive waist strap was at an appropriate spot on my body, but the shoulder straps became really uncomfortable in the space of a few minutes and the sternum strap wasn’t doing my cleavage any favors.
Getting tired—I had, after all, been engaged in this folly while in the midst of a serious health crisis—I took a seat and looked up at Lindsey. “All I want,” I said, “is one bag to rule them all.”
She erupted into a hearty belly laugh. “Me, too! You’ll have to get back to me if you find it.”
Lindsey suggested that I check out the technical packs—<i>i.e.</i>, backpacking backpacks—in the camping section, something I was doubtful I’d do.
Left again to my own devices, I tried packing and repacking again and again. I’m not sure what I thought was going to change from one test round to the next. It was still the same selection of backpacks, still the same packing list, and still the same little body looking for the right fit. I was one frustrated Goldilocks. At least I managed to help a man pick out a pair of climbing shoes while I was working my fingers raw, zipping and unzipping dozens of times.
I’d spent far longer in my quest than intended, and I was ready to call it quits. I was tired and disheartened. I closed up the contender packs and started filling the bag I’d come with. As I stuffed my last personal item back into my Dakine Eve, another REI employee—I didn’t catch his name, but let’s call him Ryan—stopped by to check on me. I told Ryan that while I now had more information than I did before I entered the store, I wasn’t any closer to making a decision.
“Let me offer you another option, just to confound you further,” Ryan said as he grabbed another pack from a nearby display. He produced the Osprey Ozone 35. I’d never even heard of this bag before. Ryan described it as a compromise between a travel bag and a day pack.
First I did the day pack test, slipping my MacBook Air and iPad Mini into the dedicated laptop compartment and stowing my tech accessories, computer glasses, and Moleskine in forward compartments. I cinched the compression straps and slipped the bag onto my back. The Ozone 35 felt as light as air. While the padding and buckles of the Ozone 35’s waist strap aren’t as robust as the Porter 30’s, the combination is a far-sight better than that offered by the Surge II packs. I was also surprised to find that the Ozone 35 features an honest-to-goodness suspension system—something not found on the other three packs.
With a third REI employee—JR—looking on, I did a brute-force packing job with the rest of my stuff without even bothering to ponder what might fit best where. There was plenty of room inside. I pulled the stuffed pack onto my shoulders and buckled the sternum and waist straps. I took a few steps and paused. The expression on my face must have been something to behold.
“Holy cow!” I exclaimed in astonishment as I marched passed the displays of climbing shoes, harnesses, and webbing. “I think we have a winner!”
JR beamed back at me. He explained that it was a brand new pack but that he expected they were going to sell a lot of them. I pulled out my phone to search for online reviews, but the Osprey Ozone 35 didn’t show up anywhere—not even on the Osprey website. Brand new indeed.
I ordered the bag in “summit blue” (they had only black and “hoodoo red” in the store). I felt both relieved and trepidatious. Part of me is really excited about this new solution that meets my commuter and travel needs, but I’m also wary of discovering some significant letdown in design or function once the bag arrives—not only would I be stuck without an awesome backpack, but I’d be back at square one in my search. (Also, I paid for this flurry of activity later: I ended up having to spend most of the weekend in bed. I used up a few days’ worth of spoons that morning, and I’m not sure when I’d be able to repeat such an endeavor.)
When I told Mike about my adventures, he gave me a skeptical smile. “Does this mean I don’t have to listen to any more about your backpack obsession?”
“Hardly,” I replied. “Just wait ’till it gets here. If it’s as good as I think it is, I’ll be insufferable.”
(And who knows? Maybe I’ll do my first YouTube video review when it arrives.)