I think I might have finally found it—the one bag to rule them all. At least, I’ve found something that mostly works for the time being, and that seems fairly miraculous right about now.

Here’s the bag I’m using and am feeling positive about:
eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekend Convertible Junior

For the past however many years, I’ve been on an on-and-off quest to find a single backpack that can function as both a daily commuter bag and travel bag. At the outset, I’d thought it wasn’t an unreasonable expectation but finding one bag that can adequately multitask was turning into my own personal white whale. Part of the problem is that I’m small and somewhat slightly built, and that I have both a short torso and a long ribcage—yeah, I don’t know how that works either, but it makes it damned difficult to find a pack that’s not uncomfortable and even painful to carry.

Here’s what I tried previously, and how I lamented over the process:
torn between two backpacks (9 February 2015)
one bag to rule them all (16 March 2015)

All caught up now? Good!

A few months ago, I did another home-based pack test of two new competing bags: the eBags TLS Motherlode Junior and the North Face Borealis (women’s).

I’d picked up the Borealis at REI the previous summer and loved loved loved the color (sage green!), the contoured straps for a woman’s shape, and the back panel’s padding and breathability. But I didn’t care for the oddly positioned labyrinth of interior pockets, and the bag was still just a little too long for me—enough to make things uncomfortable when the bag was loaded with any significant weight.

I bit the bullet and bought the eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible Junior which I’d been eyeing for months and whose customer comments I’d been scouring on eBags, Amazon, and elsewhere. This bag is designed for travel, with a middle section that opens up like a suitcase, and multiple handles and straps allow the bag to be carried like a suitcase or attaché—though I’m still all about the backpack. The Junior size seemed like it would be a good length for my torso, and it helped that a friend bought one of her own and let me try it on for size before I ordered mine. It was a plus that the bag comes in a muted purply-mauve color, and that a number of short and hard-to-fit women reported success with the bag.

(The Mother Lode Weekend Convertible also comes in a larger size for those looking to pack more and who can carry a bigger bag.)

Without a real trip on the immediate horizon, I conducted another pack test for capacity, comfort, distribution and ease of retrieving items, and whether I can lift the packed bag over my head. I dug up my previous test-pack list and recreated it, with a few substitutions and additions:

  • 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
  • Cosmetics bag
  • Toiletries bag (x2)
  • Camelback rain cover for backpack (and tested that this does fit the Motherlode)
  • 24-ounce water bottle
  • Coobie bras
  • Columbia Sportswear Omniheat leggings
  • Columbia Sportswear half-zip top
  • Tech accessories bag (headphones, USB cables, flash drives, etc.)
  • Ball-cap style hat
  • Reading glasses plus case
  • Wallet
  • Moleskin bullet journal with DIY pen quiver
  • C Wonder viscose and lambswool sweater
  • Epilator plus accessories
  • Crysallis cardi
  • USB power bank
  • Buff

I was able to get everything into the Mother Lode Junior with room to spare, but I could definitely feel the weight on my body. Without any padding in the bag, my laptop pressed uncomfortably against my spine. I wasn’t feeling optimistic.

The loaded Borealis felt better and lighter on my body. This bag had the edge on comfort, BUT I barely got everything in there and figured I was just waiting for a zipper to fail. Given the weird layout of the pockets, I found myself having to unpack the entire bag if I needed to get to anything. That’s a pretty major trade for some extra comfort. I imagined it would be a huge pain in the ass in an airport if I wanted to pull out my tablet, for instance, or maybe a spare pair of socks. I also realized there would be plenty of trips where I would need to pack a bit more than what was on my test list, and the Borealis wouldn’t be up to the challenge.

When it came to overall form and function, the Mother Lode Junior was the winner. But the bag is not without its shortcomings. It’s on the heavier side even when unpacked and the shoulder straps are not constructed for a woman’s body—which means it’s not as comfortable as it could be. But the pockets make a huge amount of sense. During the pack test, it was easy to get to any individual item and there was plenty of space left over. One hack I made was to stuff my coat into the laptop compartment—located at the very back of the bag—so that the coat provided some cushion between my back and the laptop itself. That made the bag considerably more comfortable.

With some reluctance, I took the Borealis back to REI and started using the Mother Lode Junior as my commuter. It’s definitely more bag than I need on a daily basis, but it’s easy to carry. I’ve even packed a kind of picnic in the “suitcase” part of the bag on a number of occasions.

And then—trumpet flourish—I found myself headed out on a business trip! By a stroke of good luck, I won a trip to Chicago for two days of one-on-one author coaching with the amazing Bryan Cohen, and that trip deserves a hefty blog post of its own. It was really a career-changing experience, and it also gave me the opportunity to take the pack test to the next level.

I packed rather light for the roughly 58 hours I was on the go. It was August in Chicago, so no winter coat or wool sweater! I relied on a single pair of shoes (black Ahnu Montara IIs) and left the skirt at home. There were a few other changes to my list from the test-packs, but I very easily got everything into the Mother Lode Junior and I arrived at the airport with a single piece of carry-on luggage. (Well, technically, I was also carrying a box of doughnuts onto the plane, because I believe in spreading the gospel of Voodoo Doughnuts far and wide.) When I got to Chicago and unloaded a few things at my Air BnB, the bag was my trusty commuter as Bryan and I hiked around Chicago for two days of consultation on the move. According to my FitBit, I logged more than 18,000 steps on the first day and over 19,000 on the second.

I was feeling some strain in my right lower back toward the end of the second afternoon. I’m not sure if that was my age, the wear-and-tear of the day, or the way I’d packed the bag. It wasn’t awful, but enough to be noticeable and even a little troubling. It’s a problem that hasn’t resurfaced since I’ve returned to using the Mother Lode Junior as a daily commuter, but tonight I get to pack it up again and fly cross-country for a family visit and theater group reunion back East.

We’ll see how that goes. For the time being, though, I’m happy with this bag. And given the comments I’ve gotten online and off about my quest for a versatile backpack that fits me, I wanted to offer this update in case my experience proves useful to someone else.

one bag to rule them all, part 2

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