Monday, January 2, 2017

The Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD 30: The Perfect Rolling Suitcase

Helicopter packed with Coleman coolers, Antarctica

I've been lugging cases of diving and underwater photography gear around the world for 30 years.  I started my career in the glory days of air travel, the 1980s, when you were allowed three bags at 70 pounds if traveling internationally (and two bags at 70 pounds when traveling within the US).  I routinely crammed my gear into three 100-quart Coleman coolers and taped them up with duct tape.  After 9/11, airline security would not allow my coolers to be taped up (my friend Bob Cranston supplied me with aluminum bars and hitch pins instead, solving the problem), the airlines began charging for bags, and I had to change my packing habits.  I got older, too, and lugging three 70-pound coolers along with a carryon and backpack up three flights of stairs was no longer something I could do (I'm talking about YOU, old San Jose Costa Rica airport!). 

Diving and Film crew Unpacking, Antarctica

Even traveling with rolling duffel bags became difficult.  Sometimes I've had to walk a good mile or two with my rolling duffel bag (I'm talking about YOU, SFO airport from the rental car lobby to the international terminal!), and the weight on my arm from the duffel bag on two wheels gets REALLY heavy. 

The new spinner cases, with four wheels, are a solution.  However, most of them are not big enough to carry all my gear. 

I've therefore become an expert on luggage with large capacities and wheels.  I am constantly researching and comparing the lightest, largest, sturdiest, and easiest-to-move wheeled bags. My garage is filled with rolling bags, duffels, backpacks, and carry-on bags from different manufacturers. I've compiled a full folder of notes and spreadsheets on various bags that contain the specifications of various bags, backpacks, and carry-on bags. 

I traveled to England and Scotland last year, to photograph basking sharks off the New Hebrides Islands.  We were based in the small town of Tobermory.  To get there involved a flight into London, a connecting flight to Glasgow, then a $500 taxi ride to Tobermory (luckily, five of us in the group shared the ride), involving a scenic 4-hour drive and a ferry to the island of Mull. 

One of the reasons I enjoyed this trip was because for the first time in years, I was able to travel with a fairly small amount of gear.  Normally, on a diving and photography trip, I travel with two large bags, a large backback, and a heavy rolling carry-on case.

I am usually packed to the gills with my diving and photographic gear, and if I get to a city like London, it is a real hassle to travel anywhere with all my bags.  I am usually traveling by myself, which makes local travel with all my gear just about impossible.  I usually fly to London or other city, connect to another flight as soon as possible, arrive at my diving destination, and that's that.  It's just too much work to stop in a connecting city and see the sites, or visit friends.  For instance, I've always wanted to explore New Zealand -- but I've been through Auckland airport perhaps a dozen times, and never have managed to spend more than a few days (in transit) in New Zealand. 

This trip was different, as were my trips later in 2016.  With the smaller cameras I've been using (Panasonic GH4 Micro 4/3rds cameras), I was able to travel with just one rolling suitcase, a backpack, and rolling carryon bag.  After our basking shark trip, I was able to travel by train from Glasgow to Birmingham to visit a friend.  It was great to be able to travel around like a normal person rather than having to lug around the usual mountain of gear.  Taking the Virgin train from Glasgow to Birmingham, in first class, was just wonderful compared to flying in cramped coach -- it cost less, was far more comfortable, and took less total time in transit. 

Having bags that I could easily wheel around train stations and cobblestoned streets was important.  I wrote Eagle Creek, which has sponsored my expeditions in the past, and they supplied me with an Eagle Creek AWD Tarmac 30 case.  I requested this rolling case after researching it.  It is a huge case and has four wheels, not two -- so I could wheel it for miles around airports and city streets with little effort.

I've been a longtime fan of Eagle Creek ORV rolling duffel bags, which are huge.  But they only have two wheels.  With my two-wheeled duffel bags, the weight of the case on my arm eventually becomes too much.  With the Tarmac AWD 30, I was able to walk long distances with no arm fatigue.

I have spent hours of time researching and calculating which rolling bags have the most capacity and weight the least.  Here are ones that I have used, which have the following weights and capacities:

Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD 30: my new choice for traveling with gear:  8848 cubic inches (expanded), 11.5 pounds (four wheels). 

Samsonite 27" spinner: 5900 cubic inches, 9.0 pounds. 

Eagle Creek ORV Super Trunk: what I've been using since the year 2000: 8200 cubic inches, 12 pounds (two wheels). 

Coleman 100-quart cooler: what I used for years of travel in the 1980s and 1990s: still made: 6076 cubic inches, 17 pounds (no wheels). 

It's surprising to me that the Eagle Creek AWD Tarmac 30 case has more capacity than my longtime Eagle Creek ORV Super Trunk rolling duffel.  The Tarmac case has a huge interior capacity -- 50% more capacity than a Samsonite 27" spinner case!  It's been a great boon to my travels since I received it, with all kinds of attention to detail, which Eagle Creek gear is known for.  Here are some of the features:

One side of the Tarmac 30 case is hard sided, which provides protection for the handle as well as the contents inside the case.  A zipper allows the case to expand (capacity is 7737 cubic inches when not expanded). 

My AWD Tarmac 30 case was blue, not black.  This made it much easier to spot when waiting for my bag after the flight -- it stands out from all the black suitcases on the baggage carousel. 

The wheels are sturdy, and has typical Eagle Creek quality so that these wheels -- and the case itself -- will last for years and years.  The case rolls easily, and it took little effort to roll it through the streets, airports, and train stations of Glasgow, with my backpack and carry-on bag attached to the top and sides. 

The Tarmac 30 case comes with a bungee strap -- called a Coatkeeper -- which allows you to carry a coat or package on top of the wheeled case.  This bummed me out -- because I had just bought a Travelon Bag Bungee that does the same thing, for $12 from Amazon. 

The upper, outside pocket on the case also contains a wide strap with buckle -- perfect for quickly attaching a rolling carryon bag, or even a huge two-wheeled duffel bag, like the ORV Super Trunk. 

Inside the case is a cargo net, and even a bottle opener.  Eagle Creek has thought of just about everything with this case -- there were handles on the top, side, and bottom -- anywhere I ever needed a handle. 

Very important -- the Tarmac 30 case comes with a lightweight, but heavy-duty handle.  I can put a backpack with a trolley sleeve, or a cooler with a sleeve, on this handle.

My only complaint -- and it is a minor one -- is that the case has two equal halves.  One half has the cargo net (detachable), so you can pack your clothes in that half.  The other half is just as deep as the top half, so the halves get heavy, and opening and closing the case gets tiresome.  I'd prefer a case where the top is just a lid that closes over a deeper bottom. 

I enthusiastically recommend the Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD 30 case as the largest capacity rolling bag around, with all the features any traveler needs.  So, the problem of what to use for my check-in bags is solved.

I am still looking for the perfect backpack to use when flying.  I have a great rolling carry-on case, the Lowepro Pro Roller x200 AW.  I do wish that this terrific rolling carryon had four wheels, so it was a spinner.  I also wish that this case had an outer pocket to store a laptop that would zip up.  As it is, I often store my laptop in the outer pocket, but the laptop is in danger of falling out since the outer pocket has no zipper.

The backpack might be the most difficult item to find -- I would like a backpack that is unobtrusive yet full of small and large pockets, can hold a laptop, has a trolley sleeve, weighs little, has decent hip straps (perhaps removable), and has a huge capacity.

I've had various business-class backpacks, like Swissgear Synergy, High Sierra Rappel, and Targus XL packs.  None of these worked well.  The Synergy was too small.  The Rappel was too large.  The Targus was not well made. The ideal backpack will be light, have tons of pockets and compartments, and will have a trolley sleeve -- allowing it to fit over the handles of my Tarmac case and Lowepro Pro Roller.  I have a Toshiba backpack now, similar to a really old (now discarded, never-to-be-found again Swissgear pack) that nearly fits the bill.  It has thee compartments to fit laptops and ipods, a large front pocket with an organizer, a pocket on the front pocket for things like hand wipes, two side pockets for things like fruit or a sandwich, and water bottle pockets over those side pocket.  It has another pocket for sunglasses near the top.  It's just a bit too small, and has no hip straps. 

If I find myself having to walk two miles through the Bali airport (which I've had to do several times), for example, I want a rolling carry-on that has spinner wheels, and a backpack that fits securely and easily on this rolling case, so that I can walk the two miles without becoming overly tired or putting a lot of weight on one hand and arm.  Similarly, if I find myself traveling to the Bahamas (as I did just last week), I'd like to be able to put a full complement of photo gear (including a camera, lens, underwater housing, and large glass port) in my backpack quickly. The backpack should not be so large as to attract attention, so it needs to expand in the horizontal direction as much as it is tall. I don't think that I am asking too much. 

One trick I've had is to bring an inexpensive soft-sided cooler, which has a sleeve in the back, so it will sit on top of my rolling carryon bag unobtrusively.  I often will have fruit, sandwiches, and even camera gear in this fairly small cooler (often small but heavy gear which I've taken out of my checkin bag to avoid excess weight). 

My travel is getting easier.  After all this research, I've finally found the perfect rolling case for my diving and photography gear when traveling.  It's the Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD 30.

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