Monday, June 20, 2011

The Con Bag

Someone asked, and that's all the excuse I need for some unrestrained bag nerdery. The topic of what to carry at a convention and how to carry is is one that I have given utterly unreasonable amounts of thought to, and I share some of the fruits of it here. If you're about to go to a convention (like, say, Origins) and are considering what you're going to carry around, then hopefully this might help.

The first question to ask yourself is whether you need a bag at all. If you don't intend to run any games (including pickup ones) and you don't intend to buy anything, then the reality is you probably won't need to. Stick a notebook, pen & Pencil, phone and maybe a few dice in your pocket and you're good to go. If you can get one of those cool badge holders with pockets (they might have them with the Origins Merchandise, they might not) then that can even make it easier. This is, honestly a nice way to go if you can pull it off.

One tip that may help at Gencon but not at Origins - if you can get one of the pay-lockers on site, that can allow you to get by with a very minimal carry since you can drop your purchases off at a locker rather than tote them around.

Ok, for the rest of us, there tend to be two big reasons to carry a bag: to be prepared, and to shop.

Shopping is the simpler scenario. For all that a bag may feel awkward, I promise you it feels worlds better than a cheap plastic grocery bag carrying a heavy load of books or boardgames, especially given the certainty that a sharp corner is going to poke through sooner or later. If you've always got a bag, life gets much easier, though there are alternatives. If you plan your shopping (for example, knowing you'll only shop on the first or last day of the convention) then you might be able to forgo the bag except on that day.

You'll want to pick a bag that matches your shopping interests. If you're just looking for CCGs and maybe a book or two, as small bag will be fine. If you're looking for boardgames or planning to make a lot of purchases, then plan for something bigger. More on that in a minute.

Being prepared is a much fuzzier thing, and I will wager that most of us carrying bags are doing it for this reason.

Now, first and foremost, if you have a fixed kit, then you already know what you need. If you're going to be running a game, then you need certain supplies. If you absolutely must have your iPad, you need a bag that can handle it. If you have needs you explicitly must meet, then those obviously supersede any advice I can give.

But for those of you with a less fixed set of needs, let me run through some options.

First off, try to use as small a bag as you can get away with. Big bags a great, but they get heavy as you spend your time walking around. If you're packing several games "just in case" then you might want to consider packing only one or two, and rotating them out on a daily basis.

To my mind, the perfect con bag is vertical satchel style, just big enough to hold a D&D book. Something like the Ducti Utility Messenger, the Duluth Field Bag, or the Tom Bihn Cafe Bag or Risretto. They're big enough to hold the essentials for a game, but small enough that even if you stuff them to the gills, they'll only get so full. However, there is a problem.

One of the advantages of a bag like that is that it can be hung at the shoulder or cross body. This is very important if you're going to walk around a lot - a cross-body carry means that you're not constantly readjusting the strap. The problem is that this simply won't work for everyone. Specifically, large men (like myself) and many women will encounter issues with the strap going across the chest. Even if it's comfortable, it can look very awkward. Now, you can mitigate this by getting a bag with a "grippy" shoulder strap (the Redoxx Gator is fantastic for this) so you can have a stable one-shoulder carry, but it's not quite the same.

Now, I should also add that I'm biased in favor of the vertical bags because they hang better, and for the guys, they are less likely to look like a purse (a silly but very real concern). Horizontal bags can work just fine, but they tend to be bigger, and that can be an issue.

There are definitely some great messenger style bags - I'd be remiss not to mention the entire Timbuk2 line, and the remarkably spacious Bag of Holding - but I can't recommend them as con bags in good conscience.

I can hear some protests there, so let me step back a minute. These are great bags. I have several and I love them, and part of what I love is how much crap they can hold. The danger with any such bag is that it's really easy to overload yourself. Even carried messenger style, they get really heavy over the course of a day. If you're confident that you can maintain bag discipline or that you REALLY need the space, then go for it, but otherwise, I'd steer clear unless you want days full of back pain.

One aside about this - a lot of "messenger bags" are really just laptop cases. That's fine day to day, but really think about whether you need your laptop on the convention floor, and if you don't, that might be a good excuse to trim down your bag.

Now, this is where I have to admit something - one reason people choose messenger bags is that they just look cooler than backpacks or rolling carts. I can't argue with that. That timbuk2 slung across your back suggests your about to jaunt off on your mountain bike to jump off a cliff while pounding an energy drink. The backpack suggests you packed a lunch.

If this is really your hangup, then you really have two options. Option 1: just embrace it, and use a bag you think is awesome. Your back may hurt, but it's a fair trade. Option 2: just get over it and accept this is a convention, not a fashion show.

Now, I'm going to steer you away from rollers in general. I recognize they're necessary sometimes, either for physical reasons or because you're carrying miniature armies, but otherwise they're problematic. They're hard to handle on stairs and escalators, they're problematic if you need to leave the convention floor. Only do it if you must.

For the rest of us, the boring, reliable backpack is often the best choice. It doesn't get in your way when walking, you need to be a little mindful of it in crowds, but not too much so, and if you foolishly overfill it, it's not going to suck as much as it would to be carrying it any other way.

Lot of comments there, so let me boil it down. Use the smallest bag you can get away with and still comfortably carry, but if you need to have a more-than-small bag, I strongly suggest using a backpack.

Given that I hit the road tomorrow, I think I may follow this up with a bit of a discussion of what's worth putting in that bag. But in the meantime, what's your con bag? I'm not worried if it contradicts my suggestion - I know a well loved bag trumps all - but I'm curious what works well for people.


  1. If you decide to go with a messenger bag, you should look into Chrome bags =>

    They do have quite a few of the 'upright' bags, but I don't have any personal experience with those.

  2. For a while I was using the official GenCon bag I picked up a few years ago. Standard vertical bag that can hang over one shoulder or across. Pros - zippered main compartment prevents spillage when bag falls over. Cons - too few "small" pockets mean most everything ends up in the main compartment, which leads to a lot of rooting around.

    Similar to this one:

    I currently am using a messenger bag that was a promotional item from an online bank. Pros - lots of different zipper and velcro pockets to store and segregate items. For example, if I know I am not going to be playing any RPG's, I can empty the pocket with the books and therefore lighten my load without disturbing the pockets that hold the dice, pens and pencils, hand sanitizer, etc. Cons - does not sit well hanging vertically from one shoulder.

  3. I use the Ristretto, but I don't find it useful for shopping. It's actually a bit small for a 8.5x11 book. For carrying gaming material, it's perfect.

    I got it with the basic strap but when I bought an Aeronaut (also from Tom Bihn) I got their Ultimate strap. That thing is grippy as hell and completely solves my large guy problems with one-shoulder carries, so I recommend it. Should work on just about any bag with shoulder strap clips.

  4. I really like my Tom Bihn Buzz sling bag.

    Just big enough to hold 3 D&D core books/2 Dresden books. It is also built to carry a small laptop.

    Few things I like about it is that it is very form fitting and melds to your back. When it is on you can swing it around for easy access to the contents without taking it off.

  5. I'd meant to mention sling bags ( for the unfamiliar, they're like backpacks with one strap worn at cross bodycheck out cczernia's bag for an example) and just forgot. Like most hybrid solutions, they tend to be either fantastic or worse than either option.

    If you can find one that sits well and feels good, it can be a fantastic solution, but it's definitely something I'd encourage anyone to try on first. If you're not shaped the way the designer expected then they can be awkward as heck (with all caveats regarding the appearance of a cross-chest strap).

    That said, if you can use one? I envy you. Very elegant solution. I have a great Columbia one I pull out every now and again in hopes that this time it will work out. :)

  6. What a great topic to nerd out on! I am in love with my County Comm range bag:

    Inexpensive but well made 1000 denier nylon, lots of pockets and MOLLE webbing, capacious, and designed for concealing handguns!

  7. I was trying to figure out why countrycomm sounded familiar then I realized they sell my ipad case. Based on it's price and quality (both awesome) I've been eying their other stuff. Good to hear it's as good as it looks!

  8. I also use their "tactical tool roll" as a first aid kit. I've been very impressed. I'll have the range bag at Origins, Rob, so if I see you rooting through my gear I won't be alarmed.

  9. I continue to be happy with my Tom Bihn Cafe Bag. I used it last year at Origins, I use it for my local gaming, and I'm looking forward to using at Origins again this year. I'm hoping its lack of space for board games should help me keep my spending in check.

    I'll second the recommendation for the Tom Bihn Ultimate strap. Frankly amazing, and easy to transfer between bags.

  10. "For the rest of us, the boring, reliable backpack is often the best choice."

    This, times 90. For years, I've used a simple athletic backpack from Burton I got at Sports Authority, and I've never been disappointed.

  11. I've used the same free backpack for years. I've got gotten good at knowing what I actually need to schlep everywhere.

  12. Thanks for the rundown and links. For a grippy, comfortable one-shoulder carry I really like the Skooba Superbungee Bag Strap.

  13. My day to day bag is a Timbuk2 medium messenger bag. Tough has nails, waterproof, and will hold everything for traveling between the office and home.

    For Con's I like my Ogio backpack, that I got as swag at a business convention. This backpack has more pockets then I know what to do with, and that translates for pockets for holding my dice, pens, and other gear for running games.

  14. Backpack for me. Anything hanging on one shoulder or cross-body is going to mess up my back, shoulders, neck, and so on. I'm using a Red Rock, which Kelty doesn't make any more. It's got straps buckling at waist and chest, so the weight is well distributed.

    I've done wheeled suitcase two, maybe three times. The first time was when I'd had a couple of trips to the ER before Origins and wanted to be really sure I didn't damage myself further. It also meant I didn't take another spill down the long flight of stairs next to the perpetually unworking escalator, which I did a year or two before that, as I was overloaded with my shopping plunder. (I was shaken, but not damaged. Two smart things I did: Let go of everything in my hands and relax into the fall as much as I could.)

    Like you said, if day one is the major shopping spree, that usually suffices for the Shopping Bag. I managed to get by on just backpack at Origins this year. Two things helped:

    -- We were staying at the Hyatt.
    -- I've taken to doing more targeted shopping. I had a much better idea of what I wanted to buy, and I was within two books of correct.

    Now, we're at the Crowne Plaza this year, which I gather is close to the Exhibit Hall. But... GenCon is likely to wow me with more things I want to pick up than Origins. And, even if I go right to the UPS booth, which is what I did last year, the wheeled suitcase may be best. I'm still debating. It's better to forgo the wheeled bag if possible, but it's also better not to have arms overflowing with books in and out of fragile bags.

    The backpack comes with me. If it's light and empty, great. If it looks like I packed a lunch -- I probably did. And, it has a slot for my water bottle.

    I'm still debating over the netbook. It's just that I don't feel comfortable leaving all my computers home. (We had a burglary in 2006 and a building fire -- which did not hurt our Stuff -- while we were at a convention over July 4th weekend this year. It makes me want to hold my computer like it's a teddy bear. I recognize that this is not rational.) The netbook weighs as much as Chaosium's Secrets of Japan (which is a hefty book, but not as hefty as a full laptop). But, I have a Nook. But... I can probably not bring it with me to the convention center. I dunno. Still agonizing over it.

    Nook and phone come with me. I probably could leave the dice at home. I just don't want to. Misery Bubblegum is currently the only game I plan to pack in anything other than electronic form.

    Er... unless I break down and succumb to the urge to bring Delta Green: Targets of Opportunity with me to get the rest of the authors to sign it. And, unless I'm in the middle of reading a hard copy RPG product. Fortunately, if that's the case, it'll be Vorhneim or the Fiasco Companion or the Jubilee edition of The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries, all of which are small. But, I can probably convince myself to take something else.

    I carry too much stuff. I know this. I will try to leave the wheeled suitcase in the room.

    So, you going to be at GenCon this year?


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