"When you go on a trip, it’s good to reassess at the end as you unpack to see what stuff you brought and never used. Sometimes, that’s the best way to learn."

By Richelle Szypulski
July 29, 2019
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tortuga backpack
Credit: Courtesy of Tortuga

To put it modestly, Fred Perrotta, the cofounder and CEO of Tortuga Backpacks, knows a thing or two about packing.

Back in 2009, Perrotta took a two-week trip to Eastern Europe with his then-friend, now cofounder Jeremy Cohen. “We were kind of nerdy, obsessive researchers trying to find the right pack. I hadn’t really done much international travel and didn’t have a bag and didn’t know what to bring. We couldn’t really find anything perfect,” he told me over the phone. So, he ended up with one of those giant hiking packs that were typical for backpackers, which fell short in a few big ways. The two spent quite a lot of their train ride downtime talking about ideas for how their packs could serve them better, and they’d both just read Tim Ferris' remote worker manifesto, "The 4-Hour Workweek."

"Part of that book outlines how the author started a business, so we followed that blueprint," he said. "We’ve got the product idea, and the problem, and we’ll put these together and, you know, fortune, fame, and all that will come. It was not quite as easy as the book makes it sound, but it gave us the confidence to start."

Now, a decade later, Tortuga has a fully remote team of travel lovers and a line of incredibly popular backpacks. We checked in to get Perrotta's best packing tips.

T+L: Travelers love Tortuga's bags. Tell me a little about the thought that goes into your designs.

Fred Perrotta: "The big idea we had when we started was that those big hiking bags that most people who are backpacking use carry really nicely; they’re very comfortable; they’re great in many ways. But there were two main ways they came up short. One was that they’re huge, so you can’t really carry them onto a flight. So you’ll have to pay extra to check the bag and also waste time at the baggage carousel, hoping it shows up and isn’t ripped to shreds. And the other thing was: Packing from the top is a problem for travel. When you’re traveling, you might need a T-shirt but it’s halfway down so you’ve gotta dump the whole bag to find it.

The idea was to combine the comfort, durability, and quality of a hiking bag with the accessibility and the organization of a suitcase. Suitcases open from the front so you can see everything, organize it how you like and take stuff out as you want, but they don’t really work as well for city travel."

Now, let’s talk about packing those bags. What are your best tips for how to become a one-bag traveler?

"There are a couple of rules. The first one is that you want to pack around the must-haves — the stuff you’re going to wear every day or frequently on your trip — rather than the just-in-case kind of items. If you find yourself saying, 'I’ll bring this in case something comes up,' you should probably leave it at home because either the situation won’t come up 90 percent of the time or you can usually get those items locally.

Another one I always tell people, especially for longer trips, is to pack for one week. If you’re gone for longer than that you can always do laundry. In a lot of countries I’ve been able to do a whole load of laundry for dollar and they had it ready the next day. I think a lot of people tend to overlook that, but you can do it pretty easily and cheaply.

Another place where people run into problems is bringing too many bulky things, especially with cold weather. So I tell people to pack and dress in layers, not in bulk. So that may mean instead of that big chunky sweater, maybe bring a thin long sleeve shirt and a cardigan over it. One, that stuff should take up less space in your bag, and two, it lets you mix and match a little bit more, so that even if you’re re-wearing something, it can feel different. If you do have to bring something bulky, try to make sure you can wear it on the flight. Even if that’s a little bit annoying, it’ll save space. And you can almost always throw it in the overhead bin."

Are there any other particular items you think travelers should be leaving behind to save space and weight?

"The most challenging one is usually a second or third pair of shoes. Ideally, I just have the ones on my feet and I don’t put any in my bag. That’s kind of a dream scenario, but that’s not always possible. Definitely leave behind the third pair. My current favorite travel shoes are by Vivobarefoot, they make the barefoot shoes with the very thin sole. The ones I have are kind of low, lightweight boots and they’re leather so you can wear them wherever and they don’t look too dressed down. They’re really light and comfy; it’s almost like I’m wearing slippers or something. I’ve been walking a lot in these and feel pretty good about them.

I would also encourage people to think about what electronics you’re bringing. That one might not seem like a big deal — a lot of bags have a computer or tablet sleeve, but those are also relatively heavy things and, you know, you have to bring your laptop and also your charger and maybe some other accessories. That weight can add up quickly, so if possible I’d try to trade down to tablet or Kindle. Or maybe you can trade down to just your phone."

As for clothes, how do you go about curating your travel wardrobe?

"I think clothes are a little bit easier — this is maybe more true for men’s clothes than women’s right now — but you’re starting to see more of the technical fabrics that used to be used by outdoor brands coming into normal-looking clothes so you don’t have to have that all-khaki, safari dad kind of look. But you can still get clothes that dry quickly or repel stains and stuff like that. One of my favorite brands is called Outlier; they do a lot of technical stuff that’s kind of a mix or synthetic clothes which are good for drying or stretch and then natural fabrics that also have their benefits. There are a lot of brands doing things in Merino wool right now — natural fabric repels smells, which is nice if you need to re-wear something."

Are there any must-have items that you pack for absolutely every trip?

"I’ve got a few that are always stashed in my bag so that I don’t forget them. I always bring a water bottle. On flights, I can’t get by with just that tiny, little cup. And I’m also a big reader, so I always bring my Kindle, which I can load up with books. It’s tiny and lightweight and a joy to read on. And the benefit I didn’t really see until I actually had it was that it’s nice to be able to read on your flight without turning on that overhead spotlight. I feel like a better neighbor when someone’s trying to sleep next to me."

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.