One-Bag Travel: The Red Oxx Mini Boss 👍

 

There's no question: overpacking tops the list of biggest travel mistakes.
So here is OneBag.com, a non-commercial Web site that teaches — in exhaustive (exhausting?) detail — the art and science of travelling light.
Here you can learn how to go pretty much anywhere, for business or leisure, for an indefinite length of time, with no more than a single carry-on-sized bag.
An experience that can — as I hope you will discover — be life-changing.

—OneBag.com

I am something of a “bag junkie.” I think this is a common addiction among traveling photographers; I don’t know any of us who doesn’t have an attic full of bags as part of our ceaseless quest for “The Perfect Bag.” I am a recent one-bag convert. While I often traveled for business out of a single roll-aboard {single roll-aboard business travel for less than a week is not that difficult for men, but it’s not necessarily lightweight travel), but I wasn't obsessed about it the way I am now. I blame Doug  Dyment over at OneBag.com. 😉

 I’ve occasionally dabbled with various approaches to one-bag travel without being the least bit systematic. That’s a sure-fire way to not succeed. Mary and I like to travel and before retirement, I traveled a lot for business. Business travel was usually biz class, and for trips of less than a week, it actually wasn’t all that difficult to get everything I needed into a Briggs & Riley international-sized Torq spinner carry-on. And of course, I carried a briefcase for the work bits. Even on international flights, that wasn’t a problem. But mixing business with leisure often made things much more challenging, and extended stays at destination resorts invited multi-bag travel. And for photography workshops, the issue of checked baggage is a constant problem.

 I recall standing in the airport at Windhoek, Namibia in 2019, waiting to fly home. I was traveling with a good friend. I had a pile of luggage, and i was staring enviously at his single roll-aboard and backpack. I asked how he did it, and he explained the choices and compromises he had made to achieve this level of traveling convenience. I shook my head, certain I could not do what he had done. [In fairness, or perhaps by way of excuse, on this trip, I was carrying one of my medium format camera systems; they just don’t do carry-on, especially on small third world airlines.] I would revisit this scene in my head many times.

When the pandemic hit, I was en route home from Tanzania. Destination leisure travel evaporated, Mary and I did not travel together. I made a few trips shuttling a daughter to college back east, and visiting family. For those trips, I tried using a variety of backpacks by Peak Design, Moment, and Knack, either instead of or in addition to the Torq rollaboard. The trips were great, but none of those packing experiments was especially successful, largely because I did not have a system and had spent insufficient time learning and planning to do what I wanted to do.

That all changed during the pandemic and those short cross-country trips. I started reading about one-bag travel at the Knack site, seeking guidance on how to pack that nice Knack bag. That eventually led me—very much on a winding, circuitous path—to OneBag.com, and I had my “Eureka!” moment. Doug Dyment’s website inspired me to embrace a philosophy and to adopt the pragmatic means for following it. When you first visit OneBag.com, the first thing you see is the quote that starts this review.  He explains the benefits in much greater detail, but the segment labeled “Serenity” spoke to me:

Travelling lightly reduces stress: it is simply a more hassle-free way to get about. You have more time, because packing takes little. You waste less energy hauling stuff. You know what you have, where everything is, and that it's sufficient. We've all seen those anxious folks at the airport, struggling with too much baggage, concerned that they have lost track of something, or left it behind. Foreign travel can be particularly challenging, because it is unfamiliar and less predictable. But the one-bag traveller copes by operating from a solid, familiar, and — most important — well-considered foundation, with fewer unnecessary things to worry about. 

I bit. This made so much sense to me. I pored over Doug’s recommendations regarding a packing list. What he described was something very different from what I had encountered elsewhere on the net. He was describing a system, of which the packing list itself was simply the anchor. And though I did not at first fully understand what he was saying, or all of its implications, it didn’t take me long to start working at it. On a trip to NY to visit my daughters and their families, I managed to pack everything I needed for a multi-stop week in the Torq, And when I ran into flight re-routes and delays on my way home over the July 4 holiday weekend, I was glad I had everything with me. To paraphrase OneBag, “there are two types of luggage—the luggage you have with you and everything else.”

After coming home from that trip, I dove into developing my own packing list. I worked from Doug’s list, and turned my list into a spreadsheet that would contain all items I might need for any type of trip. In addition to each item I might take, I included its weight, description, type of travel and destination for which it is suitable, etc. I also included a functionality that would distinguish between worn and packed items and tally the total pack weight. The list is exclusive in the sense that, if it’s not on the list, it cannot be in the bag. Not everything on the list goes on every trip; but it has to be on the list in order to go on any trip. Here is a screenshot of a poration of that spreadsheet:

I’m no spreadsheet wizard, but this works for me. So, which bag?

Doug Dyment recommends several bags as suitable for the one-bag lifestyle. What do they have in common? In short:

  • Rectilinearity
  • Soft-sided
  • Simplicity
  • Robustness
  • Light weight

All of the bags I owned in mid-2021 failed one or more of these criteria. Generally speaking, Doug recommends bags that meet the so-called FAA maximum carry-on size (in reality, not an actual FAA standard). And that makes sense; who wouldn’t want to take maximum advantage of the carry-on allowance afforded by the airline. Allow me to offer a couple of reasons why one want might not want to max out the envelope:

  1. If your bag is jammed to the gills, it’s going to be very easy for gate/flight personnel  on a packed flight to select it for travel in the cargo hold;
  2. Packing it to the brim also means it might be heavier than you actually need it to be, heavier on your back, and more crowded in your travel quarters.

So, in looking for something that might be slightly smaller than the max allowed, I came across the Red Oxx Mini Boss. Doug offers this description, and the unusual circumstances of its design and production:

Red Oxx, a company known for superb manufacturing quality, makes a bag called the "Mini Boss." Created to address a set of restrictive IATA regulations proposed in 2015, it measures 19×12×6.5" (48×30×17cm), weighs 2.5 pounds (1.13kg), and offers features similar to their legendary "Air Boss" (though with only two main compartments). As it turned out, the airlines rejected that particular IATA proposal, so the specific dimensions of this bag became a moot point. That said, it's a nice bag, irrespective of its unusual history.
With a capacity (1482 cubic inches / 24 liters) not unlike many day travel bags, and a business-like styling, this is a great-looking little piece of luggage, though really too small to serve as a useful business bag for most travellers. And at USD$265, it's pricey for its size. Those highly skilled at travelling lightly, or contemplating very short leisure trips, may well find this bag excellent for their needs. Others, not so much.
But for those seeking extreme minimalism, favouring a conventional-looking leisure travel bag (no backpack straps or hip belt here, though if you can travel this lightly, you might not miss them), and able to travel with an abundance (about a third) of leftover space in a conventional carry-on-sized bag, the Mini might well be worth a try. You will certainly impress most of your fellow travellers!

This description intrigued me. It’s quite a bit less capacity than the Red Oxx Sky Train at 38 liters and the Air Boss at 40.4 liters, let alone the capacious MEI Classic Voyageur at 45 liters. And the reasons that OneBag.com see as militating against its use as a one-bag business solution make perfect sense if one is in business and working for a living in a power suit. But I no longer am.

The Exterior

The Mini Boss exudes quality. It looks heavy duty, and it is, but it is not heavy weight. It tips the scale at 1540 grams empty (slightly heavier than Doug’s description above). It measures 19"L x 12"H x 6.5"W, very much like a standard large business briefcase. And it's robust. Pick your hyperbole: built like a tank, bombproof, tougher than your grandmother, whatever says "this will probably outlast me," this bag qualifies. From the fabric to the zippers, you get the feeling you could use the Mini Boss for picking up explosive devices.

I ordered my Mini Boss in Safari, a Red Oxx proprietary color, and it arrived about 12 days later. I think it is a good looking bag: The color and craftsmanship present an appearance of ruggedness and sophistication. And while I have always liked bag colors in the greenish color group, one of the things I especially like about this Safari  color is that, even brand new, it already looks used. It doesn’t scream “steal me!”, but I think it’s a lot more interesting than basic black:

 

 Every Red Oxx bag is made by hand by American workers using American-made materials. Now, if you don’t live in the U.S., that probably doesn’t matter as much to you; after all, good craftsmanship can be found the world over. But if you do, there’s a lot to be said for supporting the jobs and ingenuity of one’s fellow citizens and their families.

 The Mini Boss is shipped with the Claw Strap, a very effective non-slip shoulder strap. I chose to also order the Red Oxx Long Hauler Strap, and I am glad I did. As good as the Claw is, the Long Hauler is just better for any bag under 30 pounds.

 The Interior & Organization

 The Mini Boss is not festooned with multiple compartments, zippered pockets, pen holders, etc. It is separated into two asymmetrical main, one of which contains the zippered toiletry compartment, and the tie-down compression straps. All in, there are 6 separate storage “locations.” By my count, that’s actually fewer organizational segments than the company’s fanny pack, the Booty Boss

 

 I’ve added a seventh organizational item, pin-mounted key clip made by Red Oxx, that I recommend:The interior is finished in a Bama red nylon, which makes it very easy to see what’s inside:

 

 So, what can you put inside? A lot, especially if one is committed to effective one-bag travel. The larger internal section, which features the flip-out toiletry/gadget bag and the internal tie-down/compression straps, unzips completely for fully flat packing, and can easily hold a bundle of several days’ worth of clothes, plus a shoe compression bag, and toiletries.

 The other compartment, which does not zip fully open to lay flat, contains a thin laptop sleeve, capable of holding an MBP 16, and ample room for another bundle of clothes, exctronics organizer, shoes, etc.:

  

Each external side of the MB has a zipper pocket that can hold a fair amount of flat things though there isn’t much depth. Still, on this last trip, I used one of the outside pockets on my return trip for a Knack thin laundry bag with several pieces of laundered but still damp clothing and the two Xero sandals.

 

On my first trip with the Mini Boss, I did not pack a blazer or suit. As noted above, that makes the bag significantly more practical for compact, lightweight travel. However. I actually had the room to accommodate more than I took. One of the reasons, in addition to their weight, that biz jackets cause a problem is their construction. There is only so much folding and compaction one can impose on them without making them nearly unwearable upon arrival. There are three obvious solutions to this challenge: (1) wear the jacket/suit while traveling; (2) get a bigger bag; and/or (3) buy clothing that can handle the stress. I’ve chosen option 3. While wearing the box attire is an eminently practical solution, perhaps the most practical, I don’t find it comfortable to get strapped into a plane, even in first or biz class in a suit. It’s hardly intolerable, but it’s just less pleasant than the alternative of comfortable clothes. Enter modern artificial fabrics. When I was still in business, I detested artificial fabrics. All suits were wool, shirts cotton, ties silk, etc. But not only are those fabrics heavier than modern artificial ones, they are far less practical. They hold creases from packing, often require professional care (not impossible when staying in nice hotels with an expense account), weigh more, and are bulkier. Some Merino wool articles can be the exception but even though I like Merino for layering, it has its drawbacks.

I confess that when I got to the part of OneBag.com that advocated artificial, even tech clothing, I was skeptical. But I did my research, and I came upon some companies offering clothing geared toward the one-bag mission, including wash and wear biz suits(!). One of these I wholeheartedly recommend is Bluffworks. I was fortunate to find suits, shirts, and pants that fit without requiring alterations (and like most modern online clothing retailers, Bluffworks has easy, generous return privileges, in case you don’t like something, or it doesn’t quite fit). The clothing is lightweight, the fabrics are comfortable, they look good, and they come out of a bundle nearly unwrinkled.

“What’s a ‘bundle’?”, you ask. Bundling is a bag packing technique that makes the most efficient use of your bag’s space, with the least amount of wrinkling. When I first read about it at OneBag.com—that alone is pretty embarrassing, having been traveling for nearly 5 decades—I was skeptical. But it just works. Give it a try; you won’t go back to folding, you’ll laugh at yourself for rolling up your clothes, and you’ll stop wasting money on stupid gimmicks like vacuum packing or compression sacks that merely cost money and add weight to your bag. Doug has a page with an excellent description and illustrations of bundling; I’m going to take the liberty of re-publishing the diagram here, and hope it doesn’t cause a problem:

 

 And Red Oxx has an animated GIF, and a video demonstrating it on the Air Boss page. As Doug cautions, there are a fair number of inaccurate descriptions of bundling on the net. Make sure you get it right, because it works.

Speaking of weight, it pays to pay attention. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “watch the nickels and dimes, and the dollars will take care of themselves.” The same is true of packing weight. Don’t take anything that’s not on your list, seek the lightest effective versions of everything on your list, and then weigh everything that is on your list. You don’t have to drill holes in your toothbrush (not doing that), or cut the handle off a comb (guilty, but primarily to make the non-static bamboo comb fit my small dop kit), or pre-cut your floss to junk the dispenser. But you should look for alternatives to that old heavy dop kit, consider swapping for lighter lithium batteries, generally use the smallest/lightest of any toiletry (toothpaste & deodorant) or hard good (flashlight or clothesline) you carry. One-bag travel is not about some weird asceticism; it’s about not weighing yourself down with unnecessary items or items that are heavier than they need to be—in order to enable more enjoyment. According to my spreadsheet, my last trip had 45 items in my bag, including clothing, toiletries, papers, electronics, and even a radar detector. Bag total weight: a hair under 7kg. And I’m fairly positive I can take another half kilo or more off that total by careful planning. Here is an example.

Depending on the nature of my trip, I will carry an iPad Pro 12.9, an iPad Air, or an iPad Mini. I no longer carry a laptop, for the first time in decades, and I love it. In addition to the iPad, I usually carry either a Magic Keyboard or a Folio Keyboard. If I want to slim it way down, I skip the keyboard. Here is how those weights tally up: 

iPad mini + folio cover

396g

iPad Air + Folio Keyboard

744g

iPad Air + Magic Keyboard

1110g

iPad Pro + Folio Keyboard

1110g

iPad Pro + Magic Keyboard

 1380g

 

The Magic Keyboard is a slick piece of engineering by Apple, but it’s not just heavy on your wallet. In the case of the iPad Air, the Magic Keyboard [608g] is even heavier than the iPad [502]! So, it pays to think about what one needs on a trip. If it’s just me without my partner, and I’m not doing any photographic heavy lifting, the iPad Mini saves space and weight. The Air is almost twice as heavy, and the Pro plus MK is 2 pounds heavier. On that last trip where my bag weighed just under 7kg, I carried the iPad Air plus Magic Keyboard. I could have dropped somewhere between a half to over a pound just by switching devices. In this calculus, the iPad Mini delivers the value.

This same approach can yield immediately quantifiable and positive results across your bag inventory. If you cave an average of 10 grams per item in a 45-item bag, you’ve just shaved a pound from your bag.

Overall Assessment, Comparisons, & Considerations

 I love this bag. It is among the finest I have owned. Is it the same as a Swaine Adeney Lonion Tan document bag or bespoke Gladstone weekender? Well, um, no. But those bags sit in a closet and rarely go anywhere with me now.  Is the Mini Boss perfect? No. It’s unlikely that any one bag can be perfect for all forms of one-bag travel. But it’s darn close and for me, three improvements could get it even closer.

  1. A stripped down backpack option for the Mini Boss. Yes, it’s already small and lightweight and so not very difficult to carry. But if one wants to get the exercise of traversing the Singapore airport or going from Check-in to Term E in Atlanta, a backpack is the way to go. I’m already looking at how to do that with the Mini Boss I already own. But I’m no pack tailor. The Mini Boss counterpart over at MEI is the Voyageur Mini. It checks in at 16.5x12x8, slightly chunkier than the Mini Boss. It’s got a 24 liter carrying capacity (23 if you get the optional laptop sleeve) and weighs 910 grams (a fair bit lighter than the Mini Boss at 1540g which also has a 24.3L capacity). And it includes backpack straps (no hip belt) and fixed compression straps, all for $85. If you’re on a budget, it’s a bargain. I will be reviewing that bag in the near future.
  2. External compression straps for the Boss, Mini Boss and SkyTrain. The Boss and Mini Boss already have webbing straps built into their design as part of the handle structure that look like compression straps. It seems to me these could become compression straps without impairing their business look [and in a black bag, would be nearly invisible]. I understand that external, flexible compression straps offer more flexibility, but built-in ones cannot be lost, and their leverage is superior. Adding them to the Sky Train could be even more visually appealing. The buckles could go on the bottom side. I also ordered the external compression straps offered by Red Oxx, but they’re really too long for the Mini Boss. I think I could adjust/cut them to size, but I’m not quite ready to do that.
  3. Allow customization of the flip-out zip pocket. Right now, it sits right in the top center of the main compartment. Either a zipper or snaps would be preferred, so that it can be relocated to the sides or removed altogether. The flip-out concept is clever, but not as useful as outright removal or relocation, and flip-out functionality wouldn’t be lost anyway.

MEI makes backpack shoulder straps and external compression straps a standard part of the Voyageur, Deluxe Voyageur, Small Voyageur, and Mini Voyageur. They’re pretty nice. Personally, I like the style and “feel” of the Red Oxx gear better, and there is no question RO gear is worth every penny and more of its higher cost, but . . . those first two features are the only things that make me stop and consider how much walking I will be doing with my Mini Boss, and whether I will need to “squish down” the Sky Train I have ordered. 

Conclusion

 This review has been based on my first trip with the Mini Boss. My thoughts and opinions are bound to change, but this review will not necessarily be updated. For now, it is a superb bag, worth every penny for its practicality and superb construction; and I plan to enjoy its utility and craftsmanship for many years to come.

A Note About Shoes

Shoes are the bane of every compact traveler, and if you travel for business, they can be a real pain. When I traveled for biz, I generally wore my dress shoes traveling, and saved the space in the roll-aboard for clothing. Now that I am retired, I can be more flexible in my shoe choices and to that end, I cannot say enough good things about Xero shoes. Xero shoes pursue a minimalist approach to active footwear, with a flat sole and just about zero arch support. They are surprisingly comfortable, though they feel a bit odd at first. For the one-bag traveler, they are also amazingly compactable. Here are the shoes I took on my last trip:

 

This is a pic of two pairs of Xero shoes inside a Knack shoe compression bag, next to a pair of Xero Cloud sandals:

That’s some serious compression. Bear in mind my task was even easier, because I wore the gray pair as my travel shoes. If I had wanted or needed, I could have brought another pair. But here’s another suggestion: only take what you need. If you color-coordinate your casual/dress clothes—say, sticking to blues and grays—there you only need one pair of shoes. If you’ve ever packed typical athletic shoes, you know how much space they occupied, even when completely squished down. Give the Xero shoes a try. I was surprised at how comfortable I found them, even across lengthy terminal walks. Like every other online clothing company, they offer generous and easy returns.

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