Thursday, January 2, 2020

Bespoke Luggage for the Discerning Overlander

A careful reading of this blog will generally confirm one overriding theme:  Wherever possible, I try to optimize every facet of our overlanding experience.  Usually, patience and careful "spec-shopping" nets me a low-cost, lightweight solution.  Sometimes iteration is required, and I work from a coarse solution to a finer one.  The end of that trend-line, though, is that at a certain point, if things are going to get any better, I need to go custom.  And usually, that means making it myself.  This project follows that arc perfectly.
Off-the-Shelf vs. Custom

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In the early days with our camper, clothing was stored in various random duffle bags or backpacks, and the underbed space was occupied by plastic tubs filled with a variety of camping gear.  As we gained experience, we saw that it was more convenient to keep the camping gear in the back of the van, and keep ready-access to the clothing in the main "cabin" area, under the bed, where we could get to it without opening any doors.  Somewhere along the line, I invested in a trio of Front Runner Flat Pack cubes, with one cube for each of us.  These, with a bit of cramming, just fit under the bench seat/bed in the van.  The downside was that they never quite held enough clothing, and there was a lot of underutilized under-bed volume around them.
Front Runner Cubes.  Not shown: wasted space behind these cubes
After completing the upgrade to the Rock-n-Roll bed system, we lost just enough underbed height that the Front Runner cubes no longer fit.  Switching to an Ikea "Skubb" underbed organizer netted us a lot more usable volume, and was very inexpensive:

Ikea Skubb
The downside of the Skubb was that it was a bit too inexpensive - very lightweight construction was not standing up to the rigors of overland travel, and seams were failing.  Additionally, this unit did not function well as "luggage".  Typically, we used it like a drawer - we'd slide it out from under the bed to grab a packing cube when changing clothes, etc.  Occasionally, however, we'd want to carry all the clothing outside of the van (back into the house at the end of a trip, or when checking into a hotel for example).  In that mode, the Skubb was pretty terrible.  It was too tall to easily carry "on end" with the shallow strap "handle", and the contents would all shift badly if you tried.  (It also still wasted some critical space, as you can see from the photo above.)  I've spent months searching for a substitute, but never found anything of sufficient quality that would have been noticeably better.

After spending some time looking at how bags were constructed, though, and watching a lot of YouTube videos, I convinced myself that this would be a relatively easy project. I'm pleased to say, I was right!  Aside from a couple of wonky stitch lines, I'm super-pleased with how this came out.

The big hurdle I needed to overcome for this project wasn't the pattern, per se (since it was just joining sides to make a rectangular box), it was in understanding the order of the operations.  Certain steps cut off easy access to certain faces, so I needed to ensure that things like handles were made and sewn early in the process.  Moreover, this would be the first time I'd ever tried to sew zippers, and the process of stitch, flip, top-stitch, etc. was a mystery!  Working out all the steps in advance and keeping a solid checklist was absolutely crucial to this build.  Big thanks to Adam Savage's recent book Every Tool Is A Hammer for rekindling my love and respect for checklists!

After cutting the main body pattern, I found I had a couple of waste panels that were perfectly sized to create a small zippered pouch that I could add to the front of the bag.  I also had more than enough zipper to spare.

Added that item to the right spot in the checklist and whipped this up.  It was also nice to have a "warm up" mini-project using the zipper material.  This will get added to the main bag when the zipper seam is sewn.

If I ever had a zipper foot for my Costco-sourced Brother Sewing machine, I've lost it.  I did my best and was able to get satisfactory results with the top-stitching, etc.

Once sewn, the bag looked pretty unimpressive.  Even my normally supportive family had trouble "seeing my vision" at this stage.

My ongoing love-affair with Coroplast continues.  A few passes with a box cutter and a little clear packing tape and I am ready to add some stiffness to the bag.  The wall panels are only fastened on three of the four edges to make it easier to insert the assembly into the bag, and the bottom is friction-fit only.

The "front" panels were cut slightly shorter to accommodate the zippered pocket that attaches to the top edge.

Adding a side-handle and D-rings means it can be carried like hand-luggage, or over the shoulder with a strap.

The upside of custom is that things fit perfectly.  Zero wasted volume.

And here are the pair of bags in their home.  They have different dimensions; I oriented them like this in order to maximize the number of packing cubes that I can fit into the available space.  All those years of playing Tetris have really payed off!

With the stiffeners inserted, these "bags" slide in and out under the bed like drawers. The white plastic also makes it easy to see items inside.

Regarding costs, this project is driven entirely by material pricing.  Given that I am, at best, a mediocre sewer, I chose to gamble on some Factory-Second material from Big Duck Canvas, rather than risk using expensive fabric.  At just over a couple of bucks per yard, five yards of 12oz Bull Denim was actually less than the UPS shipping charge.  True to Big Duck's description, I see some patchy variations in color, but I plan to wax this fabric, which will make this variation seem natural anyhow, so it was well worth the savings by opting for seconds.  My only other major expense was for 5 yards of YKK #10 zipper coil chain.  Unlike with the fabric, I justified spending on name-brand zipper because I positively HATE cheap, snaggy, zippers on bags.

Let me know what you think!  If you have need of lightweight soft-gear storage and need to utilize every available cubic inch, this might be a project for you.


  1. Very well written article, everytime i go out i wish i was more organized. This is a great way to conserve space.

    -the dude with the delica

    1. Thanks, man!
      In my notebook I've got sketches for building an underbed drawer using Trundle-bed casters, but after Descend 2018 I'm on a strict diet for this van: Nothing made from wood that can be made from fabric or plastic instead!