The Highs: Feature rich; modular design for versatility; good looks

The Lows: There’s a price to be paid for those handsome looks

The Verdict: A terrific carry-on for business casual, adventure & vacation travel

Regular Practical Hacks readers know that I’m not a huge fan of wheelies, but this one could change my mind.  The eBags Mother Lode TLS (“Tough Lightweight Smart) Mini 21″ Wheeled Duffel is a capable hauler that boasts numerous thoughtful features, several pockets, and a convertible design that enables you to customize it to your specific needs.  As the name implies, it’s intended as a carry-on and will fit in all but regional jet overheads; some users have reported stowing it beneath the seat.

Although positioned as a duffel, the bag in truth is part suitcase (the main compartment unzips on three sides and opens book-style, and part duffel (the top compartment features a U shaped zippered opening into a shallow duffel).

What distinguishes the TLS Mini 21 from its more conventional competitors is the fact that the floor of the duffel compartment can be unzipped and stowed, turning the entire bag into a ~2750 cu. in. capacity rolling duffel.

Before we dig into the TLS Mini 21‘s features, let’s take a look at its specs.

Specifications

From the eBags website:

Size: 21.5″ x 15″ x 9″
Weight: 8 lbs , 11 oz
Capacity: 2752 cu. in.
Material: 900 D Twisted Poly
Capacity: 2,752 cu. in. when expanded; 2,249 cu. in. when not expanded.
Warranty: Lifetime Warranty
Linear inches: 45.5″

Key Features

  • Exterior zippered front pocket is sized for boarding passes, travel documents, etc
  • Hide away Add-A-Bag stores inside a zippered pocket
  • Upper compartment measures 21″ x 14″ x 3.5″ and has the following features:
    • Lockable U shaped zip opening for easy loading; 11.5″ x 10.5″
    • A smaller zippered top “forehead” pocket for last minute items; 12″ x 4″ x 4″
    • Zippered mesh pocket under the lid; 10.5″ x 10.5″
    • One compression strap
  • Lower compartment measures 21″ x 14″ x 5.5″ and has the following features:
    • Two zippered mesh pockets, 8.75″ x 11.5″ each
    • Compression-molded EVA bottom is lightweight and flexible
    • Moveable divider panel affords flexibility for packing
  • Convertible single/double compartment provides flexibility in how you pack. Unzip the floor that divides the two main compartments, roll it up and secure it with two clip straps; you now have one extra large compartment which measures 21″ x 14″ x 9″
  • Zippered1.5″ expansion gusset increases the bag’s capacity by 22%
  • Interior is lined with high visibility orange nylon to make finding items easier
  • Ball bearing wheels for smooth rolling; easily replaced if ever necessary
  • Photo reflective corded zipper pulls for nighttime visibility

A video overview

Here’s an excellent video overview of the TLS Mini 21 from Bernard Majeau, Product Manager for this product:

A photo tour…

Bernard’s video provides an excellent overview of the TLS Mini; I’ll instead focus on a few close-up shots of bag details, plus a look underneath the bag’s handsome exterior…

Although the eBags site doesn’t mention it, YKK coil type zippers are used throughout, and they operate smoothly.

The grab handle on the front of the bag is padded and is quite comfortable for lifting the bag into an overhead:

Another grab handle on the top of the bag is flush with the bag’s surface when not in use; its elastic design permits its deployment when needed:

Were I to use the bag, I’d leave the expansion gusset (below) unzipped at all times; if needed, it’s there, if not, the top section’s weight and the bag’s four compression straps will compress it…

The mesh address label window is a nice thought, although the window itself is vertically challenged; it’s enough to display a name and cell number.  The D ring is for use with a TSA approved lock and the bag’s locking zipper pulls; it keeps the locked zipper pulls in a convenient spot; these rings are available for the two main compartments’ locking zippers.

The wheels roll quite smoothly and quietly,  and are as well protected as possible; an allen wrench is required for removal:

A small feature, but one which reveals the amount of thought which went into the bag’s design:  there’s a thin rubber coating on the trolley handle (in the photo below, it appears as light grey).  It provides a nice tactile sensation every time you use it, and of course is a bit softer than the molded handle.

I tested the telescoping mechanism a number of times and it operated flawlessly; of special note is the handle’s three positions, the longest of which is a full 45.5 inches – the tallest of users won’t have issues with the bag striking their heels when striding through an airport!

The debossed eBags logo is a nice touch, and adds a bit of rigidity to the molded bottom panel of the bag.  Note that the wheels are placed at the very corners of the bag, affording a bit more stability than would be the case with narrow-set wheels; it’s be unlikely that this bag will tip over…

The front stand of the bag doubles as a grab handle.  As should be clear from these images, overall fit and finish of the bag was uniformly superb.

A peek at the robust construction of the trolley system.  The ABS piece in the middle adds rigidity, and a patent is pending on this aspect of the bag’s design (click for a close-up):

A close up of the top end of that assembly, below.  The rivets at the very top secure the elastic portion of the retractable grab handle.

As is often the case with wheeled bags, the handle mechanism intrudes a bit on the main compartment.  Below, you can see how the locatable divider panel is shaped to conform to it.  When packing such a bag, make sure you utilize these “voids” in the bottom surface with small, flexible items like socks; larger items can then go on top of them…

At the right is the “forehead” pocket, which eBags positions for last minute items.  It’s about 12″ long and 4″ across.  My (admittedly minimalist) 3-1-1 bag fit with plenty of room to spare.  On the middle left you can see the zipper for the front pocket which is perfect for documents, magazines, or perhaps a guide book; on the lower right is a pocket which conceals a loop for carrying another bag (the “Add-A-Bag” in eBag’s lexicon).

A look inside the top duffel compartment.  High visibility orange nylon lines all compartments, making it much easier to find small items.  This top compartment measures ~16″ x 13″ x 3″, and (obviously) features a compression strap to secure items.  As shown in the video, you can unzip and roll up the bottom panel of this compartment, transforming the bag into a duffel with a single huge compartment.  This would be especially handy for sports equipment or other large items.

To give you a sense of scale and size, here’s a Pack-It 18 in the main compartment; a rolled up pair of jeans is on the right.  The Pack-It contained several shirts and a pair of heavier khakis; it was a few inches thick.

In this shot, I’ve added a Tom Bihn packing cube/backpack (this is the Tri-Star/Western Flyer model); it too contained 3 or 4 bulky items.  Zipping up the bag with these items in place required that the expansion gusset be used, of course.

All in all, the bag is well thought out.  Although I won’t be able to travel with it until next week, it strikes me as best suited to casual, business casual, or adventure travel.  At 21″ (and 14″ in width), I can’t see one traveling with a suit and this bag.  Personally, it’s a moot point as I’ve all but permanently mothballed my suits.

I could see putting a couple of pair of lightweight slacks, 3 or 4 nylon/washable LS shirts (think Coolibar or Ex-Officio Trip’r), a couple of synthetic, quick drying golf shirts, along with a few pair of washable underwear and socks in the bottom compartment.  In the top duffel compartment, a netbook, electronics, dry toiletry items and perhaps a pair of convertible nylon pants.  3-1-1 bag and odds and ends in the forehead pocket.  Maybe cram in a pair of running flats or flip flops and a compressible rain shell somewhere.  Equipped thusly, I could easily do a week or more out of this bag, and be able to sightsee or hike during the day, and still dress up for dinner, assuming I wore a jacket and appropriate slacks and shoes during the journey.

With this in mind, one final shot. Here I’ve taken my Asus netbook and placed it (in its neoprene sleeve) in the Bihn backpack/packing cube mentioned above, and placed both in the top duffel compartment.  I’ve left the Bihn cube unzipped so you can see how much unused space remains.  This would be a handy way to pack your onboard essentials/entertainment stuff – just yank it out prior to stowing the TLS in the overhead.

Impressions

I’ll freely admit that part of the fun of reviewing this bag was uncovering and exploring all of its features.  It’s loaded with them, and I’m impressed not only by the thoughtfulness that went into the bag’s design, but in its versatility.

As I considered the bag’s design and utility, an apples and oranges comparison surfaced…

In some respects, the TLS Mini 21 illustrates the inherent limitations of the molded body/integrated telescoping handle wheelie concept: its capacity (with expansion gusset deployed) is a claimed 2,752 cubic inches; (by contrast) the Air Boss’s capacity is only 2,184 cubic inches.  Yet the TLS Mini 21 seems smaller.  Placing them side by side, it still seems a bit smaller.

And there’s the rub: the aspects of the bag’s design which make it so attractive from certain angles – the rounded corners and sloping slides of the molded main compartment, along with the hidden trolley mechanism (hidden in that main compartment) – in fact rob it of capacity.  The Air Boss is simplicity itself:  3 compartments, rounded corners with small radii, 3 zippers on every compartment so all 3 lay flat for packing.  It’s essentially a rectangular box made out of durable fabric:  you can damn near use every square inch.

Not so with the TLS Mini.  There’s a price to be paid for the good looking curved surfaces, for the slick bottom surface which hides the mechanical bits, and to a degree, for the neat modular approach Bernard employed.  It’s a good looking, capable bag, and frankly I quite like it.  As we’ve said before, product design is a matter of trade offs; what we sacrifice in terms of capacity, we gain in appearance, compactness and the ability to walk through large airports without a heavy bag on your shoulder.  There’s nothing wrong with either approach; they’re just different.

Wrapping up

Next week I’m off to Lost Wages for a 3d/2n trip.  The usual stuff, business casual but definitely with a sports jacket; attend a symposium, go to dinner a couple of times.  A couple pair of slacks, a few shirts, a sports jacket plus the other necessities.  Normally I’d grab the  PR5 or perhaps the Bihn Tri-Star.  But in this case, I’ll use the Mother Lode TLS Mini 21, and will bring along my netbook, a digital camera, and a few other things to keep it interesting.  The trip involves both a Beech 1900 (!) and a 757-200, so it’ll be an interesting test.  I’ll take some packing photos and will bring along my S90 to take some quick pictures along the way.

I’m impressed by the TLS Mini 21 Wheeled Duffel.  If you’re looking for a budget priced, quality carry-on wheelie for casual/adventure travel, it should be on your short list.  And owners love it:  119 out of 121 reviewers of this bag at the eBags website would buy it again.

Available at the eBags website; made in China; Regular Price $189.99; current price $170.99 with Free Shipping as of this writing. Available in 3 colors – Blue, Crimson (shown here), and Green – although Green is the only color showing as available on the eBags site at present.   Backed by eBag’s “Whatever It Takes” Lifetime Warranty.

The Fine Print: I am not an eBags affiliate, nor do I have any connection with the company; I was provided a sample bag to assist in the preparation of this review.

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12 Comments on Quick Take: eBags Mother Lode TLS Mini 21″ wheeled duffel

  1. Michael W. says:

    The side compression straps are neat; I always worry one of my overstuffed wheelies, checked through, might get its zipper damaged by a TSA agent rushing to repack my inspected bag and not being as careful as me when closing the zipper. Should that happen with this bag, at least it can be strapped closed.

    It’s good to see eBags has a thoughtful designer on its team.

    BTW, the Costco 22″ wheelie has reappeared and is worth inspection – although you’ll need to take along some stout toe nail clippers if you want to inspect the compartments, which are zip tied closed. Something to do in Vegas besides a casino? It feels about 12 pounds, though.

    I couldn’t really use this eBags for int’l flights with 15 pound limits – it looks nice for checking through, and that color makes sure no one else will walk off with it by mistake.

    [Reply]

  2. Stuart says:

    I know this entry is about the eBags rollaboard, but I couldn’t help noticing the Bihn convertible packing cube backpack. What are your experiences using the Bihn cube as a backpack, with your netbook and/or other items? Do the webbing straps slip off the shoulders due to the lack of a sternum strap and what I assume is ‘slippery’ dyneema fabric? Is this really a viable ultralight option as a daypack that does double duty as a packing cube?

    I like the REI Flash 18 as a daypack due to its sternum strap and mesh shoulder straps. At 10oz it’s marginally heavier than the Bihn packing cube backpack, with identical capacity. But reversing the Flash 18 to be a cylindrical stuffsack won’t work so well in a bag like the Tri-Star or the Mother Lode.

    [Reply]

    Michael W. Reply:

    Kevin can address your specific comments, but I would like to respond as well, since I have the Aeronaut-based version of the Bihn convertible backpack cube and, coincidentally, also the Flash 18.

    First, my version of the Bihn is the larger one that has a lower zipper compartment. Between the main square compartment and the lower zipper compartment which will take a pair of shoes, this is a very handy packing cube. Since I place mine in a Steves Classic convertible backpack/suitcase, I don’t have to turn this Bihn inside out for use as required for the Aeronaut, and clothes go in the top, shoes in the bottom.

    As a backpack it is very marginal. It doesn’t have any of the design cues or robustness people associate with a backpack (what can you expect for 9.5 ounces?). And you are right, the the backpack straps are just thin, albeit wide, webbing, and are prone to slipping off my shoulder in single shoulder mode or off both shoulders in backpack mode – but not enough to matter for a casual city walk (only an issue if you tried to trail hike with this).

    Weight is great, though – within an ounce (actually lighter) than the phenomenally light Flash 18 – which is quite a good pack, I used it as my personal bag on a flight to Asia, then at destination as my every day carry bag.

    The problems I had with the top loading Flash 18 were difficulty feeding clothing into it due to its narrow mouth (no “3 sides” zipper like on the Bihn) combined with the sticky waterproof coating on the inside, the lack of any zippered interior compartment (although it has two small slots and one big water bottle sized slot) to keep things from falling out, and the flimsiness of the backpack straps – one of the way REI keeps the weight down, but prone to twisting. And of course the resulting packed shape, as a cube for another bag, is round which leaves wasted space.

    On the other hand I liked the fact that pickpockets didn’t have any zippers to steathily work open, and that the top cinch mechanism was a little tricky to operate which further discourages would-be pickpockets.

    At the end of the day I’ve reverted to a panel loading, zipped bag which weighs 6 ounces more, the Black Diamond Magnum, 14.5 ounces, 16L. For for cost, weight, and volume, it’s hard to beat the Flash.

    Hope that gives you more food for thought.

    [Reply]

  3. Kevin says:

    Is this really a viable ultralight option as a daypack that does double duty as a packing cube?

    In my opinion, yes. That it functions as a packing cube, there’s no question. As a backpack it’s certainly a minimalist affair, but I find it functions well as a simple daypack for sightseeing and perhaps carrying a lightweight jacket, or picking up mementos.

    The straps are simple affairs without padding, but you aren’t going to cram 8 pounds of stuff into this bag. The straps IMO work well. The key to this is the fact that they’re mounted near the center of the pack on top, and near the sides of the pack at its bottom; as such, in use they tend wrap around your pecs and wedge into your armpits, and are quite secure. This is an inelegant description. Check out the picture of the straps in my review of the Patagonia Lightweight Travel Duffel to understand what I mean. Here’s a link: http://is.gd/662eC With a 2-4 pound weight in the pack, I find it comfortable and secure. The straps – in my experience – will NOT slip off your shoulders when both are deployed.

    Michael’s comparisons are interesting as always. The Black Diamond pack he mentions is a beauty, but it’s $50 and doesn’t function as a “cube” when packing. All depends upon what you need and, I suppose, want.

    [Reply]

  4. Berg says:

    Very clever design features in this bag. I like the numerous configurations, including changing the size and shape of the main compartment.

    [Reply]

  5. Stuart says:

    Many thanks to both Michael and Kevin for your thought-provoking, if contradictory, responses. The Black Diamond Magnum definitely looks like a great pack, but it would leave me with the packing challenge when it needs to be placed inside my primary bag.

    I have no illusions that I would ever use the Bihn packing cube as a backpack to climb Colorado 14ers, but I am intrigued at the possibility of having a functional daypack for light use just in case, without any packing space penalty when I’m on the road. I searched for other reviews and comments on the Bihn cube/backpack and came up empty. At $30 for the Tri-Star version, it’s worth a trial.

    Apologies if I hijacked the comments to the Mother Lode article with a tangential topic.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    No problem. Let me know if you want to borrow one of the cube/backpacks I have to try it out.

    [Reply]

  6. Monte says:

    To comment on this bag for those who still wear suits: I use this bag regularly for 3-day trips where I wear suits every day. I wear one on the plane in on Monday and out on Thursday, with two in the bag. With the help of an EC 18 folder, I can pack:

    2 suits (2pc)
    3 dress shirts
    Spare belt
    Ties
    1 pr khakis
    1 polo
    4 undershirts
    4 underwear
    4 pr socks
    Fivefingers
    Gym shorts and shirt
    Toiletries
    Softshell

    I’ve packed the same using the bundle method, but find the folder gives me just enough extra compression that bag doesn’t feel like it’s going to explode.

    I pack this without deploying the expanding gusset.

    Overall really like the bag, but am considering going wheel-less via the Airboss or TriStar nonetheless.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Monte,

    Thanks for your excellent comment! I still use this bag and really like it. I’m even tempted to purchase the (similar) eBags Mother Lode eTech Mini 21.

    [Reply]

  7. Monte says:

    I’m pretty impressed with all of their products, so I think you’d be happy with the etech. I went back and forth between those two quite a bit. I think the deciding factor was that I didn’t need the duffel bag handles and thought the TLS would be a bit more streamlined.

    Based on your experience, do you think the tristar would be a good wheel-less replacement for the TLS mini?

    [Reply]

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  9. maureen werner says:

    I am too old to move around Int’l airports with a back pack. And, my back and shoulders would be a huge issue if I attempted to use the Red Oxx Air Boss. It is a beautiful bag, but not practical for a fit, but older traveler (as in almost 70 years.)

    I am leaning towards the Motherlode 21″ duffle carry on. I am concerned, I will still have to check vs allowed as carry on internationally, and somewhat concerned about packing capacity. Can you lend some expertise?

    [Reply]

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