Travel light with Neil Varden, founder of CabinZero

CabinZero was founded by Neil Varden to fulfil a simple mission: adventure-proof, cabin-sized backpacks that you could take with off a plane and onwards, whether you’re embarking on a month-long trek of Nepal or a weekend holiday to KL. Neil recently stopped over in Singapore and spoke to NXT about the art of minimalist travel and the upcoming changes to CabinZero.

Neal Varden with CabinZero bags

NXT: Neil, tell us a little about how you travel these days as a busy executive?

NV: Business travel always brings some stress but I actually find that it helps with my fitness to walk through airport transit without a trolley bag and carrying all your gear with you. In Europe a lot of people take short trips, say a couple of hours travel for weekend trips, and they prefer backpacks to wheeled baggage as they don’t want to check-in their bags at the airport and will carry them from planes, trains and busses. Airlines, especially in Europe, were also very very strict with the weight and measurement of carry-on bags.  

CabinZero bag packed

NXT: There’s a trend of backpacks with built-in trolley wheels and handles, would CabinZero make a similar product?

NV: We’ve been asked before to do wheeled version of trolley backpacks for the US. Previously we were quite against it -We did make a prototype backpack with trolley wheels and a handle before – very early on when we started CabinZero, but we didn’t release it because it was expensive to make and didn’t fit into our early brand concept, which was focused on ‘no wheels’ and affordability. The reason for the cost  was because we choose a good wheel system – we felt that a cheaper wheel set would damage easily and need frequent repair.

Neal Varden with CabinZero bags

NXT: You recently changed the CabinZero product range, can you tell us about that?

NV: We have three lines now – Travel, Adventure and Urban (plus an Accessories line), and this came about late last year in anticipation for new incoming products. This helps with our communication to customers as they can see what kind of product fits their type of travel – so if it’s a short weekend trip then products in our Travel category will be fine, but if they want to go backpacking for a week then the Adventure products with their better ergonomics and waterproofing is the way to go. Urban is for the daily commute – and of course some people commute by plane these days but we’ve seen a lot more people using backpacks to cycle commute as well.

For the Travel category we have a new Military range upcoming with new colours and three sizes (the current 44L version as well as new 28L and 38L sizes), and I’m using the 28-litre model – I’m actually very fussy with my bags and I’m very pleased with it as It’s deep and with lots of space.

For our Autumn/Winter range that should be available around September we have an improved Classic Plus with a number of small improvements over the existing model like different pockets at the front, D-Rings for shoulder straps and enhanced padding at the back. There’s also a secret RFID passport pocket and luggage sleeve holder. There’s a Plus Plus version that’s further enhanced with a waist strap. It’s in a slightly higher price point than the Plus but some travellers request a bit more ergonomics.

For the Adventure Plus its made for people who need a bag they can use while backpack touring for say a month, it has got better ergonomics, more organisation for clothing, toiletries etc. CabinZero also makes Cabin Cubes, which I always use, even in my regular suitcase, to make it easy for users to separate their used and new clothing.

For real adventure travel we’ll have an Adventure Plus Plus upcoming that has an internal frame to make it comfortable and stable to backpack with improved perforated foam back panel and shoulder foam. As I said, I’m actually quite hard to please and I can’t wait to use this, it’s a beautiful bag. There’s a shoulder harness that can be stowed away, secret RFID pocket, luggage sleeve, bungie draw-cord for interior compression – these address the requests we have from our customers.

The upcoming Urban style is a bit more ‘businessy’ and is waterproof with RFID pocket. It comes in two sizes with rain covers – two types – one a light version and another a heavy duty cover for heavy rain.

CabinZero bag packed

NXT: Is there any new trend that CabinZero is involved in?

NV: The big new thing are the hip bags, which are quite interesting. Their popularity has actually taken me by surprise but we’ve been getting a lot of orders from our distributors for them in Japan and Europe. They’ve become quite trendy to wear cross their body. In the UK, for instance, we used to call them ‘bum bags’ and they’ve been around for ages, but when people started to wear them across their body they started to become very popular, especially for summer music festivals where you aren’t allowed to carry a bigger bag into the venue. So people feel these are safe as the zip is in front and there’s also a separate accessible pocket for your smartphone.

Neal Varden with CabinZero bags

NXT: Could you tell us about what CabinZero is planning for the future?

NV: One direction we hope to go into is travel apparel – clothings that are easy to wash and quick to dry. I like the idea of ultra-minimalist travel, where you travel for a week with just a shoulder bag and these clothes would be really useful.

I’m really keen for innovation, and after this year we might throw up some surprises in our designs, not just keep making bags that are simple and functional, but this all takes a bit of time and we are definitely in the second phase of our brand, which is quite exciting!