April 21, 2022

Q&A with Aiden Cunningham: One-Bagging with the Smart Alec

Aiden at Machu Picchu with TOM BIHN Smart Alec

Hey everyone!  Cody from TB Customer Service here, serving up a fun Q&A session with a world traveler who's very partial to a certain pack from our recent past...

It's the Smart Alec!  And with the pre-order coming up, we bring you a quick interview with a long-time user of this storied backpack, Aiden Cunningham. Aiden wrote to us recently asking if we had plans to bring back the Smart Alec, as he had enjoyed using it in his world travels and wanted more people to be able to experience the awesomeness this pack could provide.

We told him, well, keep it under your hat for now, but we're bringing it back for a last hurrah soon! He shared some photos with us of his expeditions, and we asked if he wouldn’t mind speaking to us about his travels. He was very kind to oblige, and now, here are his fascinating answers to some slightly off-beat questions. Enjoy!


TB: The Smart Alec pack has been around for quite a while – when did you pick yours up, and what drew you to it in the first place? How’d you hear about TB?

AC: In 2015, in my first year of college, I was browsing online/procrastinating between classes about my plan of travelling the world one day in the near future. I learned that apparently there’s an entire sub-genre of backpacking known as ‘’one-bagging’’ where you travel for as long as possible with a small compact bag. This style of travelling immediately resonated with me. Mobility is invaluable when travelling as there’s a certain freedom when everything you own is tucked onto your back and easy to access.

I viewed a lot of high-quality, well reviewed packs that I considered, but the main reason the Smart Alec resonated with me was because of its organisational capabilities. In addition to multiple internal pockets on the inside, it has O-rings within the pack that allow you to attach smaller, external bags/pouches that you can pull out while still being attached to the bag itself so you can get to your other belongings at the bottom. As well, the bag looks like a normal daypack with an unassuming colour combination that helps you blend in.

Compartmentalising like this is perfect for having a packing system so you don’t forget any of your belongings when you’re in a rush. Imagine oversleeping and trying to catch the last bus out of Hue before the Tet holidays and having to pack all your belongings at 5am when everyone else in your hostel dorm is asleep. (May or may not be speaking from experience).

This is due to the ease of having little belongings to drag around sketchy new towns while looking for a hostel without sticking out as a tourist, not worrying about losing checked baggage on airplanes, being able to keep track of your belongings easily, etc.


TB: Aiden, you've been all around the world, packing lightly in your Smart Alec - what's the lightest, most minimalist packing you've ever done for a trip, and where'd you go?

AC: Probably my most recent trip in South America. It was only five weeks, but I had to pack for essentially three different climates. This trip took me everywhere from the sunny, sandy beaches of Cartagena and the humid, rainy Amazon Rainforest directly on the equator to the freezing foothills of the Andes outside of Cuzco. I swam, biked, ran, trekked, got rained on, slept outdoors, ate at nice restaurants and went out to nightclubs.

I was set to experience a huge range of temperatures, terrain, climates, and activities and I had to do it all out of the 26 litre daypack that I had previously used for going to class. As a result, I had to pack extremely light.

Packing the Smart Alec for South America

TB: Travel is amazing, but when you get there, you usually have to eat something - tell us about a time when you found a local dish surprisingly delicious. I'm talking like pickled scorpions or something. And perhaps something un-surprisingly non-delicious, like pickled scorpions or something.

AC: Hmmm, tough call. I’d have to say fried Guinea Pig in Peru (local specialty) was a pleasant surprise (The grilled Alpaca is also a hit if you ever find yourself there, just saying). When I saw Guinea Pig on the menu I was hesitant to believe it was even legit. Curiosity got the best of me and I was soon served delicious delicacy, served with potatoes, salsa, and salad.

I try not to think of something on my plate as being cute and cuddly but it’s still a trip wrapping your mind around digging into the petting zoo animal served before you, but, as cold as it sounds, that all went away when I had my first bite. Luckily they’re treated very humanely on local farms and many are even raised free-range. That definitely helped to alleviate my guilt.

I’ve heard mixed reactions about Guinea Pig but that was typically dependent on the place serving it. So, if you decide to give it a try, make sure you’re going to a reputable place. (Advisable for ANY place you eat at in a new country). The biggest green flag for local food in my experience is a place that’s filled with locals; They’re certainly not giving their repeated business every day to get food poisoning.

Going to an empty stand in a night market where you’re the only customer is a good way to bet that you’ll get food poisoning and end up needing an IV treatment in a remote Laotian mountain town for food poisoning (again, may or may not be a true story).


TB: Travelling to foreign lands and parts unknown can be exhilarating, but when in unfamiliar environs, it can also be intimidating, especially if you don’t know the lingua franca. Do you speak any other languages, and if so, have you learned any specifically for a trip?

AC: I’m famously bad at learning new languages so Google translate is typically my lifeline. However, there are certain situations where knowing a few local words will go a long way. The three phrases I make sure I memorise before entering a new country are ‘’Hello’’, ‘’Thank you very much’’, and ‘’F- Off’’.

I can stumble through awkward sign-language and online translations for 10 minutes to get directions, but if I can greet someone or convey genuine gratitude to the person who’s helping me, in their language, it makes the entire situation a bit more personable. And on the other side of the spectrum, being able to assertively tell someone off will quickly put a scammer harassing you on the street in their place. The first time I ordered a coffee fluently in Spanish was probably one of my proudest moments on the road.


TB: Do you typically travel alone or with friends? Do you make friends easily once you reach your destination?

AC: I typically travel solo. Most of my friends have busy schedules that don't necessarily sync together so it’s just easier. Even then, I like having the freedom of being able to decide if I like a new town and stay for a week or that I hate it and leave the next day, and only having to rely on my own opinion. As well, many backpackers follow similar routes so you often find yourself going through a few towns with someone you recently met on the road.

Meeting new people though is probably my favourite part of staying in hostels. Many people you meet there are also solo travellers and as such, making friends is as easy as it was on the playground when you were five years old. I was nervous during my first hostel experience in Belize since I had no idea what I was getting into but ended up having an awesome group of friends who I hung out with my whole time there and still talk to today. Upon arriving in my dorm in Phnom Penh one night, I asked my seven roommates if anyone wanted to grab dinner and two people immediately opted to join me. In Colombia, I met up with someone I stayed with at the same hostel in Bangkok two years earlier who just happened to be in the same city at the same time. There are dozens of people who I only knew for 1-2 nights in hostels who I still keep in regular contact with, years later.


TB: Where’s home for Aidan Cunningham? And have you found anywhere in your travels that might change that?

AC: I live on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada (AKA the one place on earth where you can ski, hike and surf in the same day.)

I lived in Australia previously, right before COVID and made some amazing friends and absolutely fell in love with the country. I’d love to return there but I’m not sure how feasible that would be with my work…oh well, who knows what the future will hold!


Alpine hiking on Vancouver Island, BC

TB: How often do you travel, and how much of your life is spent like, on the road, man?

AC: I work full time back home, so unfortunately, not as much as I’d like to. As well, COVID really put a damper on travel in general. There always is the possibility of taking a year off though and taking another long-term trip though… In the meantime though, I travel quite often with my work, so that’s nice.


TB: When you travel to a new country, what are your goals for that adventure? What are you looking to personally get out of the trip?

AC: Every place has different expectations and different results. To be honest, I typically will arrive in a new country with no real plan of what to do beyond some vague idea I hashed out on the plane. There have been many times where I don’t even have a place to stay booked until I get to the bus station or airport arrivals hall. Even then, I tend not to plan more than 24 hours in advance when I’m on the road. My first night in Hanoi, I had no idea what to do to fight off the jet lag and ended up on Instagram locations and found something called ‘’Train Street’’. Like its name implies, it is a functioning railroad running through an alley in the heart of Hanoi, lined with businesses and restaurants. I made the 20 minute walk from my hostel, and after sweet talking my way through the back door of a tailor shop that exited out onto train street, I found a hole-in-the-wall bar and ended up spending my first night in Vietnam having beers with british expats as freight trains barreled past us only several feet from our faces. This unplanned excursion was easily one of my most memorable experiences from that trip.


TB: Pop quiz hotshot – you’re in a new country, don’t speak the language, hold no currency; you can have 3 objects to help you get home (other than currency). What do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO?

AC: Jeez, that’s a tough one. It’s 2022 so I’m guessing that it’s just assumed that I’ll have a phone and passport on me so I won’t count those. In that case, my three items would be:

  1. 1. A portable power bank: Given the world we currently live in, and that most of us aren't going off into the wilderness for weeks on end, the single most practical tool I can think to have in your bag, purse, or vehicle would be a really nice spare battery charger with multiple USB ports like a Mophie. Your phone already has a flashlight, compass, calculator, computer, etc already built in and while I know you need service for most of it to work, the real chances of you being outside of a covered area are slim these days. And if you are, you should have known that you would be in advance and then you should have planned in advance. But for 99% of us, we aren't going anywhere without our phones so have an extra battery if the power goes out.
  2. 2. A local SIM card: See above, you’ll need service. It’s worth the 9000.00 Laotian Kip ($.70 USD)
  3. 3. A pack of cigarettes: I don’t smoke, but when you’re in a jam, 99% of the time it will be a kind local who helps you out, and chances are, they do smoke. If you don’t speak the local language, it's a solid icebreaker when you’re in need of a ride to the train station, a tow to a mechanic, or advice for getting through a sketchy border crossing.


TB: Based on some of the photos you shared with us, it appears you enjoy exploring areas that aren’t, exactly, let’s say...open to the public. Without incriminating yourself, can you talk about how you find these “off the beaten path” locations, and how many skeletons/golden idols have you found?

AC: Reddit and Instagram are good sources but most of the time I get tips from locals, hostel owners, and other travellers. Most of the time though, all you need to do is ask, and you’ll be let in. I’ve actually never trespassed; I try to avoid getting on the bad side of police in foreign countries (don’t taze me bro!). I found an unfinished construction site on the outskirts of Bangkok and simply asked the one security guard if I could go explore. He unlocked a gate in the chain link fence and let me wander right in. I spent the next hour climbing 20 stories and getting panoramic shots of the Bangkok skyline as cars raced by on a freeway underneath me during rush hour.

View of Bangkok from an unfinished skyscraper

After spending 7 hours wandering around Ho Chi Minh City I stopped in a random cafe to take a break. Drinking my iced coffee, I clocked a tile in the flooring that was obviously cut out from the floor and led downwards. I pointed this out to one of the employees and he proceeded to pull out the floor tile and gestured for me to climb down. How could I say no? I climbed through a narrow hole, down a ladder and ended up in one of the bunkers that the Tet offensive was launched from 50 years prior, complete with old soviet military hardware, maps, weapons, helmets, etc., all completely untouched from the Vietnam war. This wasn’t a museum or an official historical sight, just some basement in a cafe that I happened to be in. I’m a major history buff so I was like a kid in a candy shop there.


Exploring an airplane graveyard

TB: Countries with the best street dogs/cats/monkeys – go.

AC: Ecuador has the best good boys in my experience. They’re all owned, not stray, just allowed to wander through the cities. So they’re relatively clean and not aggressive at all.


TB: Everybody likes a party! And different countries can have some ca-razy local festivals and celebrations. Have you ever gotten involved in a local festival you had no idea was going on, and had a blast/almost died?

AC: Two events stick out, first was the Tet holiday in Hoi An, Vietnam. Tet is the Vietnamese New Year but is essentially Christmas, Easter, New Years, and the 4th of July all rolled into one. I arrived from Hue the afternoon before the major festivities and couldn’t find any hostels or hotels with vacancies in the entire town. All I could find was an upper-class homestay for $20.00 USD/night (a ludicrous price for backpacking in Southeast Asia, but it was my only option so I relented). It turned out I was the only guest at this place and the owners had their entire extended family over from all over Vietnam for the celebrations. They immediately invited me to join them for their family dinner. I had been living in Australia for about a year prior to this, so this was the first real home cooked family dinner I had had in ages. The food was amazing and unlike anything you’d imagine Vietnamese food to typically be. I was the only foreigner among about 25 relatives and 4 generations of this family yet I felt totally welcome. It was a nice respite after months of constant backpacking. After watching the fireworks, I ended up staying up until 2:30 AM with my hosts grandfather, getting incredibly drunk on Rice Wine, while he told me stories about the war over Google Translate.

The second was in northeastern Cambodia. I had been spending about a week motorbiking around Ratanakiri province, exploring the northern highlands when I came across a local hill tribe village. Now these villages are very remote, but still relatively accessible through dirt roads. These tribes are unique whereas they aren’t Buddhist, like the majority of Cambodia, but Animist (worships animals). Due to the remoteness of these villages, they also aren’t often visited by westerners so when you roll in, you end up being a major curiosity and the centre of attention. I entered one of these villages and was instantly accosted by a dozen villagers coming up to me and saying hello. Soon, a guy wearing torn jeans and a faded Metallica T-shirt, whom I subsequently learned was the village's chief, came up and shook my hand and invited me to stay for a celebration that night. (the only person in the village who spoke English, the guy who ran the gas stand on the road translated this for me). I helped them set up about 20 speakers (in addition to a horn) for 100 villagers and chairs before sunset, where they then brought in a cow to the centre of the village and began to encircle the cow, chanting and singing and hitting metal gongs. It was at this point I realised I was about to witness a ritualistic sacrifice, and by the look on his face, the Cow knew this as well. Out of nowhere, a villager ran up at the Cow with a machete and well…..the sacrifice was complete. It was a bit shocking to see but they immediately started the ceremonies and celebrations. We all proceeded to party late into the night. They ended up taking me to a Buddhist temple down the road where I slept on a grass mat on the floor until morning when I got my bike and made the 2 hour journey back to the town where I was staying.


A village in Laos

Thank you, Aiden!  Those were some fantastic insights into a very unique flavor of world travel, and excellent stories to boot. 

Now we turn it to you, readers: do you have a Smart Alec backpack, and if so, how have you used yours?  Bottomless book bag?  Tenacious travel companion?  Share your stories down in the comments below - and if you have any colorful answers to those questions above, we'd love to read those, too!


Derek - May 13, 2022

Awesome read! I do have a Smart Alec! I think I actually bought the last one from the website a few years ago once I heard they were going to be discontinued. I’ve used it quite a lot, from heading to work, gym, vacation and what not. I think it’s the perfect bag and I’m glad to see it coming back!
TOM BIHN replied:
Glad to hear the Smart Alec has served you well!

BethC - April 24, 2022

What a wonderful interview! Now I have a new item for my life-list: visiting a free-range guinea pig farm!

Tame Adams - April 24, 2022

Awesome adventures and awesome read, Aiden!! Thank you for sharing your stories!

John J. - April 23, 2022

This was a great read.

G42 - April 21, 2022

Great travel stories Aiden, thanks for sharing those!

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