Tortuga Backpacks: 2019 Year in Review and 2020 Goals

Fred Perrotta

Reaching our 10th anniversary is a major accomplishment, but we’re just getting started. Thank you for being part of this journey.

Welcome to the Tortuga Year in Review, a (mostly) annual tradition inspired by Chris Guillebeau. After our company’s annual planning meeting, I write this post to recap what went well over the past year and what didn’t go well. Then I share our goals for next year. 

You can read the 2018 review to compare our plans to our results.

Next year’s goals are hold extra importance for us as 2020 is Tortuga’s 10th anniversary.

Let’s get started.

2019 Year in Review  

What Went Well in 2019

New Variants

In 2018, we brought the Setout Collection up to parity with our previous line of products known as V2. For 2019, our theme was “Play the Hits,” which meant expanding on our most popular products with new variants. 

First, we added color variants (black and navy) and a new size (35L) to the Setout Backpack. Then we launched our first-ever women’s fit backpack first in a 35L then in a 45L version. To accompany the 35L versions of the Setout, we added a mid-sized set of packing cubes to fit those bags perfectly.

Keep reading for what didn’t go well with new variants and additional ones to come in 2020.

Keeping Products in Stock

The first item listed in 2018’s “what didn’t go well” was stockouts. Stockouts have been one of our most acute growing pains over the years. In 2014, we were sold out of our only product for six out of twelve months. The 2018 stockouts were less dramatic but still a problem for you as a customer and for us as a business.

We dramatically improved our in stock rate in 2019. We only had one notable stockout on one single product. Thanks to our Operations Manager, Carlos, we’ve greatly improved our forecasting and in stock rates so that you can always get the bag you need for your trip. We may have occasional stockouts in the future as forecasting is imperfect, especially for new products. But we’re doing our best to avoid them for core products and to minimize the length of stockouts in all cases.

Helping More Young People Travel

The Tortuga Study Abroad Scholarship has been helping college students study abroad for years. In 2019, thanks to your support, we were able to offer our first gap year grant.

The grant was awarded through the Travel Access Project (TAP), an organization dedicated to helping people experience the education gained from travel, but without the traditional classroom setting. Our own Jenn Sutherland-Miller, the editor of this blog, is the co-founder of the organization. 

We will be awarding another TAP grant in 2020. Applications open in January.

What Didn’t Go Well

The Setout Backpack: Women’s Fit Launch Plan

When you visit the Setout Backpack: Women’s Fit page today, you’ll see two sizes, a 45L and a 35L, just like the men’s version. But we didn’t start there.

As a bootstrapped company, we treat all new initiatives as tests. We make a small bet, see how it works out, then decide to cut our losses or to double down. Launching a women’s fit backpack was a new but uncertain venture for us. We knew that the original Setout Backpack’s sales skewed male and that some women found the bag uncomfortable. A women’s fit backpack was an obvious solution. Still, this was a new style for us. So we started with just one size: 35L. The 35L sold well but created confusion for women who wanted a 45L, max-sized backpack. Should they buy the men’s 45L and sacrifice a great fit? Should they buy the women’s 35L and sacrifice the size they wanted? Or should they wait for a women’s 45L? Confusing people is never a good strategy for a company. To clear things up, we launched the women’s 45L last month.

By mishandling this launch, we learned an important lesson about balancing small tests with having the right product mix so that you, the customer, can make sense of your luggage options.


For the last 15 months, our costs have been rising due to the ongoing trade war with China. We’ve chosen to absorb the costs of extra tariffs rather than passing them on to you in the form of increased prices. Our hope was that this would be a temporary measure before a trade deal that would return tariffs to their previous rates. Despite a tentative phase one deal, we are still paying a 42.6% tariff on all of our bags that are made in China

Next year, we’ll launch new products that, for the first time, were made in Vietnam. Vietnam has long been the other option for producing high end technical backpacks. Companies like Patagonia and Osprey have been manufacturing in Vietnam for years.

To learn what we’ll be making in Vietnam, see the 2020 Goals section.

2020 Goals

Tortuga’s 10th Anniversary

Next year, 2020, is our 10th anniversary as a company. Wow. Time has flown.

To celebrate, we’ll be going all the way back to our roots with a product launch that would have been the perfect backpack for the 2009 backpacking trip that inspired Tortuga.

New Product Launches

In Q1, we have more variants on the way including a women’s fit version of the Setout Divide Backpack and on Outbreaker Laptop Backpack. Think of the latter as a cross between the Outbreaker Backpack and the Setout Laptop Backpack.

For spring/summer, we’ll be getting back to our roots with a to-be-named collection that we’re calling “Project MVT” for now. The MVT Backpack will be designed for budget travelers and students and optimized for European carry on rules. We’ll share more details as we get closer to launch and have photos to share. The MVT is the backpack that Jeremy and I, the co-founders of Tortuga, wish we had had on that first backpacking trip back in 2009. 

Upgrades to Packsmith

I hope you’re here not just for this post but as an avid Packsmith reader because we have big plans for this site. 

Packsmith started as the Tortuga blog. We wrote about everything, not just packing and gear. I wrote one of our earliest posts about my favorite travel destinations of 2010. Times have changed. Now Packsmith focuses exclusively on “what to bring and how to pack it.” 

In 2020, you’ll see a major upgrade to Packsmith starting with gear guides. More media companies and blogs are writing “Best [Product]” articles in an attempt to cash in on affiliate revenues. We approach things differently because of why we write our guides. We write them because we’re avid travelers and gear nerds. We’re always testing our new stuff and sharing our favorites. Publishing those suggestions was only natural. Increased competition has pushed us to level up both our guides and our transparency in who is writing them and why.

The new gear guides will launch next year. For now, you can read more about our approach on the About page and learn more about your favorite authors by clicking the name at the top of a post or reading their bio at the end of the post.

Easier Navigation and Comparisons on the Store

Choosing the right gear isn’t easy. We work hard to make differentiated products and to keep our product assortment simple overall. The goal is to make finding the right bag easy for travelers.

As we’ve grown and launched more products, comparing products gets harder.

The next update to the Tortuga store will be improved categorization, naming, navigation, and comparison options. If we make the right products and describe them clearly, choosing the right bag should be easy. This is a continual journey as our products evolve and as we get more feedback from customers. But that’s okay. We believe in playing the long game and in continuous improvement. 

Reaching our 10th anniversary is a major accomplishment, but we’re just getting started. Thank you for being part of this journey.

Happy travels.


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