Monday, August 8, 2011

Choosing a Backpack for Travel

When we first started talking about traveling through Europe, where I'd be carrying my things never crossed my mind. I just assumed I'd take the usual roll-aboard I use for all my trips. At first I was against a backpack, the thought of carrying a mountain on my back was so unappealing, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Do I really want to roll a carry-on around each city if we haven't checked into a hostel yet? I'd like to keep my hands free to take photos or hold onto A. with one hand while munching on stuffed pastries with the other.

So on Saturday, A. and I headed to Eastern Mountain Sports in SoHo. We didn't know which one would be best, but with the help of an awesome employee, Joe, we tried on a few that were specifically tailored for multi-day treks and our body frames.

1. EMS Four Wheel Jive Daypack: This was the first bag I grabbed at the store, pre-Joe. I liked all the different pockets and compartments, but I wasn't sure if it'd be big enough for a three-week trip. Luckily, EMS has weighted bags you can use to stuff the backpack and test it out. Once I did, I quickly realized an issue: insufficient structure in the padded back made it too bulky and uncomfortable. Also, the straps were rough on my bare shoulders, but I did like the hip-belt. I never knew they support and make the load feel so much lighter!

2. The North Face Base Camp Duffel: This water-resistant bag can be used as a duffel or as a backpack. The durable material was appealing as was its size - small, but roomy - but I didn't like the lack of extra pockets. It was just one big compartment and the bag itself lacked much structure. So when I stuffed in the weighted bags, it was also uncomfortable on my back. It also felt much heavier than the others I tried.

3. Gregory Jade 28 Backpack: I really liked this one even though it had a few issues. The good: it has one major compartment (laundry-bag style) that holds so much, the softer straps didn't rub up against my skin, it had a light steel bar along the back and includes an elastic rain cover you can attach to the bag to weatherproof it. The bad: because it's mainly loaded from the top (with a small zippered opening on the side), it'd be difficult to access something at the bottom of the bag. Another problem was that the hip-belt didn't fit me tightly enough. The fact that Joe could still see light coming through the space between my body and the belt meant it was too loose. He brought an even smaller kid's size, but the color, green, was yuck. Hey, that stuff matters, too!

4. Kelty Redwing Backpack: Ultimately, I went with this one. I like the fact that it has a major compartment along with separate front, side and inner pockets (there are 17 in total). It's easy to load while allowing me access to other things I might need in transit. The hip-belt fits my small waist tightly, the back has structure (so no bulky objects would poke me) along with an aluminum stay that serves as a "spine" that actually lines up with my back really well. The shoulder straps could be softer and it's not a huge bag, but I took a chance and figured my clothes, tiny as they are, would all fit in without much trouble.

To test it out, I pulled out every piece of clothing I have stuffed in my drawer at A.'s house and packed the bag. I ended up rolling up (the best space-saving trick) and fitting in 20 tops, five pairs of pants, six skirts and dresses, a sweater, a mix of socks and undies, a bag with non-TSA-approved toiletries and another bag with a pair of sneakers, sandals and heels (alas, the towel and a bulky sweater didn't make it in). Still, this is clearly way more than I'll actually be taking since we'll be doing laundry whenever we can. The bag looked massive, but it felt so much lighter than you'd assume. I even kept it on while we danced around the room ("for research purposes").

As for A., he was having a little trouble deciding between two bags. "I knew right away that I wanted one with a rigid frame that would put the weight on my hips," he says. So Joe presented him with two different options.

5. Gregory z40 Backpack: This is the manly version of the Jade backpack described above. This had the frame that A. was looking for and a water-resistant cover. It's a standard bag for backpacking and even though it was lighter than the bag he chose, A. wanted to have the flexibility of a day pack and more room. "If I hadn't tried the Osprey, I would've walked away with it," he says.

6. Osprey Waypoint 65 Travel Backpack: "I like that I wont have to worry about space and that whatever I put in it isn't going to affect the weight all that much," A. explains. "There are compartments on the sides and inside the cover flap so it's basically a suitcase that fits on your back. Who needs a rolling one when this fits on your hips and you don't even feel it? The detachable day pack means traveling and packing is that much easier because I won't have to worry about carrying two separate things at a time. The straps and hip-belt fit and you can hide them all if you'd rather carry the bag by it's side handle. It was more expensive than the Gregory bag, but a nice discount for a minor damage made the decision easier."

I keep commenting on how big it is, but I believe him when he says it's not as heavy as it looks. On the plus side, any goodies I acquire over the trip that don't fit into my bag will somehow make its way into his. I'm cute enough to make that happen.

While trying on different bags, Joe shared a few tips about choosing the correct backpack and how to pack your things in.

1. The hip-belt is great for supporting the weight. Make sure it fits snug, wraps underneath your rib cage and that the buckle sits on top of your belly button. Adjust the hip belt before tightening the shoulder straps.

2. If your bag isn't water-resistant, you can always buy a separate rain cover that attaches to the backpack to keep your belongings dry.

3. Pack light things on the bottom of the backpack and keep heavy objects on top and as close to your body as possible. Then pack more light things around it to keep the heavy loads from shifting and the bag from pulling back and away from your body. This Kelty instruction booklet has an illustration of how to pack your bag on page 8.

Images: all from


  1. That bag is bigger than you! :) Just watching/reading you get ready for this trip is making me excited for you.

  2. Glad you've got your backpacks sorted; now you're another step closer to taking your trip! :)

    Backpacks are always much easier and safer when you go away. Your hands are free, you have no risk of briefly letting go of your luggage and having it stolen, and it's easier to distribute the weight so there's no strain on one or the other of your arms.


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