Not Quite All Our Worldly Belongings

When it comes time to take a trip, the most important packing decision isn’t what clothes to take or what shoes to leave behind; it’s what bag to put it all in. We’ve all been saddled with the wrong bag at some point or another: the duffel that feels like a concrete block when it’s packed, the rolling suitcase that repeatedly flips over as your run for your flight; the backpack that makes you feel as if you’re going to topple over backwards. On a round the world trip, the last thing you want is to be aggravated by your bag, since you’re going to be spending lots and lots of quality time with it. (Lisa Lubin, a fellow round the world traveler, referred to her bag as her boyfriend in a recent blog post.) Last weekend Jeff and I, having picked up the bags he ordered from the REI sale, set about to deciding what we were going to use to lug around all the worldly possessions we’ll need.

A backpack is pretty much the only way to go on a trip such as this. If you’re doing a grand tour of world capitals, then maybe you can consider a rolling bag, but even then, think of those cute cobblestone European streets and imagine your bag bumping along them. Not pretty, right? And since we’re sticking to third world countries and chicken buses, a backpack it is. But what type. As we see it, there are two main options. One option is a travel backpack. This option is noted for its large zippered opening, which allows you to lay the bag flat and pack it in a manner similar to a duffel bag. It often features a zip-off daypack, and a panel that zips up to cover the straps and thus make it more airplane-friendly. Eagle Creek is a well-known manufacturer of this style of backpack. The second option is a trekking backpack. This pack can be identified by its top-loading style and its more streamlined style. These are the type of backpacks that people use on long hikes/treks, and are thus designed with comfort while carrying as the primary concern.

Loads and loads of RTW travelers will tell you that you’re an idiot if you choose to carry anything other than a travel backpack. Yet, despite much searching, neither Jeff nor I have found a bag of this style that we like. The problem I’ve had with most is the way in which they distribute weight. I feel like I’m going to end up on my back, legs flailing in the air, like an overturned turtle. I’m also not pleased by the starting weight of these packs. Since 25 pounds is already 25% of my bodyweight (and the maximum weight I plan to carry), I don’t want to start out with a pack that weighs 5 pounds empty. That’s more than one pair of shoes…and yes, I do plan to take four, and no don’t try to convince me otherwise.

So I think we’ve decided to go with the trekking style pack, which in the end, makes the most sense for us, as it’s what we are most comfortable with. It will also be ideal since we plan on doing a number of treks (Patagonia, Inca Trail, Anapurna Circuit, etc.) during our trip. But unfortunately, making that decision didn’t really put us any closer to choosing our bags. As you can see, we have a lot of options. (And this isn’t even showing the bag Jeff picked up on REI clearance a few days later.)

We were able to weed out a few of these relatively quickly, however. Both the blue-checked Gregory pack and the yellow BCA pack were determined to be too small, and the Eagle Creek pack was determined to be too large. (It’s also a travel backpack, and was never seriously in contention, although Jeff makes good use of it on his travels back and forth from Sweden. He left yesterday with that bag in tow, carrying much more gear for his one month stay there than we plan to take for our entire year. Given it is winter, and he does plan to travel to the Arctic Circle [more on that in a future post].)

So, how to make the final decision? We could only think of one good way and that was to get together all the gear we planned to take, pack it up in each of the bags, and try each on. And that’s what we did—digging through our drawers, cabinets, closets, and storage area to gather up all we planned to take. Being the listmaker that I am, I already had a packing list saved on the computer. Here’s what the gear looks like laid out. (Sorry, our bedspread makes a poor background.)

And then, fully aware of the pain that digging through a backpack (especially a toploader) in search of one shirt, sock, or pair of underwear can be, we organized all of our gear using stuff sacks and packing cubes. Hopefully, we’ll stay in most places for a number of nights in a row, allowing us to unpack and spread things out, but for those one night stays, this system will help us stay organized. The picture below shows all of my clothes, except socks, bras, and underwear which were in another small bag that didn’t make it into the picture. Not bad, huh?

My two contending backpacks were a 45L ultralight REI pack and a 52L Osprey pack. The Osprey is a new purchase, the REI pack has been on a number of trips with me, including our adventure through the Grand Canyon.

Jeff’s contenders were both REI packs, one the 50L Gemini that he’s used on our previous trips and the other a new 65L Ridgeline.

We both definitely feel some affection for our old packs…they’re tried and true friends. I, however, must say that I’m a little concerned about the ultralight material holding up on mine, and we both have some issues with size. Though everything does fit into our old bags, they’re both pretty darn full. Not a lot of room for error. As for the new packs, I think we were both pleasantly surprised, considering the sheer number of other packs we’ve tried and rejected. The extra space is nice, although I fear that it might tempt us to pack more than we need, and both proved comfortable. I was very pleased when I jumped on the scale with my fully-loaded pack and found it to weigh only 17 pounds! Admittedly, my toiletries weren’t in the pack and probably a few other odds and ends, but still it should end up quite manageable. (And let me say here that I only plan to carry the backpack at full weight between transportation and accommodations. On our trekking trips, I’ll pack just what I need and leave the rest at our hostel/hotel to be picked up upon our return.)

Final decision, you ask? Well, despite the fact that we filled all the competing bags up, weighed them, walked around with them, did side-by-side comparisons, and discussed every pro/con/detail that we could come up with, neither of us made a final decision. We each still have two bags in the running. But I think we’re okay with that. We’ll make our final choice when we’re packing for real (eek…that will be a bit scary). I think for now we’re content knowing that we each have a pack (or two) that we’ll be happy to heave and ho around the world.

(With Jeff’s old bag, my new bag, and our camera bag, this is what it looks like when everything is packed away. It will be interesting to see if it looks pretty much the same come departure day.)