I chugged some water out of the blue plastic bottle in my right hand and then took a peak at my Garmin watch on my left. It read 2 hours and counting and around 6 miles traveled. As I continued along the path with a cool breeze blowing and the sun shining down on me, I was thankful this Saturday turned out to be so beautiful.
No, I wasn’t hiking in some exotic locale; I was “hiking” along the lakefront path at home in Chicago, trying to prepare for my upcoming trek in the Grand Canyon. My preparation was centered around getting used to carrying a large backpack for hours on end – something that initially seemed nearly impossible to me.
I have never been a big fan of backpacks. Sure, I used one (an Eagle Creek Truist Vita 55L) as I traveled for 13 months around the former Soviet Union, but I never really embraced it. It made me hot and sweaty in the winter and hotter and sweatier in the summer. My back was sore, my arms were sore, my shoulders were sore. I couldn’t move around nearly as fast with my backpack on as I could if I was just pulling a rolling suitcase and I looked fairly ridiculous trying to pull off the “turtle” look – big backpack on my back and smaller daypack on my front!
So when I got home, I swore off backpacks forever.
Until I went to Nepal and the Himalayas last fall, when trekking for two weeks with a suitcase really isn’t feasible or desirable. So I dragged out the same Eagle Creek pack and loaded it up with hiking clothes – and then stuffed it into the suitcase that I would use to actually travel to and from Nepal. The backpack didn’t come out again until it was time to fly to Lukla and even then, it was carried every day by dzokyos (yak-like animals), not me. After I got home, I bid the pack adieu – in part because it got soaked through multiple times and was dirty and smelly and in part because I had a bed bug scare and was afraid it could be carrying bed bugs.
My backpack days were definitely over.
Or so I thought.
The company I’m going to the Grand Canyon with later this month, Wildland Trekking, recommended carrying a 65L pack and said to expect to carry about 25-30 pounds. At first I thought I would just borrow one of their packs, but the more I considered it, the more I realized it would be better to get one of my own so I could get used to it ahead of time.
And then I started thinking about my plans to travel to Africa next fall and I really couldn’t see myself traipsing around Africa with a suitcase. And I thought of some other overseas trips I’m considering, involving plenty of train or bus travel and I again thought I would be better off with a backpack.
What?? Did I just type that??
Much to my own surprise, I decided to invest in another backpack. My dividend from REI had just arrived and it was member savings time so I headed straight to REI. Unfortunately, everything they had in stock featured what I hate most about backpacks – top loading only. Why, why, why do people prefer top loading only backpacks? I will never understand this – you have to take everything out to find anything and it’s almost impossible to organize. I just don’t get the attraction. But I digress…
I moved to to Erewhon and then Moosejaw, completely striking out altogether.
Then I turned to the internet, asking for recommendations on Facebook and Twitter. Soon, fellow travel blogger Jodi Ettenberg sent me to a post of hers in which she raves about her Gregory Jade 60L pack. I did a quick search for it, only to discover that it was on sale at the REI Outlet online. Score and score! Just $150 and in less than a week, I had my backpack. It was shorter and wider than my old pack and even though it is technically larger, it looks smaller to me. It is both front panel and top loading (I guarantee I will only ever use the front panel) and it has a big pocket on the front as well as a removable fanny pack type thing on top with some extra storage. I especially like the little pockets on the front of the hip belt – perfect for easy access to snacks, keys or my iPhone.
I had the pack sent to the REI store in Chicago so I could work with the staff to make sure it fit correctly. A great salesgirl helped me with adjustments and showed me how to wear it properly, with the hip belt sitting just above my hips and actually supporting most of the weight of the pack. Just standing there in the store with fake weight loaded into it, the 64L pack (I got the medium size which actually holds 64L instead of 60) felt more comfortable than my old 55L pack ever did.
And weeks later, as I walked along the lakefront path here in Chicago with the pack weighted down with nearly 30 pounds, I couldn’t help but think how much better my 13-month career break trip may have gone if only I had traveled with a different pack – or at least with a pack that fit me properly and that I knew how to carry. Nearly three hours into that walk, the pack still felt comfortable – much more so than my old pack did after just twenty minutes.
While I’ll probably still turn to my carry-on sized rolling duffle for shorter, city trips around the United States, I have to admit that for the off the beaten path trips I like to take overseas, I’ll likely go with the backpack.
What do you prefer to travel with – suitcase or backpack?