If you are off to New Zealand, the Ardennes Mountains or South America and you’re going to be gone for a while hopping on and off planes, trains, automobiles, donkeys and boats, chances are you might want to look at buying into the category of travel packs, rather than schlepping wheeled luggage or a duffel with straps.
For college students, this two-month escape earned by cobbling together every spare penny from endless part-time jobs with a generous “please, don’t come home just now” airline ticket gift from mom and dad is known by friends and peers as the Lucky Bastard period.
What is so cool about travel packs?
For that lucky bastard trip of a lifetime, you will be experiencing a type of travel where most likely, you will be hopping from plane to train to bus to hostels and to B&Bs, with perhaps a few unplanned nights spent on airport floors and train station benches along the way. The luggage gets stuffed in overhead compartments, bus station lockers, taxicab trunks, crowded bus roofs, in the back of a truck full of squawking chickens, and more. It will be a piece of luggage, a bed, a seat, an impromptu dining room table — its uses defined by the need and imagination. If that describes you, you will be best served by the travel pack, a product for a category that was created more than 25 years ago.
Travel packs are one part suitcase and one part backpack, with a side serving of daypack tossed in for good measure. In a travel pack, the suspension straps zip into a fully enclosed compartment meaning you can check the bag in at the airport without fear of the straps becoming eaten by a hungry conveyor belt. Also, zipping the straps away when in some parts of Europe or Asia will help lose the vagabond look and underscore the “I’ve got luggage” look when needed. Need a backpack for that 10,000 step cobblestone trek from the train station to the bed and breakfast that promised it was “close to town center” when it was booked? All you need to do is unfurl the backpack straps and you will be good to go.
So why not just buy a backpack?
You could, but keep in mind, backpacks are meant for going from point A to point B with one stop per day to unpack and set up camp. There’s less need for organization, and no need for shoulder straps and waist belt to zip out of the way or ready access to all your gear at any given moment. However, travel packs just don’t cut it as a backpack either for those multi-day treks along the Appalachian Trail or into the Sierra. If you are more inclined to backpack most of the time, with a one-time trip to Europe in your future at the moment, then perhaps an panel-loading internal frame pack with a more backpack-suitable suspension is the best choice. But combine that purchase with a light duffel suitable for stowing the entire, full-loaded backpack in for the airplane trip, at the very least — something to ensure the straps are not ripped from the pack like so much stuffing.
Features to look for in travel packs:
- Extremely versatile, with multiple compartments making it easy to organize all the travel essentials.
- Made with luggage-tough fabrics and zip- or stow-away suspensions to stand up to the occasional evil baggage handler.
- Internal frames and well-made suspension systems that are ideal for long day-carries.
- Zip-off or removable daypack for day excursions — trips to the Louvre, a distant castle, a wander through the woods, shopping, etc.
- Storage compartments with front panel access and pockets make it easy to organize, pack and unpack.
- Seam-sealed compartment for dirty clothes, wet gear or dirty boots.
- Multiple compression straps to secure and stabilize a load or squeeze down a bulkier load to a more manageable carry.
- Document pocket for boarding passes and other travel documents.
- Padded sleeve for laptop and other electronics such as a tablet.
- Lockable zippers, hidden sections, and other security features such as RFID safe pockets.
- Built in rainfly cover for weather protection (also serves as additional security). Some travel packs are combining rainfly protection with versatile duffels too … a big plus.
Choosing the right size travel pack
You need to realize that no matter how big the travel pack, you will find a way to use up all the room. And no matter how small (within reason) the travel pack, you will find a way to manage. Less is more in most cases.
A travel pack in the 3,500- to 4,500-cubic-inch range is suitable for one to two weeks. Anything over 5,000 cubic inches is best used for multi-week and month-long excursions.
Naturally, if you are inclined to pursue some sporting activities, such as trail running, climbing, skiing or such, the pack just gets bigger as the need to accommodate more gear increases.
Fitting the travel pack
There is nothing worse than buying a travel pack only to find out it just didn’t fit or feel good on AFTER the trip is over.
Take the time to add weight to the travel pack you are interested in — 20 to 30 pounds is about right — and then get a salesperson to help you into the suspension. Learn while you are wearing the pack in the store how to tighten and loosen the hip belt and shoulder straps, and, if possible, adjust the suspension for better fit.