Backpacks

April 28, 2016

Since my first day traveling abroad and solo through Europe, way back in 1994 (over 20 years ago!), I have used a backpack for all long-term travel. I do love my rolling luggage that fits in an overhead bin for smaller trips, but I can’t bring myself to consider this kind of suitcase for a long-haul international trip. Despite my growing years, I still identify myself as a “Backpacker” – a person who carries all of their necessary worldly items on their shoulders, under the strength of her thighs and walking feet, with arms and hands free for all other negotiations.

Written pre-trip:

As I try to picture myself on the road with husband and two young children, I anticipate that there will be an occasional need for me to carry another bag for a struggling and grumpy wee one, or just hold a hand for reassurance and support. I feel that a backpack will still give me the freedom to assist my kids as needed. Dan feels the same way, so we are committed to personal backpacks for our family trip. What we do question is if this is the right choice for two children under 60 pounds. Through our research, we are learning how difficult it is to find backpacks that were designed for kids, that aren’t poorly made weekend/school bags or top-loading “hiking” type backpacks. We will have to do a test run of many different types of bags with weight to determine what will make the most logical sense. Since our children are growing fast (about 6 inches each year), we will also have to wait until we are within a few months of our departure to find the right fit and size, one that they will hopefully be able to grow into, not out of.

After reading a dozen positive reviews of packing cubes, I am convinced that this is a new necessity for packing most efficiently. We will be able to color code the cubes for each member of our family, and quickly organize clothing items in separate and tight compartments. Our plan is to pack as light as possible – definitely less than 40 pounds per adult, with the children only responsible for the weight of their own clothes, minimal toiletries, and an ipad and notebook for studies. We will each have a separate daypack for all gadgets, guidebooks, cameras, snacks, and valuables that we want with us at all time. I’m sure the kids won’t have to use these as often with Mom and Dad carrying the essentials. I also plan to look into a Pacsafe purse to see if I can actually handle the idea of a single shoulder strap bag with anti-theft designs. I’m not really a “purse lady” and hate carrying a bag that affects my stride.

I’ve decided to stick with my trusty Eagle Creek backpack that has already seen me through a 13 month trip of the South Pacific and South America, and our 5 week honeymoon around-the-world. Dan is seriously considering updating his in favor of some newer bells and whistles (as long as it makes financial sense!).

I will update this entry with reports of all the bags that we test drive for our children, and the best daypacks we can find.


Written 3-4 months into our trip:

So, what did we decide on, and what do we think of our choices thus far?:

I stuck with my Eagle Creek backpack, which I am still happy with, and bought a rather small REI daypack, which I regret.  It is a well made bag, but hasn’t proved to hold as much as I would really like. The compact and narrow size also seems to cause me some shoulder pain, making me avoid using it for city, day-walking as much as possible.

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Dan also stuck with his old and worn NORTHFACE.  He still complains about its lack of exterior pockets and strapping options, as he has nowhere to attach extra bags, shoes, etc., and he has already had to sew some sections where the metal frame is starting to pop through.  Needless to say, this bag is on its last trip.  His bag is enormous and heavy beyond my abilities to lift.  He did get a great Patagonia daypack, which can carry all of our family’s necessities on day trips.

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Stella was at the size that just seemed to be stuck in nowhere land for us to find a proper backpack for.  We ended up getting her a smaller women’s backpack, an Osprey Celeste.  This is actually a great backpack FOR A WOMAN, but Stella has to bear the brunt of the weight on her shoulders as it was not designed with a padded hip/waist belt, which could have alleviated some of the shoulder pressure.  It has many compartments and has held up beautifully, but is not comfortable for a child to wear for any extended period of time.  We did get Stella a small Northface daypack, which lacks multiple pockets and sections to store her goodies, but also keeps us and her from buying more things, as she simply does not have the space.

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Gabriel got a proper kid’s backpack, a Deuter FOX 40, which can be adjusted to his height.  We can also tighten and release straps to distribute the weight over his hips OR shoulders. It is top loading, which is not my favorite, but has a zippered bottom, which does help retrieve lower things without having to dump the contents of the entire bag.  He also got a child size REI daypack, with minimal pockets, which was a great purchase.

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So, what is the consensus?

The kids hate carrying their backpacks.  It is a struggle to travel any distance without hearing incessant complaining.  Dan and I usually end up carrying one of their packs to shut them up and KEEP MOVING.  I still prefer using a backpack, as does Dan, but I have eyed with envy, some family’s with roller suitcases.  They look great in an airport, but still would have lacked some practicality on many of the cobble-stoned streets that we traversed.  They also aren’t very easy to maneuver up and down stairs or across dirt roads.  In India, all of this has been less of a problem, as porters are anxious to make a few rupees, and carry our bags between accommodations and transportation.  With all of our car travel, we haven’t had to do much “on and off” train or bus shuffling, which requires quick and careful strategic movement in tight places.  Overall, I don’t “regret” our decision, but it is not a perfect one.  I think there is a missing market for children’s backpacks, and can always think of better designs for adults too.  One thing that I can wholeheartedly recommend are packing cubes.  We use ebags brand, and each have 3 bags of varying size with our own individual colors.  Our rooms still look like an explosion of crap within 24 hours, but these cubes do keep us organized and prevent our accommodation from looking like a laundromat.


Written 7 months into our trip:

In Southern Africa, we have been traveling by car, which narrows any difference between backpacks vs. roller suitcases.  We still have to lug our bags in and out between accommodation and vehicle travel days, but aren’t generally wearing our backpack for any lengthy periods.

We have adopted a second cheap bag bought in India to carry all the useless knickknacks we have somehow convinced ourselves to buy in route.  This causes me great annoyance, and I fantasize about the day we arrive in Florida, when I can dump a load of keepsakes and unused travel accessories at my parents-in-law’s home (sorry Thom and Gayle!).

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I also keep kicking myself for not getting Stella and Gabriel to be more involved with packing.  I am in charge of packing up all their clothes, thanks to my own doings, and they are left with the responsibility of their daypacks only.  This can often make for a long prep just to leave a guesthouse.  I might just have an irrational fear that they will leave something behind if I don’t take control.


Last Baggage Update:

Now we are in South America, and will travel mostly by bus.  The backpacks seem to make sense again with all of the cobble-stoned streets, and we have opted to walk several blocks between accommodation and transportation with our backpacks on.  Dan and I still end up relieving the kids of one of their bags each, which can make for a very tough haul.  We have climbed some steep calles under this extreme weight with calves burning.

When we were in Capetown, our extra cheap Indian bag full of knickknacks finally bit the dust.  So, what did we do?  We bought a bigger duffle bag of course!  Now we had even more ridiculous weight and “stuff” to carry about.

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When we finally arrived at my in-laws home in Naples, Florida, it was a tremendous relief to go through the contents of everything we had been carrying and leave this bag plus some, behind.  I also took the opportunity to wash EVERYTHING, even that which was supposedly clean.  This will definitely be the last trip for my Eagle Creek and Dan’s Northface.  The interior lining of both of our bags is peeling, leaving a flaky detritus over our belongings (it can get through the mesh covered portion of our packing cubes).

I still think we are carrying too much, but cannot figure out what I would be willing to spare. I’m just crossing my fingers that we don’t end up with another bag to hump through the journey!

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6 Comments

  • Reply Abuelo April 28, 2016 at 9:56 am

    Huh! Oh!…Hum Bag…

  • Reply Grammy & Poppy April 28, 2016 at 10:24 am

    Well Sarah and Dan you did leave behind a FEW things and after watching you pack for your next adventure I was wondering if you should have left more. But I’m not one to ask about packing. When we leave Naples and go on the road to California, Portland and Europe I think this will be the I won’t take as much. Never happens, I have decided I’m very high maintenance now that I’m getting older….Backpacks are my choice to carry all my aging creams!!! Still like to travel and so glad you all are doing the same…Love to all..

  • Reply Shari April 28, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    What a great, road-tested review! This makes me miss my dear old backpack that I used to hump around the Middle East & Europe and then later when I actually hiked miles into campgrounds (and didn’t just pull up a car loaded up with everything but the kitchen sink! 🙂 ). It looked a lot like Gabriel’s. I totally relate to absolutely hating the top loading style but it was so comfortable to wear. When we went to Thailand, I bought a small, expandable REI rolling bag that also has backpack straps that zip away. Genius for short hauls over a cobblestone road but completely uncomfortable for any length of time. You guys might need to sketch up some kid pack designs and get a kickstarter going!

  • Reply P April 28, 2016 at 11:06 pm

    I would end up carrying the bags AND the kids….:) Love you guys!

  • Reply "cousin" David H April 29, 2016 at 4:37 am

    The solution would be to hire me to carry your stuff for you. I come cheap, just room and board and plane fare or course! I don’t talk much and would be pretty much invisible. Ciao.

  • Reply Mom and Dad May 4, 2016 at 5:56 pm

    Makes me think of Cheryl Strayed’s autobiography, Wild. Remember how she struggled with her backpack as she trekked from Southern California to the Washington state border?

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