Packing: an art form?

He who would travel happily must travel light. – Antoine de Saint Exupéry

That quote, from a famous traveler much wiser than I, sums up what you’re about to read. Though, if it were that simple, I’d have trimmed down my gear to fit in a tissue size pack long ago!

This is the first installment of a 8 part series on packing. I know, I know! The subject of packing has been flogged to death but, like every travaholic, I’d like to chime in with my take on the subject. I see packing as more of an art form than a set of instructions. And as packing artists we each have our own style, but it does help to keep in mind the following:

First supreme rule of packing: wherever you go, for however long, chances are you can buy, often for less money, anything you may need or have forgotten. Don’t try to pack for every circumstance, climate, natural disaster or social occasion you may encounter. End of story.

Well, maybe not, packing is one of those things that even the hard-core traveler struggles with at some point. Until they invent the snowsuit-to-swimsuit-and-everything-in-between-self-cleaning-outfit, we’re all stuck bringing at least one change of clothes and some sort of bag to carry it in.

The second rule, learn from those travelers who’ve gone before you. I have yet to meet anyone who has regretted packing light. You’re more likely to meet-up with someone trying to offload their excess, never used gear in the hostel lounge. Observe and learn young Padawan!

The third rule is not really a rule, more like a pre-trip exercise. Before you leave, try packing and unpacking all your gear several times. Lay it out. If it covers every able surface of your home, start eliminating. If you have time and feel up to the challenge, try living with just the contents of your backpack for a week without unpacking it. How does it feel? Complicated? Frustrating? Can’t find stuff because you’ve got too much stuff? If you answered yes to any of those questions, it’s time to rethink the contents of your bag and maybe even the size of your backpack itself.


Panel loading travel pack or top-loading alpine pack? A panel loading travel pack is like a larger version of the traditional school backpack with access through a zippered panel around the perimeter. They normally have another zippered panel on the back which is used to cover the shoulder straps and hip belt for airline check-in and minimal straps on the outside of the bag. Travel packs have been designed for use by travelers who want the portability of a backpack with easy access to their gear. These are not bag to take on an Everest expedition, but rather for hostel surfers who are not planning to wear their packs for long periods of time.

Top-loading alpine packs are first and foremost designed for use by hikers, trekkers and mountaineers. A top-loading alpine backpack is more streamlined than a travel pack and access is from the top, normally a drawstring collar under a lid, though many models have full zippers down the front of side for quick access.

Go into any reputable sports store and you’ll likely find many models of backpacks, including hybrid travel pack/alpine backpacks. Both styles have their merits and travel forums are full of opinions and advice. Price is not necessarily a determining factor. Not all the cheap backpacks are bad and paying big bucks for a top of the line alpine pack is total overkill unless you’re heading for K2.

Comfort and fit are key. I’ve found out the hard way that traveling with an ill-fitting pack is hell. I bought my first pack, a panel-loading travel pack, off the rack without really trying it on, which was my first mistake. My second was to pack it completely full and not even attempt a test drive. I didn’t weigh it before leaving, but it was heavy, trust me.

Backpack design is constantly changing and being improved, but regardless of the bag you chose, try it on, and test drive it with a full-load. Most sports shops have qualified staff who can help you fit and adjust your pack. Some shops even have weighted bags to place in the pack to simulate the load you’ll be carrying. Take advantage of this and get the best fit possible. Even an expensive pack can be uncomfortable if not adjusted properly. If it feels uncomfortable in the store, it will not get better on the road. Ditch it and try another one.

Backpack size, usually measured in volume, liters or cubic inches, is also a topic that gets lots of mileage on travel forums. In a nutshell, smaller is better. Anything over 60 liters will be really heavy if it’s full and quite bulky as well. This is where test driving the backpack fully loaded comes in handy. The consensus out there seems to be that backpacks in the 40 to 55 liter range offer a good size to weight ratio for most backpack travelers.

I’m in the market for a new pack, and, after many months of research will likely purchase a top-loading alpine pack in the 45 liter range. I personally prefer the convenience of a panel loading pack and a hideaway harness system, but not at the expense of comfort. Most of the travel packs I’ve tried on so far are still too “mini-fridge” like. They fit too wide across my back which is a pain when trying to manoeuvre narrow train aisles and hostel staircases. I’ll definitely report back with a review of my new backpack after my next trip.

Next up…what to wear?

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